Ross and Cheryl Bilby of Rosendale, Mo., settled into their seats at Will Rogers Arena on Saturday night before the rodeo performance, 50 years to the day after they were married in Paris, Texas.
They occupied the same seat numbers in Section D where they sat as newlyweds a half-century ago, only this time they would have their sons, daughter-in-law and grandchildren around them to watch the bull riders and calf scramblers.
The big video screens are new, but the arena remains essentially the same, the couple said. A Holiday Inn where they stayed that was within walking distance of the Will Rogers complex is long gone.
The rodeo “has not changed,” Cheryl said. “The pageantry is still the same, which I love. The prayer, the anthem, the grand entry. Men removing their hats.”
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“Neal Gay rides in the grand entry and he’s 92,” said Ross with a laugh. “I remember when he was rodeoing. My dad and him both rodeoed in the same era.”
There were fewer commercial exhibits in the Stock Show and horses at the sales were cheaper in 1968, the couple agreed.
The Bilbys’ romance was a love story worthy of a Saturday afternoon Western.
In 1965, Ross was a 20-year-old collegiate bareback bronc rider and cattle roper attending Paris Junior College when he met Cheryl, a 16-year-old barrel racer and rodeo beauty queen.
“My parents thought I was crazy dating a 20-year-old man at that age,” Cheryl said with a laugh. “But later they thought it was the best decision I ever made.”
They dated three years, though the wedding itself unfolded quickly.
Ross was out of school and moving back to Missouri to work his grandfather’s farm, “and I told him, you’re not leaving me behind,” Cheryl said.
They were married at Lamar Avenue Church of Christ in Paris, where they still maintain friendships. She wore a formal white gown and veil; the attendants wore powder blue street-length outfits.
They borrowed a groomsman’s ’65 Chevy Impala for the Fort Worth trip, while their own ’67 Ford truck was loaded in Paris for the trip to Missouri.
The couple drove back to Paris after their wedding trip to Fort Worth, said their goodbyes and left Texas for their new life in Missouri.
The Bilbys have worked full-time jobs in addition to farming and cattle raising. Ross retired in 2004 after more than 35 years with an electric co-op, and Cheryl retired in 2010 after a 38-year career in banking.
Their elder son, Chad; his wife, Brooke; and children Morgan and Cole live in Wildwood, Mo. Younger son Todd is a resident of North Richland Hills.
All along, the Bilbys have never stopped being big rodeo fans, attending shows in Kansas City, Mo., and Cheyenne, Wyo., and even the 150th anniversary of the famed Calgary Stampede in Canada. They have come back to the Fort Worth rodeo for the past seven years, though not in connection with their anniversary.
They have the farm up for sale now, Ross said, and some promising offers on it. They plan to return to Paris and spend the rest of their retirement on a smaller spread.
“We want some acreage, room for horses, but we don’t want to work cattle anymore,” he said.
Lifelong friends and church connections back in Paris made the decision easy.
The two shared pictures and mementos from their wedding album when they arrived in North Richland Hills on Friday, agreeing that 1968 doesn’t seem so long ago.
“In this day and age, though, it’s monumental,” Cheryl said. “And I’m just an old softy.”