Don Mayes (1933-2020)
The following article is reprinted with permission from The Norman Transcript (August 9, 2010)
Many who know Don Mayes think of him as former manager of Sooner Fashion Mall. Or as the man behind the ’89er parade and Christmas parades in Norman for many years. Or as a guy who served on boards of many of Norman’s social service agencies.
But there is a lot more to Mayes than those things. Add to his list of accomplishments that he is a nationally known twirler and drum major and a business entrepreneur with a 64-page catalogue of twirling gear and accessories.
And then there is his Twirl-a-Rope business of assembling, packaging, marketing and selling ropes that give youngsters the tools to develop rope-twirling skills harking to the days of Will Rogers.
Mayes was born in Enid but moved to Tulsa with his family when he was a fifth-grader. By the time he left high school he was nationally known as a twirler and drum major and was teaching the art around the country.
He attended college on drum major scholarships, first at the University of Tulsa, and then at Sam Houston State Teachers College (now Sam Houston State University) in Huntsville, Texas, where he led the famous Bearkat Band.
Lest you think of male twirlers as a bit feminine, he counters with the major differences in male and female twirlers and drum majors. “We don’t priss around, and we don’t wear skimpy costumes,” he said.
“Men’s moves are strong and forceful,” he said. Mayes recalls a time he was performing in a football stadium in Monette, Mo., and his timing was a little “off.” “The baton went sailing out of the stadium.” He laughs as he recalls the shock of the audience.
OU’s renowned band teacher Leonard Haug invited the 16-year-old Mayes to teach at a summer camp for twirlers and drum majors, and soon he was traveling around the country “in my 1951 Studebaker” teaching the art and pageantry of a marching band led by a drum major or majorette.
The former drum major in the Marine Corps band performed at sports shows, half-time shows for major sporting events, and on television, stage and in night clubs. He even performed in the Rose Bowl Parade one year.
Mayes authored several instructional books and gave private lessons with many twirlers combining baton and rope twirling techniques in their performances.
A stroke has made it more difficult to use his left hand, but he can still coach twirlers who seek his advice. He demonstrates that with a baton in his right hand he can still outdo many twirlers.
Twirling isn’t as popular as it once was, he said, but his Twirl House catalog business that he began in 1956 is still viable, offering such diverse items as a wide variety of batons, tasseled boots, feathered helmets, whistles and more.
And while he was nurturing the Twirl House business, which he dubbed “The world’s halftime headquarters since 1956,” he had maintained his Twirl-A-Rope business which is copyrighted under several different names.
His ropes, from seven to 10 feet, are marketed under names like Souvenir of Oklahoma or “Souvenir of …” several other states. The gift shop in the Oklahoma City airport is the biggest single seller of his “Souvenir of Oklahoma” version, and hundreds are sold through the Will Rogers Museum in Claremore. He recently contracted with Atwoods for the ropes to be sold in all their stores in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas.
While his lifelong interests and involvement in twirling, whether a baton or a rope, have occupied a lot of his time, his professional life was in mall management. He has managed malls from Boston to Denver and many stops in between. It was the Sooner Fashion Mall that brought him to Norman in 1984.
Often he was hired to open a new mall. “I opened six new malls over the years,” he said, enjoying the marketing process using skills he honed as a new college graduate and working for Boeing as the outside press agent on the Saturn moon rocket program in the early 1960s.
“I did all of the news related to the B52 bombers,” he recalls.
Opening a new mall meant building the excitement that would draw shoppers in the door. He used his experience as a drum major and knowledge of parades and pageantry to plan events to create excitement for the new centers.
The job in Norman offered him and his wife Diane a chance to settle in.
“We liked Norman” and wanted to stay, he said. “I managed the mall, but I did also the marketing and leasing. It was something new every day.”
Major changes during his tenure as manager included replacing the original wooden floor with tile, and adding the skylights.
By the early 1990s, the mall owner group needed his services at malls in Oklahoma City, so he commuted for several years before retiring.
In the 26 years they have lived here, Mayes has been active in the Norman community. “I was involved in lots of things and I think I served on most of the boards at one time or another.” He applied his knowledge of parades to management of the ’89er parade and then the annual Christmas Parade and still serves in an advisory capacity.
His rope business occupies a part of every day. He has moved his assembly and shipping operation to his garage where he cuts the lengths of rope, forms the honda, and gives each completed rope a spin before tucking it into the plastic bag and stapling it shut. “I give each one a spin to be sure that it’s balanced and isn’t caught in the spool.” The spool is used to give the novice something to grip, he said. “I use manila rope because it looks more western.”
He has no plans to retire. He is working on several books related to the rope and baton twirling and has just received a shipment of 10,000 spools. On order are 600-foot rolls of manila rope.
Don Mayes Obituary
Donald Eugene Mayes, 86, of Norman, Oklahoma passed from this Earth on August 1, 2020.
Don Mayes was born on December 9, 1933 in Enid, Oklahoma to Phoebe Lucille Paulk and Ralph Waldo Mayes. He attended Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma where he was the Drum Major and Champion Baton Twirler. His name and photograph are enshrined in The National Baton Twirling Hall of Fame in Jamesville, Wisconsin.
Don began his college career at the University of Tulsa where he became a member of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity and met his future wife, Diane Brown. He later attended Sam Houston State College in Huntsville, TX where he was featured as their Drum Major. In 1955, he answered the call of his country and joined the Marine Corps. He was a member of the Marine Corps Band playing Trumpet, and, later, he became the USO Director to the Far East.
Upon leaving the armed forces, he worked for the American Red Cross in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was Technical Writer for Boeing Aircraft in Wichita, Kansas, and served as a Councilman and Mayor of Northglenn, Colorado. He spent many years as a shopping center manager in malls across America including Sooner Fashion Mall in Norman.
His entrepreneurial nature led him to many business ventures among them Mouse House Toys carrying Disney merchandise prior to Disney having its own stores, and Twirl House Company featuring batons and cheerleading supplies. Don also created a children’s cowboy lariat sold in gift stores. He authored the book, “Pageantry for a Sixty Piece Band,” created a twirler coloring book, and developed a doll clothesline.
Don was a true gentleman who was loved by many. He had a kind heart, and a unique sense of humor. One of his sons-in-law is quoted as saying, “He was the nicest man I ever knew, and I loved his stories.”
Donald is survived by his wife of 57 years, Diane, his daughters Melody Britt, Dion (Chris) Mayes-Burnett, Arion Mayes (Chris) and her stepson, Elijah. He is also survived by his sister, Glenda (Jim) Alford and family, his cousin Kristine Dugan and family, his grandchildren, Jeremy (Lisa) Britt and Mandy Britt, and great-grandchildren, Paxton Webb and Henry, William and Grace Britt, as well as extended family and friends.