“Women ranchers, trick riders, and rodeo queens were much more intriguing to me than the dusty cowboys I saw when I was growing up in South Texas.” So says Texas Monthly in the February 2003 edition when Sweetwater native Nita Brooks Lewallen was being inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth.
As one of the season’s events of the social calendar in Fort Worth, Nita shared with other matriarchs such as Anne Burnett Tandy of the Four Sixes and Sandra Day O’Connor first women justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Born in San Angelo, Nita or “Tootie” as she is affectionately known by her grandchildren, was the queen of “The archetypal Texas cowgirls” growing up on her beloved dad’s ranch, working cattle, riding horses under the sun and cherishing independence. She was liberated long before anyone had heard of women’s lib. When she got knocked down in the dust, she got back up and kept going.
A beautiful Christian wife, mother and civic minded spirit, her college roommate Liz Smith coined the phrase for her, “an ethereal beauty.” (As you may know, Liz, is an honored political commentator both in Washington and New York famed for her literary acumen.) The Hardin-Simmons University magazine, Range Rider, in the Spring of 1998, exclaimed “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby!” when touting Nita’s accomplishments in school, World War II, ranching, land management, and, as she says, her serious money endeavor: horse breeding and racing.
She was named Breeder of the Year in 1992 by the Texas Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. She was active until her death in the horse business with her son Louis Brooks, Jr. and daughter Leigh Odom.
Not surprisingly, Nita, Louis, Jr., (Judge to his old friends), and Leigh are the prime movers in what has become known as Brooks Ranch Ltd. You may recognize their most recent partnership in the mega-famous Thoroughbred California Chrome. He was the winner of the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 2014, Winner of the Eclipse Award for “Moment of the Year” 2016, Older Horse of the Year 2016, and Horse of the Year 2016.
Yes. Nita and Louis, both serene, quiet, humble and altruistic, did excel in thoroughbreds and quarter horses. But they also did much for conservation of the land they were given stewardship.
Nita claims her most prized honors are the USDA Soil Conservation Award and the Goodyear Award for Rancher of the Year she received in 1986. She served on the board of the Texas Thoroughbred Breeders Association.
She said, “I just hope I can do my part. I think I can probably learn more than I could contribute, but I’m going to give it my best.”
Nita made a personal plan when World War II intensified. She began taking flying instruction and soloed after only four weeks training at Avenger Field with the WASP. She knew the Army Air Corp needed women fliers to ferry aircraft into the war zones and she was up to the task. Nita’s plan to complete her WASP changed while riding as a Ranch Girl Honor Guest in an exhibition at the 1943 World Championship Rodeo in Madison Square Garden.
At Madison Square Garden, Nita performed with the Six White Horse Riders from Hardin-Simmons alongside of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and The Sons of the Pioneers. During a performance she knocked the World Champion Cowboy that year off his feet.
Louis Brooks said he was sitting on a bucking chute at the Gardens when he saw Nita for the first time. He said she was riding a white horse and was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
He was so awestruck that he fell backward into the chute, was stomped by a bull, and never felt any pain. After winning six World Championship titles, he retired from the rodeo to ranch. He was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.
They were married for 40 years, living south of Sweetwater on the Brooks Ranch. After Louis Brooks death in 1983, Nita renewed her friendship with longtime rodeo friend, G.K. Lewallen. They were married in April of 1990. They were married for 25 years living in Stephenville.
G.K. Lewallen was a rodeo legend in his own right. He was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame. G.K. died in December 2014.
Nita is survived by her daughter, Leigh Brooks Odom and her husband Doug Odom of Atascadero, California; son Louis Lee Brooks, Jr. and wife Charlotte Lee Brooks of Sweetwater; Grandchildren; Lorie Leigh Lawrence and husband Charles Ralph of Cedar Hill, TX; Brooks Lawrence and wife Christa Lawrence of Cambria, California; Shasta Lee Brooks and husband Scott Zogbaum of Santa Fe, New Mexico; Boyd Lee Brooks and wife Courtney Martin Brooks of Sweetwater. Great grandchildren; Brooks Leigh Ralph and Lillian Leigh Ralph are students at Texas State University; Levi Brooks Lawrence of Cambria, California; Smith Brooks Zogbaum of Santa Fe, New Mexico; Martina Lee Brooks and Bohdi Lee Brooks of Sweetwater; her favorite cousins; John Boyd of Lovington, New Mexico; Bob Boyd and wife Ansa Boyd of Lovington, New Mexico; Kay Boyd Butler and husband Don Butler of Lufkin, TX. Nita’s extended family; stepdaughters; Cindra Elms and husband Chick Elms of Stephenville, TX.; Tula Vassel and husband Robert Vassel of West Hampton, N.Y.; stepson Nolan Lewallen and wife Kim Lewallen of Stephenville, TX.; step grandchildren; Chad Elms and wife Stephanie Elms; Chayla Horan and husband Ken Horan; Clint Elms and wife Tori Elms; Connor Elms; Garrett Vassel and wife Ashley Vassel; Aaron Lewallen; Seth Lewallen; Noelle Linn and husband Ryan Linn; Lauren Penner and husband Alex Penner; Nita had 12 step great children. The Brooks family would like to thank the assisted living staff of Wesley Court, especially Sandy Helms and Brittany Langford.
Also, a special thank you to Hospice and Visiting Angels.
Memorial services will be held 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, at First United Methodist Church in Sweetwater with Rev. Ryan Strebeck officiating. Arrangements are under the direction of McCoy Funeral Home.
A reception will follow at Sweetwater Country Club.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to First United Methodist Church 309 Cedar St. Sweetwater, TX 79556, American Heart Association 149 N Willis Abilene, TX 79603 or American Cancer Society 3402 N 1st Street Abilene, TX 79603.
Online condolences may be expressed at www.mccoyfh.com.