It seemed as if my entire life had come down to this one moment. I was 16 and had been showing dairy cows in competition since I was old enough to walk and hold a lead rope at the same time.
It was the state showmanship, and the competition would be fierce. There were seven districts in Alabama and the month before. I had won my district. Seven kids, seven cows, one judge—on a crisp October afternoon in a barn in Birmingham, but I was prepared. I’d been preparing my entire life.
A generation before, my father stood in that same ring with his cow. As the winner, he received an all expense paid trip to the National 4-H Congress in Chicago. It was my turn. I entered the show ring with confidence.
It began in the usual way: stop, start, set your cow up, keep one eye on the cow and one eye on the judge at all times. His questions were simple at first: “What’s your cow’s name?” “How old is she?” “How long have you been showing?”
He began to eliminate the competition one showman at a time: a boy from Huntsville, a girl from down around Mobile. One mistake and they were out . . . And then there were two.
I don’t remember her name. I think she was “Rosser” or “Henry,” two other prominent names in the dairy industry in the state. I do remember she seemed to want this as much as I did. We settled in and went to work.
The questions became harder: “What stage of lactation is your cow in?” “How many pounds of milk does she give daily?” “What’s the butter fat content of that milk?” “What’s your family farm’s rolling herd average?” I knew all the answers, but so did “Rosser-Henry.”
What seemed like an entire afternoon was closer to ninety minutes. Finally, I watched with my one eye as the judge shook his head, threw his arms up in frustration and then made his way to the microphone. There was complete silence in the audience as the judge cleared his throat and began to speak. What he said next, I will never forget.
He spoke directly to “Rosser-Henry” and me and said that in all his years of judging this type of competition, he’d never met two better showmen; that he kept waiting on one of us to make a mistake, any mistake, but he couldn’t make it happen. Then he spoke to the audience when he said that there were no losers here, but someone had to take first place and that he would have to go with . . . the young lady . . . “because she smiled more than the young man.”
A boy of 16 was not allowed to cry in those days, so I held my head high and made my way to the exit. Although it was too late, I flashed a quick smile at the judge as I left, vowing to myself that next time would be different.
A year later, I found myself in that same show ring. The same fierce competition, the same determination, but this time I had a constant smile on my face . . .
It was my first time to fly, my first time in a taxi, my first time in a big city. I walked along the shores of Lake Michigan and stood atop the Sears Tower and looked down on Chicago and understood why she was called “The Windy City.”
I learned a lot that week at the National 4-H Congress, but it wasn’t until my own children began to enter the show ring with their own cows that I realized what showing cows had taught me—about determination and perseverance and preparation—about knowing the answers to all the hard questions and entering into things with confidence; the same thing I wanted my children to learn. But just as importantly, I learned how a friendly smile can take you a long way and a big smile can take you all the same to Chicago.