Friday, March 14, 2014

Friday's Faces From the Past: A Fearless Female, Mom's Cousin, Synchronized Swimmer Laura Lee Payne

The photo above is from a birthday party for my mother's first cousin, Laura Lee Payne, the daughter and only child of Milton Clyde "Jack" Payne (1904-1991) and Agnes Verna Guokas Payne (1905-1974). There appear to be three candles on the cake, so the photo was taken ABT 1940. Behind the birthday girl is her first cousin, my mother, Geraldine Margaret Guokas Pape, who is about 12 in this picture. Seated at front on the left is Laura Lee's other female cousin on her mother's side (at that point), my mother's sister, Jo Ann (Sister Jean Marie) Guokas, who is about ten here.

from page 8 of the August 19, 1953, Anniston [Alabama] Star
Mom had told me earlier that Laura Lee was interested in competitive swimming, but I did not learn until I had lunch recently with my parents and Sister Jean Marie that Laura Lee had participated in synchronized swimming.  They told me that she was a member of a team sponsored by the famous Shamrock [Hilton] Hotel in Houston.  The team was called the Corkettes, and Laura and other members of the team won a number of championships over the years.

I did a little research and found articles mentioning Laura on the team from August 1953 through July 1956.
from page 2 of the March 20, 1955, Dallas Morning News, "AAU Tank Meet Lures Big List"

A March 27, 1954, article in the Dallas Morning News stated that "Elizabeth Sunbarger and Laura Lee Payne of Houston won the duet title" at the Southwestern Women's A[mateur] A[thletic] U[nion] Swimming Tournament with a routine called "Play Ball."  Laura was second in the solo competition with a routine called "Senior Prom."

A year later, at the same competition, the Corkettes won solo, duet and team.  Elizabeth and Laura's routine this year was to the "Mexican Hat Dance," while the team (quartet), of which Laura was likely a member, won with "The Highlanders."  Laura was third to Elizabeth in solo competition with a routine called "Flame."  I thought this was particularly interesting because my mother says Laura's mother's nickname was "Flame" - they called their Aunt Aggie, Aunt Flame.

An August 9, 1955, article in the Niagara Falls Gazette about the Canadian-American International Synchronized Swim Meet being held then and there, said, "Laura Lee Payne...had a routine called the "Flame" and...placed third in the U. S. National Outdoor Championships two weeks ago."  She placed seventh in this competition, according to an August 15 article in the same paper.

That article also indicated that Laura and Elizabeth Sunbarger won the duet competition: "...there was no question either in the minds of the judges or spectators that the Texans were the top duo with their 'Ritual in Fantasy.'  Attractively costumed and swimming in all but perfect unison the duo went through a difficult routine with such smoothness that the result was almost a foregone conclusion as they left the water."  Laura also took second in the team competition:  "The Houston quartet of Hope Holcombe, Doris Payne, and Misses Payne and Sunbarger made a valiant attempt to carry the team as well as the duet crown back to Texas and failed by not too great a margin.  The four turned in a clever, well-staged display."

According to Synchronized Swimming: An American History by Dawn Pawson Bean, as well as the USA Synchro team website, Laura and Corkettes teammate Elizabeth Sunbarger were the indoor junior duet national champions in 1955.  In 1954, Laura and Corkettes teammates Beth Browning, Carole Jacobs, and Martha Ann Kaufman were the outdoor team (quartet) junior national champions.

Carole Jacobs Lasof has a few pictures of the Corkettes from the 1950s on Pinterest, including the image to the left.  Carole is at the bottom in the dark shorts and polka-dotted white top; Laura Lee is to the right of her (to Carole's left), in the mostly-white suit with darker bodice and skirt.

Synchronized swimmers need a lot of strength and stamina.  Sometimes they start out as racers.  I also found mention of Laura competing unattached (unaffiliated with a team) in girls 50-meter breaststroke and 100-meter freestyle races at a Texas Amateur Athletic Federation swim meet in San Antonio in July, 1951.  She placed 4th and 5th respectively.  The Houston Cork Club of the Shamrock Hilton also had swimmers at that meet, and it may have been shortly afterward that Laura joined them and took up synchronized swimming.  However, as late as July 1955, Laura was still racing, placing third in the 100 meter freestyle at the same Southwest AAU meet where she won the solo AND duet synchronized swimming competitions.

© Amanda Pape - 2014 - click here to e-mail me.

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