Father Knows Best

Story by Jeannie Stone

There’s a certain mayhem to events where the participants are expected to perform, but Underwood takes it all in stride. He’s as proud as any father would be, that is, if he were a father in the traditional sense. Underwood, who has never fathered children (nor been married) but has nevertheless been entrusted with caring for children time and again. His love knows no blood boundaries.

Underwood, 58, moved to Plainview in 1976 to work for the gas company now known as CenterPoint Energy and has remained in the community for 34 years. He is originally from Dardanelle and has a sister, two brothers and their families close by, as well as his mother Emma Underwood.

He comes by his love for young people naturally. His grandfather loved children and inspired Underwood. “He helped raise us four kids,” he said.

Rodeo captured his interest in high school, and while he wished to ride the bulls, he wasn’t born a bull rider. Underwood said that is why he fell into bull fighting, the industry term for dressing as a clown and distracting a bull to protect a fallen or struggling cowboy.

Underwood fought bulls for 20 years. “I got a little old and slow, so I started doing just the comedy part,” he said.

It was while serving on the state chapter of the National High School Rodeo Association board in the 1980s that he developed his gift of working with teens. He later assisted Mark Tucker of Russellville with a rodeo for younger children.

“When I started rodeoing, I didn’t know a soul,” he said, “but I started to get to know their families. I am now in relationships with their children.”

He cares for two boys, alternating weekends with their birth dad who lived with Underwood for a few years. “The boys and I just got real attached,” he said.

Underwood continues his work with the rodeo but has cut back to one or two shows a year. He was also instrumental in the launching of the Cops for Kids program.

“It is completely run off of donations,” he said. “We give money to help Yell County kids to buy their school supplies.”

Several years ago, he joined Jesus Name Pentecostal Church. Pastor Stacy Lizanby can’t say enough good things about Underwood.

“He is known throughout the county,” he said, “and I knew when he got saved and joined the church that our youth group would explode, and it has. Harold is a great, godly influence on these young people.”

Underwood blushed. “Well, the fact that they have an awesome youth minister could have something to do with it,” he said. “Seriously, Dee Stone is a complete nut but he relates so well to these kids.”

Then he is silent. “I wish,” he said, “that I would have been involved in a church like this in the 80s during my rodeo career, rather than just the past few years. God’s got to be first in everybody’s life. If you put God first, then the rest will take care of itself. I may have been able to be a positive influence to some of my friends. The rodeo circuit can be a wild ride, but anything can be if you let it.”

There are many Christian influences in rodeo nowadays Underwood said. “I’m grateful for that. There are Cowgirls for Christ and Cowboys for Christ, and they’re growing.”

Underwood has opened up his home for overnight youth retreats. “The boys spend the night at my place, and the girls stay with someone else,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. We start with teachings at the church every night, and then they play a little ball in the gym before coming out. They stay for three days. We rig up cowboy showers in the horse stalls. We have a blast.”

Lodging isn’t a challenge although Underwood lives in a two bedroom cabin. “We’ve got a bunkhouse that can sleep up to six boys. Heck, I’ve seen more than that squeeze in there. Kids don’t care where they sleep,” he said.

Fourteen-year-old neighbor Matt Essman, who happened to be listening in on the conversation, added his two cents.

“We go four-wheeling, ride horses and hunt for armadillos at night – that’s my favorite part,” he said.

“I drag the kids on an old (truck) bed liner through the mud and water,” Underwood said. “I guess I’m just a kid in an old man’s body,” he said, with a laugh.

The man with the generous heart has also sponsored six foreign exchange students, some for an entire school year.

“I (sponsored) a boy from Ecuador, a boy from Uzbekistan, a boy from Poland and three boys from Germany.

“Ninety-five percent of the students loved this area,” he said. “Some of them called it a huge culture shock. It was a big change.”

Underwood is expecting Ricardo, the boy from Ecuador, to visit this summer. He also has plans to fly to Poland and visit the boys from Germany.

“I’m thinking about retiring so I can do that,” he said.

So what other retirement plans does he have?

“I want to take a wagon team from here to Fillmore, Oklahoma. That’s 240 miles. It’ll probably take 10-12 days,” he said. “I’ve got it all figured out.”

Underwood is known by the company he keeps, and although he never chose a clown name during his rodeo stint, he now answers to several monikers.

“They call me Uncle Harold, Uncle Harry, Paul and Uncle Leon,” he said. “Most of them, though, call me ‘Dad.’”

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

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