By Frank Lewis
Many books have been written about the King of the Cowboys, former Duck Run and Scioto County resident Roy Rogers, known in these parts as Leonard Slye. But none may be as personal as the book begun by his own sister, Cleda Slye Willoughby, and finished her long-time friend and educator John Simon who formerly taught at Shawnee State University, Rio Grande University and Ohio University.
Different than other histories on the singing cowboy and movie star, “My Brother, Roy—Family & Friends Remember Roy Rogers,” is a collection of memories by those who knew Rogers personally when he was growing up in the Portsmouth area.
“We did a lot of things together, she (Willoughby) and I and other people, regarding traditional music,” Simon told the Daily Times. “When she came back from California, she got involved with a lot of people that were that were musical and played fiddles and that kind of music because that’s what she grew up on and liked. She took some of my classes down at the university and made a lot of friends.”
Simon said Willoughby always told her friends she wanted to write a book about her famous brother because some of them were not as accurate as they could be.
“She said, ‘I’m his sister and I grew up in that family with my father and my mother, and I know what happened, and I want to write it down,’” Simon said. “But she always told us she didn’t think she had a good formal education.”
Simon said her friends all encouraged her leading her to begin to write when things came to her mind about her family life and the life of the man known to the world as Roy Rogers.
Simon said he received a call from Willoughby one day and he went to her home as she requested.
“She said, ‘John, I have ovarian cancer and I’m not going to live to finish this and I wondered if you could finish it,’” Simon said.
He responded that he wasn’t sure he had the time since, at the time, he was writing his book about Adams County native and country music legend Cowboy Copas.
“I thought about that and I started talking to her and taking notes and reading what she had written,” Simon said. “Then she moved away. Her daughter, Gloria, came up from Florida and they went down there and Cleda died.”
Simon was in possession of Willoughby’s writings and a copy of the book she had written up to that time. Simon put the work on the back burner because he was busy with other things.
He later decided he needed to take what he had and supplement it to create a full length book. He set out to interview as many people who had known Leonard Slye/Roy Rogers, as he could. He chose to combine the book about Willoughby’s family with stories gathered from others in the community who could relate personal stories people could remember about the legendary movie and TV western star.
“Things kind of came together and I found somebody to work with and we edited it and published it and I just now got it done,” Simon said.
With more than 33 chapters and 100 photographs, the life of Roy Rogers is well documented from his childhood until his death in 1998. Over 500 local residents are represented in the historical edition, giving the reader a real sense of the rural culture—filled with music, dancing, and hard work—in which Rogers, his three sisters, and childhood friends, former Ohio Governor and U.S. Congressman, Ted Strickland and Baseball legend Branch Rickey were raised.
The foreword was written by Dodie Rogers, one of Dale Evans’ and Rogers Rogers’ daughters. In it she states, “(My parents) led extraordinary lives while always staying true to their beliefs and character, qualities shaped from childhood.” Much of that childhood is remembered in the book.
“I was hoping to get it done for the Roy Rogers Festival and I did,” Simon said.
The Roy Rogers Festival runs from July 30 through Aug. 2 and in addition to Dan “Grizzly Adams” Haggerty, Darby Hinton who played Daniel Boone’s son on the Daniel Boone Show, Russ McCubbin, Clint Walker’s stunt man, as well as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, John Wayne, Tonto and Lash Larue look-alikes, will be on hand to attend events and meet the public.
On July 31 and Aug. 1, tours of Roy’s boyhood home will be conducted. There will be a question and answer session with the stars on Thursday and Friday and Saturday will feature a Western look-alike contest and Dogwood Pass will be in town to do a western scene show on the grass across from the Holiday Inn, the host hotel for the Festival.
Simon said the book will be available and he will be autographing copies during the festival and will follow that event with book signings to be announced in the near future.
Simon is as much known for the annual Sorghum Festival at his farm as he is as an educator and author.
“We’ll sell books there too,” Simon said. “It’s Oct. 3, 4 and 5 at my farm. If you come out (Ohio) 73, it’s 10 miles past the Taylor Lumber Company. You turn left on Pond Creek, come up the road a mile and that’s where I have my farm.”
Frank Lewis can be reached at 740-353-3101, Ext. 1928, or on Twitter @FrankLewispdt.