The King of Calgary is in a dry spell. There is a wine list on the table, kegs behind the bar. But Vern Kimball, the man whose position atop the city’s annual spectacle of bulls and beers and buttered pancakes makes him among the most influential people in this self-declared “Heart of the New West,” is having none of it.
“I’d love a water without ice,” he tells the server at Olives, a restaurant kitty-corner to the Calgary Stampede grounds. The booze flows hard and heavy around this city during Stampede, as investment bankers in cowboy boots and office workers in colourful shirts let loose for a 10-day party that sees drinks served from 7 a.m. breakfasts to midnight benders. But Mr. Kimball, the chief executive officer of an organization that he has served since 1986, is just setting out on his annual period of self-imposed temperance.
For a man charged with pulling off The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, an attraction that draws over a million people a year and takes a missionary zeal toward fostering ties to a diminishing cowboy heritage, this is no time to drink. Between now and July 15, he will be at his desk, coffee in hand, by 6 a.m. and, if things are going well, won’t return home until 10:30 p.m. If things go wrong – and it’s not uncommon for chuckwagon horses to die or people to be injured in midway accidents – the hours can be worse.
Best, then, to stay sharp, and away from the wine he normally favours.
“The days are long and there’s a lot of hospitality – a lot of things you need to be thinking about all the time. So you don’t want to be tired,” he says.
Mr. Kimball, 56, should know. He has not only run the Stampede since 2006, he is one of its longest-serving people and the man charged with a task far more difficult than ensuring the gates open on time and trash is collected. The Stampede connects Calgary with its past – and its people with each other – in a way no other institution can. But as that past grows more distant, Mr. Kimball faces questions about how exactly to keep Stampede both relevant and important.
Calgary’s cowboy connections, after all, are largely artifice today. Last year, 73,200 Albertans worked in agriculture, fewer than the 81,000 who walked through the gates of Stampede on opening day alone last year. Barely 2 per cent of the provincial gross domestic product flows from agriculture. Yet ranching and farming are at the heart of the Stampede – and the event’s centennial has brought that tension into focus, as it raises the question of what the next 100 years might look like.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is pretty sure a century from now, it will still have cowboys and horses – after all, without a rodeo, “what is Stampede?” he says in an interview. “It’s not Mardi Gras.”
But, he adds – and this is nothing new in a city that is constantly changing shape – “what the Stampede’s interesting challenge will be is how do you keep the idea of western culture and heritage relevant to a city that is increasingly made up of people whose ancestors didn’t live that heritage?”
For Mr. Kimball, it is among the most difficult of the many tasks he faces. His responsibilities already put most of the city’s hard-driving oilmen to shame. He is quite likely Calgary’s most practised logistician, a man who oversees a tremendously complex annual event that spans a world-class rodeo, large music festival – acts this year include Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley, the Beach Boys, Awolnation, K’naan and a host of others – nightly grandstand show, enormous agricultural exhibit and one of the continent’s largest midways. He is an executive with a work force that numbers 300 full-time employees, 1,000 part-timers and 2,500 volunteer workers.
He is an assiduous entertainer, travelling to Mardi Gras and the Rose Bowl to learn from their parades, and conducting extensive polling in Alberta to cater his product to changing tastes. He is becoming an urban developer, with the Stampede part-way through a building boom that will see it house restaurants, shops, performing arts and additional agricultural facilities on its grounds, all intended to further establish its year-round presence.
But he is, above all, a curator of a heritage that is both disappearing and ascendant – a title he rejects as “pompous” before essentially acknowledging it.
“We perform a very important role in connecting people with an understanding of something that’s been lost,” he says. It’s not a new role: Even in the 1920s, the Stampede itself worked to persuade Calgarians to dress in western wear and decorate their shops.
The organization has long played an active role in shaping the culture of the city. Mr. Kimball approaches that part of his mission with an evangelical fervour that makes obvious his upbringing with a father who was a Baptist missionary and United Church preacher. Under his and the Stampede board’s direction, the organization has reached out to immigrant groups, inviting newly arrived families from Africa, for example, to the grounds.
“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.”