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Home > Related Article > Shaking Pompoms for the Grandfather of Modern Cheerleading


AVENTURA, Fla. — Lawrence Herkimer recently had his hearing tested. His wife thought it was long overdue.“The doctor said: ‘Were you around a lot of noise? Did you work with motors?’ ” Herkimer said. “And I said, ‘Well, yes, I was around a lot of noise.’ ”

But Herkimer — call him Herkie, because everyone does, even his wife — spent most of his 83 years around something peppier than motors, if similarly reliant on moving parts: cheerleaders.

Herkimer basically invented them, the modern version, at least, then spawned generations more, until millions had attended his camps, wore his pleated skirts and clingy sweaters and bought his patented pompoms. They learned cheers that echoed from the crannies of the American landscape. They filled hot gyms and cool Friday nights with rhythmic soundtracks and ever-flouncing bursts of choreographed color.

If there is someone to credit for all of this — or to blame, depending on your appetite for noise and gyrations meant to distract and enthuse — it is Herkimer, who now wears a hearing aid.

He has been out of the business for about two decades now. But a feeling of pride still arrives when cheerleaders fill the television screen, as they routinely will do during the N.C.A.A. basketball tournaments, lining the baselines and ushering viewers into and out of commercial breaks with big smiles and quaking balls of streamers.

“Whenever I see them, all the pompoms waving around,” Herkimer said, “I say, ‘There my pompoms are.’ ”

As if needing more validation, his name was once a question on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” The question: What professional is most likely to perform a herkie?

The herkie is a popular jumping exclamation point for cheer routines. Those who cannot imagine one, much less imagine doing one, have probably seen one — an arm straight up, the other hand on the hip, one leg straight out, the other bent back.Herkimer inadvertently created one of cheerleading’s signature moves while he was a cheerleader at Southern Methodist University in the 1940s.

“It was just a poor split jump,” Herkimer said. “I don’t like to tell people that.”

Herkimer is far above cheerleading’s commotion now, wealthy from the empire he built and then sold for $20 million in 1986, living with his second wife, Vera, in a 6,000-square-foot home 29 floors above the Atlantic’s breaking surf on one side and a country club on another. He has a standing 8 a.m. tee time every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. He exercises in a fitness club three days a week, too. He says he is 5 feet 7 ½ inches and 165 pounds. His regimen does not include herkies.

“I was about 60 when I did my last one,” he said. “I joke that it takes a crane and piano wire to perform one now.”

Herkimer’s first cheerleading camp, in 1948 at Sam Houston State Teachers College (now Sam Houston State University), attracted 52 girls and a boy, Herkimer said. There were 350 campers the next year. He borrowed $600 from a friend of his father-in-law to initiate the cheerleading industry from his Dallas garage.

“I was making more money in the summertime in camps than I was teaching all year at S.M.U.,” Herkimer said. “So I quit teaching and went full time into cheerleading. It grew by leaps and bounds.”

Soon, his National Cheerleaders Association was employing 1,500 instructors each summer, teaching tens of thousands of cheer-camp comers on college campuses in all corners of the country. His Cheerleader Supply Company was outfitting squads in sweaters and skirts — not Herkimer’s favorite side of the business, but the most profitable.

Herkimer knew he had something going in the mid-1950s when he returned from two weeks on the road to find his wife, Dorothy (who died in 1993), “sitting at the dining room table taking so many orders that she couldn’t talk to me,” he said.

When Herkimer realized that color television begged for something quaking and colorful, he designed crepe-papered pompoms on sticks. Eventually, in 1971, his hidden-handled design of what he called the pom pon (so named after Herkimer heard that pompom had vulgar connotations in other cultures) received United States patent No. 3,560,313.

Herkimer told The Dallas Morning News in 1987 that he took cheerleading “from the raccoon coat and pennant to greater heights.”

His timing was perfect. Among the other major cultural shifts that World War II created was women pouring into cheerleading to replace the men. The increasing popularity of football gave rise to the sideline cheerleader, something not considered with a sport like baseball. By the 1950s, before the gender-equity movement of Title IX, the head cheerleader was the female accompaniment to the football captain, dovetailing perfectly into pop culture like doo-wop and the drive-in.

“He elevated the status and visibility of cheerleading,” said Jeff Webb, the founder and chief executive of Varsity Brands, now the industry’s dominant company. “He made it something very aspirational.”

Webb, a former University of Oklahoma cheerleader and National Cheerleaders Association instructor, went to work full time for Herkimer in 1971. He soon left to start a competing company and is widely credited for continuing cheerleading’s growth arc, popularizing cheerleading competitions and getting them onto television. His company now owns Herkimer’s former companies, which were bought and sold a few times after Herkimer retired.

Herkimer makes appearances at camps and competitions a few times a year. But he said that cheerleading passed him by years ago.

“Playing the 60-year-old cheerleader was getting kind of hard, and I couldn’t think like a 15-year-old girl anymore,” he said. “We’d meet to look at fabrics to buy, and I’d say, ‘Now, don’t overbuy that one.’ And they’d say, ‘Well, Mr. Herkimer, that one was No. 1 in the junior high catalog.’ ”

He worries that cheerleading is too bent on all-star squads created to compete as a team rather than cheer on others — something that Webb said concerned him, too.

Herkimer said: “I’m amazed cheerleading came so far, so I don’t know where it could go from here. All I can see is it going downhill. If they stop being an asset to the school and to school activities, then cheerleading can die.”

It is hard to imagine, especially at a time like this, when cheerleaders sit at the edge of basketball games, providing a backdrop of sight and sound. A team will score, and some will undoubtedly spring to their feet and perform herkies.

Herkimer reached into an office bookcase and flipped through recently arrived pages of cheerleading supplies.

“I notice that they don’t even have any sweaters advertised in the uniform catalog,” he said.

By JOHN BRANCH Source-The New York Times