So long, Uncle Sam

Posted 6/30/16

“It’s been a real joy to have been doing it this long,” Haugen said.

His stint as the stilt-walking Long Tall Uncle Sam started with a Pepsi commercial in the winter of 1975-76. Haugen saw an ad featuring a young man on stilts dressed as …

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So long, Uncle Sam


Stilt-walking Uncle Sam to mark his final Cody Stampede Parade

Following 40 years atop 4-foot stilts on the Fourth of July, Dennis Haugen will soon take his last stroll through the Cody Stampede Parade as Uncle Sam.

“It’s been a real joy to have been doing it this long,” Haugen said.

His stint as the stilt-walking Long Tall Uncle Sam started with a Pepsi commercial in the winter of 1975-76. Haugen saw an ad featuring a young man on stilts dressed as Uncle Sam and holding a red-white-and-blue Pepsi can.

“I thought, ‘I could probably do something like that — I wear stilts anyhow in my work,’” said Haugen, who is a drywaller by trade.

That winter, his mother and mother-in-law got together and made Haugen his first Uncle Sam uniform to debut at the annual Cody Stampede Parade.

“On July 3, 1976, I was getting ready for the parade, and I just froze,” he recalled. “I just got so nervous that I was going to have to walk the entire parade route on my stilts, so I bailed.”

His mother-in-law told Haugen that after they worked all winter on his uniform, he was expected to show up for the parade the next day.

“So on the Fourth of July 1976, I walked in the parade … and the rest is kind of history,” he said.

John Wayne was the grand marshal for the 1976 Bicentennial Cody Stampede. Over the decades, Haugen met other famous folks who served as grand marshals, including actor Wilford Brimley and U.S. Army Gen. Peter Schoomaker.

But his favorite part of the parade is the kids who excitedly greet Long Tall Uncle Sam.

“If it wasn’t for the kids, I don’t know if I would have kept it up,” he said. “But each year, the kids are very enthusiastic … the kids just seem to love it. And I love them, too.”

Over the years, kids would tell Haugen, “My mommy and daddy know you!”

“As of late, the last few years, I get a lot of, ‘My grandma knows you! My grandpa knows you!’” he said. “It’s probably time (to retire), because I do not want to hear the time when it’s, ‘My great-grandpa knows you.’”

Around five years ago, Haugen started thinking about when it’d be time to stop stilt-walking in the annual parades. “I had set a goal: If I can make it to 40 (years), I would be very satisfied with that,” Haugen said. “Forty is a good round number.”

Haugen has appeared in the parade every year except one — 1978, when he had knee surgery late in the spring.

“I was unable to walk in the parade,” he said. “But, if you count from 1976 to 2016, the times I’ve walked in the parade, it’s been 40.”

Haugen has looked forward to serving as Uncle Sam every year.

“It’s just been kind of a passion,” he said.

From the ground to the top of his hat, Haugen stands about 11 feet tall with his stilts.

His wife, Madeleine Haugen, helps him get ready at the beginning of the parade each year, and then picks him up at the end of the route.

“Every single year, she’s 100 percent supportive of it,” he said. “She’s been just wonderful. If it wouldn’t have been for her, I don’t know if I would have stuck in there.”

Over the decades, he’s logged hundreds of miles as Uncle Sam. The parade route spans between eight and nine city blocks, but Haugen always ends up walking more as he zigzags back and forth to meet people.

This year, Haugen won’t be able to interact as much with crowds, as he’s recovering from recent surgeries on both of his shoulders. He’s been doing physical therapy, and his therapists worry about him reaching way down to shake people’s hands.

“It’s requested that I don’t spend as much time shaking hands, because of the possibility of re-damaging something,” he said.

Haugen still hopes to interact with crowds as much as he can during the Stampede. Following his final parade appearance, he will meet with residents and visitors at 1 p.m. on the Fourth of July at Cody’s City Park. Cake will be served, and there also will be T-shirts available to purchase, with all proceeds going to Boys and Girls Club of Park County.

When Haugen’s retirement was announced in a Facebook post last month, dozens of residents commented, expressing appreciation for his dedication and saying they’ll miss seeing him.

“Oh how much he will be missed!” Kelly Jensen wrote. “Always a highlight and truly a symbol that the 4th has arrived.”

While Haugen is putting away his stilts, aspiring Uncle Sam stilt-walkers are following in his footsteps.

“Through the years, I’ve had several proteges who have walked in the parade,” he said.

Haugen said Aiden Shockley, 9, of Cody has been learning how to walk on stilts and will appear in the Kiddies Parade on Saturday morning. “He’ll be a shorter version of me,” Haugen said.

Haugen also recently met with a young man who showed interest in carrying on the tradition of Long Tall Uncle Sam.

Though he won’t be stilt-walking in future Cody Stampede Parades, Haugen still plans to be there.

“I’ve never been able to actually sit down and enjoy our entire parade,” he said. “That’s one thing I’m really looking forward to.”