The sport of rodeo lost a champion on April 23, 2022, when Lyle "Hoot" Eugene Otness, 92, chairman of the Choteau American Legion Rodeo nearly every year from 1965 to 2018, died at Benefis Teton Medical Center of natural causes, after several years of failing health.
Family, friends and associates from the Montana rodeo community will pay their honors to Otness on May 7 during a memorial service at 1 p.m. at the Trinity Lutheran Church in Choteau. Burial at the Choteau Cemetery with military honors will follow the service, and then a reception will be held at the Choteau American Legion Club.
Jacobs Livestock Rodeo Co. contractor Dick Lyman said he will always remember Lyle for putting his heart and soul in to the Choteau rodeo. "He was so proud of the Choteau rodeo," he said.
Lyman said the Choteau rodeo was about dead at one point, and Lyle spent years turning it around to make it the major event in the Choteau 4th of July celebration. "He put a whole lot of time and effort in," Lyman said.
Lyman said Lyle left the rodeo in good hands with the Sons of the American Legion Rodeo Committee taking the reins.
Professional rodeo announcer Will Rasmussen said the rodeo world lost a good man. "Hoot, first and foremost, was just a kind soul," said Rasmussen, who lives in Sandpoint, Idaho.
Lyle was close friends with Will's family, and Will and his brother, rodeo funnyman Flint Rasmussen, both performed at the Choteau rodeo, an experience that helped propel their rodeo careers. "I'll always be indebted to him for that, but his friendship was something that's just priceless," Rasmussen said,
Rasmussen said Lyle was a constant through all the changes the rodeo has weathered, and today, the rodeo is the heart of the Choteau 4th of July celebration because of Lyle's efforts. "It was Hoot's baby and he loved it," Rasmussen said. "I have to laugh -- I used to say that it must be close to rodeo time because Hoot has his good boots and good cowboy hat on and he is walking around town."
Choteau American Legion Post 6 Cmdr. Jerry Collins said he will miss Lyle's smile, laugh and kind words as well as his leadership.
"Hoot was a highly valued member of Post 6. For years he was not only involved in the 4th of July festivities but was also a very active member throughout the year," Collins said. "From the Christmas party, Veterans Day, work days at the post or rodeo grounds or Honor Guard, Hoot was a face we could all count on. He was at almost every meeting and was a voice of reason on almost every major decision made at Post 6 for decades."
Lyle was born in Great Falls on April 5, 1930, to Joel and Frances Lucille (Hitchcock) Otness and grew up on his parents' farm and ranch on the Farmington Bench. He was active in the Stick-to-It 4-H Club and got high academic marks and awards for perfect attendance at the East Farmington Elementary School. He then attended Teton County High School in Choteau. Lyle lost his mother to complications of scarlet fever when he was just 16. He and his dad lived the bachelor's life after Lucille's death and sometimes Lyle's attendance at school was sporadic.
Sam Rose, a childhood friend, gave Lyle the nickname "Hoot," telling a gullible substitute teacher that Lyle often missed high school because he was a member of the Hutterite religion and had to sneak away from a colony to attend public school. The nickname stuck and Lyle attended classes enough to become an honor roll student and graduate in June of 1948.
He remembered Leona Dahl, one of his father's lady companions, as a positive influence in his life.
In the fall of 1948, he enrolled in Montana State College at Bozeman, where he pledged the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity. After a year and a half in college, he was called to active duty with a U.S. Air Force Reserve Unit during the Korean War. He was sent to Great Falls and expected to ship out overseas, but never got those orders. Instead, he served about 18 months in Great Falls as a morning report clerk before his discharge on Oct. 4, 1952.
He then returned to the farm and ranch, bringing a new appreciation of rough-stock riding.
In Great Falls, he had become friends with another member of his unit, Duane Jessop from Cut Bank, who taught him how to ride bareback horses. Lyle was already an accomplished team roper and calf roper, but under Jessop's tutelage he also developed an affinity for riding bareback broncs. They would sneak away from their base and compete in regional rodeos.
After Lyle returned home, he competed in a few rodeos, but would tell you, smiling, "I was never very good at it."
He remembered a July 3, 1953, night-time rodeo in Choteau. "I rode a bareback horse and it was snowing," he told the Acantha in 2007. "It was cold." The last rodeo (not including the real-life kind that occasionally occur on working cattle ranches), Lyle competed in was in 1954.
In the early 1950s, he left Montana for a few years, traveling to Wickenburg, Arizona, to work on the Flying E Ranch, a dude ranch operation. In Arizona, Lyle found he loved the desert. His son says that his dream life would have been raising bucking horses on a desert ranch in the American Southwest.
While he was working at the Flying E, Lyle met Jeanne Kiger of Kansas City, Missouri, who came with her mother to vacation at the dude ranch after she had completed prep school. The family story says that Jeanne wanted to marry a cowboy, and when she and Lyle saw each other, it was love at first sight. They were married on Nov. 18, 1955, at Kansas City, and moved to an apartment in Choteau.
Lyle and Jeanne adopted two infants, their daughter Debbie in April 1959 and their son Brent in May 1965. They were very active in their children's lives, taking them to countless youth rodeos and O-Mok-Sees, where they both competed in various events. They followed Debbie's high school rodeo competitions and when Brent got into junior and high school, they were present at almost every one of his wrestling meets.
In the early years, Lyle worked with his dad on the farm and ranch, raising Hereford cattle. He could tell stories about riding the freight train from Choteau to Chicago, taking calves to market there. In 1961, he, Jeanne and Debbie moved from the apartment in Choteau to a house in Farmington that had been constructed by an elevator company to house employees.
As a young married man, Lyle began investing in the Choteau community. He joined the C. James Smith American Legion Post 6 in 1957 and started working with Legionnaire Chris Beck, who was then the chairman of the local rodeo, which had debuted in 1945. In 1965, Lyle took over as chairman and kept that title through the July 4, 2018, rodeo. He only missed being chairman twice during that time, one year each when his two children got married in early July.
As chairman of the rodeo, Lyle's duties included hiring the stock contractor, advertising the event, obtaining insurance and signing up corporate sponsors. His wife was a great help with the effort in those early years as she cooked and entertained as he brought home stock contractors and sponsors to big, home-cooked meals.
Lyle loved being the rodeo chairman and said he was honored to work with stock contractors like Reg Kessler and Don Jacobs. Lyle always said the rodeo couldn't happen without the support of the Choteau community and was vocal in his appreciation.
During Lyle's tenure as rodeo chairman, the American Legion oversaw the construction of the new, covered grandstand that seats 1,155 people, the replacement of aging wooden bleachers on the north and south sides of the area, the reconstruction of the holding pens and the timed event chutes, the construction of new concessions stands/rodeo office and improvements to lighting and electrical panels.
During those years, the Northern Rodeo Association named the July 4, 1987, Choteau rodeo its "Rodeo of the Year" and the July 4, 2014, Choteau rodeo its "Platinum Rodeo of the Year."
Lyle was also instrumental in the creation of the Weatherbeater Arena and North Montana Feeders in Choteau. In 1957, Lyle, as president of the Choteau Roping Club, worked with other agriculture organizations to propose building a livestock show barn and sales building at the rodeo grounds. That effort eventually became the Weatherbeater Arena, constructed in the late 1970s.
In 1970, he was one of seven Teton County ranchers who established the North Montana Feeders Inc. feedlot north of Choteau, a facility where local ranchers could send their livestock for finishing and sale to meat processors. Lyle was the active chairman of the steering committee and later served as president and later secretary of the board of directors.
Lyle was also an ardent supporter of the Montana State University Bobcat football team. Through the years, he and Jeanne along with friends from Choteau often traveled to either Bozeman or Missoula to attend the Cat-Griz game and cheer on MSU.
Lyle lost Jeanne on May 15, 2002. After suffering a disabling injury, Jeanne was mostly homebound for the last five to seven years of her life, and Lyle became her primary care-giver, loving her in sickness and in health, just as he had vowed.
In the years after Jeanne's death, he enjoyed the company of Betty Napier of Choteau, who was active in the American Legion Auxiliary and also supported the rodeo.
During his 65 years in the American Legion, Lyle earned many membership pins and a Meritorious Service Award. He also served as post commander and was a long-time member of the Legion Honor Guard.
In 2007, the Choteau Chamber of Commerce honored Lyle and retired Teton County Sheriff George O. Anderson Jr. as the 4th of July parade grand marshals. The theme of the parade that year was, "My heroes have always been cowboys."
Lyle was the kind of father who supported his kids in all of their endeavors and always believed they could accomplish anything they set their sights on. He was also a treasured grandfather to his six grandchildren and enjoyed spending time with them and supporting them as well.
Lyle was a kind, unassuming man, who always had a twinkle in his eye, especially when he was looking at the long clean lines of a horse or a prize bull and whenever he saw a beautiful woman walk into a room. His family will always remember him as loving life, having a big smile and a big laugh and being willing to help anyone in need.
When his health began to fail, Lyle moved to Front Range Assisted Living in Fairfield to be closer to family, and then to BTMC in 2019.
Lyle is survived by his daughter, Debra Otness Booth of Deer Park, Washington; his son, Brent (Carrie) Otness of Fairfield; and his grandchildren, Gordon and Garrett Booth of Deer Park, and Ty Otness, Rylee Jo (Matt) Huff and Cayden Otness, all of Fairfield.
He was preceded in death by his wife; his granddaughter, Cydnee Jeanne Otness; his older brother and sister-in-law, Ronald and Donna Faye Otness; and his son-in-law, Gordon Booth.
Funeral arrangements are being handled by Gorder-Jensen Funeral Home in Choteau. Memorials are suggested to the Choteau American Legion Post or the Choteau Sons of the American Legion.