SANTA MARIA, Calif. - The man responsible for the taking the Santa Maria Elks Rodeo to unprecedented success has died.
Phil Harwick, who served as Elks Recreation president the past five years, passed away late last week after a battle with cancer.
The Arroyo Grande graduate was a popular figure in the community, spearheading operations for the rodeo since 2012.
"It's a tremendous loss for the community and all of us," said Elks Recreation Chief Operations Officer Tina Tonascia. ""His vision was to bring the Santa Maria Elks Rodeo back and it was a relentless vision."
Friends and colleagues remember a man who was extremely hard-working and extremely committed to helping the Santa Maria Valley and surrounding areas.
"He was a leader," said Elks Recreation secretary Jose Arellano. "The word integrity comes out a lot. He was a man of his word. He did a lot for our community that many people wouldn't do. He made it what it is now a very successful rodeo."
"He would be out there painting with the crew or doing whatever needed to be done, drive tractor, pick up trash, didn't matter," added Tonascia. "He never stopped. He never stopped moving forward and he never stopped driving us to be the best we could be."
Arellano addded that while Harwick could be tough, he was also someone who loved to have a good time.
"There was never a dull moment,": Arellano said. "He was full of jokes and one-liners. He was always up to something and he always kept us on our toes."
When Harwick took over operations of Elks Recreation, the glory days of the decades-old rodeo seemed to be far in the past.
But with a never-ending drive and determined motivation to revive the event, Harwick led a remarkable turnaround that culminated in 2017 when the Santa Maria Elks Rodeo enjoyed perhaps its finest year ever, setting attendance records, while also being featured on national television.
"Phil was determined and he was not going to stop and he was not going to stop until the Santa Maria Elks Rodeo was on the map again," said Tonascia. "There was lots of negotiating, lots of phone calls, lots of traveling, lots of working with his team, hand picking his volunteers, making sure those volunteers had the same vision that he did and had we not had that team working together with that same vision, we would never succeeded."
Harwick revitalize the rodeo in large part by enhancing the entertainment experience here at the Elks Unocal Event Center. Through his efforts, he's been able to create a new generation of fans that will continue to fill the stands for years to come.
""We knew we had to develop new rodeo fans. We knew we had to be different, we had to step out of the box that we had been in for so long. As times change, we needed to change," said Tonascia. ""He wanted to make sure we had something for everyone in the family. Kids area was important, entertainment was important, top-notch cowboys was important, so it was pretty exciting to be part of this journey with him.
The 73-year-old Harwick was diagnosed with cancer soon after the conclusion of the 2017 rodeo. In the months that followed, he bravely fought the disease, while at the same time continuing to work on planning for next year's event, which is the 75th anniversary.
Tonascia said plans are already underway to honor Harwick during this year's Elks Rodeo, which is scheduled for May 31-June 3.
A celebration of life is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 15 at 2 p.m. at Santa Maria Elks Lodge 1538.