UPDATE: Another photo of Bessie.
One year, Miss Auburn was a real heifer–a prize-winning Holstein to be exact.
Running on a “Legalize Grass” platform, Bessie the Cow—the Auburn Vet School knew her as No. 18, but her real name was Amelia—not only ran but won the 1979 Miss Auburn election. It was a joke. But there were slogans (“Not Just Another Drop In The Bucket,” “Bessie—She Won’t Steer You Wrong”), there were handouts, there were posters, there were orange T-shirts. And there was national attention.
“It was kind of like the Harrisburg disaster; we didn’t expect the reaction we got,” Betsy Butgereit, who along with fellow Plainsman staffer Mike Sellers, came up with the idea over Christmas break, told The Plainsman. “Mike and I were surprised at the response. We think it was so successful because independents saw it as a way to make their votes count in what has previously been a Greek-oriented race.”
Block and Bridle, a student agricultural organization, block-voted for Bessie. A huge pro-bovine banner was strung across the front of Mag Dorm.
But Greeks also got behind Bessie, at least some of them. Phi Kappa Tau painted “BESSIE” in large letters across the front windows of the fraternity house and wound up doing the block vote thing, too. And according to the 1980 Glomerata, Bessie—who “liked Auburn because the people were so friendly and had warm hands”—was actually billed as a member of Mu Omega Omega (MOO) sorority and the captain of the the sorority intramural pasture muffing throw team, as well an active member of the SGA and a Barn House Sweetheart.
The story made papers across the country, including the front page of the Atlanta Journal. Former Plainsman editor Lauren Steele, then living in Washington D.C., apparently first heard about it on a local D.C. news broadcast. It was rumored to have been on Paul Harvey. And Good Morning America. The Atlanta Constitution congratulated Auburn for its “spunk” and creativity in an editorial after $165 of the $173 Butgereit and Co. earned from Bessie T-shirt sales was donated to an academic scholarship “in the name of Auburn spirit.” (The remaining $8 was used to purchase a bell for Bessie affixed with an engraved plate that read: “Bessie, Miss Auburn 1979-1980. A moo beginning.”)
“The papers took it as a college prank; there was no ridicule,” Butgereit said. “They were laughing with us, not at us.”
Rick Harmon, one of the 59 members of Bessie’s campaign team who that year was running unopposed for Plainsman editor, says that though the stunt could have possibly been construed as a cud ‘n’ cheek commentary on Auburn’s agricultural heritage, “it wasn’t really like, ‘let’s stick it to all the people who call us a ‘cow college,’ it was just ‘wouldn’t it be funny if a cow won Miss Auburn.'”
And she did, with a total of 2,385 votes—1,376 more (it was the greatest margin of victory ever) than Cindy Murphy, her closest competitor. They were all write-in. They were all illegal. And at least to some people—mostly members of other candidates’ campaign teams forced to fight a cow for publicity—they were an affront to the Miss Auburn process and an insult to Auburn’s image.
Butgereit thought that was udderly ridiculous.
“How can you break a campaign regulation when you’re running an illegal candidate?,” she said. “It was a joke and never intended to insult anybody.”
Save mild criticism that Bessie may have kept votes from more deserving, human candidates, Cindy Murphy, who was named the legitimate Miss Auburn after winning a run-off election by just 74 votes, was totally cool with it.
After being announced the winner she told the Plainsman: “Tell her (Bessie) I hope I can do her job for her since she really won.”
Bessie photos: 1980 Glomerata; Poster: @SuiteAuburn; bottom photo: The Plainsman.
Related: Former Miss Auburn trying to become Nashville’s first woman mayor.
If you’d like to help TWER keep the lights on and the obsession with Auburn lore unhealthy, you totally buy some good, cheap Auburn stickers. They’re great.
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Ah, my freshman year. I so remember this! Cindy was a good sport about it all, too. My kids never believed me when I told them about this.
I was at Auburn at the time of this homecoming election. Paul Harvey, the national radio commentator even did a story on Betsy the Homecoming Queen. I seem to remember Betsy was at the homecoming presentation, but had to stay off on the side-lines.
I was a junior who proudly voted for Miss Bessie. The whole thing was a lot of fun and like auburntygr, my main memory is the grace and good humor with which Cindy Murphy handled the situation. Auburn was blessed with two wonderful Miss Auburns that year!
Um, sure. Light-heartedness aside: I still think I could live comfortably in a world where this didn’t happen.
Freshman year for me too. Auburn has always had a better sense of humor than any other school in the state.
I remember this well. Some of the Greeks who supported traditional candidates did not like it at all. But the vast majority, including Cindy Murphy, took it in the spirit in which it was intended. Good memories.
Jil Chastain says
I was on The Plainsman staff at the time and one of the “co-managers” of the Bessie campaign. We had to set up our own “Bessie Booths” for the voting because the SGA would not let the student submit write in votes at their polling places…
Ken Willis says
Yes, I also voted for Bessie.
Bobby Kirby says
I was a incoming freshman in the fall of 1979. Also a new member of the Auburn University Marching Band. our first assignment on the practice field was to wake Miss Auburn. We had to yell as loud as we could. Nothing, we yelled again and heard a Moo coming over the fenced. The rest of the band cheered our success. then we were told the story of Bessie winning Miss Auburn. A moment in life I’ll never forget. 🙂
Senior in 79, voted for Bessie! I still have one of the Flyers that were put up around campus! Different from those shown here but very effective!
Scott Brown says
So is this why some call Auburn a “cow college” ?
Carroll Johnson - Class of 1979 says
The Cow College moniker came in the form of an insult from Bear Bryant in the early 1970’s, before the 1972 Iron Bowl. That was the 17-16 game; aka Punt Bama Punt game.
I told this story to my 25-year old twin daughters recently, They thought I was telling a tall tale. Only when I produced the framed Bessie poster and the URL to this story did they believe me.
I agree with earlier comments that the human Miss Auburn was a very good sport with the entire parody.