Cowboy Royalty Comes to Athens
by Anne Adams
It probably seemed like an ordinary evening in May 1953 at the Elmer Howard Service Station at the “Y” in Athens (Highways 31 at 175) as Sidney Corley went through his usual routine of waiting on customers. Routine, that is until a large station wagon pulled in about 8 p.m. and Sidney rushed out to pump their gas and wipe the windshield. Then as he did so he realized that the driver seemed somewhat familiar.
“Aren’t you Roy Rogers?” he ventured to ask. The man perhaps nodded and then the young college student realized that cowboy royalty had come to Athens! Roy Rogers - the “King of the Cowboys”!
The May 7, 1953 Athens Review article related how Corley, son of Deputy Sheriff Elton Corley, chatted with Roy and his wife Dale Evans and maybe to his surprise found them just as genuine and friendly as they appeared on the screen.
As Corley told the reporter, Roy was dressed informally but still characteristically in an open-necked western shirt, western pants, and green cowboy boots. He and Dale “…were very interested in his beard which he explained was grown for the Western Week festivities at the Henderson County Junior College and in his other activities.”
While youngsters may say “Roy who?” their grandparents certainly remember this pair of TV and movie stars that were so intensely popular in the 1940s and 1950s. Their movies and TV show of course provided western action and adventure in a “family-friendly” atmosphere. But fans also knew that they were themselves a family who regularly demonstrated their Christian values in their work as well as in their private lives.
Their 1950s TV series was set in modern days though in a western town – Roy and Dale rode their horses but sidekick Pat Brady drove a jeep, so it might seem a strange combination. The plots usually involved how they helped their neighbors and after things were settled and a lesson learned they might even quote Scripture.
Born Leonard Slye in Ohio in 1911, Roy grew up as a self-described “backwoods country boy.” (And continued to be so even after he became famous!) He and his family arrived in California during the depression where Roy found his niche in Western movies. Interestingly, his first role was under his real name in a Gene Autrey picture.
Roy had appeared in Western movies for several years until Dale Evans, who had previously been a popular movie and radio singer, joined the Roy Rogers film series in 1944.
Born Frances Octavia Smith in Ulvalde, Texas in 1912, Dale married Roy and acquired an already made family. There were two daughters and a son from his first marriage, and they later adopted several more children as well as having one of their own. And it was this daughter, Robin Elizabeth, born in 1950 who may well have helped change popular culture.
Robin was born with Down syndrome, but at a time when many of these children were either institutionalized or hidden from public view, the Rogers made sure that Robin appeared in any family pictures or publicity. Though she died at age 2, Robin also served as the inspiration of Dale’s Book Angel Unaware that touched many lives. Also, the family’s practice of letting Robin be an open part of their family may well have been responsible for others beginning to gradually change attitudes towards Down’s children. There is even some evidence that as the Rogers made public appearances, such as at rodeos or other shows more and more disabled children began to make their appearances instead of being hidden.
Over the years Roy and Dale continued to appear in live shows, and on television and in a few movies. Roy died in 1998 and Dale in 2001. But back in 1953 when it was time for Roy and Dale to leave Athens when they took the highway toward Corsicana, probably to continue to Waxahachie since Dale’s father had recently passed away. Cowboy royalty perhaps, but genuine people much beloved by their many fans for many years.