2009 Archives

Shaking pompoms for the grandfather of modern cheerleading

Excerpt

The following story appeared in the March 14 edition of The New York Times.

Lawrence Herkimer's first cheerleading camp
Photo: National Cheerleaders Association

Lawrence Herkimer's first cheerleading camp, in 1948, drew 52 girls and a boy, he said. There were 350 campers the next year. He sold his empire in 1986.

March 14, 2009

By John Branch
The New York Times

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.”

Read the full story.