One of the best stories at this year’s National Finals Rodeo is Dona Kay Rule, who is competing at the Thomas &Mack Center for the first time at age 61 and won the second and fifth barrel racing go-rounds.
Her success follows that of Mary Burger, winner of the gold buckle in 2016. The 68-year-old grandmother was the oldest to win a pro rodeo title by nine years. One can assume it was not her first rodeo.
It would seem, then, that barrel racing has become a rodeo event for the ages. Or at least the aged.
A half-century ago, it was the polar opposite.
In 1968, little Ann Lewis — “Annie the Okie,” the announcers called her with profound affection — won the barrel racing championship by a few hundred dollars.
She was only 10 years old.
But in a twist of fate so cruel that it still makes your heart ache, she did not live long enough to receive the gold buckle.
Two months before the finals, Ann Lewis; her twin sister, Jan; their mother, Roseletha; and Sissy Thurman, one of little Ann’s closest challengers for the title; were killed in a fiery crash while traveling from a rodeo in Little Rock, Arkansas, to one the next night in Waco, Texas. Ann’s horse, Charlie Bay Dan, was euthanized.
A semitrailer truck struck two cows on Arkansas Highway 57 about 11 miles west of Hope. The 18-wheeler jackknifed and overturned. A pickup-camper carrying most of the Lewis family and Sissy Thurman plowed into the mess and burst into flames.
If the plane crash on Feb. 3, 1959, near Clear Lake, Iowa, that claimed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Big Bopper J.P. Richardson was “The Day the Music Died,” then the fireball near Hope, Arkansas, in the wee hours of Oct. 2, 1968, was pro rodeo’s macabre equivalent.
Little Ann Lewis had built such a lead in the championship that none of the other riders could catch her.
She won the title posthumously.
“I went to the funeral service — I believe it was in Sulphur (Oklahoma), where she was from,” recalled former barrel racer and 2019 Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame inductee Florence Youree, 86. “Her cousin, Rosemary, accepted Ann’s awards in Oklahoma City. They were such a lovely family.”
Sissy Thurman was a close friend of Youree’s. She was 34 when she was killed with the Lewis girls and their mother. Sissy’s daughter, Karen, would marry 24-time NFR qualifier Roy Duvall.
“It was very sad for the whole rodeo industry, such a terrible tragedy,” Florence Youree said with a sigh.
“All the cowboys loved watching little Ann, you know.”
The rest of the story
Little Ann Lewis started riding in 1963 when she was 5. She made $8 for winning her first rodeo. She didn’t know how to sign her name to the check but told the grown-ups she could print it.
By 1968, she had learned to write and was endorsing lots of checks. When she made $1,064 for finishing second at the then magnificent Houston Astrodome, she asked only to keep two bits.
“Dad, can I have a quarter for an ice cream cone?” she asked her father, Bob, according to the Oklahoman newspaper.
She wore little pastel-colored western outfits with little matching cowboy hats. She wore her hair in pigtails that sometimes flew out from under her hat when she and Charlie Bay Dan turned tight circles around the barrels.
“Ann was cute, cute, cute — omigosh,” said champion barrel racer Martha Josey, also a rookie on the circuit in 1968, albeit 20 years older than the little girl who would become rodeo’s youngest champion in the most tragic way.
Josey, 81, said little Ann and her little horse sometimes would gallop right out of the arena, which they did in Wyoming one day.
“They missed the alleyway, and they went out (toward the holding pens) and turned the heck out of an outhouse,” Josey said.
There’s no telling how many gold buckles the tiny rider might have won had those cows and that 18-wheeler not crossed paths on a lonely Arkansas highway. She would be 61 today. She still might be racing Dona Kay Rule for the big money under the bright lights at the Thomas &Mack Center.
“It’s like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and Michael Jordan,” Josey said. “The great ones were great then, and they still would be great today.”
To this day, rodeo people remember precocious Ann Lewis with a loving smile and a melancholy shake of the head. They said when she died, Paul Harvey mentioned it on the radio with the most pregnant of pauses.
“Ann Lewis … forever 10 years old,” the inimitable broadcaster supposedly said before signing off.
And now you know the rest of the story.
What: National Finals Rodeo
When: 7 p.m. Thursday to Saturday
Where: Thomas Mack Center
TV: CBS Sports Network