Meet Connie Reeves, a Lone Star camp legend who lived up to the legend.
While Texans may be accused of being a wee bit overzealous about their history, even the proudest of New Englanders would admit that Texas legends are legendary.
What’s truly rare is the Texas legend who lived in our time, before our time and beyond our time, while fully living up to the legend that grew around them.
Connie Reeves was just such a person. Independent and strong-willed, opinionated and usually right, witty and dry, smart and tough, those who knew and worked with her testify that Connie Reeves was and is one of Texas camping’s greatest.
Mrs. Reeves passed away this summer at the age of 101, after being bucked off her horse and hitting her head. She was airlifted to San Antonio and passed away almost two weeks later from resulting complications. Reeves would have been 102 in September.
Marsha Elmore, whose family owns of Camp Waldemar, near Hunt, Texas, was riding with her that day and says Reeves remained sharp as a tack until the end.
As Elmore recalls, Reeves’ lifelong motto was, “Saddle your own horse,” which she did, day in and day out, for almost a century. “She was a self-motivated woman; she did her own thing,” says Elmore.
Reeves went to law school in the 1920s, but moved into teaching when “her daddy, who was a judge, told her she couldn’t make any money being a lawyer,” says Elmore.
Reeves began her history at Waldemar in 1936 as a riding teacher, and in the ’40s married the camp’s head wrangler, Jack Reeves. The couple ran the riding program and wintered the horses at the 10,000-acre Johnson Ranch in Junction, Texas, which they also worked for its owner, Doris Johnson.
From that point on Reeves headed up Waldemar’s riding program for the remainder of the 20th Century, and was still active at camp in the past few years.
“She was out there this summer giving pointers to kids. She didn’t have to be involved in teaching, per se, but she would ride around by herself and talk to the teachers and interact with the kids,” recalls Elmore.
Over recent years, Reeves became one of the most recognized cowgirls in the world, having been first inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, which quickly led to special honor in the Cowboy Hall of Fame, the Chester A. Reynolds Award.
Elmore recalls that after Reeves gave her award acceptance speech, Cowboy Hall of Fame presenter Larry Gatlin asked, “I have to follow her?”
“Every time she ever made a speech or stood to talk she floored everybody,” says Elmore. “She didn’t engage in petty gossip or sit around and talk about anything frivolous. Even in the hospital she was telling the doctors what to do and how to handle her. People loved to hear her talk.”
The accolades continued to pour in, including being honored as an outstanding alumni for Texas Women’s University, one of the 100 most outstanding women in Texas by the Texas Chamber of Commerce, a Pioneer Award — which is only given to Centurians — and a Freedom Forum Award from USA Today this past spring for the inspiration she provided.
“She never waited on anyone else to do something for her. She led the way, was smart and tough. She didn’t take any guff off of anyone and called it like she saw it, and people admired her for that,” says Elmore. “She could correct somebody and they would take that correction without being offended, because they knew she meant well and was telling the truth.”
As Elmore explains, Reeves stuck to her guns. She spoke the truth and stood on her principals, balancing that rough exterior with a keen sense of humor. Elmore relates that Reeves was “so tough when she was young that you didn’t want to cross her; she mellowed a bit in her old age.”
As evidenced by the numerous awards of distinction, Reeves was well known in Texas and beyond (her death was marked by news agencies as far-flung as the BBC), but she was particularly well-loved by Texas camps.
“I saw Connie at a camp show one time. I didn’t know her very well, but she walked up and said, ‘I just think it’s so nice you named your son after your father,’ and I thought to myself, ‘Whoa! How does she remember things like that?’ She was only 95 at the time,” recalls Jane Ragsdale, director at nearby Heart ‘O the Hills Camp for Girls.