Cheerleading Pioneer: 'Herkie' Was an Accident

American Icons, Featured Article, Hometown Heroes, Sports
on September 11, 2013
Courtesy of NCA Cheerleading pioneer Lawrence Herkimer demonstrates his “herkie” jump, circa 1958.

If you’re a cheerleader, you’ve likely performed a “herkie”—the signature jump in which one arm is thrust high in the air while the opposite hand rests on the hip and the legs split into a hurdler’s position.

But how many of the 3.5 million cheerleaders worldwide know that the herkie, named for cheerleading pioneer Lawrence “Herkie” Herkimer, was invented by accident?

“I threw my arm up in the air to try and get some height on my split jump,” recalls Herkimer, 87, punching his arm high over his head for emphasis. “It really wasn’t planned.”

While Herkimer spontaneously debuted the herkie during the 1940s as a cheerleader for Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, his other cheerleading innovations—such as pompons—were more deliberate.

“When I first saw color television, I thought: ‘We need something colorful on the field.’ So I got the idea to put crepe paper streamers on a stick,” says Herkimer, who lives in Aventura, Fla.

The Mylar flameproof, hidden-handle version of Herkimer’s pompons, patented in 1971, remain iconic symbols of cheerleading today.

“When I see thousands of my pompons at the Macy’s [Thanksgiving Day] Parade or at a big game, it’s still a thrill,” says Herkimer, dubbed the Grandfather of Modern Cheerleading.

Herkimer began his cheerleading empire in 1948 by hosting his first cheerleading camp at Sam Houston State Teachers College in Huntsville, Texas, with 52 girls and one boy in attendance. The following year, 350 cheerleaders participated.

“We wrote out a program, including crowd psychology, when to yell, when not to yell,” Herkimer says. “And we taught skills. Every year it expanded.”

The popularity of the camps, administered by his Dallas-based National Cheerleaders Association, prompted Herkimer to quit his job teaching physical education and statistics at SMU and plunge full time into the business of promoting school spirit.

“My father-in-law thought I was totally nuts,” recalls Herkimer, who initially operated his business out of his garage. “But I was making more money at the camps in the summertime than I was teaching all year at SMU.”

As the camps spread to colleges and high schools across the nation, Herkimer’s Cheerleader Supply Co., established in 1951, began producing tools of the trade, such as spirit sticks, booster ribbons and uniforms.

“My first wife started the uniform company,” Herkimer says of Dorothy Herkimer, who died in 1993. “She said, ‘You can’t do those kicks and jumps all your life.’”

To leaders of today’s cheerleading industry, Herkimer’s legacy extends beyond pompons and cheering techniques.

“Herkie revolutionized the educational component of cheerleading,” says Bill Seely, executive director of USA Cheer. “Because of him, cheerleading is a model of how to teach safety to coaches who in turn teach it to the kids.”

In 1986, Herkimer sold his business for $20 million and retired. While still quick-witted and fit, he says he hasn’t done a herkie in more than 25 years.

“I’d need a forklift for that,” he says with a laugh.