“You can’t create a tradition, it just happens,”
says Al G. Wright, the band director who convinced an outstanding Colorado twirler to come to Purdue in 1954 and, by doing so, created a golden legacy for Purdue University and the Purdue “All-American” Marching Band.
It was the pizzazz of a great twirler, with a great personality, that Al G. Wright wanted to put in front of Purdue fans that Fall – and Juanita Carpenter was picture perfect for that role. Mid-way through the first season she got a nickname – Golden Girl – and by the time she graduated two years later, the notion of putting one of the nation’s best twirlers in front of the band, as Purdue’s Golden Girl had become a tradition.
Juanita’s sequined costume which boasted a high neck and a skirt, shocked some in Ross-Ade Stadium who were used to majorettes performing in slacks and long-sleeved jackets. But fans loved the charismatic twirler. When the band paraded to Ross-Ade Stadium, “ roses were thrown at her,” recalls Gladys Wright, Al G. Wright’s wife.
Three or four games into the season, Gladys Wright told her husband he ought to refer to Juanita as the “Golden Girl.” After all, the football team’s star quarterback that year, Lenny Dawson, was being referred to by everyone as the “Golden Boy” and with Juanita Carpenter turning heads in the gold sequined costume it seemed only natural that she be referred to as the “Golden Girl.”
At the Purdue vs. Notre Dame football game in 1958, Golden Girl No. 3, Addie Darling, brought national attention to the position of “Golden Girl.” The atmosphere in South Bend was already hyped that day and everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of Addie like she was a rock star. The Purdue flag corps lowered their long, spear-tipped poles to a horizontal position to form a barricade as the band and Golden Girl marched into the stadium.
At halftime, Wright asked Addie to perform on top of an old bass drum on the field. “You get on the drum so I know where you are,” he recalls saying to her. The result caught the eye of TV cameramen and created a media sensation. All of a sudden, throughout the country, headlines were written about the Golden Girl.
The United States Twirling Association bolstered the tradition professionally when it selected the Purdue band to make the recordings it distributed to twirlers nation wide. “If you participated in the USTA, you had to use that recording with the Golden Girl’s picture on the front and that gave us a lot of publicity among twirlers,” Wright says.
All of these things shaped the Golden Girl’s status as a Purdue icon, which found its reflection in popular culture. For years, the Indiana maps handed out at Shell gas stations had a Golden Girl icon denoting Purdue’s location.
Many little girls grew with one dream in mind – to become Golden Girl. “At the age of three, when I first began twirling, I wore a gold sequined costume and had jet black hair. I told my mom and my aunt that someday I would be the Golden Girl. They thought it was cute, but never really thought about it again because I had black hair. The day I came home with blond hair my family knew that the little three-year-old wasn’t kidding,” says Kimberlie Ratcliffe who became Purdue’s 16th Golden Girl. Throughout the Wright era every Golden Girl had blond hair. Most Golden Girls have been blondes, but throughout the years, directors have not been as adamant about hair color and three Golden Girls – Dawn Vardaman, Erin Ansfield, and Katie Schleis – have twirled as brunettes.
Twirling costumes have changed with fashion trends, but have always been a dazzling gold. The skirt disappeared from the costume by the late 1950s, and a tiara replaced the tall, awkward hat. In recent years, Golden Girls have abandoned the tiara, but the feeling of being royalty persists. “The Golden Girl at Purdue is truly the ‘queen of the nation’s baton twirlers’ because she is treated like royalty wherever she goes. She is not only the top twirler for the Purdue Band, but an ambassador for the university,” says Sally Batina, Purdue’s 12th Golden Girl.
Several of the Golden Girls have had careers, which were filled with colorful stories and celebrity encounters. June Ciampa, Golden Girl No. 4, filmed an orange juice commercial with O.J. Simpson. Al G. Wright and Selita Sue Smith, Golden Girl No. 7, made special appearances on the early 1970’s hit TV game shows called “What’s My Line” and “To Tell the Truth.” Valerie Ludwick, Golden Girl No. 13, was featured on NBC’s “Today Show.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, the “All-American” Marching Band traveled to Japan and to Colombia and Venezuela in South America. Every place they went, the Golden Girls found themselves instant celebrities. In South America, “I was perceived as a celebrity with clothes of real gold,” Ciampa recalls. “When I exchanged my baton with bullfighter El Cordehes for his hat just before his “World Famous” fight, the newspapers reported that he declared it his “greatest bullfight.”
The Golden Girl and other twirlers have led the band for 47 Indianapolis 500 Festival Parades, two Rose Parades in Pasadena, CA, and an Inaugural parade in Washington D.C. “At the presidential inaugural in January 1989, it was so cold I wasn’t sure how I was going to stand the temps – much less twirl. But as soon as we were on the parade route, the people cheered so loudly for us that I soon forgot about the cold. And when we reached the Grandstand, I performed a few tricks and waved to the Bushes – and was so proud when George Bush waved back!” recalls Dawn Beck, Golden Girl No. 15.
In addition to the travel opportunities and celebrity encounters, all of the Golden Girls say that there’s no moment more thrilling that the one at the start of each Ross-Ade Stadium football game. “All memories pale in comparison to the first time one marches into Ross-Ade Stadium,” says Selita Sue Smith, Golden Girl No. 8. “The first time that I crested the incline on the southeast corner of the stadium and took in the sights and smells of a football Saturday, I thought my heart would stop. It’s a good thing that I had twirled nearly all of my life. I was so bombarded with sensory overload, that the “twirling” part of the day was automatic.”
Golden Girls of History
Juanita Carpenter, 1954-1956
Sandra Hutchinson, 1956-1958
Addie Darling, 1958-1960
June Ciampa, 1961-1962 and 1964-1965
Teddie Darling, 1962-1964
Sherry Carden, 1965-1966
Valerie Brown, 1966-1969
Selita Sue Smith, 1969-1973
Linda Hughes, 1973-1976
Kathy Burke, 1976-1979
Susan Fron, 1979-1982
Sally Batina, 1982-1983
Valeria Ludwick, 1983-1987
Candice Nagle, 1987-1988
Dawn Beck, 1988-1989
Kim Ratcliffe, 1989-1990
Holly Fehrman, 1990-1994
Alisha Bane, 1984-1995
Dawn Vardaman, 1995-1996
Ann Loppnow, 1996-2000
Abby Moore, 2000-2001
Erin Ansfield, 2001-2002
Robyn Andrews, 2002-2003
Christy Jayne Stallings, 2003-2006
Meghan Lamontagne, 2006-2007
Tierney Brown, Spring 2008
MerrieBeth Cox, 2008-2013
Alexa Phillips, 2013-2017
Olivia Zugai, 2017-2018
Katie Schleis 2018-