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Brian Nicholson, Deseret Morning News
Desiree Cooper-Larsenwith her horse Cross.

OGDEN — Desiree Cooper-Larsen stands in front of classes at Weber State University, teaching tricks of the trade to fashion-merchandising students.

When school is out for the summer, however, the slender and stylish sales and service technology professor trades her stilettos for a pair of sturdy cowboy boots.

Larsen, a former Miss Rodeo Utah, was recently named by the Ogden Pioneer Heritage Foundation as the top leader of the Ogden Pioneer Days Committee — the first woman to hold the position since the committee was formed in 1934.

As chairwoman, she is responsible for a pretty big deal: Planning and executing a five-night Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeo and city celebration. This summer's event runs July 19 and 21-24 at Ogden Stadium.

"Becoming chairman of the Ogden Pioneer Days Committee, one of the most recognizable and well-respected organizations in Ogden, is truly one of the highest honors of my professional life," Larsen said.

"However, I don't necessarily view my appointment as a milestone but instead a validation that the Ogden Pioneer Heritage Foundation Board of Directors accepts people for their abilities and skills, not whether they are a man or a woman."

Larsen replaces Wynn Covieo, who stepped down after serving four years as chairman of the event. Larsen was vice chairwoman of the event for four years.

Covieo says Larsen is ready to lead the rodeo and celebration, which was started decades ago by "cowboy mayor" Harman Peery in an effort to put Ogden on the map.

"Having worked with Desiree the past 10 years I have learned to appreciate not only her passion for the sport of rodeo but also her work ethic," Covieo said. "She has a good sense of what needs to be accomplished for the entire celebration to succeed and works hard to get it done."

She's proud to follow in Covieo's footsteps.

"I have also been fortunate to have Wynn as my mentor and assist him in a supporting role as he guided and directed the celebration and especially the rodeo to the top," she said. "You can't duplicate what Wynn has accomplished, but I am confident that we can continue the organization's upward momentum."

Larsen, who earned master's and bachelor's degrees in marketing at Utah State University, believes her background in the rodeo world and experience in sales and marketing will serve her well in the job.

She can both smartly market the rodeo to a new breed of fans as well as negotiate deals with rough-and-tumble rodeo stock contractors.

The college professor, known to always be dressed in the latest fashions, may not always appear like a tough cowgirl. But just wait until you see her in the saddle.

"I come from a rodeo family," she said. Her family in Lehi had firm roots in rodeo and her father, Gary Cooper, had a rodeo career that spanned over 30 years.

Larsen has also been involved with the Utah Women's Rodeo Association, National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association and National High School Rodeo Association.

But she's adept in the business world, too.

Larsen has more than 20 years of experience consulting and providing training to such Fortune 500 companies as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Bell South.

Larsen says she looks forward to heading the Ogden organization.

It takes a lot of volunteers to pull off Ogden Pioneer Days, she said. There are 16 directors of committees and 25 to 35 volunteers under each director.

In 2006, the Ogden Pioneer Days Rodeo was nominated by the PRCA for the Best Rodeo of the Year Award — a first for Ogden.

Larsen said Pioneer Days, once a city-supported event, has been self-supporting for about five years now, under the umbrella of the heritage foundation.

The 2008 event will feature some new events — but Larsen said they will be surprises to announce later.

She doesn't see Ogden's celebration as second fiddle to Salt Lake's Days of '47, either.

"It's like comparing apples and oranges," she said, explaining Ogden's rodeo is a traditional outdoor event, while Salt Lake's is in an indoor arena.

Also, Ogden's Pioneer Days is home to the Miss Rodeo Utah Pageant, supports a fundraiser for breast cancer research as part of Wrangler's "Tough Enough to Wear Pink" campaign and celebrates National Day of the Cowboy, where one resident from each of Utah's 29 counties is honored for contributions to the Western way of life.

Up to 80,000 people show up to watch Ogden's Pioneer Days parade on July 24. Some 25,000 or more go to the rodeo.

"This is wholesome entertainment," she said. "One of my goals is to re-create this as a tradition for families. ... We don't want to lose our Western heritage."

She's sad that much of the younger generation has lost a connection with Utah's Western heritage — but hopes to be the spark to rekindle the legacy.

"We'll bring the old and the new," she said.

E-mail: lynn@desnews.com