It's A Gray Area: Buffalo Bill's lessons in life endure

Recently I was blessed to be able to go with a wrangler on a horseback and fly fishing trip to the Beartooth Mountains on the Wyoming/Montana border.

To be able to stay in gorgeous natural places that haven't changed for centuries, and knowing that they will be the same centuries from now, was truly inspiring.

But before I arrived safely in the hands of the wrangler, I visited the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyo. It is truly a world-class institution. In fact, if you have not taken your family to this genuinely interesting place, you are really missing out.

The center is divided into five separate museums, specializing in the Plains Indians, Western art, firearms, natural history and, of course, Buffalo Bill. One of the features that was especially fascinating was the exhibit of the sculptures depicting Teddy Roosevelt, and others, by Alexander Phimister Proctor.

Another unique work that really got my attention was a sculpture of a tumbleweed. Imagine constructing a mold for something as small as the branches of tumbleweed, and then seamlessly welding all of the pieces together. Really an amazing work.

But the true center of attraction was the museum about Buffalo Bill. In fact, I was so taken by his story that I bought and read a book about him: "The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill," by Don Russell. It is aptly titled because this man did lead a number of different lives and left us with a number of legends — many of which are true.

Generally speaking, the Wild West in our nation's history lasted only about 30 years, from 1863 to 1893. William Frederick Cody, who lived from 1846 to 1917, probably best represented it. During his varied life, he was a wagon master, Civil War soldier, Army scout (for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor), Pony Express rider, rancher, hotel owner and, of course, a showman.

From experiencing his museum, and reading Russell's book, I have derived eight lessons from the life of this truly interesting man.

The first lesson is the importance of developing skills and a work ethic. From childhood "Willie" strove to master the skills of roping, riding, driving wagons and shooting, because having skills was how a person could get ahead. The skills may have changed for most of us today, but the lesson remains firm.

Second, the best way to have friends is to be a friend, and that is what William Cody was to many people for a lifetime.

The third lesson is to treat your wife (or husband) well. For years, Cody ignored his wife while he was out on the plains. She eventually divorced him, only to remarry him later in life. But she was always faithful to him, and eventually him to her. In fact, he learned that this relationship is one of the most important parts of life.

Fourth, everyone is human. Cody started his career feeling that every Indian was his enemy, and he killed many of them during various wars and skirmishes. But as time went on, he learned the lesson that Indians are people too.

In fact, he went to great lengths during his Western shows to demonstrate how Indians lived with their families just like everyone else, and to argue that every Indian uprising was first caused by our government breaking its promises.

In addition, Cody also stood up for women's rights, as well as those of the Arabs and Mexicans who were part of his shows, making sure that all performers were paid equally for equal work.

Fifth, Cody came to recognize the importance of conservation. Yes, while working for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, Cody earned the nickname "Buffalo Bill" by killing thousands of buffaloes (actually they were bisons) to feed the railroad's workers. But as his life went on, Cody became horrified at the slaughter of these animals as they approached extinction, and he was vocal in his opposition. One of the tangible ways he assisted in promoting that conservation was to advocate hunting seasons.

For many years, during the non-summer months, Cody ran and starred in what he called his "Buffalo Bill Combination" show. By doing this, he helped cement his fame worldwide and also made lots of money.

It was not only his name that filled the seats, but also other living legends like Sitting Bull, Johnny "The Cowboy Kid" Baker and Annie Oakley. In looking at a map of the places he performed, I was amazed to see that they included Santa Ana and Santa Barbara as well as much of Western Europe. He even entertained Queen Victoria in London.

During one of these tours, he discovered that he was spending more than $100,000 per year in advertising. So Cody decided to economize and reduce that spending, relying instead upon his name and fame to fill the seats. But when he did that, his revenue plummeted.

So lesson No. 6 is that even with the fame of Buffalo Bill, advertising still is essential.

Lesson No. 7 is that nobody is an expert in everything. Even though William Cody was exceptionally skilled at many things, including being a natural showman, at the end of his life he was almost broke. He was talented in so many things that he thought he must also have the touch for investing — but he didn't. As a result, Cody lost much of his wealth.

So take the lesson from Buffalo Bill: Know your strengths, and then find good people who have expertise that you don't have and put your trust in those people.

Finally, lesson No. 8 is a tough one. People everywhere need heroes, and being in the limelight can be exciting. But that fame also brings many responsibilities. Just look at Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds or Richard Nixon. The higher pedestal, the farther the fall back to earth.

William Cody took his fame seriously and continues today to be elevated in people's eyes. But he realized how precarious that position can be and showed real care not to let people down.

So for all of these lessons from William F. Cody, I am grateful.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired Orange County Superior Court judge. He lives in Newport Beach. He can be contacted at

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