Cleo Hearn was born in May of 1939 to parents Doc and Gertrude Hearn, who themselves were of Native American and Black heritage. While working his way through grade school, Hearn pursued his passion for horse riding and roping by breaking broncs and running livestock, stating that he would “walk two miles to ride a horse for thirty minutes.” After graduating high school, Hearn went all in on his passion for rodeo, becoming a member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1959. Hearn participated in several rodeos between the ages of 18 and 22, exhibiting his skills in most of the rodeos around Texas and Oklahoma.
In October of 1961, Cleo Hearn was pulled from his flourishing career on the rodeo circuit and drafted into the United States Army, where he would serve until 1963. During this time, Hearn rode in several army-sponsored rodeos around Virginia on the weekends to keep in touch with his true passions. Hearn’s service would see him chosen as a member of the Presidential Honor Guard, a position that had him attending duties at functions in Washington D.C. and burials at Arlington National Cemetery. It was only a month before the assassination of President Kennedy in the November of 1963 that Hearn resigned from his service, declining an offer to attend officer candidate school in favor of returning home to Oklahoma, where he would turn his attention to a college education and the rodeo circuit.
Hearn went on to produce the Cowboys of Color Rodeo in order to highlight the excellence of people from diverse racial backgrounds. His other accomplishments included a long and successful career with Ford Motor Co., his title of the first African American Marlboro Man, and his awarded star on the Texas Trail of Fame.