Feature

How the West Was One

Hundreds of teenagers. A herd of mustangs. One man with a vision. In the foothills of the Rocky Mountains rides a cavalry that just might change the world.

December 2005

It was May of 1983 and Elmer Wyland was dying. For years his health had been failing, and most of his worldly affairs were in order, save one. There, in his home, alone with his wife, he took care of his last and perhaps his most important legacy. "Tell Glen it's his," he said. They were the old horseman's last words. With that, Glen Keller Jr. received his inheritance: a herd of horses, a basement full of Wild West costumes, and 650 horse-crazy teenagers. Colorado's famed riding team, the Westernaires, was now Keller's responsibility.

The news came as a shock to many. Wyland was an old lone wolf with a passion for horses, history, and unyielding discipline, a man who had created the Westernaires and governed them with the zeal of a military commander. Keller was a young, straight-talking city lawyer-and an unlikely choice of successor. In the clan of the Westernaires, Keller was a relative outsider, just a volunteer dad with kids on the team. He'd never worn a red team bandana, and he didn't come up through the ranks under the old man's watchful eye.

Yet Wyland knew Keller was the one man who would keep his dream alive. He must have sensed that for his philosophy to live on, the old way needed a new cowboy, somebody who understood what this inheritance was, and what it could become. Keller had served as one of Wyland's assistants, standing behind the director and watching him lead the Westernaires with logic and wisdom. When it came time to step in, he knew what to do.

The job would mean more than just chaperoning trips to the rodeo. For Keller, it was a chance to unearth the buried memories of the horse-crazy child he once was, to instill that passion in the next generation, and to hold on to a place where the Wild West lived on-where the good guys wear white hats and say "yes, ma'am," where the day is long because there's work to be done. It was a chance to become the custodian of an era.

Keller knows that shepherding Wyland's dream in 21st-century Colorado won't be easy. But for the last two decades Keller has stood guard, not just keeping the Westernaires alive but also instilling Wyland's driving principles in new generations of modern teenagers. Because by keeping the old era alive, Glen Keller just might be saving the world, one Westernaire at a time.

Elmer and Marjorie Wyland never had children of their own. Instead, they lavished their love on their mutual passion-horses. They spent their weekends sharing long rides, just the two of them. Eventually the couple joined Lakewood's riding club, becoming fixtures at the local parades and other cowboy activities. When the Lakewood Youth Council asked Wyland, a well-respected Mountain Bell executive, to form a community-building project, a kids' group centered on horses, his life was given new purpose.

Wyland founded the Westernaires in 1949, when Jefferson County was a rural region: Ranching was a viable living, 4-H clubs flourished, and the city of Denver seemed far, far away. Television had only just become available in Jeffco, and switchboard operators still routed all the phone calls by hand. The notion of pretty teenagers performing routines on horseback was the very picture of 1950s Colorado.

The horse club has performed its precision drills throughout Colorado and around the country, always returning to its one and only home in Golden, right next to the Jefferson County Fairgrounds. Fort Westernaire consists of a few old covered barns, a dusty pasture full of horses, a grassy parking lot littered with big diesel trucks, and a massive new indoor arena-a modern anchor on 40 acres of yesterday.

Enthralled with the role of the cavalry in the American West, Wyland modeled his riding club after the precise training and drills of the horseback Army division, creating the show routines from old training manuals. He ran things with the order of a military man-the riders followed strict guidelines for dress, attendance, and behavior, and the rules didn't bend. Around Fort Westernaire, Wyland's decisions were uncounciled and final: There was only one boss. Until his death, he presided over the Westernaires with uncontested authority, his role evidenced on the parade route-atop his mount, always positioned at the lead, not so much riding with the kids but in front of them.

As singular as Wyland's authority was, the organization relied on volunteers to fill the rank and order of Wyland's design, one that also resembled a military chain of command. Among them was Glen Keller. In Keller he saw a man who could straddle two worlds: a man who could diagnose colic in a fussy horse and then rub elbows downtown with Denver's political elite. For his part, Keller admired the director, understood his methods, and dutifully followed Wyland's lead until the day he succeeded him.

Under Wyland, the Westernaires performed their precision mounted drills at rodeos, parades, and the National Western Stock Show. Today, the schedule and the drills look much the same. The difference lies beneath: Wyland created an institution; Keller cultivates a tribe. Under Keller, the anachronistic club thrives, larger than ever with 1,000 riders and 150 horses. When the Westernaires' Red Team, its top echelon, performs its routine this year at the National Western Stock Show's 100th anniversary, those modern teenagers riding bareback will be a living testament to Keller's philosophy and methods. The Westernaires may seem quaintly trapped in the past, but he looks at his riders in their Wild West costumes and sees only the future. "People may accuse me of having an agenda," says Keller. "They're absolutely right."

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