Modern-day Will Rogers really knows the ropes

John Hock’s hobby is a throwback to old American West
Tuesday, August 17, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:27 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 13, 2008

It all started with a book — “Will Rogers: His Life and Times” — given to him as a travel gift. From there, a trip to a library in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., led John Hock to check out “Roping,” and he’s been spinning one ever since.

“I read about Will Rogers’ roping capabilities, and I wanted to learn how,” Hock said.

For more than 20 years, Hock, 54, has been trick roping — starting with the basics.

“ ‘Roping’ put things in very simple terms,” he said. “I got so far, and then I got stuck. Certain tricks require a bit of coaching, and I had to find somebody to help me out a bit.”

Hock then researched rodeo associations and other groups to get in touch with more skilled spinners. He contacted one man who invited him to a rope spinner’s convention in Palmdale, Calif., in 1983.

“I took what knowledge I had to California,” he said. “There were people there from around the world. I didn’t even have a cowboy hat then.”

That soon changed. After getting advice from professional spinners — including never roping without a cowboy hat — Hock returned to New York with his new-found knowledge.

“Unlike other arts, these guys are excited to pass on the skill,” he said. “They are delighted to help anyone interested in it.”

While living in Kingston, N.Y., Hock had access to an unused gymnasium at the YMCA where he practiced after work and learned tricks a little at a time.

“You need a place with a smooth floor and a tall ceiling because in a lot of tricks the rope will touch the ground and something like grass will kill it,” he said. “I don’t have a space like that here.”

Moving to Columbia in 1988 may have hindered his rope-spinning some, but Hock still finds time to practice his skills, which he can display almost anywhere — even in the confines of his living room.

He does, however, get the opportunity to share his talent with the masses. This summer he worked with the casts of two plays, teaching them the art of rope-spinning.

Hock became the roping coach for Columbia Entertainment Co.’s production of “Will Rogers Follies” after he saw an ad for auditions and contacted director Mary Paulsell to offer his services.

“I didn’t spend a huge amount of time with them, about four weekends for an hour or an hour and a half. Then I gave them assignments during the week to work on,” Hock said. “They had to be good enough to be consistent in the play.”

Hock also took care of all the ropes to make it easier for cast members to succeed in their roping. He cut each rope to the right specification for each trick.

He even created “cheater ropes” for the younger cast members — complete with a swivel at the top made from metal lamp cord to keep the rope spinning with minimal effort.

Hock then received a phone call asking him to teach the cast of “Oklahoma” put on by Performing Arts in Children’s Education. He spent about seven hours coaching the performers.

“Every year we try to bring in different people to teach the kids different skills,” Deborah Baldwin, co-artistic director of Performing Arts in Children’s Educationsaid. “Last year it was tap dancing. This year it’s roping.”

Baldwin emphasized the importance of Hock’s assistance to the production. “He took the time out of his own life to help us with this,” she said. “His demeanor was so positive. He sparked enthusiasm and gave the kids the confidence that they could learn to spin a rope too.”

Aside from his recent coaching, Hock showcases his talent in many venues. “Nursing homes and the Boy Scouts are always looking for entertainment,” he said.

Hock has also performed regularly at MU Asian Affairs Center picnics for international students arriving on campus. “It gives them a taste of the old American West,” he said.

Last year, Hock and his daughter performed a rope and whip act at a talent show for Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Hock said. “We pull people from the audience and cut paper in their hands and such.”

For many tricks, that isn’t hard to do, Hock said.

“It’s just good exercise. Some tricks just flat wear you out,” he said. “I feel sorry for the professionals in the hundred-degree weather. I get to do it in the air conditioning when I feel like it.”

And many times he feels like it. Although Hock enjoys performing for an audience, he continues spinning ropes for the personal satisfaction of learning a new trick, reaching a new goal.

“Every trick is a challenge. Some I’ve had to work years on,” he said. “Some of the easier ones get more of a crowd reaction. The ones I’m most proud of having mastered are only personal rewards.”

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