By Tara V. Kohlenberg —
How do we pick topics for Around the Sophienburg? you might ask. Well, a myriad of mysteries and ideas come across our desks, but this one came simply from the question, “Whatever happened to that armadillo guy?”
First off, let me tell you how we got “armadillo guy”. In the 1970s Country music was spreading across the U.S. like wildfire when country musicians Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Jeff Walker and others escaped the constraints of Nashville and became known for their Outlaw Country sound, which took root in Texas. Suddenly, it was cool to wear hats and boots, dance the two-step and essentially be anything that was Texan.
The promoters of Lone Star Beer, The National Beer of Texas, played off the whole Texan theme. Leon Burns, a New Braunfels restaurant manager, attended a Lone Star Beer event in San Antonio where they held armadillo races at Hemisfair Plaza. The event was such a hit, that the Lone Star marketing team began traveling all over the U.S., creating Armadillo Races in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and more just to promote Lone Star Beer.
Leon Burns and Bill Daughtery and about five other individuals formed the New Braunfels Armadillo Association. They decided that there should be a championship style event for all of the big city winners to race in. They contacted this young marketing guy named Jim Schmidt, who was fresh out of University of Houston. Jim was also the force behind the very successful “Luv Ya, Blue!” promotion for the Houston Oilers. In August 1979, the first International Invitational Armadillo Races took place at the Comal County Fair Grounds. It was a one-day event boasting The Derrick Dolls cheerleaders, food booths, beer, and music all afternoon. The “armadillo athletes” were rounded up from local ranches. Barry Jaroszewski not only ran a booth called Barry’s Rent-a-dillo, he provided the beer license through his Under-Pass Saloon. It was relatively successful.
The following year in 1980, Urban Cowboy with John Travolta was released. The Texas cowboy craze consumed everything and everybody. Could it be any cooler to be Texan? The Armadillo Races morphed into a three-day event called the Armadillo Olympics. Their flyer read “see highly trained armadillo athletes competing in a variety of breath-taking events.” Their logo had an armadillo sporting running shoes and cowboy hat in front of Olympic rings. The event was held at the end of August in an open field on the I-35 access road that sits between what is now Walmart Distribution Center and the back of Creekside Shopping Center. There was a chili cook off, five-acre carnival, hot air balloons, arts & crafts, sky divers, booths by non-profit organizations, food and beer. They held a dance every night featuring Ernest Tubb, Roy Head, the Geezinslaw Brothers and more. There were reports of 30,000 people in attendance, which is absolutely amazing.
In 1981, the NBAA learned to deal with their celebrity. Burns said they received a cease-and-desist letter from the International Olympic committee. The Association could not use the word Olympics or the rings in the logo. Great! They changed the ‘O’ to an ‘A’ and moved on to obtaining festival permits. Judge Max Wommack listened to over an hour’s worth of complaints about noise, trash, dust, and trespassing from area residents before granting the permit. Think about that. I-35 was so narrow (two lanes each way) that the people living on the other side of it complained about noise and trash from the festival. Those were the days. Burns said it was the biggest ever, estimating over 45, 000 people in attendance and cars backed up to Hiway 46 to get in, but not a lot of money was made.
After the collapse of the New Braunfels Armadillo Association, Jim Schmidt created the Texas Armadillo Association headquartered in New Braunfels for the preservation, protection and promotion of the Texas nine-banded armadillo. He and his Armadillo Rangers, including locals like Lee Rodriguez, continued to drive all over America with Arnie the Armadillo, making appearances on Regis & Kathy Lee, PM Magazine news shows in every market and of course, at schools, fairs and trade shows. He even rode the Texas float in the 1989 Inaugural Parade for President H.W. Bush.
It was during the first State of the Union Address of H.W. Bush that Jim Schmidt responded to something he heard the President say. He heard a plea to help him and Barbara continue Nancy Reagan’s platform of “Just Say No” to drugs. Jim Schmidt, taking his cue from Ephesians 6:11 “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes”, formed the Put On Your Armor Foundation, a non-profit to help armor children and protect them from drugs, crime and violence. He and his Armadillo Rangers have traveled internationally with USDA approved armadillos, educating and entertaining millions of kids. Who knew that a giant beer-fest with armadillos would turn into a non-profit educational career.
Oh, but, wait. There is more. Armadillo Jim left New Braunfels in 1995 for Oklahoma to attend Bible college. There he married and has three children. He has devoted his life to building a children’s ministry, helping to instill good character and Christian values in our youth; raising awareness for abused and missing children, and providing resources for grief recovery. During his career, he has appeared at well over 1000 schools, 750 conventions, special events, trade shows and meetings, 120 state and county fairs/festivals, and community outreaches and many church crusades and meetings. Armadillo Jim Schmidt and his side-kick Arnie Armadillo continue to live a blessed and full life, spreading the Word through what I have always considered to be a nuisance in my garden. The wonder of the smallest creatures never ceases to amaze me.
Sources: Sophienburg Museum & Archives; GuideStar.org; Alton Rahe; Jim Schmidt; Leon Burns; Barry Jaroszewski; Lee Rodriguez.