Olive Anne Kleberg can’t remember a life without ties to the land. A sixth-generation Texan, she descends from ranching families on both sides and spent childhood summers on her maternal grandparents’ ranch near Crystal City. That’s where she learned to drive, at age 8. “I wanted to learn to drive so badly,” she says during an interview in her Terrell Hills home. “Finally my grandfather said, ‘Come on, I’ll teach you to drive.’ I could see the truck parked out in front of their house, but he led me out the back. When I asked him where we were going, he said, ‘You’re going to learn to drive the tractor. If you can drive that, you can drive anything.’” Back then, tractors didn’t have high-tech, computerized consoles. “It wasn’t very complicated,” says Kleberg. “I learned to go forward and backward until I could drive circles around the ranch house.” More often, she and her brother rode horses and looked forward to going along to cow camp, where their grandfather taught them to brand calves.
Those ranching summers and visits to her father’s parents in San Antonio provided continuity in Kleberg’s early life. Though she was born in the Nix Hospital — the first generation in her Texas heritage not to be born on a ranch — her father’s career as an Air Force officer, including stints at Kelly and Randolph Air Force Bases, necessitated frequent moves and “lots of different schools.” After her father retired to San Antonio when she was in eighth grade, she spent all four years of high school at Saint Mary’s Hall, “and I loved it.” She took a further leap from her roots to spend her freshman year at Finch College, a liberal arts college for women in New York. “I wanted to live in New York,” Kleberg says, “and New York was our campus. We went to lectures at the United Nations and visited all the museums.” As one of few Texans among her classmates, she was an object of their curiosity: “People would ask me things like, ‘Did you ride a horse to school?’” After a year up north, “like so many Texas girls, I wanted to come home to UT (Austin),” where she majored in education.
As a member of a military family, she says, “I knew what I was getting into when I got married” to Richard M. “Tres” Kleberg III, who received his draft notice “the day before our wedding and was sworn in right after our honeymoon.” From 1965 to 1970, he served as an aviator based on the U.S.S. Forrestal. “It was a great experience, but after five years we were ready to come home,” says his wife. As a descendant of the founder of the historic King Ranch in Kingsville, Tres Kleberg’s Texas roots were equally strong, and the couple returned to San Antonio and South Texas, where they brought up their three children, two daughters and a son. When her family gathers at Kingsville, Kleberg’s favorite part of ranch life is “seeing wildlife — deer and birds, even coyotes and wild pigs. I spend a lot of time riding around seeing what is there, or just sitting and watching nature and thinking about how lucky we are to be able to have this experience.”
Given the family’s deep connections with Texas ranching, it seemed like a natural progression when Tres Kleberg became involved with the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo. “He has been active on committees since 1970,” says Olive Anne Kleberg, “and by virtue of being the wife, I’ve been active on and off with him since then.” For nine years, Tres Kleberg was chairman of the board of the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo and still serves on its executive committee. During that time, says his wife, “I helped him do all the things his job required — going to every single rodeo, entertaining heads of educational institutions, military officers and other people we wanted to introduce to the rodeo.” While her husband, as chairman, would move out to the rodeo site for two weeks, staying at the executive houses, Kleberg would stay home — still, there were many hours she has spent “watching pig judging, chicken judging, the cutting horses and the cattle auctions.”
Fortunately, Kleberg has as much enthusiasm for the rodeo as her husband. “The people are so fabulous,” she says. “They all care so much. We have 5,000 volunteers who are committed to running our rodeo, and when you get out into that contagious atmosphere, you can’t help but be affected by it.” She also has enjoyed getting to meet the families of the youngsters who raise animals for the junior livestock auctions. “The children work all year to raise these steers or pigs to show and sell,” she says, “but they couldn’t do it without their families. Some of them go through hardships to work (this activity) into their lives. You’ll see whole families gathered in the stalls, with the children busy brushing the animal and the mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers all helping. Some of them even sleep out there to take care of the animals.” Since 1984, the San Antonio Livestock Exposition (SALE) — the volunteer organization that produces the rodeo — has offered college scholarships to young participants in the livestock shows totaling more than $113 million to date. The program started with scholarships intended to encourage youth in 4-H and Future Farmers of America to pursue further studies in agriculture. Later, says Kleberg, the scholarships were opened up to students with other career goals. “We realized we needed to expand the program,” she says. “Kids who had grown up in ranching might want to be something else.” Sometimes these scholarships can make college possible for students who otherwise would not be able to go. Once, Kleberg remembers, when her husband presented a scholarship, “The student’s mother ran up to him crying and hugged him, saying ‘You don’t know what this means to us.’” Past scholarship winners also have come up and introduced themselves to the Klebergs, letting them know that they are now in law or medical schools. “You can’t appreciate what rodeo does, the wonderful things it provides, until you hear something like that,” she says.
As a hereditary Texan, Kleberg also has enjoyed introducing newcomers to this traditional part of the state’s history and economy. Taking part in the rodeo “helps us stay close to our roots and gives us the opportunity to share with people who live here but have no idea about the rodeo,” she says. Visitors are always impressed by the skills of the rodeo contestants and the dedication of those who show their animals. “Just walking through the different barns is like a trip into a different world,” she says. “When we have taken people out who have never, ever been to rodeo before, they always say, ‘Don’t forget us next year!’”
SALE’s mission is “to emphasize agricultural education to develop the youth of Texas.” Besides the benefits to the young people who show their livestock, Kleberg appreciates the way field trips or family visits to the rodeo “get children out here to learn about farming, water and other agricultural issues though displays and tours by our volunteer guides. Many of them would never go out into the country, much less see how our state was started.” This year, Kleberg has been chosen as the honoree of the seventh annual SALE Cowgirls Live Forever Style Show and Luncheon, with fashions by Julian Gold, to be held Jan. 19 in the Pearl Stable. Established in 2006, the luncheon was intended to “reach out to people who didn’t normally attend the rodeo,” says Kleberg, while raising money for scholarships. To date, the event has added a total of $620,000 to the SALE scholarship fund. Purchasing a table for $10,000 “gives you the name of a student (who will benefit),” she explains. “When you can associate a name and a face of someone who will keep in touch with you, you know your gift really means something.”
Kleberg helped to select Jimmie Ruth Evans as the event’s first honoree; as wife of Frost Bank CEO Dick Evans, says Kleberg, the luncheon’s first chairwoman, “she had been involved in rodeo forever.” The honoree, then as now, is intended to “epitomize the woman of the West, who helps others with integrity, strength of character and purpose and a cowgirl’s spirit.” For Kleberg, the honor came as a surprise, although she was a member of an advisory committee for the luncheon, serving with Evans and Nancy Loeffler, another previous chairwoman, to help raise money by selling tables and to provide advice to younger members of the committee. Knowing that Evans and Loeffler already had met with other committee members and that “there had been some discussion of the honoree,” when Kleberg met with her fellow advisors, she asked whose names had come up and was told, “We were thinking it would be you.” Even if she were not so closely tied to the rodeo, Kleberg would attend — for the country-music shows, the bull riding, barrel racing and heading and heeling (roping) events and even the messy and probably not overly healthy food. (Her favorite guilty pleasure is the funnel cake: “There is no way you can sneak one,” she warns. “The powdered sugar will tell a tale on you.”) Over the years, she has visited other cities’ rodeos but says, “No other one can compare to ours,” even in other Texas cities. “Houston’s is huge (held in Reliant Park, formerly the Astrodome Complex), but our venue is smaller, so our rodeo has a personal touch. In Houston, you’re sitting so high up in your seats that you can barely see the faces (of the contestants). At ours, you’re next to what’s going on; you feel more a part of the rodeo.”
For those who have not been to the rodeo lately or at all, Kleberg urges giving it a try: “It’s a wonderful family event, getting together, seeing things you wouldn’t see anywhere else and eating fun foods. What more could a family ask for?”
The San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo is coming Feb. 9-26 to the AT&T Center and the Freeman Coliseum grounds.
For program and ticket information, visit www.sarodeo.com.