Twirl-O-Jacks

Written by Kimberly Ferguson.

In Panola County

The Stephen F. Austin State University Twirl-O-Jacks (TOJs) have been making history in East Texas since 1956, when late band director Jimmie Hudgins coined the name and began actively recruiting twirlers in the area to learn an innovative type of dance/twirl. The most recent Panola County twirler to join the line is Bailee Woodall, who graduated from Beckville High School in 2016 and is only the seventh girl who has lived in Panola County to be selected as a TOJ in 60 years.

 

The legacy of TOJs who have strong ties to Panola County began with Wanda Jones Hanszen, Twink Sitton Ross, and Joyce Coulter Sullivan, who were all recruited by Hudgins in the early 1960s.

Wanda Jones Hanszen, 1961-1964

Wanda began twirling in the ninth grade at Center High School. She was drum major both her junior and senior years in high school, and it was common for the drum major to also be head twirler at that time. When she was a sophomore, she set her sights on becoming a Twirl-O-Jack and prepared by taking private lessons from Linda Bridges in Henderson.

“Every time I tried out in high school, I had to do a feature-type solo with lots of tricks, and I remember my favorite tricks were the pretzels—the rolls that wound around yourself,” she recalls. “I loved performing, being in band, playing my instrument, marching, and being drum major. It was a great group of people, and we’re all still friends because we just had so much in common.”

Wanda met her husband, Jerry Hanszen, through the Lumberjack Marching Band when he was drum major and she was a Twirl-O-Jack. “Twink tells that he would kick off the song too fast if he were mad at me, so nobody could twirl and everybody would drop,” she says. Jerry was a Carthage native, and he brought his bride back to Carthage in 1971.

“Starting when I was a Twirl-O-Jack, we all taught at camps all summer for the next 30 years, and also at high schools,” Wanda says. “Then I taught twirling in studios where we lived. We would work in pairs to make up people’s routines because it was so much more fun and also kept us from being up until three or four in the morning trying to figure out what we were going to teach the next day, because we might have several routines to teach the next day.”

Although Wanda doesn’t twirl much anymore, she says she stills gets the urge to march when she hears the band play and is still good friends with many of her former teammates. “We still get together and talk about memories and what fun it was. All of our little group loved college and loved the band and all the traditions so very much.”

Twink Sitton Ross, 1961-1964

Twink found her passion for twirling as a little girl in Cushing, TX. “I looked at the high school twirlers when I was a little girl, and I just wanted to be one, so I started going to twirling camps in the summer because there was no one in the area who taught private lessons like they do now,” she recalls. “As a matter of fact, when I was in high school, I went to three twirling camps in one summer. I worked real hard, and I practiced a lot. There was a spot in our yard where I would twirl, and I literally wore that spot out practicing.”

During this time, the TOJs won national awards and also had the opportunity to perform in a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, where the band split in half and performed as two units because each band was to be paid individually. “The Mardi Gras parade was memorable because I was a small East Texas girl; I had never seen anything like that,” Twink remembers. “It was a torchlight parade, and they were swinging torches all around, so that was definitely a favorite memory.”

Twink says that she hopes this generation of young people can find an organization to be passionate about, and also find the desire to work hard toward something the way she did for band and Twirl-O-Jacks. “One of the things I remember so much from my senior year is walking across the campus from South Dorm to the band hall and thinking, ‘This has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world.’ Stephen F. Austin is a gorgeous campus, and I loved it. It opened up the world to me.”

In college, Twink was a member of Chi Omega, Student Government, Tau Beta Sigma, honor societies, and much more. Crowned Miss SFA in 1964 and active in many organizations, she says that the Lumberjack Marching Band influenced her more than all the rest. “I now have a real love for the band program at SFA,” she says. “The thing I learned the most was about working together as a group and being proud to be part of a group. I have lifelong friends from SFA, and that’s the most important thing to me. Twirling shaped my life unbelievably.”

Twink also continued to teach and choreograph after graduation. After several years teaching, she became a well-known figure at Panola College, where she began as a recruiter in 1983. She was part of the team that raised the first million dollars in scholarship money for Panola students and continued to wear multiple hats until her retirement in 2001.

“Twirling made me aware of the value of teamwork, because being part of a twirling line or a band requires teamwork,” Twink says . “It also requires that word W-O-R-K. I learned the value of hard work. I wasn’t necessarily the best twirler in the world, but I was twirling with some really great twirlers, so I worked real hard to perform well alongside them.”

Twink is a fan of the Carthage Bulldog Band that her daughter twirled with during the 1990s, and she still enjoys twirling for fun with her granddaughter. She reminisces, “I was with some friends for a girls’ weekend, and I found a sign to put over my back door that says, ‘You’re never too old to twirl!’ And that’s a joke because I really am too old, but when my granddaughter comes over, she and I go out and twirl. I can still teach, but I couldn’t perform!”

Joyce Coulter Sullivan, 1960-1962

A Christmas present in second grade sparked the love for twirling in little Joyce Coulter from Atlanta, Texas. That year under the tree she found a shiny new baton and a booklet explaining tricks like two-hand spins and horizontal wrist twirls.

“I learned everything in the book,” Joyce says. “I had a friend who could do everything I could do, and in seventh grade we were in a talent show; my brother played the piano for us and we twirled to ‘Baby Face.’ That was probably the first time I ever performed in front of anybody. I twirled every day, just playing.”

Joyce began her career at SFA on a flute scholarship with the band, but she had no intention of becoming a Twirl-O-Jack. “Mr. Hudgins had a rule that you had to attend twirling camp before you could audition, but I was already committed to teaching some younger twirlers that week, and couldn’t make it.,” she recalls. However, Hudgins was persistent in his recruiting to have the best twirlers in East Texas, and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“While I was in Louisiana teaching, Mr. Hudgins called and said that he had not picked everyone at twirling tryouts,” Joyce remembers. “He still wanted to have tryouts for two more girls and alternates, and he asked if I would be interested. I thought. ‘Well, I hate to just say no since he’s asked twice. I’ll just go and try out, and I won’t get it because I’ve never been to camp and all the other girls probably have.’” To her shock, she made the line that day and embarked on a new journey in collegiate twirling.

“We went to Dallas and did contests, and we walked away with just about every medal and trophy,” she recalls. “It was exciting to do that. I just loved being in the band and being with all the kids. We had a good time. I think twirling gave me a lot of confidence that I probably wouldn’t have had outside of that.” She decided to end her twirling career after her second year as a TOJ because of some health problems. She became an elementary teacher and spent most of her career teaching fourth grade. She continues to play the flute in her church’s orchestra today.

“Everything was exciting then! The first time my husband saw me, I was twirling,” Joyce says. “I caught his eye of all the twirlers. He stopped me as I was walking by and said, ‘I saw you at the game on Saturday. I didn’t know you were a Twirl-O-Jack.’” She was afraid of what he might think, because he was the music director at Calvary Baptist Church, and her Baptist deacon father “wasn’t thrilled” about his daughter wearing that tiny twirling uniform. But he told her later, “The very first time I ever saw you I knew you were special and that I wanted to know you.” “And we’ve been together 51 years,” she adds.

The couple lived in Carthage from 1991 until 1994 and returned here in retirement in early 2015. Their youngest granddaughter, Caroline, dabbled in twirling for a little while and got to see her grandmother’s moves. She recalls, “When Caroline was taking lessons, she came over one night, and I said, ‘Okay, let’s see what you can do.’ She showed me some of her moves, and I started twirling but could only remember a few things. But she looked over at her grandpa and said, ‘Pa, she’s still got it.’ We just laughed and I told her, ‘Caroline, you just made my day.’”

Panola County was unrepresented for almost 50 years before the new generation of aspiring Twirl-O-Jacks emerged.

Alexia Gilbeau (2009-2015)

The recent wave of TOJs began with Alexia Guilbeau, a 2008 Carthage graduate. She remembers vividly twirling her first game as a freshman. “It was exhilarating because I’d never been in front of a crowd that big and I was never more proud to twirl with a group because I truly felt like I’d jumped a hurdle. It was so hard for me to get the style down and get the splits down.”

Another memorable moment was her first game as head TOJ. “It was the first game we had on the field for the Brazil show, and it was absolutely my favorite performance of all time. In all of my best memories, what they have in common is that we accomplished something as a group that was really hard, and we nailed it. Anytime that happened, it was the best performance ever.”

Alexia’s mother Mona, a long-time employee of Carthage ISD who was killed in a car accident during Alexia’s tenure at SFA, was the one who originally encouraged her to audition for twirler in junior high. Alexia says, “Twirling made me who I was meant to be. It allowed me to open that part of myself that I am 100 percent today—an open, supportive, strong person. Every time I think about it, I praise God for opening that door and for my mom encouraging me. I would like for every student graduating high school to find a group or organization to be passionate about. If I hadn’t given all that I gave, SFA would have just been a place where I got a degree. Instead, it was my home.”

Jessica Derrick

Jessica Derrick was also a Carthage twirler and then a Kilgore College twirler and drum major before becoming a TOJ. “There’s a big difference between a community college and a university, and it was an adjustment for me,” she says. “Ending that last performance as a TOJ was surreal. It hit me that the time for performing was over, and even if teaching were next, it would never be quite the same. Twirling changed everything for me. It opened up my world to different experiences and things I would otherwise never have been able to do. I got to meet people and make connections and lifelong friends I otherwise would not have had.”

Jessica is now a speech/language pathologist working in Longview and a twirling instructor for Rowe Performing Arts in Carthage, where she once learned the fundamentals of twirling herself. “I feel like everybody should have a passion, something deep inside they want to share with others. That’s why I teach now,” she says. “You should have one thing you absolutely love to do, something that makes you so happy, and that’s what twirling gave me.”

Kimberly Ferguson

Kimberly Ferguson, also a Carthage twirler and 2012 graduate, participated at age 15 in the “Tomorrow’s Twirl-O-Jacks Clinic,” a one-day event where young twirlers get the chance to perform pre-game on the field with the TOJs. “After that clinic, I was a total TOJ wannabe,” she admits. I began stretching for 30 minutes a day, working on my splits, and attending TOJ prep class.” After two years of prep classes, several camps and clinics, Kimberly realized her dream.

Along with regular marching band performances, she also performed in the London New Year’s Day Parade in 2013 and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2015. “When I began twirling, I would have never guessed what doors it would open for me. I never expected it to be more than a sparkly uniform and Friday night lights. Then suddenly I’m 19 and performing “Wabash Cannonball” in front of Westminster Abbey and then 21 and twirling in the streets of New York with my best friends. I will always be so thankful for those experiences!”

Kimberly is now a private twirling instructor and choreographs for Carthage High School. “I didn’t know what a best friend was until I became a TOJ,” she says. We were together so much, we became a family. At graduation we joked it was the end of the dream team because we basically read each other’s minds, but it wasn’t the end. We have remained close friends through career changes, moving, break-ups, weddings, and more. We get to do life together.”

Bailee Woodall

Bailee is the only current Panola County TOJ representative. She says the hardest part is juggling practice, classes, and studying, but that she loves the experience. Her most memorable moment is a recent band and TOJ trip to San Antonio. She is looking forward to twirling to popular music for basketball season this spring and plans to audition again for the 2017-2018 TOJ line. “Twirling in college has led me to great friendships,” she says. “All of my favorite memories have been made while being a twirler.” She undoubtedly has the support of all those twirlers who came before her! As Twink says, “Most of my lifelong friends were made at SFA. I learned so many life lessons from twirling there. I am indebted to SFA and very proud that I was a Twirl-O-Jack. And once again remember…you’re never too old to twirl!”