Former Oakdale resident and five time PRCA World Champion Team Roper Leo Camarillo passed away Dec. 30 from complications due to COVID-19 in Chandler, AZ.
Leo was born into a family rich in western tradition and rodeo, and grew up in California’s Santa Ynez Valley, where his father Ralph Camarillo worked on a local ranch and mother Pilar worked in a restaurant in the nearby tourist town of Solvang. Ralph, who competed in rodeos and was the 1945 California State Rodeo Champion himself, passed along his knowledge of roping, work ethic, and love of competing to Leo and his brother Jerold.
Leo was on a horse at the age of three and started competing in horse shows and junior rodeos at the young age of five. He competed in rodeos and horse shows through high school, when he began focusing on roping.
Leo graduated Santa Ynez High School in 1964 and couldn’t wait to move to Oakdale, which he called the mecca for cowboys at that time. With Oakdale being centrally located in the midst of the farming and ranching communities of the San Joaquin Valley, it was possible to go to ropings almost every night which Leo and Jerold happily did.
They quickly learned that they could earn a good day’s wages with a rope, and set out to do just that after high school.
The boys rented a room for a dollar a day at the Live Oak Hotel on Yosemite Avenue, found cowboy work with area ranchers during the day, attended jackpot ropings in the evenings and amateur rodeos on the weekend.
After winning many state championships in the amateur divisions he joined the professional ranks of rodeo in 1968, known then as the Rodeo Cowboys Association.
In 1968, his first year as a professional, Leo won the National Finals Rodeo team roping average. He followed up by winning the average again four more times between 1969 and 1982. He was a five-time World Champion, winning the team roping in 1972, 1973, 1975 and 1983, and won the All-Around Champion title in 1975.
He was an original inductee in the 1979 inaugural class of the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, CO. He was also honored by the Oakdale Cowboy Museum in 2010, inducted into the Salinas Rodeo Hall of Fame in 2011 and the Rodeo Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City in 2015.
One of the numerous highlights of Leo’s career was in February of 2018 when he was invited to rope with his former partner Tee Woolman, at AT&T’s American Rodeo competition in Arlington TX.
Although it had been 38 years since they won their last title together and Leo was 72 years old, he backed into the box like the old pro that he was. They roped their steer in 5.5 seconds – not enough to win the million dollar purse but the standing ovation from thousands of fans was enough to fill his heart for a lifetime.
Leo used his experience and knowledge to train young ropers starting from 1970 at his first school in Sturgis, South Dakota up to the present. He traveled all over the US and Canada, as well as South America, sharing his skills and instilling his fierce competitive instincts in his students.
“If you will just listen you will learn something here today,” he’d say.
He was a mentor to many, and a hero to many more.
One fan recalls a time when a chance to rope with a legend was an auction item at a fundraising event. When they entered the competition the man who purchased the chance missed the steer. Leo said, “that’s okay” and proceeded to rope the steer by the horns, gave the man the rope and told him to dally. Leo grabbed another rope and roped the heels, therefore roping both the head and the heels. They all got a big laugh out of that one and the story has been retold many times.
Leo loved all sports but he dedicated his life to rodeo and rodeo history. He was a true fan and a student of the sport, always studying film and watching other ropers. He was often asked to analyze a competition and what the contestant had to do to win. He never stopped looking for new ways to excel in his sport or do things differently, always working to be better. Leo was a game changer and he wanted to be remembered as the Greatest Roper of All Time.
With the vast amount of titles and accolades that Leo won, his favorite title was that of dad. Leo lived for his children Wade, 30; Trey, 19 and Cassie, 16. In the past few years, Leo enjoyed roping with both Trey and Cassie, and said he was living his dream.
Leo is survived by his wife Sue, sons Wade and Trey, daughter Cassie, brother Jerold (Liz), sister Christie and three generations of cousins. There will be no immediate services due to COVID restrictions; however the family hopes to hold a remembrance service at a later date.
Memorial donations can be made to the prorodeohalloffame.com or nationalcowboymuseum.org.