Waco Cotton Palace King 2017

By Gretchen Eichenberg

Johnny Dewayne Bledsoe

Johnny Dewayne Bledsoe will be crowned Waco Cotton Palace King at the 47th annual Waco Cotton Palace on Friday, April 28, 2017 at Waco Hall. Johnny, son of the Reverend John Taylor Bledsoe and Imogene Williams Bledsoe, made his way to Waco 30 years ago. He’s married to Sally Lou Schultz Bledsoe, a Waco native.

The Bledsoes have four children: Taylor Bledsoe lives in Waco with his wife Jordan Stringer Bledsoe of Longview. Their children are Greer age 4 1/2, Marin 2 1/2 and John Taylor (Jack) age 11 mo. Ginny Bledsoe Martin lives in Dallas with husband Xerxes Martin IV. They have a beautiful and stinky bulldog, Leroy. Casey Bledsoe Rutherford lives in Overland Park, Kansas with husband Justin. They have a daughter, Parker, who is four. Stacey Bledsoe Loyless lives in Homewood, Alabama. with her husband Paul. They have two daughters, Evie, 11 and Addie, 7.

The family’s royal roots go back more than 40 years, as Sally was a Princess in 1975 and her sister, Beth, in 1972. Their son, Taylor, was an Escort in 2002 and daughter, Ginny, was a Princess in 2003. And they’ve been involved in many other ways, as well.

“We have sponsored Court Members and their families from other towns for many years,” Johnny said. “We love doing that. We still keep up with most of these families who we now consider friends. My family says that I like sponsoring so much because I have a new audience for all my stories.”

One very meaningful way they’ve been involved, Johnny said, is the former court scene, which depicts Kings and Queens from the original Waco Cotton Palace’s earliest days.

“Sally and her father, Fred Schultz, were in the former court scene when we first moved back to Waco,” he said. “Ginny and I have been in that scene twice and it is really fun. I think Ginny and Sally both portrayed the same former Queen.”

Johnny was cast as George Barnard, an Indian trader and pioneer merchant when his good friend Debbie Luce was Production Chairman.

“I played that role for several years in the Production” he said. “Sally had to correct me once when she heard me tell someone that I was George Bernard Shaw.”

Sally has served on or chaired many committees over the years.

“It seems like Sally has been on almost every committee in Waco Cotton Palace and has chaired many,” Johnny said. “She was General Chairman in 2008. The year she was Court Direction Chairman, she would be on the computer when I woke up in the morning and when I went to bed at night. I played lots of golf that year.”

Johnny was born in Sherman, Texas because there was not a hospital in the very small town, Gunter, where his family lived.

“My father was the pastor at Bethel Baptist Church for 42 years,” Johnny said. “Growing up as a “PK” makes you realize the importance of giving back. My parents were incredible role models. My father was the most Christ-like man I have ever known.”

After graduating from Gunter High School in 1969, Johnny attended North Texas University and graduated in 1973 with a BBA in Marketing. While on the job in Dallas, he was introduced to Sally, who was also working in the metroplex.

“I met Sally on the second day of her job in Dallas. Our two companies did business together,” he said. “Her supervisor brought her to my office to meet me in May of 1980. We were married 13 months later.”

The couple was married at Austin Avenue United Methodist Church in Waco in June of 1981 and continued living in Dallas.

“I am still infamous to the people who attended our wedding,” Johnny said, “as I sang to Sally at the end of the ceremony. The Waco people did not know me well at that time. I’m not sure if that was a good or bad first impression.”

Johnny is President of Sturdisteel, one of the leading manufacturers and installers of bleachers and grandstands in the United States. Sturdisteel had been a division of Central Texas Iron Works (CTIW) since 1936. CTIW sold to The Herrick Corporation of San Francisco in 1982.

“My father-in-law, Fred Schultz, was retained as President and served in that role until his retirement in 1986,” Johnny said. “He knew that the bleacher business did not fit Herrick’s business model and they would have eventually closed that part of the business. Fred approached Sally and me in late 1986 about the possibility of starting a family-owned business. We came for a weekend and went over sales records and profit statements with Fred selling us on this opportunity.”

The Bledsoes were still living in the Dallas area at the time. Sally was interested as she had wanted to return to Waco for some time. They trusted Fred’s instincts and jumped in.

“One comment I will always remember was Fred saying, ‘Johnny, this might be something one of the grandkids could eventually be involved in.’ Today, our son, Taylor, has been working with us for 10 years. Fred was so proud.”

Sturdisteel began with 18 employees and rented a 20,000 square foot building on I-35 in Lorena. Thirty years later, they have 70,000 square feet of manufacturing /warehouse space on 30 acres in Hewitt.

“We employ over 100 of the most loyal and wonderful employees and have another 50-75 people who install for us,” Johnny said. “No one could have ever imagined we would grow to the size we have. We have truly been blessed. We remain a family-owned business and fully expect to continue operating as such for years to come.”

Many of the Bledsoe’s employees have become like family. Matt Stephens is one of them.

“With the honor of being King also comes the privilege of wearing some very heavy royal paraphernalia,” he said. “I have asked Matt, my next door neighbor, Sturdisteel salesman and much younger and stronger friend, to assist me as my Dresser. Matt, his wife Ashley and their daughters, Rachael and Sarah, are family to us.”

Johnny said his father-in-law, Fred, served as his mentor and role model for his business career.

“He was a master negotiator in any situation as he never lost his composure,” Johnny said. “He told me many times, ‘If you lose your cool, you lose.’” He taught me that the success of any business is in its people and to always remember that you cannot do it alone. He taught me to treat your employees like family and with respect and they will be loyal to you always. He also taught me the trait of always “Ask one more question.” It is amazing the problems you can avoid by just doing that. I had the privilege of working alongside Fred for almost 28 years. I cannot remember a time we ever had an argument or cross word. I still try to follow his example today and hopefully pass some of his wisdom along to Taylor.”

Another of Johnny’s role models was Herman Coleman, Chairman of the Board of Texas National Bank, which became Compass Bank and is now BBVA.

“We banked with Texas National when we first bought Sturdisteel and Fred was an investor and a member of their Board of Directors,” he said. “Herman taught me the importance of digging in and learning every aspect of our business. My background had been in insurance so I had much to learn about manufacturing and construction. Herman was always supportive and positive any time I would ask him for advice. Herman was Waco Cotton Palace King in 1991.”

Integrity, honesty and treating people fairly, Johnny said, are the qualities he finds most valuable in others.

Johnny has served as a director of the Hedonia Club, the Ridgewood Country Club Board, the Camp Fire Girls Board, the Compass Bank Board, the Waco ISD Partners in Education Board and the Austin Avenue UMC Administrative Board. He was a Lake Air Little League coach for eight years and a Waco High Summer Select Baseball Coach. He also served as President of the Waco High School Baseball Booster Club. He has volunteered with Compassion Ministries, Meals on Wheels and the Waco ISD Education Foundation. Johnny served on the Kaiser Aluminum Business Forecast Committee, the Chamber of Commerce Business Development Committee and as Chairman of the Communities in Schools Steering committee. He’s currently the Chairman of the Leadership Committee at Austin Avenue UMC where he also teaches a Sunday School class.

Sally and Johnny both are passionate about education.

“We are huge proponents of Waco ISD and have served on many different committees for over 25 years,” he said. “We are so very excited about the soon to be reopening of the Waco ISD Planetarium on the Waco High School campus. We have enthusiastically made a donation in every 2017 Court Members’ name to the Planetarium. It will benefit students in a 15-county area across Central Texas and will offer a wide variety of curriculum and lessons that appeal to K-12 through college.”

The couple is very active in their church, Austin Avenue United Methodist Church.

“Many people agree it is one of the most beautiful churches in Waco,” Johnny said. “We were married there over 35 years ago and our daughter, Ginny, was married there six years ago. The congregation is our extended family. We think it offers the best traditional worship service in Waco. The church received an official Texas Historical Commission Marker in 1990. I believe I am the eighth Austin Avenue member to serve as Waco Cotton Palace King.”

Johnny said he believes it is very important to teach young people to give back to their community.

“We hope we instilled this with our children by being active in church, the community, sports and all our activities,” he said. “It is fun to see young men that I coached at Lake Air Little League now fulfilling that role themselves. There are so many examples of young Waco people giving back to our great city. Our son, Taylor is now Chairman of the Waco ISD Education Foundation. His mother was Chairman a decade ago. Ginny has worked at Promise House, a nonprofit business in Dallas, since they moved there after Xerxes finished law school. Promise House offers transient housing and hope to homeless, runaway and at-risk youth in the Dallas area. Sally’s mother, Billie always exhibited great stewardship whether it was at her church or in the Waco community. We are grateful for the example she set for our children.”

He added that he believes young people can learn community service through Waco Cotton Palace.

“I think it teaches our Waco Court Members to be ambassadors for our city,” he said. “I do not think you realize what a wonderful place Waco is until you show it to others and see their reaction and new fondness of our town. Waco is a true treasure.”

Johnny loves playing golf and is a fan of all sports.

“I love all sporting events,” he said. “We are avid University of Texas football fans and Dallas Cowboy fans.”

They also enjoy traveling.

“Hawaii is our favorite place in the world as it is our place to get away and totally relax,” Johnny said. “We spent two weeks in Italy last fall and loved the history, architecture and culture. We have traveled to Chicago every year for the last 25 and love the food, people and the great ambiance of the city. We love to go to Colorado in the summer time, and we try to visit Disney World once a year. On my bucket list is to play a round of golf at Augusta National.”

The Bledsoes love to entertain friends at their home. They both enjoy reading, working out and spending time with their grandchildren. Three of their grandchildren live just a mile away, which is a huge blessing, they said.

And the Bledsoes are dog people.

“We have always had 1-3 dogs at any time,” Johnny said. “Currently our Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Ritzi, rules our home. All of our dogs have been named after some of our favorite places in Chicago.”

But it’s Waco that Johnny loves best.

“Waco is just a truly wonderful city,” he said. “The size is wonderful. It is conveniently located between Dallas and Austin. The traffic is hardly ever a problem. Lake Waco is a blast. Ridgewood Country Club golf course is a challenging course and our greens are as good as any in the state. Even though we are huge Longhorn fans, all four of our children went to Baylor. The impact Baylor has on Waco is phenomenal. The campus is magnificent, and there is not a more beautiful venue in NCAA sports than the new McLane Stadium.

On any given Saturday, you might find Sally and Johnny on Lake Waco, at the Ridgewood golf course, hanging around Downtown Waco or the Farmers Market, taking in the Mayborn Museum with their grandkids, taking out of town friends to the Texas Sports Hall of Fame (where you can see the Dave Campbell exhibit – Dave was King in 2001), or simply relaxing in their own backyard. The Bledsoe’s favorite local restaurants for a fun Saturday lunch include El Conquistador’s, Tom’s Burgers, Uncle Dan’s, Jake’s and George’s.

Johnny credits 2017 Waco Cotton Palace General Chairman, Laura Palmer, for what he knows will be a fun and exciting weekend.

“Laura has been hard at work for over a year,” he said. “She is so very organized and super efficient, and I know she is coordinating what will be a fabulous weekend. Sally is a former GC and I know firsthand the hours and hours of preparation this weekend takes.”

Corporate Board President and good friend, Betty Haas, makes sure that all systems flow perfectly, Johnny said. And he couldn’t forget Waco Cotton Palace founder Margaret Brown.

“There would be no Waco Cotton Palace without her vision and direction,” Johnny said. “There is not a finer or nicer woman in the world. She is a true lady. And sometime ask me my favorite ‘Margaret story’ when she humored me by letting me add HWIC to my nametag in 2008 when Sally was chairman.”

Johnny said it is an honor to represent Waco and Waco Cotton Palace as King.

“I am very proud,” he said. “The history and tradition of this event and how it represents all the great things about Waco is fascinating. To follow all the men of Waco who have served as King is very humbling.”

He said he’s looking forward to getting to know our guests and to show them the beauty of Waco and the friendliness of our people.

“And to tell them, ‘No, I don’t know Chip and Joanna,’” he said. “I want people to leave with a sense of what a special place Waco is and the friendliness of our residents.”