by Chris Dize
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Jim Svoboda, a legendary ProRodeo photographer for 66 years, passed away on Feb. 19. He was 88.

“He told me last week he was going out happy and wanted us to be happy,” said son Von, one of Svoboda’s three children.

Svoboda graduated in 1956 from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He worked 33 years for the USDA as County Executive Officer for the Agriculture Stabilization Conservation Service serving Garfield, Loup, and Wheeler Counties until he retired in 1989. He also owned a ranch with his wife and family north of Burwell, Neb., prior to his retirement, where they owned a registered Hereford operation.

The sport of rodeo, however, was his passion.

Svoboda spent nearly 20 years as a successful four event all-around rodeo competitor, competing in steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, and bull riding. His best streak was 54 bareback rides in a row. He filled his PRCA permit in 1958 and received his PRCA Gold card in 1984.

A severely broken leg forced Svoboda to become a full-time rodeo photographer.

With more than three million photos shot and nearly 40 cameras worn out, Svoboda was a true legend in the rodeo photography industry. He was recognized as the 2008 PRCA Photographer of the Year. Svoboda retired at his hometown rodeo in Burwell, Neb., in 2021. He first attended Nebraska’s Big Rodeo in Burwell in 1946.

“The one thing about dad is that he was very meticulous on the record keeping aspect of it (his photos),” Von said. “If anybody would say ‘Do you have a picture back at Pendleton in whatever year,’ dad would go back and say ‘Yep, I have that.’ He had a system where he kept track of each of the individual cowboys and to this day if someone would call him, he would have an envelope of all their proofs of everything he took. I don’t know if there is a rodeo he didn’t photograph. He went from the northwest to the First Frontier Circuit in New Jersey down to Florida.”

Svoboda had this to say when asked how he decided where to put himself to take the best rodeo shots in an article written by Anne Christensen in the Oct. 24, 2008, issue of the ProRodeo Sports News.?

“I try to figure out the angle from each chute and where they will end up, then get out in front of the action and not just shoot the bucking horses’ rear end,” Svoboda said. “The most dangerous event to photograph is saddle bronc riding. One time I was standing on the fence, and my feet were at least six feet off the ground. That bronc kicked and got me right between the shoulder blades. Now I stay out of everyone’s way, I darn sure don’t want to mess up somebody’s run. I’m getting older. I figure out the best place to get run over – and I stand somewhere else. If you’re on the inside, you might be running while you should be taking the picture, so sometimes I stand outside the fence, and I keep my stuff back. First-timers will use their tripods right next to the fence; here comes a guy swinging his loop and he catches the lights or camera.

“Rodeo is the toughest photography there is. The worst thing is dust – I always tell the committees that the audience doesn’t like it either. No one wants a gritty hot dog.”

Svoboda won numerous awards and buckles during his rodeo career including four coveted PRCA award buckles: “Sports News Best Action Photo,” “Best Action Rodeo Photo,” “PRCA Best in Photo Journalism,” and “Las Vegas National Finals Rodeo Official Photographer,” a feat no other photographer has ever accomplished.

“My family is certainly blessed,” said Marilyn, Jim’s wife of 64 years. “Rodeo was one of his loves. Jim was the epitome of the dedication, commitment, and very hard work.”

Svoboda’s decorated resume also included the following:

  • He co-published the book, 50 Years of Nebraska’s Big Rodeo (first 50 years of the Burwell PRCA rodeo)
  • He was “Official Photographer” for:  Miss Rodeo America Pageant, 100 various PRCA Circuit Finals, National Intercollegiate Finals, NFR Bronc/Bull Sale, Bill Pickett National Finals, 25 years National Little Britches Rodeo Finals
  • Grand Marshall Nebraska’s Big Rodeo

“I would want people to remember my dad as probably the most positive person. He would always have a smile on his face,” Von said. “He never had a bad day. The other thing is that he had a real friendship with other photographers. He was always willing to share ideas. For instance, Alaina Stangle, she was an NFR photographer a couple of years ago. He mentored her and when dad retired, he gave her one of his lenses. He just had an affinity for friendship for the other photographers.

“When he got his leg broke really bad that ruined his ability to compete. That’s when he really hit the road and started doing photos. He was part of a family of 11 children and dad and all his brothers rodeoed. There was a little outdoor arena they built in Burwell, and they all got the rodeo bug. They were just poor farm kids and all they wanted to be cowboys. They wanted to ride bucking horses.”

Svoboda was preceded in death by his parents James, Sr., and Margaret (Walkowiak) Svoboda, one brother and three sisters. Svoboda is survived by his wife Marilyn, three children, Tana Brinkman (Jim), Jason Von Svoboda (Angela), JonBen Svoboda (AnneMarie), seven grandchildren and three great grandchildren, two brothers and four sisters.

At Svoboda’s request, he wanted a private graveside service and in lieu of flowers send remembrance memorials to the family which will be collectively donated in his honor to the Nebraska’s Big Rodeo in Burwell.

Article Courtesy of PRCA

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