Do You Know? Sonny Sikes


Photos by Julie Knight

“This is a quilt that was made for us. For Joanne and myself. This just depicts the different parts of our life,” Sonny says, gesturing toward a quilt laid atop the neat bed, with different memorabilia in each square. We leave the front room, following him through his home as he bashfully tells us about his life, and shows us the array of achievements that line his walls and stretch throughout a few rooms of the house. “An example of what has been done, or said, or whatever about me,” Sonny says as he waves his arm toward of wall of plaques at his home in Huntsville, Texas. The photographer and I giggle at his funny and disengaged humility. You can tell he has had to talk about himself a handful of times before, and he is not one to enjoy talking about himself. Although he could have declined our offer and saved himself the trouble of dragging out all of his prize belt buckles, he accepted to be interviewed and was as sweet and gracious as they come.

A pioneer of rodeo in Texas, L.N. “Sonny” Sikes is also a Sam Houston State rodeo legend. At 18 years old, he was the first person to compete in a collegiate rodeo for Sam Houston State. While there, he won the first national title, wowing onlookers while making a glorious first impression for the Sam Houston State University Rodeo Team. He went on to compete in roping and steer wrestling throughout his college years, setting the precedent for many successful years afterward. The rodeo program started off strong and has stayed that way, defending their reputable success. Years later, Sonny would be inducted into the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame. When asked if he had any idea his career would turn into what it did, Sonny shrugs and responds, “I was just doin’ what I love to do.” He started roping when he was only 2 or 3 years old, taught by his father, L.N. Sikes, Sr., a gifted cowboy and founder of The Paint Horse Association.

Sikes graduated with his B.S. in Agriculture in 1955, going on to obtain his M.A. of Education in Agriculture in 1957. After college, Sonny did some post-grad work at Texas A&M and taught some in Mexia, at the high school he had himself graduated from years before. He returned to SHSU, dedicating 38 years of service to the Department of Agricultural Sciences as a faculty member and rodeo team coach. He was named a Distinguished SHSU Alumni after retiring, one of his life’s proudest achievements.

Sonny Sikes comes from a family of cowboys, having been taught by his father during his childhood years and later going on to learn and practice alongside his father, brother, son, nephew, and son-in-law. Sonny’s brother went on to join the Cutting Horse Hall of Fame and further expand the Sikes’ rodeo legacy. Sonny’s wife Joanne was a huge part of his life and his best friend before she passed in December of 2017. “She was a great little lady. I had her for 65 years; we were married 62 years,” he says fondly of his late wife, voice thick with emotion. Joanne started faculty programs on campus and served on the board of the Methodist church. He credits much of his success and involvement in the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA) to his wife’s innate ability to keep the show on the road, as she managed the behind-the-scenes in their home office while Sonny served as commissioner of the NIRA. Sonny became involved with them in 1951 while he was a senior in high school, just two years after the association started in ’49. Having won his last saddle when he was 75 years old, Sonny still regularly attends rodeos. The Sikes family’s rodeo legacy is perhaps one of the most distinguished and recognizable in the rodeo world of East Texas. We learn more about this rodeo dynasty in our interview with him.

What rodeo events did you compete in?

Roping and bulldoggin’…steer wrestlin’…whatever you wanna call it. I started roping when I was 2 or 3 years old.

You still go to rodeos every now and then?

Oh, yeah. I’ll take y’all to the barn in a minute; the last saddle I won I was 75 years old (to which we responded, “No wayyyyy!”). The first one I was 18. I went to the first high school rodeo in Halletsville, Texas in 1947—they have them all over the country now. I’ll show you a picture. I got a picture of me roping at the prison rodeo in 1944. You can do the math.

He points to some artwork given to him by a former student, saying its one of his favorites. He then gestures toward a large frame with multiple photos.

This’ll kind of give you an idea of how this started. That’s my mother and daddy….

He continues pointing to different photos in the frame…

My brother…my daddy…that was taken in Boston Garden. My son…my nephew…there’s his daddy, my brother-in-law.

He moves his finger slowly across the glass, above photos of both vintage and recent rodeo scenes in which his family members are shown. Sonny speaks admirably about his parents and family, especially his father, L.N. Sikes, who had a very strong and positive impact on Sonny’s life. His father was a professional horse trainer and a close friend of “the horse whisperer.”

He had a gift that not many people had. He was a great, great horseman. Here’s a deal over here that I was proud of.

We lean in closer to the plaque, reading that the board of regents of the university system signed a resolution on November 20, 1996 to create “Sonny Sikes Day.”

Sonny tells us he used to win a new buckle almost every weekend in rodeos, earning the nickname “Buckles” by acquaintances on campus. Our photographer asks with a laugh, “You probably have a box of belt buckles don’t you?”

Yeah, I do. I got a box of ‘em back there.

This buckle right here [pointing to the one he’s wearing], I won this 65 years ago; I wear it every day. It was the first national title in the NIRA.

We sit down at his kitchen table as he delicately opens an old photo album, different colored faded edges of photos peeking from the sides. He begins sharing the stories and moments behind the photos, offering snippets of the rich history of his rodeo involvement over the years.

Sonny delves into a cabinet and pulls out multiple boxes holding big, shiny belt buckles. He hands us a velvet interior box holding a buckle and says it is his favorite that he’s won over the years. The metallic letters read “1956 National Champion Team,” decorated with gold flowers and rubies, a truly beautiful piece of craftsmanship.

After about 5 minutes, Sonny had pulled out nearly 50 belt buckles from different cabinets and drawers. He told us some of the memories behind winning some of them, and commented that traveling was the hardest part of being a rodeo cowboy before saying, “I’ll stop there.” Some of the buckles we saw read: Texas Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame, Cowboys for Christ, 1988 Team Roping Champion, Rodeo Club Coach, Sam Houston State University Rodeo Team, and many, many more.

From here we move to Sonny’s garage, where he shows us a wall full of tack that he braided himself in his free time. He sells the homemade halters and tack when he attends senior pro rodeos, saying, “It buys a little horse feed.” He shows us some different pieces and explains how a cowboy snap is different from a mechanical snap before taking us over to see his barn.

We walk past three horses grazing, two of which are Sonny’s (one is his nephew’s mare that he is “feeding and boarding” for him, like a sweet grandpa would). Sonny opens up a door leading to his tack room and we follow him in to see saddles, bridles, halters, and every cowboy necessity lining the walls.

He beams talking about his grandkids and tells us about an upcoming Sikes family reunion at his home in Huntsville, where he’s expecting 75-100 of his descendants. “There will be so many people they’ll have to wear nametags,” he says with a slight laugh, almost unable to believe that his patriarchy grew into what it is today. Sonny currently drinks coffee every Monday morning with other SHSU retired Ag faculty. The most rewarding part of his life as a teacher and coach at SHSU was watching his students grow up for the 4-5 years that he had them. Sonny Sikes has created a legacy in the hearts of Sam Houston State University, the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association, and rodeo lovers all over Texas.

Our favorite Sonny Sikes quotes from our interview:

“I like to compete. I like to win.”

“Braggers… I don’t like them. If you can do somethin’, don’t tell me about it, show me.”

“Joanne ran it… I just signed the checks.”

“I can train three horses while you train one kid.”

“A horse will remember the good and the bad.”

“I have lived a great life. No one is luckier than I am.”

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