Saturday, March 24, 2012

Happy Trails

     We pushed our way through the crowd, the sheriff’s deputy leading the way.  Stopping outside a door the officer announced we had arrived at our destination.  He briefly peeked in to verify that those inside were ready for us, pushed open the door then assumed his post outside in the hall.  Gary and Bill had been in the lead or our small procession, but now they both instantly pulled up and faced the uniformed officer.  “I want to be a policeman someday,” Gary offered enthusiastically, more impressed with the deputy and his uniform than the pair who awaited him inside.  

     Not wanting to create a backlog in the hallway, I continued into the room as the first of our party to enter, and there was Roy Rogers, still in his heavy stage make-up, standing with a big smile on his face and extending his hand to welcome me.  I gave him my best firm handshake then moved deeper into the room with my sister close behind.  Dianna’s hair hung in a long braid down her back, and this instantly caught Roy’s attention.  Reaching out, he gently touched her braid and said, “You have mighty pretty hair.”  Little by little, our colorful crew made their way into the surprisingly nondescript dressing room.  As they entered, each person got a warm greeting and a hug, a pat on the back or a hearty handshake.  I looked over and there was Mom standing with Dale Evans, and the pair of them looked like a couple of proud mothers watching their children at play.  But it was Roy who really caught the group’s attention.  I suspect it was the flashy cowboy outfit that had most interested them, but regardless of the reason he was soon surrounded by a grinning, talking, touching mob.

     Dianna had received her teaching degree from Indiana State University in the very early 70’s, but rather than the traditional classroom, she chose instead to work with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  At the time she was employed by the Hollis Adams Foundation, an organization created in 1969 for those individuals in their 20’s and 30’s who had outgrown the regular school system.  I had come to know some of these people through occasional visits to the school and an evening or two of bingo.  My personal favorites had always been Gary, a small, slip of a person with a pronounced overbite and an internal engine that always seemed to be revving at high speed, and Bill, a tall, handsome man who (to me) seemed very quiet and friendly, but who I had later learned could be prone to temper outbursts.  Thankfully, I never witnessed this side of his personality.  The two came from very different backgrounds.  Gary’s family was a close-knit, supportive, loving group.  His brother would always be there at the evening bingo games, and I can still remember on one occasion his teasing Gary about witnessing some recent streakers, bringing a bright red flush to Gary’s face.  Bill, on the other hand, had lived a much more sheltered life, growing up at a time when mental disabilities were still considered a social stigma.  Once his father passed, however, the family felt freer to allow him out in public, and so he too finally joined the group at the foundation.  His time isolated away at home had allowed him to self-educate himself on various topics including nature, and when the group of students took a field trip to a local nature preserve, it had been Bill who had answered nearly every question.  There were many others whom I enjoyed, but my memory always goes back to Gary and Bill.
The Rogers Family

     This day’s activities were the end result of a letter my sister had written to Roy and Dale some months earlier.  The couple had a long history of helping children with special needs which was born of their own personal tragedy.  When they were originally married, the pair already had a total of four children from their previous unions.    At the time it was believed that Dale would be unable to conceive any more children, but at age 37 she gave birth to a daughter whom they named Robin; however, the child was born with Down Syndrome and died shortly before her second birthday.  Typical of the times, many had originally pushed for the Rogers to institutionalize her, but the couple would have none of it.  They persevered and blessed their young daughter with a warm, loving, family-oriented household during her short two years.  Forever changed by the gift of Robin, the family did not stop there.  They later adopted Mary Little Doe, a healthy Native American girl.  This was followed by the adoption of John David (Sandy) Rogers who was a battered and malnourished orphan from Kentucky.  On a trip to England, they visited another orphanage and fell in love with yet another girl, Mimi, who eventually came to live with them in the United States as a foster child.  Finally, they added a daughter named Debbie, who was a seemingly unadoptable war orphan due to her mixed Puerto Rican and Korean ancestry.  Dale, especially, became active with special needs children, penning the book Angel Unaware, which told the story of their daughter, Robin.  Due to her efforts, the Oklahoma County Council for Mentally Retarded Children eventually became known as the Dale Rogers Training Center.
Roy entertaining young heart patients

The old puzzle
     And that is how it came to be that on this warm August afternoon in 1978 I was standing and rubbing elbows with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans in a little backstage dressing room in the Coliseum at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.  How many times had I come home from school in the afternoon and turned on reruns of the Roy Rogers Show on our little black and white television?  Usually, Roy would find himself in some sort of dangerous jam from which he must escape with the help of Dale on Buttermilk, his German shepherd, Bullet, the beautiful and talented palomino, Trigger, and (my favorite) his humorous sidekick, Pat Brady who traveled the West in a beat-up, old jeep named Nellybelle.  Unfortunately, Mr. Brady had passed six years earlier, so he was not a part of the program that day.  Yet after the bull riding, barrel racing and calf roping of the rodeo were over, Roy rode out on his current version of Trigger, with Dale riding at his side.  Although not as talented as the original, Roy put Trigger Jr. through a series of stunts and tricks- bowing, dancing and rearing in that classic western pose.  Then in his mid-60’s, Roy still looked every bit the cowboy to me that he had on our old family jigsaw puzzle I had pieced together over and over again as a small boy, and which showed Roy from an early western standing on a stairway with gun drawn.  Later, Roy and Dale were joined by the Sons of the Pioneers on stage to sing their classic western tunes like Tumbling Tumbleweeds and Cool Water.  Of course the show concluded with them singing the song Dale had penned and with which the pair always closed their television show.  As Happy Trails filled the air, the young people in Dianna’s group joined the crowd in singing along. 
A still from the old Roy Rogers Show
     It was this sing along that brings back my final memory of that day.  With the group gathered around them, Gary blurted out, “I was singing with you, Roy and Dale!”  To this, Dale replied, “I know you were, honey.  We could hear you.”   We were certainly in no position for the famous pair to have heard us, but this statement meant the world to those young people.  The entire way home they kept saying, “Roy and Dale heard us singing!”  There was such pride in their voices.  It had been a simple gesture on Dale’s part, but it was the greatest gift I think she could have given those individuals. 
Roy looking every bit the hero on Trigger

     With his white hat, which my mother once pointed out to me never seemed to fall off even in a vigorous fight, Roy was always the hero in the movies and on his television show, but on that day he and his wife, Dale, became real life heroes to me and my family.  The love and respect they showed my sister’s students was totally genuine, and my only regret is that I never got the opportunity to thank them personally.  I’m sure my sister did, and years later we both independently wrote and related the story to their son, Dusty, and extended our thanks to him.
Roy and Dale closer to there era in which I met them.
My autographs on a scrap of paper mom had in her purse

     And so I end this as they did their weekly television show, with a song…

Happy trails to you, until we meet again.
Happy trails to you, keep smilin' until then.
Who cares about the clouds when we're together?
Just sing a song and bring the sunny weather.
Happy trails to you, 'till we meet again.

Some trails are happy ones,
Others are blue.
It's the way you ride the trail that counts,
Here's a happy one for you.

Happy trails to you, until we meet again.
Happy trails to you, keep smilin' until then.
Who cares about the clouds when we're together?
Just sing a song and bring the sunny weather.

Happy trails to you, 'till we meet again.


  1. How wonderful!
    Happy Trails to you!
    ps. just added Angel Unaware to my book list!

  2. Of course we have heard of Roy Rogers over here,though he didn't feature much on my radar. However, this made for lovely reading as always, reminded me of my own autograph collection, mostly gleaned in the 60s.... Gene Pitney, Andy Williams and Claudine Longet, several British groups of the time. Some in later years of actresses, and I have many books with personal to me notes stuck inside the dust jacket.
    Thanks for the memories....