Gene Autry's widow follows his footsteps to help kids
By Bruce Fessier, The Desert Sun
Palm Springs, CA, April 22, 2010 They didn't talk about "breaking the cycle of child abuse" back when Gene Autry was riding the range.
||Palm Springs resident Jackie Autry, a board member on the Barbara Sinatra Children's Center, will host a reception Wednesday at her Las Palmas district home to benefit the center.
But, if you look at the "Code of the Cowboy" created by Hollywood's original Singing Cowboy in 1937 [sic; correct date is 1947], you'll find 10 rules a counselor at the Barbara Sinatra Children's Center could use by simply changing the word "cowboy" to "parent":
"The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man or take unfair advantage."
"He must be gentle with children, the elderly and animals."
"He must respect women, parents and his nation's laws."
Jackie Autry, a board member of the Barbara Sinatra Children's Center in Rancho Mirage, said she never discussed child abuse with her husband before his death in 1998. In his day, she said, "it was a hidden secret."
But if Gene Autry had ever come across an abused child, she said he would have followed his cowboy code No. 6 to "help people in distress."
"He would definitely be a protector," said the woman who ran the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim after her husband's death. "He would call the police department and get that person thrown in jail."
Autry will host a fundraiser for the Barbara Sinatra Children's Center on Wednesday at her elegant Las Palmas district home in Palm Springs in recognition of national Child Abuse Prevention Month.
It will be a rare opportunity for the public to view the 1920s Moroccan-style house that Autry spent nine years renovating. As the spearhead of the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles, she is a nationally recognized art collector and the benefit will allow her to exhibit her collection, including works by Western masters such as Frederick Remington and Howard Terpning.
Autry has kept a low profile since her husband's death, but said, "Everybody has wanted to come and see my house. They've heard stories about my Western art, so I just decided this would be a good way to raise money for the center (and) bring attention to what these children go through. The abuse they suffer needs to be brought to the public's attention."
As a board member, Autry is informed of cases the Barbara Sinatra Center counselors are working on. But she's also had personal experience with it.
"I know how devastating it can be to a child, particularly as they grow older because those scars stay with them," she said. "Whether it's cigarette burns or sexual abuse or verbal abuse, it can be very devastating to a child.
"When I was growing up, I had a stepfather who wasn't particularly fond of children, particularly with my brother because he was the other male in the family. I wouldn't put up with it. My brother took a lot of abuse and ultimately turned into an alcoholic. I don't mind telling that to the public because it's my own personal experience. He died two weeks after his 59th birthday. He died as he lived."
Rosemary Marta, clinical director of the Barbara Sinatra Children's Center, says her counselors often work to counteract such verbal battery.
"Whenever there's child abuse or neglect or sexual abuse, you can imagine what happens to the self-esteem," she said. "It plummets into the ground. So, the goal of counseling is to raise self-esteem. The stronger the self-esteem, the stronger the barrier is to future perpetrators. Our goal is to strengthen them, put some armor on them."
Relationship With The Sinatras
The Barbara Sinatra Center recently had a graduation ceremony for girls who completed a self-esteem program that counseled girls on fitness, hygiene, skin care, clothing choices, hair and makeup, posture and self presentation. They're developing a karate program for boys.
The goal of both programs, Marta said, is to build self-esteem "from inside outside."
Autry said she's also hosting this benefit because of the long relationship she and her husband have had with Barbara and the late Frank Sinatra.
The Autrys were among the first to donate to the construction of the Barbara Sinatra Children's Center, and Jackie said she and Gene were among those who paid $25,000 a couple to go on fundraising junkets to Las Vegas with Frank and Barbara.
"Frank was a very, very close personal friend of Gene's," Autry said. "Frank and Gene wouldn't see each other for a year at a time, but when they needed something, they'd call each other up and say, "How can I help you?'
"When we had our first fundraiser, Frank Sinatra put together Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Rosemary Clooney and himself for the Autry Museum. We had broken ground, but Frank had no idea what we were going to do. He did this show on trust and faith. He did that show and paid for his own $10,000 table. That's what Frank did."
Autry says Gene would have appreciated that she's giving back to the Sinatras.
"Gene loved children. He and his first wife tried to have children and were unsuccessful. But, the line of photographs is endless with Gene and children. When he was performing on the road, he would always meet with the dignitaries of the town and then go to the children's hospital and help them. He did two performances. He did that constantly."