HAWLEY, Texas — Everybody in this family was a rodeo star, even the steer.
The Abilene Reporter-News reports Bob-Cat Twister, “Bobby” to his fans, was a longhorn who originally showed up at an Oklahoma ranch in a load of bucking steers. It was about 1932 and George Crouch had no interest in him. Bobby was a little too free with his horns, for one thing.
But Monte Reger had an idea, he’d recognized something in that animal.
“When Bobby still was wild and they had him the back of a truck, my dad would watch him,” Virginia Reger recalled. “I mean, you can learn a lot about an animal by watching.”
Whenever a crowd gathered, Bobby would choose that time to take a stroll.
“He would walk around, like he was showing himself off, and lay out there and look around at the people,” Virginia said. “He got to where he liked the crowd.”
If there wasn’t a crowd, Bobby wasn’t leaving the truck. Not even to eat.
That gave Monte an idea.
“That’s when he began to say that steer was smarter than we thought he was,” Virginia said of her father. “We can teach him something.”
Lured to California by the movie industry, Virginia recalled they found themselves at a barbecue restaurant, one of the first drive-ins.
Monte would sit on Bobby, who stood with his front hooves on an overturned barrel, and attract customers to the eatery. On occasion, a singing cowboy might join them.
But that wasn’t his entire repertoire. Monte trained the steer to leap over cars, selling autographed postcards of the stunt at 5 cents each.
“It was just something we did,” Virginia said, nonchalantly.
When she was 9, Virginia decided to be a trick rider. She liked horses, but that wasn’t her main reason.
“I just wanted the pretty clothes,” she said. “My mother said, ‘I’ll make you something pretty if you learn to do that.’”
Virginia learned how to trick ride in the rodeo company employing her father. She would stand on the horse as it ran, hang from the back of the saddle, and vault with her feet hitting the ground while holding the saddle horn. Then bounce back up.
There were the falls, of course.
Now 92, Virginia’s posture illustrates the wear a lifetime of rodeo performing can have on a body. In 2017, author Elaine Fields Smith published “Ridin’, Ropin’ & Jumpin’ Over Cars: The Biography of Virginia Reger.”
“I took a lot about falls, that just happens,” Virginia said.
“It didn’t hurt. You just get up, brush off and go back to work.”
Still, it’s also been a life of honor. In 2007 she was inducted into the Texas Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame for her 40 years as a performer.
As a child, Virginia’s mother, Opal, turned the world into a classroom.
“My mother loved talking to local people, finding out how they lived in their town,” Virginia recalled.
Opal would drive the car with her two daughters, Virginia and Dixie.
Monte and his son Bud rode in the truck with the livestock.
“I can remember, she would tell us all this stuff whether we wanted to hear it or not,” Virginia said.
When Virginia had to pass a high school proficiency exam, the teacher sent her to the principal’s office because her score was too good.
“She thought I’d cheated because I finished so fast and nothing was wrong,” Virginia said. “But see, I knew it from the things my mother was telling me, and I just wrote that down.”
In 1950, she married her first husband and rodeo announcer Tom Hadley, and had two sons, Mat and Mark. These days, Virginia lives next door to Mark.
But if you think having children stopped her from performing, you would be wrong.
“Oh, no. Within six weeks I was back trick riding,” she said. “It was little tougher than I thought. But mentally, it’s what I had to do. It never occurred to me to quit.”
Mark Hadley was 2 when his mother brought him into the act. When he was about 4, he stepped into the rodeo arena on cue, but then walked right past Virginia, his gaze transfixed on a distant point.
“Where are you going?” Virginia asked and Mark sheepishly turned around.
Tom was announcing that night, he made a remark over the loudspeaker and the entire audience got up to crane their heads to see for themselves what had captured the little cowboy’s attention.
“It was cartoons!” Virginia said, laughing. “I just quit trick roping for a little bit, and we all looked at the movie.”
Then there was the time in 1957 when his brother Mat, a few years older, performed with his mother in Mexico City at the Auditorio de Nacional.
The little boy, his eyes momentarily dazzled by a spotlight in his face, turned his back when presented to the seated dignitary, the president of Mexico who at that time would have been Adolfo Ruiz Cortines.
Apparently, turning your back on El President￩ during the show was a severe breach of protocol.
“The president asked, or rather demanded, that I bring that child up to him,” Virginia said. Guards marched Mat up to Cortines who then interrogated him.
“Why’d you turn your back on me?”
Virginia didn’t like El President￩’s tone, it was getting her dander up.
“I thought if he turns and hits him, I’m liable to hit him back,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Mat simply replied, “The light was in my eyes.”
El President￩ burst out laughing and then suddenly, it was all good.
But that wasn’t their only Latin American adventure. In the mid-1950s, in the midst of Castro’s revolution, the rodeo also made it to Cuba.
“We had guards around us a lot, and Gene Autry was over there, too,” she said. The entire rodeo had come, performers and stock.
The tension was real and Virginia recalled being suddenly moved to another hotel with even more guards.
But if Cuba was destined to fall, it was during their show the rodeo family saw why.
“The Clark brothers had their cannon, it was set in under a stairwell, and some idiot got in there fooling with it and set off the little bomb,” Virginia said. “The firecracker scared the guards; they threw their guns up and ran out!”
It wasn’t the end of the show, however. Or at least, the unplanned one.
“That’s when Gene Autry ran out of the dressing room adjoining mine,” she said, laughing. “And he ran out in boots, hat, shirt and his shorts.”
Now that’s some happy trails.