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Connie D. Reeves, 101; Texas Riding Teacher, Cowgirl Hall of Famer

August 21, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Connie Douglas Reeves, who taught four generations of Texas girls to ride horses and was the oldest living honoree of the National Cowgirl Museum's Hall of Fame, died Sunday, 12 days after she was thrown from her horse. She was 101.

A former high school teacher and onetime rancher, Reeves became a riding instructor at Camp Waldemar for Girls near Hunt, Texas, in 1936. In summers over the next six decades, she taught more than 30,000 girls to ride.

She stepped down as head riding instructor in 1998, but continued to consult with the camp's riding instructors until her accident.

A life-size bronze statue of Reeves, who was named one of the Texas Women of the Century by the Texas Women's Chamber of Commerce, stands at the camp entrance.

"She just inspired everybody she met," Kit Moncrief, president of the board of the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, said Wednesday.

Moncrief received riding lessons from Reeves in the 1960s -- as did her mother in the '30s and her children in the '90s

"She was tough, but kind at the same time," said Moncrief. "She was so encouraging that everybody wanted to ride -- and please her too."

Liz Pohl, Camp Waldemar's equine director, described Reeves as "very strong-willed, very independent and very positive."

"She was an amazing presence," said Pohl. "Her body didn't keep up with her mind, but she was bound and determined to keep going."

And to keep riding.

"That's probably why she made it to nearly 102," said Pohl. "She rode until the next to last day of classes, until she fell off."

Reeves, who suffered a broken vertebra in her neck in the fall and died of cardiac arrest, was riding with camp owner Marsha Elmore when Reeves said she would like to stop walking and do some cantering.

As she urged her horse forward, he ducked his head and threw Reeves head-first onto the camp's one-hole golf fairway.

The fall wasn't her first accident on horseback in recent years.

A horse's kick broke her leg in 1986. She broke her wrist, fractured five ribs and punctured a lung when she ran into a hornet's nest while leading a trail ride in 1994. And she was thrown from her horse during a parade in Kerrville, Texas, two years ago, but suffered only bruises, which she assuaged by drinking a mint julep.

Nothing could keep her from saddling up.

"I'm nearly blind and hard of hearing," Reeves told the San Antonio Express-News in 1998, when she was still conducting three two-hour classes, six days a week. "I just can't give it up. It's in my blood."

Reeves was inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum's Hall of Fame in 1997, and last year she rode in a parade marking the grand opening of the museum's new building in Fort Worth.

In 1998, she became the first woman to receive the Chester A. Reynolds Memorial Award, named after the founder of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Past winners include Gene Autry and Ronald Reagan.

Following actor Charlton Heston to the podium during the presentation, Reeves received a standing ovation from the black-tie crowd with her extemporaneous speech about the virtues of western living.

"Let the East have their computer wizards, their skyscrapers, their stock market, their pollution," she said. "But leave the wide open spaces and the fresh air to the West."

She was born in the border town of Eagle Pass, Texas, the only child of Judge W.C. and Ada Wallace Douglas.

While she was an infant, her mother propped her on a horse to have her picture taken. By age 5, she had her own horse and later mastered both English and western riding.

She earned a bachelor's degree in speech from Texas Woman's University in Denton in 1922 and became the first woman to enter the University of Texas Law School.

But the Great Depression halted her plans to follow in her father's footsteps. She instead began teaching and opened a riding stable. In 1936, she took a summer job teaching horseback riding at Camp Waldemar for Girls -- a job that lasted 67 years.

Reeves' oft-quoted motto was "Always saddle your own horse." Explaining to Associated Press last year, she said: "You want to know that your horse is saddled properly. It establishes a good relationship with the horse."

In 1942, she married the camp's head wrangler, Jack Reeves. They lived on one of the camp's 10,000-acre ranches, raised sheep, goats and cattle and during the winter tended to the camp's horses.

Reeves, whose husband died in 1985, had no children.

A memorial service will be held at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Camp Waldemar stables.

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