My mama was born and raised in Arkansas. She became a transported midwesterner when she stepped off a bus in Wisconsin fresh out of high school.
Her mama 's name was Jewell. Jewell had lost three children Alice, Ruby, and Robert and had seven more to tend too.Six girls and one boy. Jewell's passion was reading romance, and history novels. My mama was born by midwife in 1934 and named Florence Cleo for Florence Nightengale and Cleopatra.
Her mama must have seen the courage in her tiny little newborn face of these two women. It was deemed Florence would becom a nurse. In this story you will learn that did not happen. She was the first designated to go to college her parents had grade school educations. My mama attended a one room school house grades k-8. In high school her talents were recognized she recieved a full scholarhip to college. After learning about a man in the midwest she would ask her southern daddy for his blessing to take another path.
My mama's daddy was Robert Lee he had owned a cotton gin until the heartbreaking event of eldest son Robert's death from an explosion he was 13 . Robert Lee tore it down. Jewell would cry and say she could not get the smell of her burnt little boy out of her nostrils. He had been taken care of at home. When he passed the family was loaded on horse drawn wagon to drive Robert's body to Avery Texas to lay to rest in the family cemetary, Robert Lee moved the family to Gillham from Winthrop where he pulled tree stumps from the ground with a horse and chain and turned them into telephone poles he loaded on the train as sold goods around the country to feed his family
My mama was soft spoken in voice but her voice counted. She was intellegent and kind and a crusader for underdogs . She and my dad had that in common although he was boisterious and commanding in his stature, She came on that bus to meet him, her small town of 100 was a far cry from the world he would open up for her. When they met he was a single father with a baby boy. He was also a business man with an unusual occupation tha required travel 7 days a week criss crossing the country thousands of miles on the road every year,
This would become her life.He had been to foriegn countries, played barnstorm professional basketball,
a booking agent and manager for headline entertainers. He was a far cry from the men she knew in her rural town. He dreamed big he lived big. He taught her about showmanship and reaching for the stars.
She came to try out for a professional womens basketball team he owned coached and operated throughout the country . She was an All American athlete that got her first basketball at age eight from her daddy. Spring, summer, and fall she worked the fruit fields for local farmers starting at age eight. Pickup trucks would pile the children in and drive all over the county for a days work. The basketball went with her. When the truck returned and she was dropped off back in town hungry and dirty in her little overalls she headed to the dirt basketball court to play against the highschool boys. So what my dad was recruiting her for was as natural too her as having an outhouse and brushing her teeth with coal soot from the heating coal. She was well known in Sevier county as a basketball star, the fresh faced pretty girl who all the boys chased. She was shy and saw herself as a tomboy and did not know what all of the fuss was about.
As she settled into the whirlwind life on the road she became a star on the team. One of her responsibilities was as intermediate. She was would enter the men's locker room in each town and city to adress the men the girls team would play against before each game. (Thousands of men would play against them throughout a reign of 28 years.)
My mom would tell the men "we have some fun routines during the game to entertain the crowds. One of you will be chased lassoed and hog tied, one of you may end up with a suprise the referee will be shot and end up in a dress." A player from the easten leauge who was one of the men she addressed shared this with me in his senoir years "We were the best leauge in the region. These girls had it tough they had no league up against new opponants they knew nothing about everday just getting into town. They were amazing. We are waiting in the locker room we had not seen the team yet we were expecting a lumberjack looking women with unshaved legs to come in, in walks your mom pretty as a flower she let us know the Cowgirls were there to win. The guys said we are in trouble when she left not only is she pretty she wants to play real ball. Sonny was sweating bullets "what if they beat us I will never hear the end of it, what if I bump her wrong she is a lady." He answered "well you better get ready."
Within months my mama was playing basketball in Madison Square Garden, and in NBA stadiums all over practicing with Dolph Shayes, George Mikan, Bob Cousy, Ed Macauly Skeeter Martin and others on their home turfs . Playing with the Harlem Globetrotters, cameras and reporters and masses chasing her down for an autograph, a far cry from her rural home where an outhouse a chicken coop were next to each other in her yard .
My dad was born in 1918 during WWI, an only child to young parents who quickly divorced . His mom turned him over to her mother to raise him, while she embellished the flapper life then remarrying a man whos life was on the road throughout Europe for his work, she accompainied him and there was no place in their life for my dad. My dad made his way through life with a big imagination and a drive to make his own reality.
He did not know how to be a desk job or manufacturing man. His unorthodox view of how to make a living was set in stone when he was recruited to play for the barnstorm House of David touring basketball team just a few years older than my mom was when she became a barnstormer. He had survived the depression served in WWII had established himself way back in HS as a promoter and had no idea why his mom thought he should get a regular job - an insurance man or a butcher at the local grocery store.
When my mama and dad met she was 18 he was 33. He was legally married and respected his committment his wife who suffered from an alcohol addiction and left their 6 month baby alone when my dad was on the road to go out and drink in the fall of 1950. He came home to his baby alone in his crib in Bismark North Dakota where they had moved from Chicago at the request of his start up business partner Jack Doc Kearns- manager of many of the the most famous boxing champions including Jack Dempsey. My dad packed his son up and took him on the road, taking turns on the laps of his basketball players that filled the station wagon travelling town to town. . In 1953 a state trooper appeared in the auditorium asking for him. The police officer was not there to watch the game, he was not there to say Dennis's mom wanted him back, he was not there to book a game to raise funds for the troopers. He was there to tell my dad "his wife, Denny;s mom was murdered in Lincoln Nebraska by a man she had been on a date with, They had been at a cocktail party drinking was involved. The man had hit her in the head with a beer bottle on the balcony of the apartment threw her off, then placed her in a car and set in on the railroad tracks hoping a train would hit her to cover it up,.The hosts of the party were threatened by the killer not to call the police ,when he had left they did and we found your wife are you able to come to Linclon and get her." My dad collapsed in front of his team , some took Dennis outside of the auditorium to play . "I am alright I am crying for Denny not me Denny." He coached the game he knew he had too everyone was counting on him to get paid.
A Chicago Tribune reporter asked my oldest brother a few years ago what he remembered about living on the road until he was almost five when dad married my mom. Dennis respondned "it was great it was like having a lot of moms."
Dennis was at the side of my mom and dad when they married in Provo , Utah at the Justice of the Peace before a basketball game in the evening. My mama came back to the hotel to tell her sister and best friend from Winthrop that she was no longer their team roomate that she and Dempsey were married.
Her sister and friend were happy for them, their beef was now who am I going to get for a roomate . Her friend even cried "you can't leave us." "I 'm not I will see you when we load up for the game tonight don't be silly, I am just across the hall, I am Mrs. Hovland now ." "You are aren't you that is something else, you could not have found a better man he has loved you longer than you ever knew. We knew we were hoping he'd ask you, you better call your daddy and let him know."
Her friend knew she told me "Dempsey would light up like a Chistmas Tree when your mom entered a room he was whistling songs and smiling , whenever she was around him we knew. but he was a man of honor being married even though the wife left him but we knew. Your mama she was always like that she never took any notice to guys liking her or even flirting. At home anywhere we went all the other girls were mad because boys they liked your mama she lit up a room she was loaded with charisma ,we knew your daddy had the likes for her. Now some of those other ball players they were mad because they wanted to marry him he was the one to catch. and that lady singer Miss Cherokee Jerry with her guitar that traveled with us she would tell us someday I will get Dempsey to marry me,, She was always trying to sit by him in resturants and put on extra perfume,your daddy never noticed he had no thoughts of her or any gal until he loved your mama,your daddy he let her go and hired Mrs Hank Willaims to play the halftime Jerry was giving your mama the stinkeye all the time after your Dempsey married her."
Everybody's parents have the love story they tell their children ,when they met their first dates, how they fell in love. I never heard theirs until a few years back from the gal basketball players that were there. Sometimes my aunt would giggle and say things like "man that daddy of yours he was head over heels for Florence." There great love story to me was how they ended up with seven children, and were partners in the barnstorm business for decades to come. They showed me what it meant to work as a team , if my dad was out on the road my mom ran the home, if my mom was out on the road my dad ran the home.A few times in our chidhood we were in the care of professional nannies for hire but just a few and not because they were on road tours but to spend time with each other a trip to Niagra Falls , an anniversary in New York to dance to one of my dads old jazz orchestra client of friends bands, a week on the beach in Florida without 7 little people needing their attention or dozens of professional female basketball players, or male baseball players or dozens of acts he booked with .Our house always full to the rafters. They never left us kids out ,we travelled on the road whenever we could, attending basketball games, baseball games, fairs, pageants, tryouts, training camps, tours with Pee Wee King, The Harmonca Rascals, or Satchel Paige.
There were three parts to my dad's promotional businesses 20th Century Attractions and International Prestige Inc.
He owned and operated many professional basketball and baseball teams the most famous were the Texas CowGirls.
THE TEXAS COWGIRLS that my mom came to play for .
The Harlem Chics basketball team
The Harlem Queens basketball team all 4 female teams that played against men's teams
The Copper Chicks
The All American Indians basketball team with Harry McGaluphlin
The House of David basketball team his own after he had been a player who he had on tours against the Harlem Globetrotters at times
Baseball mens teams 1950's and 1960's
The Cuban All Stars
The Caribean Kings
Satchel Paige and Virgil Trucks were amongst his players.
My parents peers in this factor of their barnstorm business included : Satchel Paige, Bob Cousy, George Mikan, The Harlem Globetrotters, Bill Veek, Eddie Gottleib. Dolph Shayes, Goose Tatum, Marquis Haynes, Jack Brickhouse, Hetwood Hale Broun, Hank Aarron, Ernie Banks, Runt Pullium, Meadowlark Lemon, Wilt Chamberlain, Don Ho, Abe and Morrie Saprestien, Art Kim,Joe Lapchick, Red Auerback, and even NFL icons because NFL teams would tour in the spring after thie regular season playing games aginst his female basketnball teams - Alan Page- Bart Star- Papa Bear .... and more.
The Pageants a different crowd 1960's 1970's
They owned and operated a Miss American Teenager pageant franchise in partnership with Sal Abrahms. My parents had stake in 26 states thoughout the country. Pagents held in town after town then a big state final in each sate ending each year in the fall with the big Miss American Teenager finals and crowing in Palisades Park, New Jersey .
This part of the business hours was spent with Governers, Presidents and future presidents, Judy Ford , who beame Miss America and had won their Illinois Title, Olympic champion Janet Lynn, models, crowned pageant queens and their parents on the road with us . Five star Hotels, Pageant judges like Kam Fong from TV 's original Hawaii Five O, Tim McCarver MLB now a Fox Sports caster and for ( I have a hell of a story about Kam, Tim and my family. and Kam has a hell of an interesting life story someone should consider for a movie) Sams Kinsons future wife, Malika Sauri , Tiny Tim, Don Adams, Barbara Feldon, David Cassidy, Johnny Carson, Lily Tomlin, Johnny Mathis
The sports the pageants and the booking agency all had people that crossed over my dad had a way of doing that he could promote anything with a vengence.
They booked talent at state fairs, fundraisers, big auitoriums and a lot as half time acts for his basketball games and pageant entertainment during tabulation before the crownig of he next Miss Texas Teenager or Miss California Teenager etc etc etc
Some of those included
Pee Wee King
Hank Williams Sr
Mrs Audry Williams
The Petticoat Junction Girls
The Miller Family
The Harmonica Rascals
The Harmonica Rascals
The Ping Pong
Tommy Jimmy Dorsey
Lester Scruggs and Earl Flatts
The Hee Haw Review
The Amazing Connelys
Rose and Bud Carlell
Richard Bergman and Nori Kazu World Table Tennis Champs
Magicians Stilt walkers and even Carol Channing who came to toss a basketball as a photo op and loved it so much she came back for more.
List list goes on ,,, I think the flavor of the life in those decades gone by that was an era in itself
is reflected in the people above and too many to type are all of the team members who played basketball and baseball for my mom and dad, they know they are always at the top of any list!
Our house had an open door policy my dad had offices outside of our home but always kept one at home
A family of acrobats and plate spinners to a bus full of baseball playing donkeys to would appear in our driveway.
In my toddler and early grade school years our basement in our house was filled with bunk beds where baseball and basketball teams would sleep during training camps and when they had a game in the area. The basketball season would end the baseball teams would come to occupy the beds including a group of Cuban dissidents through Robert Macnamara and JFK. The Cuban Missle Crises and Bay of Pigs had a very personal impact on our family.
A far cry from the life my mama came from. She never forgot her roots that little itty bit town in Arkansas was always mentioned with love. She was astute in teaching us money and fame do not make a person and my dad did the same. They were not pretencious people ,not interested in country club status .
My mama and my dad lived and worked amongst some of the greatest athletes, entertainers , politicians of all times and always kept us in check "all people wantedto be treated like anybody else no matter what they do to make their dough" my dad would say "when you kids are with anyone you remember that they need normal conversation and times give them that even when your friends are ooohin and awing about who's at our house or who you are on the road, with be my kids and don't get those silly stars in your eyes or autographs for your friends in your heads. "
That is why none of those are in my posession and few photos because the people who entered our lives and barnstormed the athletes the entertainers the celebrated names were just that, the everyday people in my world growing up with barnstorm promoters Dempsey and Florence, Even if my mama was having lunch with Jackie Kennedy when her and her husband met with my parents while on the Presidential campaign trail. It was just a lunch like any other lunch could have been with a basketball team member or a neighbor.
I am in contact with quite a few retired Texas CowGirls, Harlem Chicks and my parents old friends.
My quest to continue to build that list of people is so important to me for the same reason it is important to each p person I reconnect with....... a tight circle a community a small number of people who lived the barnstorm life as an athlete who have their own great stories, the entertainers who have their own great stories but are each connected through my parents .... and all express living it was the best years of my life incedible. We can relate to each other without the stare of what do you have 2 heads I don't understand that .We have all experienced explaining the adventures the life the work the experiences the fun ,,, and gotten that reaction.
It was a special life that I was never sure how to explain on a job interview or to a new beau ... it has come full circle and a feature film is being produced about the life we led and a documentary and I am filling chapters for a future book based on my life as the daughter of that fresh faced young girl from rural Arkansas and that dreamer of a dad who knew how to live his life no other way. I thank them both.