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California and the West

Thousands of Buckaroos Say So Long to a Legend

Services: Four ceremonies for Roy Rogers draw family and fans, who fondly remember the cowboy star.

July 12, 1998|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

APPLE VALLEY — Roy Rogers was given a full cowboy's funeral Saturday, laid to rest at sunset after a church memorial service and a final procession around his museum that, together, attracted about 2,500 Little Buckaroos of all ages.

At both public events, the "Happy Trails" theme--written by his co-star and wife of 50 years, Dale Evans--played heavily in memory of the King of the Cowboys, who died Monday of congestive heart failure at age 86.

A private funeral was held late Saturday afternoon, attended by several hundred family members and close friends. Rogers was buried at the nearby Sunset Hills Memorial Park in another private service timed to coincide with the setting of the sun.

There his casket--covered in a blanket of red carnations--was delivered in a glass-enclosed 1898 hearse drawn by a single Clydesdale. It was escorted by eight local members of the Single Action Shooters Society, whose members dress in 1880s costume and counted Rogers as one of their own.

During the earlier memorial, Rogers' pastor of 30 years, the Rev. Bill Hansen, told 1,000 people who jammed the Church of the Valley--and another 500 who overflowed outdoors under a hot blue sky--that Rogers had walked three intersecting trails during his life.

He humbly walked the glory trail, Hansen said, as a Hollywood film, television and recording star. He walked a trail of tears with the deaths of three of his nine children. And he kept his balance, the minister said, by walking the trail of Jesus.

Rogers, he said, "kept a steady grip on who he was and his own personal reality. You don't know how many times I heard him say, 'I'm an unlikely person to be Roy Rogers.' . . . And that is what everyone loved about him. He was a good-hearted man of the people, and he was a man of God."

Death, Hansen said, did not mark the end of the trail for Rogers but was the "trail head of life's greatest adventure."

"Jesus is the ultimate trail. He is the way that leads to God. The song 'Happy Trails' was written with that claim and that promise in mind," Hansen said. "I know that, because I know the heart of the author of the song.

"And so we can truly say to him today and to one another, 'Happy trails to you, until we meet again.' "

Evans, wearing a favorite light-rose suit and seated in a wheelchair, headed nearly 100 family members at the hourlong service. It was punctuated with two inspirational songs--"Lead Me Gently Home" and "His Eye Is on the Sparrow"--performed by current members of the Sons of the Pioneers, a group Rogers co-founded in the 1930s.

Two oil portraits--flanked by dozens of floral arrangements--were placed in front of the stage. One depicted Rogers atop his rearing horse, Trigger, in their signature pose; the other showed a younger Rogers, with his crinkled eyes and disarming smile, during his heyday as America's favorite singing cowboy. A white cowboy hat was perched atop the easel, and Rogers' son Dusty waved it to the congregation as the family left the service.

The memorial then shifted to the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum, about 10 miles away in Victorville, where a white hearse carrying Rogers' casket twice circled the fort-like building, the second time passing through a throng of another 1,000 fans, who withstood 106-degree heat to bid their farewell.

That funeral procession, requested by Rogers himself, reflected an old frontier Army tradition in which troops would lead the body of their commanding officer around his fort in a final tribute.

"I feel like I grew up with him," said Darlene Sorensen of Victorville, who attended the museum tribute. "I would spend all day with him, back in the days of 10-cent movies."

Evans arrived first and was driven around the museum, but left before the hearse arrived because, family friends said, she was too distraught.

During the museum tribute, truckers barreling down nearby Interstate 15 pulled hard on their air horns, and as the hearse drove slowly around, fans applauded, waved and saluted by tipping their cowboy hats.

Dusty Rogers rode in the front seat of the hearse, the white cowboy hat now perched on its dashboard.

As the tribute ended, a professional cowboy singer, standing atop his motor home, invited lingering fans to join him in singing "Happy Trails."

The turnout of fans at the ceremonies spoke volumes about Rogers' enduring popularity as an icon of a wholesome Hollywood.

"I can remember him from when I was 7 years old and saw him at the old Mesa Theater in Clovis, N.M.," said Mike Barreras, 68. "When you were a kid, you grew up either playing Roy Rogers or Dale Evans."

His remarks caught the attention of 10-year-old David Gibbs, sitting in front of him at the church. "I've got eight of Roy Rogers' movies at home," he said. "They're cool."

And just that easily, others seated nearby joined in with their own tributes. "I can remember milking cows in our barn, back in Udell, Iowa, and listening to Roy Rogers on the radio," said Charles Gorden, who drove from Central California to attend the memorial.

"And I remember how he'd end every show: 'Goodbye, good luck, and may the good Lord take a liking to you.' "

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