'A fitting tribute to Amy'
DANVILLE — When barrel riders take the arena, they know to put their game face on.
But many who came to compete at the Vermilion County fairgrounds on Thursday evening couldn't hold back their tears when officials renamed the arena in memory of fellow rider Amy Hawker.
The 31-year-old Danville woman died on Dec. 3, following a horse-riding accident before a barrel race at Gordyville USA, near Gifford, the day before.
At a brief ceremony, friends and family members remembered Amy as a barrel-racing enthusiast. But first and foremost, they added, she was a devoted mother to her 6-year-old daughter, Suzanne, and a kind-hearted person "who would go out of her way to help out anyone who needed it."
The ceremony was attended by scores of spectators who came out to the races, one of the top events at the fair. Many of them were members of the tight-knit horse-riding community who knew Amy and her family well.
"Amy grew up here. She was everybody's kid. That's why this hit us so hard," explained Carla Haga, the fair board's secretary and social media chairwoman.
When board president Rick White proposed renaming the arena in Amy's memory shortly after her death, all 30-plus board members got behind it immediately.
"There's never a good way to get closure on something like this," Haga said. "But we hope this will be a fitting tribute to Amy and what she loved to do."
Shy and soft-spoken, Amy generally steered clear of attention, recalled her aunt, Kristi Hawker.
"She wouldn't like everyone fussing over her," she said through tears.
"But it's such a wonderful gesture," continued Kristi Hawker. "She was out here riding from the time she could sit on a pony. She spent so much time with the people on the circuit. All of these people were her family."
Amy grew up on a farm south of Danville, the only child of Jerry Hawker and his first wife, Suzanne. Suzanne Hawker, for whom Amy's daughter is named, died when her daughter was 15.
A graduate of Schlarman High School, Amy worked as the office manager of Hawk Enterprises, her family's rental property business, and part time at the Veedersburg (Ind.) Sale Barn.
Like the rest of her clan, she first sat on a horse when she was 6 weeks old and got her first pony as a toddler.
"Amy started showing when she was 5 years old in this arena," her father said with a smile. "When other kids were playing sports, she was working her horse."
While his daughter had several steeds that she rode, trained and then sold to other riders, her most beloved was an American Quarter Horse, named CC.
"That was the horse that really got her hooked," her aunt said, adding the two learned to barrel race together. "Once she and CC clicked, she really got into it. And she connected with other girls who were involved.
"Over the past year and a half, Amy totally blossomed. You could see her self-confidence grow. She became more outgoing and really took off."
A member of several riding clubs and the Illinois, National and International barrel racing associations, Amy competed locally and throughout the Midwest.
On Dec. 2, she was set to compete at a barrel race at the Gordyville USA Turkey Run. She was riding a new horse, Rigs.
"She was getting ready to enter the arena," Kristi Hawker said, adding riders and their horses usually circle around to warm up. "The arena has a dirt floor, but they got off onto a concrete area. It's kind of like skates on an ice rink."
The horse lost his footing and went down, pinning Amy. She struck her head on the concrete floor and lost consciousness.
Jerry Hawker; his wife, Pam; and Suzanne, then 5, had driven to the arena from Texas, where they had celebrated Thanksgiving. They got there about 30 minutes before Amy's run and saw the fall.
Medical personnel got to Amy quickly, and she was rushed to the hospital. She died the next morning. The family donated her organs per her wishes.
"She saved four lives," said her father, his voice choked with emotion. "That has helped us so much to deal with the loss, knowing she helped people. You know, Amy and I were talking about organ donation just three or four months before she died. Of course, I was talking more about me, but it was her."
Kristi Hawker said the family takes some comfort knowing that Amy was doing something she loved when she died. But, she added, her death left a gaping hole in their lives.
"It's been especially hard as the show season started up" this spring, she said. "She would have been out there starting her campaign for season. So this made it very real."
Before the barrel races, Jerry Hawker watched his granddaughter ride around on her pony, Pocahontas. He sees so much of the mother in the child.
"She's running her pony in barrels, and she's not afraid a bit," he said, proudly.