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Disbanded but not Forgotten, HSU Ex-Cowgirls Keep Memories Alive

By Janlyn Thaxton



With quick short steps, 90-year-old Bee Shackelford waves her cowboy hat in the air as she runs on stage in Behrens Auditorium. Looking on are some 700 new transfer students and freshmen, most of whom have never heard of the historic HSU Cowgirls group. To the students’ astonishment, Bee Shackelford begins to dance. Shackelford graduated from Hardin-Simmons University in 1941. For three of those years, she was part of a select group of 50 HSU women who performed as the Cowgirls. She was president of the organization her senior year.Bee later became a teacher at Abilene High School, left Abilene to go with her husband to the Army Airbase in Lubbock, raised two daughters, and later taught physical education at Franklin Junior High School and Copper High School in Abilene. But she has never forgotten the great fun she had as a Hardin-Simmons Cowgirl.{{more}}She is one of hundreds of women who tried out for the coveted title of Cowgirl over nearly five decades. Now,Cowgirls at stadium, Bee Shackelford is on the left. each year during New Student Orientation in August, Shackelford and 14 other western-clad Ex-Cowgirls dance the Cowgirl Stomp. Once known nationwide for rope tricks and high-stepping, the name of the Hardin-Simmons University Cowgirls remains solidly carved in the archives of HSU history. Thanks go to Bee and a devout group of women who graduated from the university from the mid-1920s to the mid-1970s. The Ex-Cowgirls continue to meet twice a year to talk about the days when they were part of one of the first drill teams in the country. At a typical Ex-Cowgirls gathering, you will see an array of black-and-white photos spread across the room featuring hats flying in the air and lassos twirling. You will hear a roomful of lively, laughing women ranging in age from mid-50s to mid-90s. And although the life of the Cowgirls’ association is spread over nearly five decades, they share common memories.Shackelford was a member of the Cowgirls at the beginning of the U.S. involvement in World War II and recalls riding to football games in a cattle truck. Bee remembers, “Everything during those days was going to the war effort. You couldn’t ride a train or take a bus, so we found a cattle trailer, put some seats in it, and we rode it to wherever we needed to perform.”Shackelford says the group was known for a variety of rope tricks. She recalls, “Johnny Reagan is the man I remember who first taught us those tricks. He was an Englishman, and he helped us set our ropes with clips so we could easily twirl them lasso style. “Later, a man we called Hi T Rogers, a rope stuntman, taught us how to really lasso. I can remember learning to twirl the rope around me while jumping rope at the same time during halftime at football games,” says Shackelford.“What we did most of the time, however, is march behind the Cowboy Band at games and in parades,” she says adding, “Although it was more of a shuffle than a march—it was fast.” Shackelford remembers it was around 1940 when the Cowboy Band first did its now well-known move that is still done today during parades. “It was supposed look like the band members were trying to avoid stepping on cow patties,” she says. “We didn’t know what to think or do the first time those boys did that. But the next parade, we were ready with a move of our own. We always marched four girls across in 10 ranks. When the band started that cow-stepping, the Cowgirls responding by making formations that looked like wagon wheels. Each rank circled up, and we put our arms out like spokes, so we looked like wagon wheels turning.”Shackelford says she can remember the Fort Worth Star-Telegram called and wanted to take a photo of the Cowgirls. “So to prove we were real cowgirls, we rented cars and drove to a ranch in Mary Neal where we sheared sheep. The wind was blowing really hard, and it messed up our hair for the photo,” she recalls.In 1941, Fox Movietone Newsreels came to campus to make a movie of the Cowgirls, which was shown in movie theaters all over the United States. In 1929, a similar film was made on campus. A silent clip of the movie is still available, featuring both the Cowboy Band and the Cowgirls in front of old Abilene Hall. The building burned six years later.Although it’s been nearly 40 years since the Cowgirls disbanded, the Ex-Cowgirls do much more than simply hold get-togethers. They have given many generous donations throughout the years, which includes a scholarship fund. In 2009, the Ex-Cowgirls awarded five HSU students with scholarships to help with their educations.As for all the freshmen each year who witness Bee Shackelford and the other Ex-Cowgirls perform the Cowgirl Stomp, students often leap to their feet and applaud madly. To the tune of “The Old Gray Mare,” the Ex-Cowgirls leave the stage the same way they came in, waving their hats in the air. Bee Shackelford plans to do the dance again this coming fall during New Student Orientation. She is one of three performing Ex-Cowgirls who has already celebrated her 90th birthday. Cowgirls shearing sheep.

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