The long road to clowning glory

Rodeo Clown JJ Harrison adjusts his cowboy hat in the reflection from one of his three rigs used for travel on the road.  He also owns and pilots a small Cessna for some of his travels.

Rodeo Clown JJ Harrison adjusts his cowboy hat in the reflection from one of his three rigs used for travel on the road. He also owns and pilots a small Cessna for some of his travels. Photo by Jeff Horner.

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Community send-off party

A farewell party for Walla Walla rodeo clown JJ Harrison will be 6-8 p.m. Wednesday at the Stone Hut Tavern on Plaza Way.

Friends can visit with Harrison and wish him luck in Las Vegas.

Harrison will work as the arena clown at the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Wrangler National Finals at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas Dec. 6-15. It will be Harrison’s first appearance at the season-ending national championship rodeo.

He leaves Saturday for Las Vegas.

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The road to success has seen many miles for Harrison..

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JJ Harrison unfolds one of his costumes stored in the back of his semi-truck trailer while colorful tubes sprout from his barrel.

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JJ Harrison

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Harrison's barrelman belt buckle.

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JJ Harrison stands in the living quarters of the toyhauler RV hitched behind his semi.

JJ Harrison was sitting in a rodeo production meeting in Billings, Mont., last month when his cell phone signalled an incoming call.

“It was buzzing under the table,” he recollected. “I saw that the caller was from Colorado Springs. But you don’t answer during a production meeting, so I hit ignore.”

Moments later, the phone buzzed again. And again Harrison hit the ignore button.

But when it buzzed a third time, bells started ringing in JJ’s head.

“It dawned on me,” he said. “Colorado Springs? PRCA headquarters? So finally I said, ‘I need to take this call,’ and asked for permission to step outside.”

A few minutes later he came back in, calm as can be, and sat back down.

“I kind of tried to stay composed, but inside I’m doing back flips,” he said. “And Jill Franzen, the sound technician, looked at me and said, ‘You got it, didn’t you.’

“I couldn’t hide it. I said, ‘Yes,’ and they all just erupted.”

What Harrison — whose reputation as a professional rodeo clown has been growing by leaps and bounds — got was his first opportunity to work the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s Wrangler National Finals next month in Las Vegas.

“In our world, it is the world championship and there is no bigger award,” Harrison said. “And it is truly humbling, especially because it is voted on by all of your peers.”

The national finals are held annually at the Thomas & Mack Center on the University of Nevada Las Vegas campus. The 10-day rodeo that determines PRCA titles in every event runs Dec. 6-Dec. 15.

Harrison will work all 10 shows. And it will be the high point — but not the culmination — of a skyrocketing career that inched off the ground nearly two decades ago in Okanogan, Wash., when a high school senior with athletic skills and a quirky sense of humor decided he wanted to be a bull rider.

JJ was an all-around athlete at Okanogan High, where he graduated in 1994.

He was a strong-armed quarterback on the football team, played forward in basketball and qualified for the state tennis tournament after giving up on baseball as a freshman “because the team wasn’t very good and I was too competitive to stink.”

But he didn’t tell his parents, Peg Callaway and Chris Culp, that he was also crawling on bulls and bucking broncs on the side.

They didn’t find that out until a year later when he turned out for the rodeo team at Washington State University.

“I wanted to be a cowboy,” Harrison recalled. “And what brought me to it is the western lifestyle, caring for animals and the love of what cowboys represent.

“I am a huge history guy, and I like the American cowboy. And what does a cowboy do? He rodeos. And that’s what sparked my interest.”

But wanting to and doing are sometimes two different things. And Harrison eventually discovered that bull riding, like baseball, was not his forte.

“I can ride a horse pretty darn well, but bull riding was not my thing,” he said. “I didn’t have the passion to get on.”

He didn’t come to that conclusion, however, until his first year of college in Pullman.

“I got thumped pretty good,” Harrison said. “A bull stepped on the back of my head, tore a hole in my hat, and I figured, if I’m not good enough to get off these things the right way, I shouldn’t be riding them.

“I didn’t want to end up in a wheelchair all of my life.”

Besides, it was about then that his parents “got wind” of JJ’s dangerous diversion.

“The first thing they did was help me buy a nice little roping horse,” JJ remembered. “My parents were way too bright to see me go get crunched.”

“I thought he was crazy, that he had lost his marbles,” remembered Peg, who grew up in nearby Athena and graduated from McEwen High School.

“If he was going to be in rodeo, we thought roping would be a lot safer.”

So JJ settled into team roping and calf roping at WSU.

“I had some success, too,” he said. “I won some buckles here and there and enjoyed it.”

But when he graduated from WSU in 1998 with a teaching degree, JJ set aside his love of the rodeo life.

“There comes a time,” he said, “when you have to grow up. Let go of the fun stuff and get serious about a career.”

And so he turned to his other love: Teaching and, more specifically, kids.

“I love kids, and I truly love teaching school,” said JJ, who did his student teaching at Tonasket and then took his first job at Pioneer Middle School in Walla Walla in the fall of 1999.

“It’s such a fun job,” he said. “And I love being their favorite teacher, love hearing it. In the lunchroom, I’m surrounded by tons of kids. I’m a kid magnate.”

After two years at Pi-Hi, where he taught science and social studies and coached every sport imaginable, JJ switched to Garrison for six years and then moved over to Lincoln High School. But it was during those years at Garrison that his life path took a gentle turn that would one day lead him to the bright lights of Las Vegas.

It was Halloween 2003, JJ recalled, when he went to school dressed up as a rodeo clown. One of his fellow teachers, Linda Stevens, was already aware of his zany sense of humor, and the clown suit triggered an idea in her mind.

“I thought, oh, my gosh, he would be a perfect rodeo clown,” Stevens said. “He was such an antic, and the kids just adored him. So I told him I was going to talk to my daughter about him.”

KayLynn Stevens and Pat Beard, her husband at that time and the son of rodeo stock contractor Frank Beard, were putting on a series of bull riding events in Vancouver, Wash. So they approached JJ, and the rest is history, although it certainly didn’t happen overnight.

“Pat said it was just a little bull riding event,” JJ recalled. “‘Just come up with a few little acts,’ he said, ‘and you’ll be fine. Just be yourself.’”

“And I said, ‘I don’t think so. It’s not my thing.’”

And who knows what might have happened had JJ not changed his mind? But he did.

“And it wasn’t just a little bull riding event,” JJ recalled. “It was at the Clark County Fairgrounds and there were 7,000 people there. It was massive.

“I was a little overwhelmed at first. And I thought all of my scripted acts were stupid. But if I messed up, I could just ad-lib. And that’s when I learned that when it gets scary, rely on your adrenalin.

“Off the cuff stuff, that’s what I rely on and what makes me who I am.”

And anyone who has seen JJ in the arena knows exactly what he means. He’s a ball of energy in perpetual motion, bounding from one end of the arena to the other, climbing fences, connecting with fans and firing his trademark Nerf football high into the grandstands with pinpoint accuracy.

All the while maintaining staccato back-and-forth chatter with the rodeo announcer.

“I don’t script anything with the announcer,” JJ said. “But they know where I am going with my acts. And Steve Kenyon is one of the best I’ve ever worked with since day one. It’s like two good friends having a conversation and the people in the stands get to eves drop on it.”

And JJ takes great pride in the fact that his acts are G rated.

“I’ve never chased a beer check or put Coors on my barrel, which they pay you a lot of money to do,” he said. “I think clowns are for kids, and I always want to be the clown where, if you go to a rodeo, you don’t have to worry about dirty jokes.

“I stay away from politics, and I never tell jokes about my mother-in-law. I’ve never been that guy. I like my mother-in-law. I married way over my head.”

JJ met Melissa Williams of Walla Walla in 2004. His clown career was still in its infancy and she was student teaching at Garrison. They married in 2006 and have a son, Huck, who is 4 years old and the joy of JJ’s life.

“He’s such a cool kid,” JJ said of Huck. “So much cooler than me. Everybody thinks their kid is the best, but he is. He is so smart.”

JJ is also proud that his impressive resume is not the result of self promotion.

“I’ve never tried to steal a rodeo from another clown,” he said. “Patience and hard work are what pays off. I’ve preached that to kids for so many years, I can’t change now.

“What is crucial for me is that when I do a rodeo, I want them to love me and they will tell five other rodeos about me.”

And apparently they have, because today his phone rings off the hook. He can pick and choose the rodeos he wants to work, and he stays as busy as he wants to be.

It was in 2008 that he reached a crossroads. Clowning had become a full time job and he decided it was time to leave the education field.

“It was a hard decision and kind of scary stepping away from a guaranteed check,” he said. “I was a cutting edge clown in an industry of good old boys, a new guy on the outside looking in.

“It was scary in those early years waiting for the phone to ring. But it did, and one of the key things for me was never wasting an opportunity. If a rodeo wanted me, I was going to be the best clown they had ever had.”

After several years of working amateur and college rodeos, JJ’s first professional rodeo was the 2007 Frontier Days Rodeo in Walla Walla. It’s a rodeo that still holds a special place in his heart even though he no longer works it.

The chance to work Ellensburg was too great an opportunity to pass up, he said of the region’s other Labor Day weekend rodeo.

“I appreciate Walla Walla so much, and I want it to be successful,” JJ said. “But when it comes to my job and you get the opportunity to go to Ellensburg, the 13th largest rodeo in the world, careerwise that was where I needed to be. And the reality is, I love it there.

“I know Walla Walla fans who I see on a regular basis are ticked at me, but Ellensburg is triple the audience. I darn sure want to send love to Walla Walla, and I wish I could do them both, but in my profession it isn’t always an option.”

Having Ellensburg on his resume, he said, was one of the key stepping stones to next month’s national finals.

Now that he’s near the top of his profession — make that at the top seeing as he’s headed for Las Vegas — JJ is financially secure. Although he doesn’t talk about how much he earns, his modes of transportation to rodeos around the country speak for themselves.

He owns a 2012 Dodge 4-wheel dually pickup for short hauls, a horse trailer with modest living quarters for overnighters and a semi truck and toyhauler RV equipped with more spacious living for longer stays, assuming he can find adequate parking.

And a Cessna 175 and a license to fly, which JJ uses mainly for business trips.

“I’ve got big-time money invested in transportation,” he said. “But it’s how I get around and how I make a living going from place to place. I like to get there comfortably.”

But unlike so many clowns, who travel with animals and small vehicles and myriad props, JJ is his own traveling circus.

“I can clown out of a suitcase as well as my semi,” he said. “I make my living with my mouth, by being myself. I am selling me.”

But JJ, who is 37 years old, realizes that his days as a sought after rodeo clown won’t last forever.

“I am right now in the prime of my career,” he said. “The next four or five years are going to be the most productive financially of my life, so I’ve got to make it happen now. I work really hard, and people don’t realize how much hard work it is.”

And, of course, there’s always the risk of injury. Because there is a danger factor in JJ’s line of work, and he has the sprained ankles and broken ribs and concussions to prove it.

“That’s where the barrel comes in,” JJ said of his safety responsibilities. “When a bull rider gets thrown down, he has to decide if he can outrun the bull to the fence. And a bull can outrun you every time.

“If the fence is too far, the barrel is an island of safety, and the bull rider runs to the barrel. That’s my cue to take the hit, get the bull’s attention to hit the barrel instead of the rider.”

It’s this risk factor that will no doubt keep JJ’s mother on the edge of her seat next month in Las Vegas. She and a large contingent of JJ’s family will be making the trip to the national finals.

“Of course I worry,” Peg Callaway said. “But no more than I would with a lot of other jobs. He is doing what he wants to do and fulfilling his dreams. We are proud of him and I would never, ever suggest that he do something different.

“We just hope he doesn’t take unnecessary risks, and I don’t think he does,” she added. “I just want him in that barrel when the bulls are out there. I like the rest of the rodeo and the kids and the cracking of jokes, but I have to admit that the bulls are not the funnest thing to watch.”

But the fact that her son has found his niche as a rodeo clown is hardly a surprise to Peg.

“He’s always been a crowd pleaser, always hysterically funny,” she said. “People have always been drawn to him, the kind of kid people loved, even though he gave us a few gray hairs.

“I remember one day in first grade his teacher wrote me a note,” Peg remembered. “It read, ‘Jason had a good day today, less clowning around.’”

For JJ — Jason James Harrison — that was a rare day indeed.

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