BERKELEY — Dayton O. Hyde has the kind of résumé you don’t see every day. The 88-year-old Berkeley alum has been a cowboy, a rodeo clown, a rancher, a photographer, a non-fiction author, a novelist, a poet and a conservationist. And now Hyde’s added the most unlikely job description of all.
Running Wild, a documentary about Hyde’s life, has been playing at film festivals across the country. And if all goes according to plan, it will soon be coming to a theater (and then TV) near you.
Hyde says he’s “tickled to death” by the film and the attention it’s brought him, but admits that, at first, he was skeptical about the project.
“I just thought she could have picked somebody more important,” he says of Running Wild‘s director, Suzanne Mitchell. “But she was dead set on it.”
Mitchell, in fact, had wanted to make a film about Hyde since 1992. That’s when she ran across an article about him in People magazine while working on a TV special commemorating its 20th anniversary.
The article chronicled Hyde’s efforts to rescue wild horses that were being rounded up and sometimes sold for slaughter across the West. Sickened by the treatment of the animals, Hyde left his family in Oregon, used credit cards and government loans to buy more than 12,000 acres of land in South Dakota and founded the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. He did all this in his 60s, when many of his peers were choosing to retire.
Mitchell convinced the TV show’s executive producers to include a segment on Hyde, and she ended up spending five days at the sanctuary filming Hyde and the horses.
“We were only going to deliver a two-minute piece to the network, and I thought, ‘Two minutes to tell this man’s story? It’s not going to do him justice. He deserves a feature film,'” Mitchell recalls. “So I put that in the vault at the back of my mind, and then in 1996 I got to meet him again.”
This time Mitchell was working with Academy Award-winning documentary director Barbara Kopple on New Passages, a television special about older Americans who shake up their lives and take on new challenges as they age. Mitchell convinced Kopple to feature Hyde in the show — and once again came away determined to make a movie about him.
Mitchell finally got her chance a few years later, when high-definition digital cameras made it possible to shoot footage that looked as good as 16mm or 35mm film for a fraction of the cost. Mitchell spent the next 11 years working on Running Wild.
“I got pretty used to having her around,” Hyde says.
The resulting film isn’t just about Hyde’s efforts to help wild horses. It’s a biography, too.
Born in Marquette, Mich., Hyde ran away at the age of 13 and rode the rails west to Oregon, where his uncle owned a cattle ranch. The cowboying skills Hyde picked up there came in handy a few years later, when he organized rodeos for the troops while stationed in Europe during World War II. After the war, he got involved in professional rodeos, sometimes riding bulls and bucking broncos. More often he served as a rodeo clown, risking life and limb to distract enraged bulls so that thrown riders could scramble to safety.
Around this time, Hyde was also facing far more genteel challenges as a Berkeley undergrad. He spent two years living at International House and two with his fraternity, Tau Kappa Epsilon. Knowing he wanted to be a writer, Hyde became an English major and counted Berkeley’s own George R. Stewart — known for his books about the West and U.S. history — as a mentor.
“Dr. Stewart was a great gentleman and a really great influence on me,” Hyde says. Stewart also had a sense of humor, as he demonstrated some 20 years after Hyde graduated in 1950.
“One of the first books I wrote was called Sandy, about Sand Hill cranes in Oregon, an endangered species,” Hyde says. “My agent in New York sent it to Dr. Stewart, and he gave us a beautiful blurb for the book. But he said, ‘Now I’ve got a personal question. In 1946, I had a long-legged rodeo cowboy in my class at Berkeley who wrote of similar circumstances, but had utterly no talent. Could this be a cousin?'”
One last battle?
Fortunately, publishers didn’t agree with Stewart’s tongue-in-cheek assessment. Hyde wrote more than a dozen books over the next few decades, many of them about ranching, animals or (as with Sandy) his own efforts to protect wildlife. His most recent release is a book of poetry called Alone in the Forest.
But though Hyde says he’s always working on new book projects, these days writing takes a back seat to his ongoing fight against proposed uranium mining in South Dakota’s Black Hills. Hyde fears that the local aquifer the 500 horses at his sanctuary depend on for water will be contaminated, and he’s not alone in that concern. Various Native American and conservation groups are also working to block the mining operation. But Hyde isn’t optimistic the state government will see things their way.
“I’ve talked to the Legislature and I feel that they have their minds made up,” he says.
That’s why he’s pinning his hopes on Running Wild. He’s been supporting the documentary by appearing at film festival screenings in Utah, California and Arizona, with more to come later this spring — no small feat for an octogenarian who walks with a cane (and had to give up riding horses a few years ago, much to his regret). But while he admits that he doesn’t enjoy the traveling, he says it’s worth it if it helps stop the mining.
“The thing that’ll save us is a public outcry,” he says.
So far, the film’s been well-received. According to Hyde, it’s gotten a standing ovation at every screening he’s attended. And Mitchell thinks it’s just a matter of time before a distribution deal brings the film — and Hyde’s conservation work — to the attention of a wider audience.
Hyde knows that there’s a lot of work still to be done to secure the future of the wild horses he loves. That doesn’t intimidate him a bit.
“I’m 88 years old and this, I think, will be my last great environmental battle,” Hyde says. “But I’m gonna win it.”
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