FRIDAY FOCUS: The Cheyenne Way at the ‘Daddy of ‘Em All’
John Contos on the volunteers and innovations that make Cheyenne Frontier Days ‘something special’
- Published In: Columns
- Last Updated: Jun 09, 2023
By Bob Wooley
Special to the Wyoming Truth
As a boy, John Contos would sit on his grandfather’s shoeshine stand, located across from the historic Mayflower Cafe, to watch the Cheyenne Frontier Days parades as they passed by, before attending the events with his family. Little did he know he’d one day be in charge of the state’s premier event.
Now in his 40th year with Cheyenne Frontier Days, Contos, who worked his way up the ranks from parade committee volunteer to chairman of the board, will oversee the 10-day event for the second year as general chairman.
Cheyenne Frontier Days — nicknamed “The Daddy of ‘Em All” — originated to drive the economies of Cheyenne and Laramie County. The event draws hundreds of thousands of visitors, and last year, it injected $28 million into the local economy. This year’s event, which runs from July 21-30, will feature country music stars like Tim McGraw and Cody Johnson, along with the rodeo and other Western-themed activities. A new feature is Tunes on the Terrace, a VIP experience that can be purchased for the night shows.
After retiring from a career in education two years ago, having spent years as the Central Office Administrator for the Cheyenne School District, Contos, 61, became the General Chairman/Chief Operating Officer for Cheyenne Frontier Days. He is in charge of anything to do with operations — from gravel to grandstands — and everything in-between, including overseeing nine other committee chairmen.
Contos recently spoke with the Wyoming Truth about his tenure with Cheyenne Frontier Days and what it takes to make the massive event a success. What follows are excerpts from the conversation.
With Cheyenne Frontier Days coming up in July, you must really be in the thick of preparations right now.
Contos: Right now, it’s go time. We have our park workdays four times per year — sometimes with 1,000 volunteers — cleaning up, painting fences, doing maintenance. This year, we’re demolishing one of our barns — which is happening right now. Volunteers are at the park doing something every night.
We’re also doing a redesign to our north arena, which is major. We pull that multi-ton night stage down every night after the night show so that we can have a rodeo the next day, and then it gets put up again for that night’s show. The north end redesign is going to allow us to work more efficiently to set up for the night show to give our Contract Acts Committee and our night show folks 45 minutes to an hour of extra time for each set-up, which makes a big difference.
Things will become even more intense around the 4th of July. That’s when you feel like you got hit in the side of the head with a stick. But our committees and volunteers have set up and torn down for this event for so many years that it’s just second nature. They know what to do and when to do it. I’m biased, but this event is unsurpassed. And when you think that our full-time paid staff is around 20 people — this event is completely driven, and has been for the past 127 years, by more than 3,000 volunteers.
How many of those volunteers work on the event year after year?
Contos: A lot of them. And it’s one of the questions I get asked constantly during my travels: “How do you get so many people to commit year in and year out?” And I tell people, a Cheyenne icon, Bill Dubois, said it best. He said: “Volunteerism is the Cheyenne thing to do.”
People take their vacation time, they even fly in from all over the United States to be ready for opening day; they Zoom into committee meetings to participate throughout the year. They volunteer their time to come out and make this show what it is. I can’t say enough about our volunteers and our staff.
Do you think that spirit of volunteerism speaks to the character of people in the West — particularly in Wyoming — where the population is so small and the distances so vast, that helping out is sometimes the only way to get things done?
Contos: You took the words right out of my mouth. Wyoming people are very neighborly. They care about helping others. They have that “Get it done” attitude, and I hope I never live to see the day when that dies.
It doesn’t matter what we ask our volunteers to do. They get it done. I’ve watched it for 40 years. Every year on our workdays, we have folks — from first-year volunteers to committee chairmen — pitching in. It’s really something to see.
How has Cheyenne Frontier Days evolved since the early 1980s?
Contos: Almost everything about the event has evolved. We’ve maintained the traditions of the event but the technology, night shows, grounds, almost everything, has evolved to give people the quality entertainment and experience they expect. Years ago, we hired a futurist who had previously worked for Disney to help us identify trends and keep up with emerging technologies like QR codes.
During the event, are you in attendance every day and night?
Contos: Well, the chairmen, we’re there at 6 a.m. every morning and lucky to be home at midnight or 1 a.m. During the week of the event, we have obligations to attend different events and meetings. My role as the general chairman is to work through whatever we need to do to get things fixed, get things done and keep things moving. We have 10 days to make a year’s worth of revenue. You either make it or break it in those 10 days. That’s pressure. Thinking about that will make your head explode sometimes.
Do you get a chance to relax and enjoy any of the events and performances?
Contos: Yes. And the pride and satisfaction that comes from taking a moment to stand there and watch a bit of a rodeo, you think to yourself, “This is what it’s all about.” The fan base and support when we walk out during that night show and the stands are packed and the crowds are cheering, it makes all of the work worth it.”
What’s your favorite rodeo event?
Contos: The events are all so unique and special, but as of late, some of the coolest are the women’s roping events. We’ve cut big ground there. The women’s breakaway roping is really something to see. These ladies and all of our cowboys are true professional athletes.
Do you get a chance to interact with the visitors?
Contos: Absolutely. It’s one of the things that’s near and dear to my heart. It’s like having guests in your home. We want to provide our visitors with the most phenomenal experience we can at Cheyenne Frontier Days and in the rest of the town as well. We try to provide our guests with the chance to step out of their world and live out something special for a few days. When your feet hit the ground during Cheyenne Frontier Days, everybody’s a cowboy.