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Sunday February 17th 2019

LEATHER AND LACE: The Love Story of Genevieve and Howard Council

It was February of 1949.

Joe DiMaggio had just become the first major league baseball player to earn $100,000 a year, RCA had just released the first 45 RPM record ever, and Howard Council had just shown off his fanciest moves on the floor of the Fletcher Skating Rink in Fletcher, Oklahoma.

All three events would change lives forever.

Howard’s skating finesse had captured the attention of a young, dark-haired beauty named Genevieve Thomas. The usually shy, quiet girl from Sterling approached Howard and asked if she could skate with him, and that began a union which is still going strong… sixty-four years later.

We began going steady the next day”, Howard recalls. “I lived in Lawton and she lived in Sterling, so I would drive over there every night to see her because I was afraid one of those ‘ole country boys would cut in front of me”.

The courtship would include many skating trips to Craterville Park, DoDo Park and the Medicine Park Skating Rink, as well as the Fletcher Skating Rink, where they enjoyed the activity which first brought them together for many years, even after marriage. “I remember when Genevieve was pregnant, her dad told her not to skate, afraid she would fall”, Howard remembered. “One night, she did fall, and I had to take her to Southwestern Hospital to make sure she was okay. I sure didn’t want her Dad to find out,” he laughed, “but I never did nothing that I didn’t get caught”.

Their romance continued throughout the spring and summer of 1949, until Genevieve’s family made a decision to move to Texas. It was decided Genevieve would stay in Oklahoma and marry Howard. Only 16 years old at the time, she remembers convincing her parents it was the right decision to marry this man who was six years her senior. “I told them they wouldn’t have to support us financially, because Howard was making $37.50 a week driving a truck”. Howard drove a wholesale magazine delivery truck at the time. “I remember a few times I would be on delivery and stop by and see her in Sterling”, he remembers, “The company I worked for probably would have fired me if they knew that”, he smiled.

On a hot, humid day, August 14, 1949, Howard and Genevieve joined friends and family at the Sterling Methodist Church in Sterling, Oklahoma to be joined in marriage. The Pastor, Clyde Rodolph, had convinced the couple they should schedule their ceremony on Sunday morning, immediately following the church service. “It was hot, with no air conditioning and Genevieve had a large family, so the church was packed”, Howard said, smiling. “Looking back, I think the Pastor just wanted to make sure he had a captured audience to preach to”.

In order to afford the wedding, Howard sold his 1941 Dodge Sedan for $350, which he quickly spent to buy himself a new pinstriped suit for his wedding day. “I don’t think I spent it all on the suit, but Genevieve says I did…or at least most of it”, Howard smiles, as Genevieve remembers, “It was a lot more than the $12.95 dress I ordered from Montgomery Wards”.

The early years of their marriage, by both of their accounts, were some of the toughest for them, as money was sparse. Howard had taken a job at Hillis Grocery and Genevieve worked at McClellan’s Department Store. Howard supplemented their income by making leather crafts in his off hours, including purses, belts and wallets. His natural talent for creating quality leather work led to him being encouraged to go into business for himself, making and selling his crafts.

Genevieve’s uncle had an auto upholstery shop, and he offered to let me set up in a corner of his building,” Howard recalled. “I had a workbench and a showcase, and I just thought people would be coming in by the dozens to buy my stuff”. He soon realized, however, that he would not need crowd control for his customers, but continued, nonetheless.

He was approached one day by Bob Alexander, a local calf roper, who asked, “Howard, do you think you can make a saddle?” That simple question would change Howard and Genevieve’s life forever, and lead to a lifetime business partnership and national notoriety. Howard accepted the challenge and, in 1951, after six months of work, he completed the first saddle he would ever make. He would go on to make hundreds more over the years, making the Council name synonymous with rodeo champions.

Incidentally, that first saddle would resurface in the late 1970’s, when a couple from Alabama pulled up to their Saddle Shop with the saddle in their car, asking if Howard and Genevieve would be interested in purchasing it. “I didn’t want it”, Howard said. Genevieve remembers, “They wanted a whole lot for it, so we didn’t buy it”. The location of that first saddle is a mystery today, although it would be a fair assumption that, among those who know saddles, Howard is the only one that “doesn’t want it”.

I worked a lot of hours back then”, Howard recalls, “late into the night, and sometimes, all night long”. His excessive work ethic stemmed from the need to feed a family, as within a year of making his first saddle, Howard and Genevieve welcomed their one and only child, Carol Jean, into the world.

Howard recalled working late on their daughter’s first Christmas Eve, losing track of time, and realizing, after all the stores had closed, that he hadn’t bought any Christmas gifts yet. “I knew the people who owned the children’s store next to Home Décor”, he said, “so I got a hold of them and they opened the store up for me after midnight so I could get Carol some presents”.

Genevieve returned to work when Carol Jean was three years old, taking a job at P & M, which became Allied Wholesale. In 1958, she went to work at Fairmont Produce and Dairy, remaining there until 1970, when she left to work with Howard in their Saddle Shop, although she had been helping him in off hours all along. During these years, Howard continued to work on his leather crafts, with an increasing number of saddle orders coming in. “I was blessed to live in the middle of a nest of calf ropers here in Southwest Oklahoma”, Howard states, “and that seemed to really help with the saddle orders”.

In the mid 1950’s, Howard joined his customers by doing some calf-roping himself, which he had done earlier in his life. “I didn’t win, but I would enter”, he recalls. His experience as a calf roper was instrumental in his appreciation for the sport, as well as his understanding of the importance of having the right quality saddle on the horse, in order to compete professionally.

As the saddle orders increased, a waiting list was began, and continues to this day. Howard and Genevieve moved their Saddle Shop to its current location on South 2nd Street in Lawton in 1972, in “the building with the horse”, as many people know it. They have operated the Shop together since then, building a customer base, a reputation…and memories.

The Saddle Shop became the focal point of our lives, in a way”, remembers their daughter, Carol Jean Roundtree, wife of local physician, Dr. Joe Roundtree. “Me, our kids and their kids have all grown up around the shop”.

Daddy worked a lot, so mom was the disciplinarian”, Roundtree laughs, remembering her childhood. “and she didn’t cut me any slack, either. Dad was the one who would come home with an inflatable monkey tied to his leg, tell me crazy stories, and was always full of surprises at Christmas time”.

Roundtree is also quick to point out that she learned a lot about work ethic from her parents. “Mom didn’t really know the word ‘no’, and was always busy with the church and the Professional Business Women’s Club, and volunteering, in addition to working at the shop”. She attributes the longevity of her parents’ marriage in large part to their ability to always support each other and the pride they took in each other’s accomplishments. “Daddy would always make sure to pick me up so we could go to join mom at her events. He seemed so proud of her”.

Roundtree attributes her love for art to her parents, as well, as her father is an accomplished artist, as well as a champion saddle maker. “They taught me by example some great values”, she recalls. “And Daddy was a hard act to follow for a son-in-law”, she adds, laughing.

Howard and Genevieve Council share a lifetime of memories surrounding the Saddle Shop. They were one of the first customers of Wayne’s Drive Inn, another Lawton staple business, they once worked on bridles for a lady whose husband was stationed at Fort Sill, who wanted to refurbish them because they belonged to her father, who they later found out was General George Patton, and they can remember a special-needs teenager named Raymond coming by their shop, excited that he had learned how to write his name.

Genevieve does all the hard stuff”, Howard says, “from mopping the floors to paying the bills. She handles the business end. We make good partners. There were several times, especially in the early years, that I was ready to give up and go get a job so we could have a paycheck. Genevieve always encouraged me, and told me to keep doing what I loved to do. I couldn’t have done any of this without her”.

They have lived through many Christmases, anniversaries and Valentines Days and attribute their long marriage to their ability to support each other, with Howard emphasizing “a lot of patience on her part”.

Genevieve still adores that young, handsome man she first saw sixty-four years ago; you can see it in her eyes when she looks at him, and hear it in her voice when she recalls memories of their life together. And it shows in the birthstone drop that hangs from her neck, containing Howard’s wedding ring, which he gave her when it became too small for him to wear. And for more than six decades, she has received flowers and her favorite chocolate candy from Howard on Valentine’s Day. “I guess I like the chocolates better”, Genevieve smiles, “you can’t eat flowers”.

In 2011, Howard received the Chester A. Reynolds Memorial Award from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, a prestigious recognition for those who have contributed to the ideals and history of the American West. As he took the stage in Oklahoma City to accept the award, he very quickly pointed out that half of the award belonged to Genevieve. And he meant it.

Howard’s saddles have been sold to not only rodeo champions, but professional athletes and famous entertainers. He has stood shoulder to shoulder with many celebrities, and the Saddle Shop walls are covered in personal messages, photos and awards from many celebrities, including George Strait, Garth Brooks, and champion rodeo cowboys from the 1950’s to the present day, record 10-time All-Around Cowboy, Trevor Brazile. Howard could literally spend hours telling the stories behind the photos, reciting the names of the people in the photographic memories, including the names of the horses, excited to relive and share the memories.

But when he pulls out an old black-and-white photograph of a young couple standing in front of their wedding cake in Sterling, Oklahoma long ago, he handles it more carefully…his voice takes on a different tone…his eyes seem to sparkle…and it appears his heart seems to beat a little faster. Of all the celebrities, of all the awards, of all the notoriety he’s experienced, it’s obvious who he really considers a celebrity and a champion…that young girl in a $12.95 dress that still thinks he’s a “showoff” sometimes.

Howard and Genevieve are still in love, they’re still committed, they’re still together…and they still have their skates. And sixty-three years after he began driving to Sterling, Howard is still seen with Genevieve every day.

Maybe he’s still afraid some ‘ole country boy might cut in front of him.