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The dude, the cowboy, and the Marlboro Man

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The dude, the cowboy, and the Marlboro Man

  • Ira and Bunny Walker, with baby Tom (c. 1943)
    Courtesy Tom WalkerIra and Bunny Walker, with baby Tom (c. 1943)

My father, Ira Franklin Walker, could have been the Marlboro Man. I'm serious — he really could've had the job. It was his for the taking.

Here's what happened. It was about 1956, and we were living on our JV Bar Ranch north of Wickenburg, Ariz. The JV Bar was a real cattle ranch, with cows, horses, loco weed, and all.

And then there were the dude ranches. Catering to wealthy easterners, they were a booming business back then; in fact, Wickenburg was billed as "The Dude Ranch Capital of the World." The Remuda Ranch, the Monte Vista, the KL Bar, the Slash Bar K — those were big names in dude ranch circles. Mostly, all are gone now.

Anyway, in lean times, my dad often hired out as a wrangler for dude ranches and events like the Desert Caballeros trail ride. He was widely respected in our community as a rancher and horseman, so he always had a dude ranch job when he wanted it.

If you had to draw a picture of a cowboy, you'd probably come up with someone who looked pretty much like him, sitting on his horse as though born there. He had the cowboy look, from his Stetson hat to his Tony Lama boots, and that led to his brush with fame.

His chance to become an advertising icon.

One of the guests at a dude ranch where Daddy was working was connected with the ad agency for Philip Morris, maker of Marlboro cigarettes. Philip Morris wanted to reposition its filtered Marlboro brand from a "woman's cigarette" to a man's smoke.

With major studies linking smoking to lung cancer, Philip Morris figured it could sell men on switching to the "safer" filtered cigarettes, by using manly figures like cowboys as a sales tool. The ad agency had tried using professional models in the commercials, but they just didn't look rugged and "cowboy" enough.

So they were on the lookout for a real cowboy.

Enter Ira Walker, my father. After the ad man "discovered" him at the dude ranch where he was working, the firm quickly offered him the job of Marlboro Man. "We're gonna make you a star," they said. And, they hinted, they were also going to make him a lot of money.

It was tempting. We were a poor ranching family, trying to scratch out a living on a desert range with about 350 head of scrawny crossbreed Brahma-Hereford cattle. It seemed like we were stuck in a perpetual cycle of drought and bad markets. Our family could have used the money.

But in the end, Daddy turned them down.

It wasn't that he'd never smoked. He and my mother, Bunny, both used to smoke, a lot. Hard-core stuff like roll-your-own Bull Durham cigarettes, and fancy store-bought brands when they could afford them.

But they both quit, cold turkey, several years before the Marlboro Man opporunity came about.

So my father said sorry, but he just couldn't ride that Marlboro horse. It would be a lie, he said, to promote cigarette smoking when he no longer smoked himself.

"So?" the ad guys said. So, my dad said, some kid might see him looking all rugged and cowboy-tough on his horse among the Marlboro Country mountains, and decide that smoking was a good thing. "So?" the ad guys said.

So Darrell Winfield, a ranchman from Montana, got the job and enjoyed a twenty-year run as the Marlboro Man. And meanwhile, Ira Walker enjoyed a clean conscience. Which, to him, was more important than the money.

That was my father, who died 41 years ago this month. I'm so proud of him — the man he was and will always be, in my memory.

I love you, Daddy.

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