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Erin Stewart: Grandpa taught cowboy lessons of life

Published: Monday, Oct. 31 2011 7:00 a.m. MDT

Whoever coined the phrase “Nobody gets to be a cowboy forever” never met my grandfather.

He was a true cowboy right up until the final moments of his life this month, and I have no doubt he is riding still on the other side. In fact, one of his final sentiments in the days before his death was, “I’ll be riding forever.”

My grandpa, Glendon Johnson, made a remarkable recovery from a heart attack in his final two weeks of life, giving his family and loved ones a chance to say goodbye before the damage to his heart eventually took him. In those precious final days, Grandpa was true to form, welcoming everyone to his bedside, cracking jokes and saying, “They don’t call us tough for nothing.”

The "us" he was referring to is a particular brand of man that is rare to find these days. Glendon Johnson was a businessman, a gospel man and a family man; but at his core, he was a cowboy.

His hands may have been speckled with age spots, but I know those hands roped hundreds of cows and guided a lifetime’s worth of horses. His eyes beamed with wisdom earned by watching countless sunsets from atop a horse.

Grandpa always exuded an aura of toughness wound tightly around a core of good old-fashioned cowboy charm. And I was lucky enough to learn some of his cowboy lessons of life.

Anyone who Glendon taught to ride a horse can attest that the first lesson of cowboying is simple: heels down, toes out. Learn it. Live it.

The second cowboy lesson I learned is one that has helped me with my own children. Grandpa always taught me to correct a horse immediately if it starts misbehaving. Simply back the horse out of its error and make him re-do the action correctly. If the horse gets away with something once, you’ll be fighting him the rest of his life.

Grandpa also taught me how to treat and lead others in the way he treated his horses. You can beat a horse into submission, or you can teach, encourage and lead a horse. Both horses will accomplish the exact same task, but the beaten horse will hate you for it; the other will love you for life.

The fourth cowboy lesson is that sometimes, cowboys do cry — but only when it matters. I’ve only seen my grandfather cry a handful of times in my life, but you can bet it was about one of these things: his wife, his mother, his children or his faith. He had no problem showing his vulnerability when it came to those things closest to his heart.

He knew that life isn’t measured in the tears you don’t cry; it’s measured in the times life knocks you down and you get back up anyway.

Enter lesson No. 5: Get back on the horse — no matter what. In life and on the range, you always get back on. You always try again, and you never walk away defeated.

And the final cowboy lesson I will always carry with me is that cowboys answer to two people: their God and their momma.

My grandfather lived his life with the thought in mind that someday he would have to answer to his Heavenly Father, and — perhaps more intimidating — to his mother, Hildur. He told me once that he knew his mother would hold him accountable for how he treated others, how he cared for his siblings and how he used the time he had in this life to bless others.

Given the chance, he said he would crawl on his hands and knees just for the chance to tell his mother how much he loved her and to hear her tell him, “Well done.”

I know Grandpa is receiving that much-deserved praise today, and I’m grateful I was here for the lessons from one of the toughest, truest cowboys I know.

Grandpa, I’ll love you forever. Ride on.

Erin Stewart is a regular blogger for the Deseret News. From stretch marks to the latest news for moms, Stewart discusses it all while her 4-year-old daughter crams Mr. Potato Head pieces in her little sister's nose.

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