Seventy-two-year-old Kelly Collins has seen and done a great deal over the course of his time in Grant County.
Nowadays, Collins can be seen driving an old Suburban with a sign in the windshield urging anybody he passes to “eat beef.”
Before that, Collins was a longtime fixture in local parades as a color guard, carrying the American flag while riding horseback. He was also a member of the sheriff’s mounted patrol and search and rescue team.
And once he even stopped a runaway stagecoach. That incident happened in August 2009, when a wagon train organized to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Oregon statehood was nearing Prairie City. The driver had stepped down to fix a troublesome bit, and the horses ran away with the coach.
Collins raced after them on his own horse and managed to stop the runaway team. At the time, Collins was credited with possibly saving the passengers’ lives, according to an article in the Blue Mountain Eagle.
Collins was born in Grant County and left the area following the collapse of his parents’ marriage. His journey to becoming a well-known presence in Grant County started with an unfortunate accident at the Pendleton Round-Up in 1978, when he was knocked off his horse and hit his head. The mishap left him thinking he’d spend the rest of his life paralyzed.
Collins relocated to Grant County following that accident, a move he said would not have happened had he not gotten injured. Collins rehabbed his injury over the next several years, which ultimately led to him volunteering to be the color guard at various parades throughout the county and joining the sheriff’s department in 1984.
Collins estimates he’s been the color guard in more than 100 parades from 1984 until his final parade in 2016. For Collins, the decision to be a color guard at parades throughout the county was never about accolades or recognition.
“I did not do what I did leading parades for the glory of it. I did it because I was search and rescue and a special deputy for the sheriff’s department. I did it because I was proud to be in that uniform and be associated with the sheriff’s department,” he said.
“And I always had a good horse.”
Of all the things he’s done since his return to Grant County, the thing he is the most proud of is being a member of the search and rescue team for the sheriff’s office. Collins estimates he’s been involved in around 90 search and rescue operations.
“Fortunately, I never had to bring anybody out,” Collins said.
“I was that close quite a few times,” he added.
Collins also added that not having to bring anybody out during a rescue doesn’t bother him because other team members helped those who needed it.
“They got out,” Collins said. “That was the big reason for going.”
Collins is now retired. Still, he says he misses carrying the flag in parades and being a part of the search and rescue team, though he’s not physically capable of doing those things anymore.
“I miss it every day of every year,” he said.
When asked what he does to fulfill the urge to do the things he used to do, Collins said he bites his lip and shakes his head.
“I just can’t do it anymore,” he added.
Recently, the Grant County People Mover honored Collins by painting his picture on its No. 29 bus. Naturally enough, the image shows him riding a horse and carrying the flag.
Collins said he had no knowledge that the bus was going to be adorned with his likeness prior to it happening.
“I am very proud of it,” he said.