Dave Saunders was best known for bringing comic-strip cowboy hero Red Ryder to life in countless public appearances, ranging from Ed Sullivan’s TV show to the New Mexico State Fair.
But Saunders, who was 84 when he died Wednesday at an Albuquerque rehabilitation center, was not just another make-believe cowboy. He was the real deal.
Back in the late 1940s and early ’50s, when he was teenager, Saunders helped drive cattle into the New Mexico cowtown of Magdalena, and he rode rough stock – bulls, saddle and bareback broncs – in rodeos.
In 2004, Saunders told a reporter about the cattle, shorthorn-Hereford-Brahma crosses, he used to herd into Magdalena.
“They were a little bit snuffy,” he said. “With that Brahma blood in them, they would turn around and snort at you and try to hook your feet. It was definitely cowboying. It wasn’t like running milk cows.”
Saunders’ widow, Florence Jeanette “Jan” Saunders, said Dave was rodeoing when she met him.
“And he made money at it when most (rodeo contestants) made just enough to pay their doctors’ bills – if they were lucky,” she said. “But he injured himself pretty good (a smashed ankle) and a friend of his, who was a bullrider, was paralyzed, and Dave stopped.”
Saunders was born in Indiana in 1933 but moved to Albuquerque with his family when he was still young. A significant turning point in his life happened when he met Fred Harman, creator of “Red Ryder,” a newspaper comic strip about a good-guy Colorado rancher (Ryder) and his young American Indian sidekick, Little Beaver.
Harman split his time between his ranch in Pagosa Springs, Colo., and a house in Albuquerque. In newspaper interviews in the 1990s, Saunders said he was still a youngster when friends dared him to knock on Harman’s Albuquerque door. He did it.
“He opened the door and he was real fierce looking. He had these big, bushy eyebrows,” Saunders said of Harman in a 1996 interview. “I couldn’t think of a thing to say.”
But Harman invited Saunders in, showed him his studio and the two became friends. When Harman started planning an Old West-themed amusement park for Albuquerque, he asked Saunders to portray Red Ryder.
“I told him I didn’t know anything about acting,” Saunders said in that 1996 interview. “I told him I was just a cowboy and a rancher. He said, ‘That’s all Red Ryder is.’ ”
When the park, called Little Beaver Town, opened in the summer of 1961, on a 44-acre site southeast of what is now the intersection of Central Avenue and Tramway Boulevard, Saunders, auburn-haired and a trim 6 feet 2 inches tall, was Red Ryder.
Saunders’ son, Jim, was just a few years old that summer, but he remembers Little Beaver Town.
“I remember the stagecoach and the Indian village and my dad squaring off in the main street and shooting the bad guy,” Jim said.
Jan Saunders said Dave had a lot of fun at Little Beaver Town and met a lot of visiting acts, including Montie Montana, a popular rodeo trick rider and trick roper. She said it was at Little Beaver Town that Montana taught Saunders to swing a lariat loop big enough to ride his horse through.
Little Beaver Town survived a couple of tourist seasons, but Saunders, recruited by the Daisy Manufacturing Co. to portray Ryder in promotions for its Red Ryder BB gun, left the park after its first year.
He worked for Daisy for several years, doing quick draws and rope tricks at personal appearances around the country and pitching Daisy products on TV shows such as Ed Sullivan’s popular variety program. Saunders moved the family to Southern California in the 1960s.
“We lived out in California for nine and a half years,” Saunders’ son John said. “I remember riding out there on my mother’s lap. Dad got an agent and did some stuff.”
The stuff he did was bit parts in movies and TV Westerns such as “The Rifleman,” “Wagon Train,” “Cheyenne” and “The Virginian.”
“When we got out there, Westerns were still in,” Jim Saunders said. “Mostly Dad hung around the Westerns. But I remember him talking about being in (the sitcom) ‘Leave It to Beaver.’ ”
Saunders never made the big time in Hollywood.
“What hurt my dad was that he was so damned good looking,” Jim Saunders said. “No (stars) wanted him standing next to them in the movies.”
The family returned to New Mexico in 1970. Dave kept horses on 10 acres Jan owned south of Albuquerque, and for a time the family lived on 200 acres in Chili.
“We had a goat dairy in Chili,” John Saunders said. “At one time, we had 200 goats, some horses, a burro, ducks, geese, chickens, turkeys and lots of dogs. It was hard conditions in Chili – cold, very cold. It was good for character building.”
Through it all, Dave Saunders never stopped being Red Ryder. He portrayed the character at Western-themed events such as Geronimo Days in Truth or Consequences and throughout much of the 1990s at the New Mexico State Fair. He continued to wear his white hat, red cowboy shirt, chaps, boots and six-shooter long after the name Red Ryder failed to register with any but the oldest people he encountered.
During the 1999 New Mexico State Fair, police stopped Saunders, who was in his Red Ryder role, in the fair’s Indian Village. The police asked him why he had a gun.
The gun, an Italian-made .22-caliber pistol designed to look like an Old West Colt revolver, was real but unloaded. Things finally got straightened out, and the police let Saunders keep the gun.
“I autographed some pictures for them,” Saunders said at the time. “Gosh, I’d feel half naked without my gun.”
More than a year ago, Saunders went to live at Albuquerque’s Bear Canyon Rehabilitation Center, joining Jan, who was already in residence there.
“The horse of his life, Hot Stuff, a beautiful chocolate-colored mare, had passed about the time he came in here,” Jan said.
She said losing the horse took some steam out of Dave.
“He was just a cowboy,” Jan said. “He enjoyed horses, and he could do anything with a rope. He sure fought up to the end. He just didn’t want to leave. He had been having so much fun.”
Survivors include his wife, Jan; sons Jim and John; a sister; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
Visitation will be 6-8 p.m. Monday at French Mortuary, 7121 Wyoming NE. Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Albuquerque Revival Church, 124 Texas NE.