Lydia Reeder’s ‘Dust Bowl Girls’ – much more than a great story about competitive sports
Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – In J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, the most important character is not the “king” referenced in the final installment, but Gandalf the Wizard. His is a central and heroic role, self-sacrificial and affirming of the goodness and decency in the fellowship that formed to oppose tyranny and oppression.
That story unfolds, of course, in a fictional world. But the books just happened to emerge in Tolkein’s drafts during the years that nations in the real world came together to oppose the tyranny and oppression of Nazi Germany and its allies.
Gandalf provides what I believe was and is the narrative nugget, in a conversation with Frodo, the reluctant hero. The words are central in the novels, and survived even the distillation process that is natural for a motion picture.
Frodo describes the terror the fellowship is encountering. In a moment of faltering, he tells Gandalf, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”
Gandalf does not condemn the “Halfling” for weakness.
Instead, Gandalf says: “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
As friends, family and fans gathered for a book-signing kickoff for Lydia Reeder, author of ‘Dust Bowl Girls’ on February 6, it was the birthday of Ronald Reagan.
Like the heroines of Lydia’s beautiful story, he came from a small town, and he attended a small private college.
He played football, and ultimately became student body president. He returned again and again to campus and to the memories of his classmates.
He deflected credit for his achievements, which ultimately gave more and credit to him.
I believe the ‘nugget’ of Reagan’s greatness is found in the farewell address he gave as president. Reagan eschewed honor for what he had accomplished:
He said, “I won a nickname, ‘The Great Communicator.’ But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: it was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation — from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries.”
In Lydia Reeder, we meet a new and wondrous story-teller, in her own right another great communicator.
She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate from the University of Oklahoma. She holds two masters’ degrees – one from Oklahoma State University the other from of Univ. of Colorado. She is currently an Instructional Designer at the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses in Denver.
All that is impressive, yet her past is prelude.
In her book “Dust Bowl Girls,” Lydia writes with rare authenticity and depth of sourcing, in a style that gives her tale rare power. She communicates in this book, as did Reagan in his presidency and his public life, great ideas.
She tells a story of young women – still girls in their own minds – from desperately poor families living through the height of the Great Depression.
They were possessed of hard work. They were willing to engage in drill and repetition. They played for a guy named Sam Babb, who insisted on excellence.
They learned and they retained morality, ethics, decency in the treatment of others. All these things we see in ‘Dust Bowl Girls.’
The narrative nugget of this priceless work of art comes when Lydia describes what happened at halftime in the Cardinals’ first Amateur Athletic Union national title basketball game.
Coach Babb lets the squad’s best player, Doll Harris, chew her teammates out just a bit.
When she finishes, the coach doesn’t correct Doll, but he lifts the young women up.
He speaks almost mystically. The master of little details became the muse of mystery and excellence.
He says: “Just remember, play the game, not the team. Now close your eyes. Picture your best moves. Whatever they are, they aren’t your best moves anymore. They’re common, everyday moves. Picture what you have to do to win.”
For times such as these, comes now a story for the ages, a classic of sports writing, an estimable historical narrative, a new entry in the annals great literature.
It took Lydia Reeder ten years to write it, but it will take a lot less than that for America to appreciate it.
Before the Mighty Macs (Immaculata College in Pennsylvania), before Pat Summit set the basketball standard for modern women’s coaches at the University of Tennessee, and before the “Lady Sooners” of Coach Sherri Coale, there was a one-legged Oklahoman named Sam Babb and his amazing squads. These women did ordinary things in extraordinary ways.
In the time they had – a long season of economic deprivation none of them would ever have deliberately chosen — the dust bowl girls of Durant, Oklahoma lived with passion, vigor and dignity.
Their story is more than an inspiring narrative of excellence in competitive sports. It is a work that communicates eternal truths with dignity, restraint and loving care. Little wonder it is already attracting national attention.
NOTE: This is adapted from McGuigan’s remarks, at the Jim Thorpe Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame on February 6, introducing Lydia Reeder. She is the author of ‘Dust Bowl Girls: The Inspiring Story of the Team that Barnstormed Its Way to Basketball Glory,’ Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (a division of Workman Publishing, New York), 286 pages with detailed notes. It is available at Full Circle Books in Oklahoma City.