Humility, humor and honesty: living legend Slim McNaught
Wed, 02/08/2017 - 11:06am admin
Western South Dakota cowboy poet, journalist, leather artist and western musician Slim McNaught epitomizes humility and the gentle stoicism of the iconic American cowboy.
Despite an ever-growing list of accomplishments and honors, the most recent of which is the Black Hills Stock Show® Pioneer Spirit award, Slim insists that he has just lived the life set before him.
Slim was born in 1934 in Stuart, Neb. He soon became a South Dakota transplant, though, as his parents moved to a ranch southwest of Wanblee the following year. Slim spent his formative years as a South Dakota ranch boy. Many of the talents for which he would be recognized later in life were germane to that point in his life. Slim began leatherwork by working on saddles and headgear for horses that his family used. He was introduced to poetry by his mother, a poet in her own right.
After Slim graduated from the eighth grade in 1948, he ventured far north into Canada for a year of high school. Though he left the country for school when many of his peers simply went to a neighboring town, Slim shrugs at any suggestion that this was an extraordinary thing for a South Dakota ranch boy to do. “We had friends up there. I went all over the country,” Slim said.
Indeed, Slim spent his high school years exploring new territory. Following his freshman year of high school, Slim transferred to a parochial Methodist school, which served as both a high school and college, in Wessington Springs. While there, he met his wife, Darlene, who was several years behind him in school, and who attended the local public high school.
Darlene boarded at the high school, and she recalls sitting in the windows with her schoolmates and talking to boys – after the hours that visiting was supposed to occur. Slim in particular caught her eye. Slim returned to Martin for his final year of high school, but then came back to Darlene when he went to work for a place at Gann Valley. Slim and Darlene became engaged the summer between her junior and senior years.
“I was told in my home ec class to never marry an only child. I never did listen,” Darlene said. Darlene did heed her mother, though. Her mother told her she was allowed to wear Slim’s ring so long as the actual subject of marriage was not broached until after high school graduation. The young couple honored these wishes, and waited until a few weeks after graduation to marry. The year was 1954.
Fresh out of school and now newlywed, Slim and Darlene traveled back to the Martin area to ranch. Darlene adjusted to life in the middle of nowhere by asking for more milk cows. Slim was surprised that his young bride wanted more cows than the five they already had. “I told him, if I’m going to milk five cows, I had better milk enough to make it worth it,” Darlene said.
The couple added 12 more cows to their dairy herd. The cows were accustomed to women, but not to horses. Slim and his horse had a mishap getting the cows home, ending in a broken ankle. Eventually, they did make it, though. While Slim worked the long hours of a rancher, Darlene milked 17 cows, cared for their calves, kept 200 chickens for their eggs and kept pigs for good measure. Twice a week she would set a full cream can out by the mailbox, where it would be picked up by the cream collector. A check for the cream would arrive in the mail later.
This life continued for three years, until a needed reservation lease was lost. Looking at their options, Slim and Darlene decided to cash in on the place and go chase new dreams. In 1957, they left Martin to start over-the-road trucking throughout the United States. New life came to their home, too, first in the form of their daughter, Candace, who was followed 13 months later by their eldest son, Rockie. Four years passed, then Monty and Kevin were added to the family, just 18 months apart from each other.
Though Slim had done leather work since he was 12 or 14, he took his first paying leatherwork job in 1973 when he went to work for Jay Crowser in Philip. Slim found he was particularly talented at leatherwork, and the McNaughts opened their own leather shop in Kadoka in ’76.
Darlene worked alongside Slim, perfectly complementing him. Slim took care of the tooling, while Darlene proved to be an artisan in her work, combining different leathers for a unique look. Together, the two created all manner of leather products for people across the area and even across the United States. Guitar straps made by Slim and Darlene adorn the shoulders of several country music legends. Numerous rodeo athletes at the Kadoka Rodeo Bible Camp from1980 to 2015 received hand-tooled leather Bible covers from Slim. Slim and Darlene also provided leather plaques for Western Junior Livestock Show and Bible covers for the New Underwood Rodeo Bible Camp.
While in Kadoka, the McNaughts stayed busy by working numerous jobs, both paid and volunteer, in the community. Darlene cleaned hotel rooms in the morning, then worked the leather shop in the afternoon. In addition to his leatherwork, Slim worked in law enforcement. He served as a reserve officer when the local law enforcement needed someone else to aid in the public safety efforts. Slim and Darlene were both emergency medical technicians on the Kadoka ambulance as well.
Another life change occurred in ’89, when Slim suffered a heart attack. He and Darlene relocated to New Underwood in order to be closer to the doctors in Rapid City. Slim’s healing was complete. “They had me fixed up better than if I’d never had a heart attack,” Slim said.
Slim and Darlene got right to work in their new community as well. They opened Slim’s Custom Leather first on Main Street, then later in the building that currently houses Harry’s Hideaway. In recent years, the intrepid McNaughts put their leatherwork online, and have continued to traffic their wares through that venue.
Slim also used his years of experience in law enforcement by becoming the chief of police in New Underwood. It had been six or seven years since the position had been filled, and Slim found that he had his work cut out for him. “I arrested all the speeders in New Underwood,” Slim said with a chuckle.
This did not sit well with some of the townspeople, who had apparently rather enjoyed some level of lawlessness. They hosted a town meeting to try to oust Slim, but “that didn’t get too far,” Slim said.
In addition to policing the town of New Underwood, Slim was cross-deputized as a Pennington County sheriff’s deputy. The sheriff and the New Underwood mayor had met and decided that Slim should have jurisdiction to protect the county residents as well. Slim was the last person to receive cross-jurisdiction in Pennington County.
Ever willing for a new adventure, Slim had his first public poetry performance Valentine’s Day 2004. He was an instant hit. Throughout his career, he has released seven books of poetry, one of which he did with his 101-year-old mother, who still lives with Slim and Darlene, and three poetry CDs. One of those CDs has been sold out, and a fourth CD is currently being compiled, using material that had been recorded prior to 2016. Slim’s album “Reminiscin’ ” received the prestigious Academy of Western Artists 2009 Cowboy Poetry Album/CD award. Slim has also promoted poetry as the poet laureate for the popular Live with Jim Thompson radio show.
Slim and Darlene faced a major trial in 2016, when Slim had a massive stroke in the left side of his brain that left him paralyzed on his right side. It left this wordsmith, who was so well-known for his talent with the spoken and written word, unable to form words. Slim was diagnosed with aphasia, which essentially leaves a person unable to speak or to comprehend the written word.
Again, though, Slim and Darlene made adjustments and refused to be defined by this setback. Slim spent countless hours in therapy to regain control of his right arm and to learn to speak again. He is able to converse now, and penmanship exercises on their dining room table are testament to his dedication to being able to write again. His gains have been tremendous, though Darlene admits that she sees his gains where he does not.
In many respects, going from a gifted orator to a person whose mental words will not translate into audible words “has been pure hell,” Darlene said. Slim had 47 poems, or about three performance hours worth of material, memorized. Now, due to a combination of recall problems and the inability to speak the words into being, Slim struggles to recite at all. He has been working on a poem, though, and Darlene recently made him read it aloud to her, showing yet further gains.
Music, a prominent feature in Slim’s life, has proven to serve him well as he has recuperated from the stroke. While a person’s verbal skills come from the left side of the brain, the side that was injured by the stroke, melody and harmony come from the right side. This meant that, during speech therapy, there were some words that Slim could not speak, but he was able to sing. According to Darlene, he had to sing certain words until a new neural pathway formed, and it became natural for the word to be spoken.
Evidence of the impact Slim has had on people throughout his life can be seen in the well-wishes sent his way following the stroke – notes were sent from all of the 48 continental United States. Slim’s impact is also on display as he is the third recipient of the BHSS® Pioneer Spirit award, an award which recognizes someone who, though not currently in agriculture per se, is still actively involved in promoting the spirit of agriculture throughout the area.
As they reminisce over their varied and active life together, Darlene remarks that it has been quite a ride. Slim, still every bit the iconic cowboy, grins a comfortable smile across the table at Darlene. After nearly 63 years of marriage, the two think that they stand a good chance of having their marriage work out. In light of all the adventures and accomplishments, Slim easily sums his life into one thought, “Thank God there’s a good woman around.”