- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 24, 2002

HUNT, Texas
In 1901, while the Wright brothers were trying to fly and Guglielmo Marconi was trying to get his radio to transmit, Constance Douglas was born in a tiny Texas border town, the only child of a district judge and his genteel wife.
It never would occur to Connie, as she swam in the Rio Grande and rode horses with cowboys, that other little girls in other places lived vastly different lives. She was a spirited, willful child and the world was hers. That it began in Texas and ended in Texas was just fine with her, and with everyone she knew.
After she grew up and went to college, she became the first woman to enter the University of Texas Law School. She met Eleanor Roosevelt. She taught school and horseback riding. She didn't marry until age 42, when she became a rancher as well as a wife.
It never crossed her mind that she would outlive every person she ever loved, including Jack, her husband of 40 years, or that along the way she would become famous simply by being herself.
Connie Douglas Reeves, at age 100, helped open the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame this summer, sharing the spotlight with a new inductee, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
She is honored because she has taught more than 30,000 girls to ride Western and English, because she embodies the independent cowgirl spirit and because on most days, though she is "hard of hearing and can't see a thing," she still gets on her horse and rides.
For the past 66 summers, a significant portion of her life and heart has been claimed by Camp Waldemar for Girls, an exclusive oasis straddling the cool, green Guadalupe River in the Texas hill country. Riding, canoeing, swimming, and archery are taught during monthlong sessions intended to supply 7- to 16-year-olds with something Mrs. Reeves never seems to lack: self-possession.
"Always saddle your own horse" has become her life motto and is repeated almost every time her name is mentioned. They read it during her Hall of Fame induction. Somehow, it ended up in Liz Smith's tabloid gossip column, just before a juicy item about Tom Cruise.
"I don't remember saying that, but they keep saying I did," she chuckles. "I meant really saddle your own horse. You want to know that your horse is saddled properly. It establishes a good relationship with the horse."
Now it is part of her folklore, and that is fine with her, too.
At first, she didn't think she belonged in the cowgirl hall of fame. "I didn't see that I had made much of a contribution," she says, sitting on the roofed porch of Camp Waldemar's horse stables, taking refuge from a merciless Texas sun.
She is wearing a blue oxford-cloth shirt and form-fitting navy slacks with stitched creases. A black belt, with a silver buckle the size of a passport, rides her flat stomach. On her tiny feet are cowboy boots of ancient leather, crinkled like the surface of an old oil painting.
Her white hair is tightly curled, her lips painted crimson, her fingernails manicured and lacquered red.
"But they said I taught all those girls, and when you add the fact that I did all that ranching, I guess I've done enough to contribute to the Western heritage of life," she says, thoughtfulness creeping into a voice cracked and high-pitched with age. Her failing eyes are fixed on the horizon, gloriously blue with clouds of spun cotton.
"Boy, that makes me feel important," she says, smiling, hooking her thumbs into imaginary suspenders.
In just a few days, the latest collection of 300 campers will trudge home from Waldemar, little more than an hour's drive northwest from San Antonio. But on this hot, clear morning, about 20 little girls sit on newly saddled horses, trying not to look terrified.
Riding classes are divided by age and experience. "These are the absolute babies, the weakest ones, the smallest ones, the timid ones," she says softly. She means the girls. The same could be said for their horses.
Then off they all go, single file behind a college-age instructor, the girls rigid under white riding helmets, their poky horses shuffling with long necks slung low.
"That's good, that's good. Keep your heels down," Mrs. Reeves trills from the porch. "Just relax."
"Yes, ma'am," the girls chorus over shoulders so tense they are almost at ear level. Some of the girls shoot wide-eyed looks to each other that say, "Is she crazy?"
"A horse really can smell fear," Mrs. Reeves says.
That does not bode well for some of the departing.
Mrs. Reeves is teaching her third generation of campers. Mothers often sign up their newborn girls, who grow up to enroll their own daughters. Mrs. Reeves recently found herself teaching the granddaughter of a girl she taught to ride in the 1930s. The cost is about $2,800 for four weeks.
She is legendary here, as constant as the live oaks and stone camp buildings. "Did you notice this?" she asks boldly, pointing to a life-sized statue of her near the entrance. "I'm just a spoiled brat," she says, grinning.
She has a hitch in her get-along courtesy of her horse, Dr. Pepper. The horse got piqued about 16 years ago after having new shoes nailed into his hooves and hauled off and kicked her, shattering her thigh bone.
It is only one of several injuries she has sustained in old age. In 1994, an Arabian gelding named Macho threw her after stumbling into a hornet's nest, leaving her with a punctured lung, fractured ribs, a broken arm and too many hornet stings to count.
That earned her another spot in local history: She is the oldest Texan to apply for worker's compensation.
She has suffered macular degeneration for years now, leaving her unable to see much of anything except vague shapes and foggy colors. This does not keep her from racing all over camp in an electric golf cart, sometimes veering off the asphalt path, scattering giggling teenagers like a grenade in a trout pond.
"Hi honey, how are you?" she croons, waving as she tools by. "Coming through."
"Hi, Miss Connie," the girls reply from a safe distance.
"Sure wish I knew who I was talking to," she mutters under her breath.
She turns 101 on Thursday. She hasn't decided yet how to celebrate.
Always, she is asked these questions: To what does she attribute her long life? ("I'm just fortunate.") What is the most significant historic event she has witnessed? ("Men landing on the moon.") And what, after all these years, means the most to her? ("Nature.")
"I am not a churchgoing individual," she says. "My church is in nature. I can go sit on the banks of the river and watch the water and feel the wind, and I am closer to God or whoever runs the universe."
Which is why she stays in Texas. "I never wanted to live anywhere else," she says.
She never remarried after Jack's death. She has no children and doesn't regret it. "And I'm sure glad I don't have grandchildren. The world today, it's disturbed."
Children approach her with awe, looking deep into her lined face, reaching tentatively to touch creased, age-spotted hands.
"I think it would be awesome to be that old," says 11-year-old Carol Soules, just back from riding class, a fine sheen of sweat covering the freckles across her nose. "I wish I could have lived when she lived because then I would have seen all the inventions, like the computer," she says wistfully.
"I think that would be so cool."


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