The San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo counts strong women among leaders

Two weeks of calf ropin,’ bull ridin,’ great music and good old family fun have made the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo one of the most eagerly anticipated and highly attended events in the city. But what the majority of the public may not realize is that this 18-day production does not just magically appear at the AT&T Center or on the Freeman Coliseum Grounds. It is the result of thousands of hours of year-round hard work by the more than 5,000 volunteers who come together for one common purpose: the education of Texas’ youth. In 2008, the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo awarded a record $8.5 million in the form of scholarships, grants, endowments, auctions, the calf scramble program and show premiums paid to youth.

A community effort
This year will mark the Stock Show & Rodeo’s 60th anniversary, and for the fourth consecutive year, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association has named the event the “Large Indoor Rodeo of the Year.” It is an honor made even more impressive by the fact that the organization has a staff of only about 25 people.
“We have the smallest staff in the history of the event,” says Pam Rew, assistant executive director. “That is why we rely so heavily on our volunteers, the dedicated and unbelievable families who work together doing something good for the community and for education.” “These folks come out and give their time and take nothing but the satisfaction of raising funds to help kids go to college,” adds Debbie Dreyfus-Schronk, assistant executive director and chief operating officer. And it is not just during the actual rodeo that these people are giving of their time and talents. The Stock Show & Rodeo fund-raisers take place all year long with golf tournaments, a cattle drive, BBQ Cook Off, Casino Night, the Go Western Gala and many more events all designed to generate scholarship funds. “Rodeo is the biggest event and the generator of the most money for the scholarship fund,” says Schronk. “But all the other events are also important in raising money, and they are all volunteer driven.” Approximately half of those volunteers are women, many of whom are second- and third-generation participants. “The San Antonio Rodeo is a forward-thinking entity in terms of strong positions for women,” says Heather Hayne Craft, co-chair of the Cowgirls Live Forever luncheon and fashion show and a third-generation volunteer. Having “grown up on the grounds of the rodeo,” Craft recalls the years that Mary Nan West served as the first woman president and chairman of the San Antonio Livestock Association.

“It was a powerful thing seeing a woman leading 4,000 volunteers,” she remembers. “There are lots of strong women involved in the organization and in powerful committee positions,” she adds. “ I think it is good for young women to see that.” Currently there are 11 women who are committee chairs as well as two who sit on the executive committee and two assistant vice presidents. These women, and those who came before them, are dedicated to the history and traditions behind the rodeo and are committed to preserving and honoring those traditions while at the same time bringing fresh ideas and perspectives to the table.

A family thing
For most of the women serving on committees, the rodeo is in their blood. Many are from ranching families and understand firsthand the hard work and long hours that are necessary to create an award winning stock show and rodeo. “In my family it was never of question of if you would volunteer, it was simply when and where,” laughs Craft. Jerri Pucket, past chairman of the souvenir committee, grew up with a father who was the county commissioner for the fourth precinct and a huge supporter of the Freeman family when the stock show and rodeo was merely an idea. “My dad worked hard to make sure that the Coliseum was built in his precinct,” she says with pride. A self-described “tomboy,” Pucket grew up to marry her own cowboy, who was involved in the event, and together they assembled a small souvenir committee to put out the program and solicit advertisements. Over the years, the effort grew into something much larger, and in 2008, the souvenir committee raised more than $88,000 for the scholarship fund. “We saw that people wanted souvenirs to take home,” explains Pucket of the growth. “We began by commissioning an artist to make limited-edition prints. People were really interested in that, so we expanded on it.” The souvenirs available today include everything from $2 lapel pins to $400 jackets, all emblazoned with the rodeo logo. Pucket explains that she and her committee members burn the midnight oil in order to get ready, often spending hours with suppliers simply selecting T-shirt designs. And two years ago, Pucket passed the torch to her daughter, Barbie Todd, an art teacher at Judson High School, who took souvenir selling to the next level by putting the items online. “She has put a younger, newer life into this effort,” says Pucket. Pucket, who says she is fully committed to the cause, never looks at her responsibilities as work. “If you attend one scholarship award ceremony and hear the students thank us, then you begin to understand why we do what we do,” she says with pride. “To know you are a part of supporting youth and agriculture is not work.”

Preserving traditions
“The San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo is more than cows, sows and plows,” agrees Jimmie Ruth Evans, vice president of the executive committee. “It has a huge impact on supporting Texas youth who have an interest in agriculture programs with scholarships for college. We support that in every way we can.”
Evans, who grew up participating in 4-H Club and came to the Stock Show & Rodeo to show breeding sheep, says she has great memories of the event and knew it was something she wanted to be a part of throughout her life. “I have done this for 25 years, and it is my passion,” she says happily. “It has been such a great adventure for me to have been an exhibitor in the ‘60s and now serve on the executive committee. I am part of a team that has made such a contribution to the youth of Texas.” Evans grew up in a ranching family, and for her, like many of the participants, keeping Texas traditions alive is another important aspect of the Stock Show & Rodeo. “The rodeo captures our Western heritage,” she says proudly. “The public gets a chance to understand and learn about agriculture in the state of Texas.” Evans’ daughter, Lee Evans Lee, co-chairs the Cowgirls Live Forever luncheon and fashion show, and she shares her mother’s fierce determination to protect and preserve all things Texan. “I am a fifth-generation rancher,” she declares. “It is important to me to keep my roots and embody the Western heritage and keep it intact.”

New twists on old favorites
Preserving Western traditions is an important component of Stock Show & Rodeo events, but raising scholarship funds is the name of the game. To that end, it sometimes becomes necessary to add new elements to attract a larger audience of donors. The Cowgirls Live Forever luncheon and fashion show, now in its fourth year, has added a mentoring program to make the event more personal to the donors. Attendees who purchase a $10,000 table become a benefactor to the scholarship recipient. They establish a relationship with the student and are able to put a face with their donation. “We are extremely proud of the program,” says Lee enthusiastically. One of the largest and most popular fund-raising events, the Go Western Gala, is also undergoing some changes in its 32nd year. Two headliners rather than one will perform, and a wine tasting will be held at the beginning of the evening’s festivities. “The wine tasting will feature premier Texas wines as well as other domestic varieties, and they will be paired with food,” says Dinah Covert, chair of the Go Western Gala committee. Covert, who has participated on the committee for 19 years, is excited about the changes and looks forward to adding more. “We are taking the gala to the next level,” she explains. “Every year there will be something new.”

Sold to the highest bidder
Galas and parties aside, it is important to remember that behind every scholarship is a hard-working student who has spent hours preparing an animal for show in the hopes of securing college funds. In 2008, auction participants received $612,000 in scholarships, and the Junior Livestock Auction raised more than $3.6 million. “The auction raised more than $3 million in 3 days,” boasts past auction committee chairman Cindy Dawson, who adds that the children get all of the money from the sale of the animal as well as a scholarship if the animal wins champion or breed champion honors. “There is no cap on how much money the kids get,” she explains. The high dollars raised are the result of the bidding of corporations such as Budweiser, Holt, H-E-B and Rush Enterprises as well as individuals and ranchers who bid not only to get the meat but also to get name recognition and support the students and the state’s agriculture. But getting an animal to the bidding process is not an easy task. Mary Lavender, a sophomore at Madison High School, raises pigs for Junior Livestock Auction, and she devotes nearly two hours a day to working with her animals. “You want it to be tame in order to be fitted and handled,” she explains. “You have to teach it how to walk, wash it at least once a week, groom and brush it every day, feed it special supplements and clean out the stall.” Lavender, whose father once worked on a hog farm in Illinois, has hopes of being a veterinarian, and a scholarship would certainly help make that possible. But even if her animal doesn’t win, she says it is still worth the effort. “It is a good thing to put on your college application when applying to agriculture school,” she says.

The all-important result
The Stock Show & Rodeo is only as good as its volunteers, and it is the hard work of all of those individuals that draws the crowds from all over Texas to what is one of the best rodeos on the circuit. “The San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo is above the others in the state because we are exhibitor-friendly,” says Evans. “More exhibitors come to this show than any other, and we welcome them and make them feel like they have come to the best show in the United States.”
And while both the men and women are responsible for the success of the event, The San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo is one place where cowgirls are allowed to shine. “This can tend to be a man’s world, but here the women are very well respected and play roles in top leadership positions” says Evans. “We come together with the men to support the mission.” That mission is, of course, the education of Texas’ youth, and every penny of scholarship money raised goes to the students. “It is a very thoughtfully done process,” says Evans. “That really is what makes us different from other scholarship-giving entities.”

By Bonny Osterhage