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Calgary Stampede CEO Vern Kimball by anthony jenkins lunch Illustration of Calgary Stampede CEO Vern Kimball. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Calgary Stampede CEO Vern Kimball by anthony jenkins lunch Illustration of Calgary Stampede CEO Vern Kimball. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The Lunch

Vern Kimball: Meet the Calgary Stampede’s designated driver Add to ...

“We believe in the western heritage and values that have made Calgary,” he says. “We like to think of ourselves, in a flattering way, as the spirit of Calgary.” “Spirit” of course, is an awfully difficult thing to define. But Mr. Kimball sees a certain nobility in his role of co-ordinating an annual event that sees CEOs and janitors don similar outfits. And while they may attend different parties, there is something to be said for the way dressing people in yesterday’s costumes can help join them together today.

“When you throw on your cowboy hat and jeans, you’re becoming part of the Calgary nation. And what’s different about us is that we get the entire community, every economic bracket, every social bracket, every ethnic bracket,” he says. “We are truly the melting pot that makes Calgary a community.”

For someone charged with ensuring that a city obsessed with oil continues to care about cowboys, it doesn’t hurt that Mr. Kimball is himself an outsider.

Born in Hamilton, he spent his early years abroad, spending a year in Portugal and three in Africa before returning to Canada. He moved west in 1974, attending the University of Calgary, where he obtained a degree in political science and an MBA.

His real education came not in the classroom, but behind cafeteria counters. Starting as a part-time worker, he quickly discovered that he liked food services. At 21, he was managing a multimillion-dollar cafeteria for the University of Calgary. A half-decade later, he became second in charge of university food services. Two years before the 1988 Olympics came to Calgary, Calgary Stampede hired him for its food services division. He has been there ever since, working on the midway and long-range planning before spending 10 years as chief financial officer, two as chief operating officer, and now six as CEO. It’s a position he intends to hold, he says, “until the fire in my belly leaves. I’m having lots of fun.”

It’s clear he’s still enthralled by the very thing that drew him to food service in the first place.

“What I liked was making people happy,” he says.

But in some ways, the Stampede seems an odd fit for Mr. Kimball, a man who plays piano, buys classical music by the CD 10-pack, favours vacations in Paris and Venice, and cites as his favoured Stampede memory the time when, a decade ago, the 2,000 people who had gathered for a world marching band championship together played Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

“That many people playing Ode to Joy is phenomenal. I was literally choking up,” he says, as he wears a pink shirt and white cowboy hat, the latter of which is affixed to his head some 100 days of the year. Mr. Kimball is clearly no cowboy. Asked whether he has ever ridden a bull, he shoots back an incredulous look: “Are you kidding?” he says. “You have to have extreme skill and extreme courage to get up on a bull.” He rode horses some as a kid, but enrolled in lessons when he began taking more senior roles at the Stampede – after all, riding in the annual parade is one of his duties.

Still, an inability to ride bulls is hardly unusual. Stampede is, in places, redneck heaven: The midway will sell you just about anything that can be deep-fried and thrown on a stick, the rodeo will give you front-row seats to cowboys flying off bulls, and the enormous beer tents provide a booze-fuelled hunting ground for men to stumble after women in tight denim skirts.

Yet it’s also home to a sophisticated western art show – complete with wine bar, no less – an ultra-exclusive restaurant where a four-person table runs $7,950 for five day s, and chuckwagon race luxury boxes jammed with uppity hors d’oeuvres.

The common denominator: This is a festival of excess.

But on this particular day, in the moments before all of the careful plans for the centennial begin to take flight, Mr. Kimball is practising restraint.

At Olives, he orders the niçoise salad – no anchovies, tuna well done; there will be plenty of time for beef later, and moderation is a virtue – before offering a quick word of advice. There are two traits, he says, needed to get anyone through Stampede – and, perhaps, to get Stampede itself through a challenging future.

“Pacing and stamina. That’s what it’s all about,” he says. “Pacing and stamina.”

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