2015 Archives

Cheerleading pioneer and SMU Alumnus Lawrence Herkimer dies

Originator of the pompom, the spirit stick, the Herkie jump, and the National Cheerleaders Association

July 3, 2015

Lawrence Herkimer, the irrepressible icon and model entrepreneur known as "the father of modern cheerleading," is being remembered as the originator of the pompom, the spirit stick, the Herkie jump, and the National Cheerleaders Association.

Lawrence Herkimer
Lawrence Herkimer with cheerleaders, performing his
signature jump in front of SMU's Dallas Hall. 

Herkimer, who began his spirit-squad revolution during his time as an SMU cheerleader, died in Dallas on July 1, 2015. He was 89 years old.

"Lawrence Herkimer's legendary spirit energized everyone and everything in his orbit, including his beloved alma mater," said SMU President R. Gerald Turner. "In his vision, his enthusiasm and his entrepreneurial spirit, he was a true world changer. Generations of young people have learned from his example, and none more than his fellow Mustangs, who will carry his legacy forward."

Better known as "Herkie," Herkimer honed his craft as a cheerleader at SMU, where his electric personality and inventive athleticism made him a standout. While attending the University, he formed a national organization for cheerleaders and created a cheerleading-oriented magazine called Megaphone.

He also perfected his signature jump — which he first performed as a North Dallas High School cheerleader in the early forties — during his stint as the Mustangs' head cheerleader in the Doak Walker era. The Herkie is correctly performed with one arm extended straight up in the air and the other hand on the hip, with one leg extended straight out and the other bent back in a hurdler's stance.

"Far more difficult acrobatic stunts exist, but none so perfectly capture the energy and exuberance identified with cheerleading," wrote Joe Nick Patoski in Texas Monthly in 1989.

Yet the iconic move was, by its creator's own admission, a failed attempt at a different stunt. "It was just a poor split jump,” Herkimer said to John Branch of The New York Times in 2009. “I don’t like to tell people that.”

Herkimer organized his first cheerleading camp in 1948 at Sam Houston State Teachers College in Huntsville, Texas. The first session drew 52 girls and one boy. The following year, it drew 350 participants. The increasingly successful camps were the beginning of the Dallas-based National Cheerleaders Association (NCA), which Herkimer incorporated in 1961 and sold for $20 million in 1986. Now owned by Varsity Brands, the NCA still holds cheer camps each summer on college campuses throughout the nation, including at SMU. The organization also presents the annual College National Championships, broadcast live from Daytona Beach every April.

The cheer camps also gave rise to another of Herkimer's inventions: the spirit stick. During an NCA camp in 1954, Herkimer noted that one squad was not the best at performing moves, but stood out from the others in their hard work and encouragement of other teams. He was so impressed by the squad's positive attitude that he cut a small tree branch, decorated it with paint, and awarded it to the team in front of the entire camp. Since then, the tradition of the spirit stick has represented the teamwork, spirit and support that Herkimer believed to be the essence of cheerleading.

In 1951, Herkimer cofounded the Cheerleader Supply Company with his first wife, Dorothy Brown Herkimer ’46, who died in 1993. Originally operated out of the Herkimers' Dallas garage, the firm grew quickly into a booming retail business for sweaters, skirts, spirit sticks, booster ribbons, specially made shoes and other cheerleading equipment.

The advent of color television led to another Herkimer innovation. Cheerleaders were garnering more and more camera time, and Herkimer recognized a need to provide colorful and visually appealing accessories for them. As a result, he put paper streamers on a stick to create the "pom pon." For his subsequent design update — a flameproof Mylar version with a hidden handle — Herkimer was granted patent number 3,560,313 by the U.S. Patent Office in 1971. (He used the "pom pon" spelling on purpose, after hearing that the more common variation, "pompom," had vulgar meanings in other languages.)

Herkimer's SMU ties remained strong throughout his life. He served as president of the SMU Alumni Association in 1981-82, and as the Class of 1948 reunion giving chair from 1992 to 1994. In 1985, he received the University's Distinguished Alumni Award and in 1994 received an honorary letter from the SMU Lettermen's Association. In 2012, he was honored as one of the University's Centennial History Makers.

"Lawrence Herkimer was a wonderful guy and an SMU legend," said Brad Cheves, SMU vice president for Development and External Affairs. "He was very proud of his association with his alma mater, and very generous to the University throughout his lifetime in ways that directly impacted students. We will cherish his memory."

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