Early one morning last month, when nothing was stirring in Abilene, Texas but the reels of Muzak tape in a storefront on North Fourth Street, Mrs. Margaret Ellison put her gold starting blocks and red-white-and-blue batons in the trunk of her car and set out for Austin. A can of Rayette's The Young Set hair spray rolled about on the floor, a javelin rattled against the top of the dash, and blaring forth from the radio were, or so said one of the three girls in back, "the Imitation Beatles." She added disarmingly, "Did you know England just declared war on the United States? Lady Bird ate a Beatle."
Mrs. Ellison, who is known by her passengers (to her face) as Miz El'son or (behind her back) as Flamin' Mamie or Ma Kettle, is a 46-year-old divorcée who wears her tinted strawberry-blonde hair in what she calls a "chignon rat." Mrs. Ellison works as a secretary for Hank Hankins. On the door of Mr. Hankins' office, which is next to Charlie Cluck's in Abilene's First State Bank Building, is lettered "Hank Hankins Interests." Mr. Hankins' interests are oil, real estate, ranching "and other investments," and he will tell you that they are doing "real well." Mrs. Ellison's interest is the Texas Track Club (see cover), the best of a handful of all-girl track clubs in Texas. Mrs. Ellison is its coach, and she will tell you that her girls are coming along "real well."
The Texas Track Club is celebrated on two counts—its athletic achievements and the uncommon beauty of its girls, who compete in dazzling uniforms, elaborate makeup and majestic hairdos. These hairdos, which are either bouffant or flip if at all possible, may not be aerodynamically sound and may be "out" east of the Hudson, but they are an unqualified sensation at a track meet. "They are our trademark," says Jeanne Ellison, the coach's 16-year-old daughter. "Bouffant is easier to run in because the wind doesn't blow your hair in your face."
In one sense, the Texas Track Club has done more to promote women's track in the U.S. than if its members had, say, won the national AAU championships. (In fact, they finished 12th last year, with a third in the 440-yard relay and the 220-yard low hurdles and a sixth in the 220-yard dash.) After the age of 10, American girls generally lose interest in running—it is unbecoming and too far out. And American boys generally lose interest in the few girls who take up the sport, the popular belief being that they look like Olive Oyl or Tugboat Annie. The Texas Track Club, however, has shown that you can be beautiful and still run the 100 in 10.9. Because of this delightful anomaly, its members have been a hit—and spread the gospel—at such topflight meets as the Los Angeles, Albuquerque and Dallas Invitationals. And it is not at all unlikely that a couple of Mrs. Ellison's girls will make the U.S. Olympic team.
April 20, 1964
"I'm trying to change the stereotyped image of the track girl," says Mrs. Ellison. "Every year we have a good-looking team and good-looking uniforms—none of those bags. I prefer pretty girls. I insist that they wear makeup. We all go to the beauty shop before each meet, so we can get beautiful and get our minds off the meet. When we ran in Albuquerque this January, I could have killed myself. They have the worst beauty operators in the world in Albuquerque. After I came out of one shop, I went right into another one where this man made my hair worse. I had to go back to the motel and do it myself. We have different hairdos for each meet. We straighten a lot of girls' hair, but of course you can't make it too bouffant when it's natural-curly."
That March morning Mrs. Ellison was driving Janis Rinehart, Sue Schexnayder and Paula Walter, three of the club's eight girls, to a meet in the state capital. Two others, Irene Williams and Cel Rutledge, were unable to compete that weekend; Carvelynne Leonard (her sister is Dudley Darlynne) was driving in from Houston; Dora Dyson lives in Austin; and Jeanne, the coach's daughter, refused to go because she didn't want to be separated from Charles, her boy friend. "If she'd leave him alone, he'd be a better runner," says Mrs. Ellison. "They're jealous of one another. Charles had done the 220 in 21.4, the 100 in 9.9. It just kills my soul. They both have ability and they're hurting each other. I'd kick her off the team, only she's mine. I want my girls to go out, but last year Janis took her boy friend to the nationals and he was a disturbing influence."
The previous night Paula had asked Jeanne whether she ran for Charles, herself, the crowd or the team. "I run for Charles," said Jeanne, whose hair is frosted several shades of platinum. "That's definitely wrong. You run for the team," said Paula, who dyes her brown hair black and wears it "five or six ways, and real crazy." "Well," said Jeanne, "I feel better when Charles is there." "I'd hate the boy I date to see me run," said Paula. "I'd feel embarrassed."
Paula Walter, who was known as The Eola Flash when she was playing high school basketball in Eola, is 18 and runs the third leg on the club's 440-yard-relay team. She has twice won the Best Physically Built trophy at the Blue Bonnet Relays in San Angelo, last year was runner-up Miss Make it Yourself with Wool and took the first prize of 20 silver dollars in a twist contest. "I'm always entering contests," says Paula. "I like to do anything better than average." One of seven children whose names all start with P (including Poni), Paula boards with Mrs. Ellison. She says she wants to become a beautician. "Paula knows how to do hair," says Mrs. Ellison. "And she teaches the girls how to wear makeup." Most of the time Paula sits around the Ellison house trying on her clothes and painting her nails. The night before she left for Austin, they were the color of chocolate fudge. "That's a mixture of gold and pink," Paula explained. "I use black sometimes. When we wore black satin uniforms, I had black nail polish. In San Angelo, when I got down in my blocks, there were all those girls looking at my nails. Shoot, I got a good start. It was neat." But Paula is outgrowing track. "I'm so tired of having Coke dates," she says. "There is so much I miss just running track. I like to date. I love parties. I've always run on natural ability. I may as well be truthful, I think I could do a lot better, but if I trained like Rinehart I'd be the biggest square in town."
Janis—the aforementioned Rinehart—along with the other Texas Track Club girls who live in Abilene, works out four evenings a week at McMurry College. In an hour-and-a-half session she will jog a mile, do calisthenics and run five wind sprints of 115 yards each, then put her spikes on and run five repeat 150s and two or three 220s. Every other day she works in the blocks on 15 to 25 practice starts. The day after a meet, Janis jogs. "Rinehart can jog five miles without stopping," says Mrs. Ellison.
"Track is hard to give up," says Paula. "You learn new things, meet people. People satisfy me so much. If I don't get out and run some each day, I feel like I've committed a sin. I'm in top shape, but in bad condition." Indeed, Paula does real well by her white, sleeveless running shirt that has TEXAS emblazoned in big red letters across the front. "Mine fits tight," she says. "A lot of boys tease me, call me Miss Texas. I'm all Texas. I shouldn't talk so much about myself, but my life's been so interesting."
Mrs. Ellison, who scouts all Texas for her girls, found Paula, as she says, "in a big, old, German-type house out in the country. The first time I saw her she looked like a page out of Mademoiselle or Harper's Bazaar. But the first time I saw Janis, she was running barefoot in pedal pushers on a cinder track."
Janis Rinehart, who comes from Snyder, is 19 and works as a clerk at The First State Bank in Abilene, where they all call her Speedy. "I raced my boss in the 60 and the 100," she says. "He might have beat me in the 60, but he stumbled. He's 40, but he's in real good shape." Janis has run the 100 in 10.9 (the winning time in the 1963 nationals was 11.0) and the 220 in 24.7. "Janis comes from a family of 10," says Mrs. Ellison. "Her basic training was chasing her brothers about the farm. She had light-brown hair, but I decided to make her a blonde because she had the complexion and because she'd stand out in the judges' eyes at the finish of a close race. They also say blondes have more fun, but it went to her head with that boy friend of hers. When she was ready to go home after the nationals, I dyed her hair brown so her family wouldn't disown her. 'My dad'll kill me,' she told me.
"I think every girl can be pretty. There isn't any such thing as a girl I can't remodel. I taught Janis how to dress, act, speak like a lady. She's hard to dress, because she's tall in the body, is long-waisted, has big feet and doesn't walk too well in high heels. She had to learn what clothes to buy, how to dress, match or mix. I can visualize it when the girls can't—color, mix and coordination. Personally, I like to dress. I have a lot of clothes—three closets full."
Sue Schexnayder, who was known as Swift Sue in high school, is 19 and one of eight children. She lives in Port Arthur and has a partial athletic scholarship at Odessa Junior College, where she and a solitary boy comprise the track team. Like Janis, Sue has done the 100 in 10.9. Sue's workouts include four to six repeat 330s every other day, three to five repeat 60s, and 150s and 220s—all of which leads Mrs. Ellison to the dour observation that her college coach "is killing her."
"She's a real shy child," says Mrs. Ellison. "My other kids yak all the time like I do. She's sensitive and has no confidence. Sometimes I can't get inside her little wall. She wants to quit every time she loses. Sue's a natural beauty with natural-curly hair. She's had it straightened once. The girls back-comb it, and she wears this blue ribbon when she runs, and is real cute. Sue has a boy friend now, and beams all over. I'm so glad."
Carvelynne Leonard also has natural-curly hair, but Mrs. Ellison says, "She wears it long and plain. Paula's going to fix it for her." Carvelynne (her father expected a boy, whom he was going to name Carver) comes from Mont Belvieu, and is an all-district basketball player. Carvelynne's father, a pumper for the Sun Oil Company, supervises and fosters his daughter's track career. Carvelynne has been running competitively since she was 6, and was twice a national champion in the Junior Olympics. "The house wouldn't be the same if I wasn't running," she says. "My dad, everyone expects me to."
Dora Dyson, 20, a redheaded high jumper with a passion for snow cones, is the only married woman on the Texas Track Club. Her husband, Jerry, attends San Marcos Junior College, and Dora works for an insurance company. "Dora's done 5 feet 4," Mrs. Ellison says. "Golly, she can get 5 feet 6, 5 feet 7. I know she can do it."
The club's "weight men" are Irene Williams, 19, from Barksdale, a sophomore at Abilene Christian College, and Cel Rutledge, 21, a medical technician in Houston. Cel placed fourth in the shot at the nationals two years ago with a put of 47 feet 10 inches, and has thrown the javelin 148 feet, the discus 142. "Cel's facial features are real fine," says Mrs. Ellison.
In 1961 Mrs. Ellison founded the Texas Track Club around her older daughter, Pat—now 21 and retired from competition—who had broken the 75-yard-dash record in the Junior Olympics. "It started out as kind of a dream," Mrs. Ellison says, "and now we've had six different uniforms, I have a feeder club of 10 to 20 younger kids, the Abilene Track Club, last year we competed in 18 meets and so far this year we've been to the Los Angeles Invitational, the Albuquerque Invitational, the Lubbock Invitational, the Will Rogers Indoor Games in Fort Worth, the Dallas Invitational, the Long Beach Games, the Gulf Coast Federation Meet in Houston, the Border Olympics in Laredo, the West Texas Relays in Odessa, the Edwardian Olympics in Austin and the San Angelo Relays.
"I've gotten tremendous satisfaction and enjoyment out of educating the girls socially, building their bodies and helping them, and, as old as I am, I like the recognition and the glamour, too. Of course, each year I think maybe I won't put as much into it. Last year I spent $3,000 of my own money on the club, and I'm always running around trying to get sponsors. When we went to Los Angeles, for instance, our trip was paid for by the Optimist Club of Abilene, the Arvin Norwood Drilling Company of Midland and the Pool Well Servicing Company of San Angelo.
"I think I've helped pioneer women's track in Texas, and given the girls and myself something better to do than drive around drinking Cokes. Before I organized the Texas Track Club nothing interested me. I never belonged to a bridge club. You see yourself in the girls. It lights a flame."
Mrs. Ellison was born in Eastland, Texas, but at 8 she moved to Los Angeles with her mother after her parents were divorced. Her father, Joe Burkett, was a Texas state senator, and her grandfather was the originator of the Burkett pecan. "I became a nut about track when I was 13," says Mrs. Ellison. "I ran the 60 in seven flat in junior high school. One night on the beach I raced the boy who finished fourth in the 100 in the all-city junior high school meet, and beat him. And so I lost another boy friend—he never spoke to me again. I still put on spikes, run 50s, jog 440s. I love to throw the javelin. I have a real good arm on me.
"I was little and quick and had a lot of freckles," Mrs. Ellison recalls. Mrs. Ellison still has a lot of freckles, but now she covers them up. "One day Margaret discovered makeup," says her sister, Mrs. Dorothy Palmie, who was once one of Lyndon Johnson's secretaries, "and she hasn't stopped looking in the mirror since." "I went on a makeup and hair binge," says Mrs. Ellison.
"I've found that girls lose interest in track, don't keep coming out regularly, if you don't make a game of it," says Mrs. Ellison. "That's why we have different uniforms every year and go in for makeup and hairdos. It's just like giving candy to kids—you have to keep them entertained. And you've got to get them young. But if you ever get that little blue ribbon into their hands....
"I do think, however, that a man can coach girls better than a woman, for the simple reason that girls will listen to a man, they have more confidence in him, and a woman likes to show off for a man. But most men are too busy to understand women. They just say, put on a white blouse and shorts and come out. For instance, on my workout schedules, I always put down 'No Talking.' Girls are always yakking, 'I went out with so-and-so.' I don't want to hear them talking personal problems. I keep saying girls are different. You can't train them like boys, they get emotionally upset. You have to know their moods and recognize what these moods mean."
Mrs. Ellison got the chance to put her theories into practice last year when she was selected to coach the women's team in the dual meets with Russia, Poland, Germany and England. "I was in a state of shock," she says. "Lord, I was hysterical." The trip began disastrously. In Moscow the girls performed way below expectations, and newspaper stories told how they broke training and carried on. The reports, Mrs. Ellison contends, were exaggerated. As the European trip progressed, the girls' behavior and performances improved markedly. Mrs. Ellison says the girls told her in England that they were sorry they had given her such a hard time. "Two of the girls gave me presents," she says. "I cried. It proved to me, however, that I can handle girls."
The trip also gave Mrs. Ellison an opportunity to buy a form-fitting German uniform, which she had copied for the Texas Track Club by the Fab-Knit Division of Holt's Sporting Goods in Waco, a fact that is boldly embroidered on the sweat-suit tops. "I wish I could design the stuff for the U.S. Olympic team," Mrs. Ellison says. "Whoever picks them doesn't know enough about style today. The uniforms are baggy, like the boys'. And someone ought to design a dress for the banquets the girls have to attend after every international meet. If a girl has nothing to wear she feels left out, and that creates problems. The traveling dresses aren't too bad, but they have no style." The Texas Track Club's traveling uniforms are royal blue shifts that are decorated with a patch depicting the flag of Texas. "When we go to hotels they must wear the dresses," says Mrs. Ellison. "They are permitted to wear slims in motels."
As Mrs. Ellison drove south to Austin, the cactus, mesquite and jackrabbit country gave way to more fertile farmland, and a sign proclaimed "Sure Fresh Eggs." Sue was reading a history assignment in The American Spirit, and Mrs. Ellison was fiddling with the radio dial.
"That's down yonder, Coach," said Janis, hearing a hillbilly song on the radio. "Turn it to the right. Miz El'son, you go way too fast."
"Find a station, Miz El'son," Paula said. "I can't go that church music today."
"That's country and western," said Janis.
"It tears me up," said Mrs. Ellison. "It just tears my toenails."
"I'm going to design our new summer traveling uniforms," Paula said. "Low neck, deep back, no sleeves, fitted...."
"Paula's a nonconformist," Sue said.
"You'd look like a burlesque line," Mrs. Ellison said.
Paula spooned grape jelly out of a plastic cup.
"You starving, poor li'l fat thing?" Mrs. Ellison asked.
"Coach, is it true that hurdling will broaden your hips?" Janis asked.
"What time is it?" Sue asked.
"If we didn't have to go back after Paula's makeup kit, we'd have been O.K.," Mrs. Ellison said.
"We were four blocks away," said Paula.
"We were six," said Sue.
"This is the time when all the personalities come out," said Mrs. Ellison. "You know, no one ever explained to me that you had to go to college to become a coach. Everything I've learned has been from books, talking and observation. Sometimes the men coaches make fun of me. They say, you're not a coach, you're a promoter. Maybe I'm not a coach, but maybe I'm out to prove to these men who are so learned that I can do it. It will give me a lot of satisfaction to prove that it doesn't take years of experience and education to become a successful coach. I've been coaching only five years and I was the coach of the U.S. team that went to Russia. It's a laugh in a way.
"Did you know that Babe Didrikson was the only girl from Texas that ever made the Olympic track team? I want Janis to make it and Sue and Dora.... Then someday I'd like to get me a summer track camp by a river and make Flamin' Mamie a little money."