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By the National Cattleman’s Beef Association

The 2022 National Golden Spur honoree may not have grown up on a ranch, but Clark Willingham’s decades of volunteer service demonstrate his dedication to the cattle industry. Willingham’s drive, fortitude and commitment to family propelled him into leadership roles within industry organizations where he guided discussions to create a bright future for cattle producers across the country.

Born in Houston and raised in Dallas, Clark S. Willingham is a native Texan whose ranching heritage stretches into Oklahoma. While Willingham did not grow up in agriculture, his passion for the cattle industry is second only to his first love, Jane. Growing up Willingham never imagined his path would lead him to one of the most historic ranches in the Oklahoma Panhandle, however, when a young actress caught his eye, his destiny was sealed.

Willingham’s father was one of 11 children in Atlanta, Georgia, and his mother grew up in Houston. His father traveled extensively for his job, working as a salesman for Pillsbury dough products. Willingham’s mother worked for Sears in her youth but spent much of her time keeping the house together and raising Clark and his younger sister, Beverly.

“I grew up with no agriculture background whatsoever,” said Willingham.

Willingham was the first in his family to go to college, attending Texas Tech on an athletic scholarship and earning a degree in accounting. He excelled in track in high school, however college athletics proved more competitive, and Willingham soon discovered he was a mediocre sprinter at best.

“I quickly learned that while I was a good runner in high school, others were much faster in college,” he said.

Willingham continued his education, earning J.D. and Masters of Tax Law degrees at Southern Methodist University. While attending law school Willingham took a job managing the books for the Peggy Taylor Talent Agency in Dallas, where his life forever changed when Jane Hitch strolled through the office.

Enter Stage Left

Jane Hitch is the middle child of Ladd Hitch and Lala Moores Hitch and grew up on the family ranch near Guymon, Oklahoma. Jane’s mother excelled at tap and ballet and worked as a dance instructor, so it is no surprise Jane followed in her talented footsteps.

Jane Hitch as Miss Oklahoma 1964.

At the age of 17 Jane won the Miss Guymon Pageant and received a typewriter for her efforts. Following a string of pageant losses, from Miss Grain Sorghum to Miss Flipper Pancake, she eventually won Miss Oklahoma in 1964 and competed in the national Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Jane graduated from Oklahoma State University as the Outstanding Speech Graduate of 1968. During summers she performed at Six Flags Over Texas and returned to Dallas following graduation to pursue an acting career.

Willingham recollects fondly how he met his future bride.

“Jane came to her talent agency inquiring why she didn’t get a modeling job with Valentine Motorboat,” said Willingham. “She was told that she looked more like a Cadillac than a motorboat, and when I looked up, I asked her out.”

That chance encounter led Willingham into a world he had never experienced before, cattle ranching.

Clark and Jane Willingham

How does a Texas Tech sprinter with an accounting degree become National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) president and a leader in the cattle industry? Willingham jokes that he “married the rancher’s daughter.”

Willingham’s first visit to Hitch Ranch came one late November. Jane mentioned to Clark that she had “grown up on a farm,” but he had no idea the legacy he was about to enter.

“I started wondering about the size of Jane’s ‘farm’ when we drove past two large grain silos emblazoned with Hitch Grain, drove ten miles, then went through the town of Hitchland,” said Willingham. “When I asked Jane if we were getting close to the ranch, she responded that she thought we were already on it, and that was miles before we reached her home.”

Ranching Legacy

In 1884, James K. Hitch, a Tennessee native, drove a herd of longhorns through the desolate Oklahoma Panhandle, known as “No Man’s Land” and started Hitch Ranch. Coldwater Creek located in the narrow strip of land between Texas and Kansas that no one wanted became home to the Hitch family.

When James passed away his son Henry took over and grew the operation, becoming the largest wheat producer in Oklahoma in 1930. Henry’s son H.C. “Ladd” Hitch was born in 1918 and followed in his father and grandfather’s footsteps as the third generation on the Hitch Ranch. Ladd took over the operation in 1946 when he returned home after serving in World War II. Ladd was a pioneer and forward thinker and was one of the first in the area to introduce pivot irrigation in 1953. He also built a feedlot on the ranch, a first for the area.

Henry Charles Hitch Jr. (Ladd) who founded the Hitch Ranch feedyard business.

Ladd’s son, Paul Henry Hitch, was next to become involved in the operation. Paul earned an animal science degree from Oklahoma State University then moved to Palo Alto, California, to complete a master’s in business administration at Stanford University. Upon graduation Paul returned to the family ranch to work alongside his father and grandfather.

During his lifetime, Paul saw Hitch Enterprises blossom as the business diversified from cattle feeding into a credit corporation, cattle buying services, commodity services, and pork operations. He became president in 1978 and assumed the additional title of chairman of the board in 1996. Within the cattle industry, Paul was active at both state and national levels serving in various leadership capacities for Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, Texas Cattle Feeders Association and NCBA.

In 1996 when industry organizations were voting on whether to merge to create a unified voice, there was considerable debate on who should be allowed to vote. Paul believed in unification and famously stepped up to the microphone and said, “As the comic strip character Pogo once said, the world is run by people who show up! Let’s vote!” Members then voted and the National Cattlemen’s Association and Beef Industry Council of the Meat Board consolidated, creating the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Clark Willingham was elected to serve as the new organization’s vice president.

Third- and fourth-generation Hitches, Ladd and Paul.

In the following years, Paul served on the NCBA Marketing Committee, and his wry sense of humor often calmed contentious meetings. He handled difficult discussions well and kept conversations moving with levity believing that “it is hard to stay mad when you are laughing.”

More than a decade following his brother-in-law’s service as a national officer of NCBA, Paul also served as president-elect for the organization. Unfortunately, his turn as president would not come as he passed away from cancer before he could take office.

During the 2008 Cattle Industry Convention NCBA presented Paul with the cowboy hat he would have received for serving as president. Just 33 days later that hat was perched atop his cowboy boots amid a sea of flowers. Willingham wrote in an article following Paul’s passing that “God called a meeting and Paul Henry showed up.”

“Paul Henry was more than a brother-in-law; he was my friend. He along with his father were my mentors and introduced me to this wonderful industry,” Willingham said. “Paul was a doer and always showed up for his family, his community and for fellow cattle producers.”

Active Involvement

Under the guidance of his late father-in-law Ladd Hitch, and with the support of the late Texas Cattle Feeders Association executives, Charlie Ball and Richard McDonald, Willingham became active in industry associations.

“Jane’s family really encouraged me to volunteer my time to industry organizations and pursue leadership roles,” he said.

The ranch’s first feedyard, located on the north side of the ranch, is still in use and among the industry’s most progressive.

Willingham is a past president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and served on the Operating Committee of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, the Board of Directors of the United States Meat Export Federation and as Chairman of the Promotion Committee of the National Live Stock and Meat Board. He is past president of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, the Texas Beef Council, the Texas Agricultural Land Trust and the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners.

“I love being associated with the industry and its great people,” said Willingham. “Being engaged with cattle associations gave Jane and me the opportunity to travel, experience new things and make a difference.”

Willingham was also the vice president, director and co-owner of Stoney Point AgriCorp, a 3,000 head calf raising operation near Rio Vista, Texas, and 7,000 head feedlot near Melissa, Texas. In addition, he supports the agriculture industry by assisting with tax and estate planning related to family held businesses, especially farmers and ranchers.

Building the Future

For five generations the Hitch family has been producing quality beef and grains and takes extraordinary pride in their history and legacy. Their mission is to produce the highest quality meat through teamwork and innovation while being conscientious stewards of people, livestock and the environment. This commitment to quality will continue for years to come thanks to the fifth generation who now manage the business.

When Paul Hitch passed away in 2008, his sons, Jason and Christopher, took over the operation. Jason, chairman of the Hitch Enterprises board of directors, serves on the board of directors for the Bank of the Panhandle, and is a member of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. Chris, president of Hitch Enterprises, is a member of the 21st Century Beef Club Peer Group, on the board of directors and is on the executive council of the State Chamber of Oklahoma, a part of the Governor’s Council for Workforce and Economic Development.

The Hitch Family, from left to right: Robert Bergner, Jane Willingham, Lynda Hitch, Paul Hitch, Lane Maxwell, Ed Maxwell, Clark Willingham, Larry Parsons, Lin Cope, and Ronnie Pruitt.

In addition to overseeing daily operations and growing the business, the brothers take pride in managing the original Henry C. Hitch Feedlot, which is still in operation today. It remains one of the most innovative feed yards in the country and was the first to develop the concept of taking high moisture corn at harvest and storing it on location for customers’ cattle. The original feedlot combined with another larger yard currently have a capacity of more than 100,000 head.

While the Hitch brothers manage operations at the ranch, Willingham continues to take an active role in state and national organizations. He currently serves on the NCBA Tax Committee and Audit Committee and is a Trustee and Treasurer of the National Cattlemen’s Foundation where he serves on the Environmental Stewardship Award Selection Committee. He is also the Board Chair of the Texas Rangers Law Enforcement Association.

Married for more than 50 years, Clark and Jane continue to live in Dallas, where they enjoy spending time with their two adult children, their spouses and six grandchildren. Willingham is a member of the American Law Institute, and continues practicing law in the areas of agriculture, income tax and estate planning with the firm Howell & Willingham PLLC.

For Willingham, the National Golden Spur Award is an honor he shares fully with his family and the Hitch Ranch.

“Meeting Jane on that blessed day was a wonderful way to be introduced to a new world of opportunities,” said Willingham. “To be part of a family with such heritage is truly an honor and I owe so much to the many generations that laid the foundation for all of us.”

This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of the Ranch Record.  Would you like to read more stories about ranching life? When you become a member of the Ranching Heritage Association, you’ll receive the award-winning Ranch Record magazine and more while supporting the legacy and preservation of our ranching heritage. Become a member today.