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Articles

Lecile: Thanks For The Laughs


2020/03/01


Lecile Harris driving, with “Unkle Hokum and Kidfolk” and Sweet Pea, his Clown Mule in a truck named Ethel, after his wife.

The three together includes Lecile’s son Matt as they reunited at the Rodeo of the Mid-South in 2019 for the famous Baseball skit

I was blessed to have the opportunity to actually be part of one of Lecile’s acts, in which I played catcher in the baseball skit; these are from that night in Savannah, Tennessee



By Kevin DeBusk with contribution from Ken R. Knopp

What defines a man’s legacy? Is it the empire he built, his success, his riches or maybe it’s what he did to inspire others and serve as an example for family and friends?

In the case of legendary rodeo clown, Lecile Harris, his legacy is definitely defined by the latter. Having been a session drummer in the early years for Sun Records and Hi Records during their peak, to multiple movie appearances, and appearing regularly on “Hee Haw” for five years, he never let that stardom go to his head. Instead, he used those talents to build a career in rodeo, which started in 1955 when asked to pinch in as a bullfighter at a rodeo in Mississippi.
Lecile took that opportunity and turned it into a 65-year career as a rodeo clown. Lecile touched tens of thousands of rodeo fans around the world and truly molded the industry, all the while remaining humble. His numerous accolades include 4x Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) Clown of the Year and being inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.

Nine-time International Professional Rodeo Association Clown of the Year Dusty Myers said of Lecile and his impact on rodeo: “Lecile Harris was more than a rodeo clown; he was a trailblazer and pioneer that everyone in our business respected. He was a true master craftsman of comedy and is the King of the Clowns. He set the bar so high that no one, in my opinion, will ever get close to touching the impact he made on the sport. He was a delight to talk with and a very humble person who helped me so much with his advice.”

It wasn’t just his skills and ability that made him a success. Harris appreciated those who helped make him successful both in and out of the arena. In fact, in an interview in Jackson, Mississippi several years back, Lecile said his success was due to the talented people around him who made his skits successful.  Over the years those would include several rodeo clowns, announcers, soundmen, and his son Matt, who traveled with his dad for a year.

Lecile’s fans were important to him and he always made sure they felt appreciated. During shows you could see him shaking hands as well as signing autographs and taking pictures. He loved sharing pictures of his fans on social media. And those fans returned the love through thousands of social media posts with pictures, stories, and prayers for the family.

“After each rodeo performance Lecile would go up to the souvenir stand to sign autographs,” longtime family friend Ken Knopp recalled.  “Sometimes the line would last for hours. But it did not matter how tired he was, how hungry he was, or where else he had to go, Lecile would stay and talk to every one of his many fans, laugh with them, hug them, take pictures with them (meet their kids), listen to their stories, and shower them with attention. To these people, Lecile was their personal celebrity, but to Lecile, these people were his life’s blood. And he loved them!”

“I never once saw Lecile too busy not to take a photo,” said Miss Rodeo America 2019 Taylor McNair. “He always welcomed everyone with open arms and had a way of being personable in front of an audience, making every person that filled a rodeo seat part of the show.”

She recalled a visit with Lecile in 2012 during the Dixie National when they went to the VA and Children’s Hospital.  “Lecile Harris was truly one of a kind and never turned away a kid or an adult! He always took time, and that day, made sure to greet each child and veteran.”

Lecile was supportive of rodeo royalty, and understood how valuable they were to promoting rodeo. He was quick to tell people that he loved having them around because they always made him look good.

“He was so proud when I won Miss Rodeo America 2019. I was the first to win the coveted honor, and also held the title of 2016 Miss Rodeo of the Mid-South,” Taylor McNair said. 

Miss Rodeo Tennessee President and 1997 Miss Rodeo Tennessee title holder added, “Lecile was a great supporter of rodeo royalty. He saw the benefit that royalty brought to rodeo through helping promote the sport and educating fans inside and outside the arena. He will be deeply missed by all he touched, as he definitely was a huge asset to rodeo.”

Coordinator of the Miss Rodeo of the Mid-South pageant commented about working with Lecile at this event and others through the years. “I have a deep appreciation for his fatherly guidance and promotion of rodeo queens. He recognized what they brought to rodeo and was willing to share the spotlight with queens, and any other rodeo player, for that matter. He was selfless and giving like that.”

There was another side of Lecile that many didn’t know about:the family man. “He was sincere in his devotion to his family and followers,” said Trena Street, his friend of over six decades. “He worked to cultivate his talent and style of delivery. He was a master of phrasing. His delivery and punch line funny phrases are what I called ‘Lecileisms’ as he could take a normal word and get a laugh out of it.”

 “Away from rodeo and off the road, Lecile was many things you might not expect,” said Knopp. “He was a doting father, little league coach, mentor to his children, and husband to the love of his life, Ethel. On the road he was Lecile Harris the famous Rodeo Clown, but at home around Collierville [TN] he was just Lecile, the local boy who did well but ‘never got above his raising’ and never missed having coffee with his buddies in the Collierville Coffee Club.” 

While Lecile would joke about his wife in the arena, everyone knew it was just part of his act. The love he shared with his fans was a small portion of what he felt for his family. I’m so grateful to the women of the family who shared what kind of man Lecile really was: his wife; daughter; and two granddaughters.

“Lecile was home more often than people with a 9-5 job,” his widow Ethel Harris said. “He was home Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, often Thursday morning and Sunday evening. When he was home, he spent quality time with his family. He loved his family more than anything and that’s why he rodeoed, to take care of us.”

 “He’s the most dependable man I have ever known,” daughter Christi Lalonde said. “He had a solution for every problem, an answer for every question. He made sure to raise us strong, authentic, and with character. He always made time for us and let us know we were important to him. We all knew how much he loved us. He taught me: Be tough. Work hard. Be on time. Show ‘em what you got. Go out there and give em hell.” 

 “I call him my Bigdaddy,” granddaughter Indie Rhoda said. “Bigdaddy would call me on the way to and from rodeos to tell me he was thinking about me and loved me. He kept in touch, not because he needed something, but to let me know he was thinking about me. He never held back on telling me or anybody what was on his mind. He always told me how proud he was of me. He taught me to never give up and that quitting was never an option. He was the rock of the family. He showed us relentless strength and would never let us see him weak.” 

 “He took time to tell us stories and play basketball, football, baseball in the yard,” granddaughter Bailey Lalonde added. “He was the best hugger, immensely present with his loved ones, and cherished every hug and visit he got from his family. To Lecile it was important to help everyone in his family as much as he could and to teach his kin how to take care of ourselves once he was gone. A fierce protector with a gentle heart, Lecile stood for his family above all else.” 

While Lecile is gone in body, his spirit will live on through all of us who knew him. To memorialize his memory, the family is making plans for a bronze statue to be placed in the park in Collierville, and possibly even the Lecile Museum.  Donations can be made for the Lecile Harris Memorial at Bank Tennessee, 1125 West Popular Avenue, Collierville, TN 38017.

Photos by Kevin Debusk

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