At age “39-plenty,” this Midland, Texas, woman serves as an ambassador for the ranching industry and traditional cowboy ways.
The official ambassador for the Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium in Ruidoso, New Mexico, Tommye Connor—aka “Mama T”—fills that role unofficially for many other such gatherings, as well. She encourages young and old alike to connect with the Western way of life she knows so well.
Ranch-raised, Tommye counts legendary National Cowgirl Hall of Fame member Fern Sawyer and ProRodeo hall of famer Casey Tibbs among her early influences. Equally lasting impressions came from the ranchers and cowboys who taught her to handle livestock, be straightforward and stand her ground. Tommye and her late husband, Gene, raised their sons in the same manner.
Tommye stopped riding after being severely kicked in the face by a horse, but she continues to live on the family ranch. At cowboy gatherings, Tommye’s signature hat and colorful, high-top boots make her easy to spot, and her shoot-from-the-hip commentary, accompanied by a throaty laugh and wide smile, leaves no doubt—this is Mama T.
The first time I was on a horse, I was 6 weeks old. Daddy put me in a tow sack—an old gunnysack. He made holes for my legs in the bottom, put my bottles and diapers in there with me, then wrapped the sack around his neck and we went to check cattle. I was his shadow from then on.
I was 8 years old before I ever had a saddle. Up until then, I rode bareback, so my daddy wouldn’t let me gather cattle on the roundup but made me stay in camp with the cook. I was about 6 and mad as a hornet, stomping and kicking around camp, when Tom Grammer, the camp cook, lifted the lid on a pan of Dutch-oven biscuits. I kicked dirt all over them.
“Tom-, Tom-, Tommye Louise,” he stuttered. “Your daddy won’t spank you, but I will.” And he did. When Daddy and the cowboys came back, I had to fess up.
When one of Daddy’s cowboys had been ornery, not doing what he was supposed to do, he had to baby-sit me. That was the worst punishment a cowboy could get.
Daddy knew Fern Sawyer’s family, so when I was about 13, she took me rodeoing. She was my mentor. I already was ornery, so none of hers rubbed off on me, and in my estimation she was the best cowgirl I ever met in my life.
Casey Tibbs was rodeoing back then. I was just a young’un, of course, but I thought Casey was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen, and I’d dance with him. He loved to play jokes on everybody, but was a very interesting man, a neat person to know.
“Mr. Gene” and I married in 1950. Afterward, I went to school—which women didn’t do much then—while I was raising two boys. Our oldest son was 18 months before Mr. Gene ever saw him. He’d been overseas in the service, and I did a lot of correspondence work while he was gone.
My sons showed Quarter Horses, and I hauled them. I took two trailer-loads of horses and six 16-year-old boys from Texas to the [All American Quarter Horse] Congress in Columbus, Ohio, for two weeks. They were good boys, but I cancelled my room, put two chairs in front of the other room door and slept there for two weeks. Those boys nicknamed me “Mama T,” and everybody still calls me that.
I’m 39-plenty now, and my new doctor wanted my medical history, including broken bones. I asked if she wanted her list from the top or the bottom. I’ve had broken ankles, torn-up knees, busted ribs, teeth knocked out—just a bit of it all—but that’s part of living on a ranch.
They drafted me for color commentary at a rodeo one time, and I “disqualified” six barrel racers. One girl didn’t think I should have, so I told her about the dress code: “You can’t wear your britches down around your rear end, with no shirt to speak of and your belly showing with a tattoo or earring. If you want to dress stripped down, I’ll take you to some honkytonks because I think you’ll make more money stripping than you will riding a horse.”
Maybe I’m too hard on people, being from the era I am, but judging cuttings or shows then was hard. Everybody could ride and they had good horses. Now, there are a lot of good horses but not that many good riders.
Cowboy gatherings—I believe in them. They were as near and dear to Mr. Gene’s heart as they are to mine. They keep our Western heritage alive. With the big ranches selling and times changing, we must hit a spot in the minds of the young people, some aspect they can pick up on.
Cowboys always have been the most important men in my life. They’re good men, and what you see is what you get. If you want to find me, anybody will tell you, “Look for a bunch of old cowboys and you’ll find Mama T.”