She was an active member of her sorority. She was the sweetheart of Barn House fraternity. She was an excelling student, majoring in dairy sciences. She was on UPC’s major entertainment committee. She was a Top 20 Glomerata beauty. She was an alternate Tigerette. And then she was Miss Auburn.
The very involved Auburn resident, though, was a cow.
April 12 will mark the 40th anniversary of when Bessie the Cow won 1979 Miss Auburn in a landslide, running on the platform “legalize grass.”
It all started when Betsy Butgereit Price and her partner-in-crime Michael Sellers were sitting in The Plainsman office joking about running a fake campaign for that year’s Miss Auburn election. A joke turned into an actual idea, and the pair gathered a group of 60 for a campaign team.
“It started out as just a little joke, and it just snowballed into something we never thought would happen,” Sellers said.
The original idea was to run a cocker spaniel named Lady. But when Sellers was going from Auburn to Montgomery on spring break, he passed a cow pasture, and he immediately called Price.
Who better to represent a University known for agriculture than a cow?
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Sellers printed fliers and posters in Montgomery to keep the plan under wraps.
The following week, the pair unveiled the new candidate to the rest of the team, and they were beside themselves laughing.
The campaign team spent that night plastering the face of Bessie, better known as No. 18 to the vet school, all across campus.
Price thought campus would get a good laugh, and she imagined it would stop there. But the next morning, Bessie turned into a sensation.
“We thought it’d just be funny for a day or two, but it just kept growing and growing,” Sellers said.
“Viral before there was a viral,” Price added.
With posters plastered on all corners of campus reading, “Not Just Another Drop in the Bucket” and “She Won’t Steer You Wrong,” the bandwagon was in full effect. Students were clamoring to get involved. Campaign T-shirts were a coveted treasure, and Greek organizations were getting behind the movement, too. Phi Kappa Tau even painted the name Bessie on the front of its fraternity house.
The campaign also garnered national attention. The story was featured in The Atlanta Journal Constitution and New York Times, and it was run on Paul Harvey and Good Morning America.
“We had as much fun coming up with it as people did enjoying it at the time,” Sellers said.
Price got calls at all hours of the day and into the night. It got so bad that her roommate decided to stay with a friend during campaign week.
Not everyone took kindly to the campaign that was originally just going to be featured in The Plainsman’s annual April Fool’s edition. A small minority complained that it was a disgrace to Auburn tradition, sending hate mail to the team and even Price’s mother.
“Most of it was really funny,” Price said. “People embraced it like hell.”
SGA did not allow for Bessie to be on the actual ballots, citing the requirement to go through the interview process. But as it grew, SGA allowed the campaign team to put up polling boxes on election day.
At that time, SGA elections were held via hand-written ballots, so on election day, a table sporting the Greek letters Mu Omega Omega, or MOO, and Bessie’s sorority, collected ballots.
“We liked a lot of the girls running for Miss Auburn, so we were a little worried it was going to hurt their campaign,” Price said. “But by then, we were into it. There was nothing we could do.”
Bessie tallied 2,385 write-in votes, trouncing the competition by receiving more votes than all five candidates combined in the biggest landslide in Miss Auburn history up to that point.
“I’m sure we got a lot more independents to vote,” Sellers said.
Cindy Murphy received the second-highest vote total and, as Sellers said with a smirk, “received the title.”
The victory was so celebrated that Sellers and Price made more T-shirts to sell. Sellers said they raised nearly $2,400, all but $8 of which was donated to an academic scholarship.
Auburn’s annual Ag Day was coming up, and the group had the bright idea to crown “the real Miss Auburn” at the event. Murphy was a good sport and was the one to present Bessie with an $8 cowbell, engraved with “Bessie, Miss Auburn 1979-1980. A moo beginning.”
Many of Bessie’s fervent supporters showed up to give their support, but what they didn’t realize was that Auburn’s newest favorite cow wasn’t actually there.
“I looked at Mike and said, ‘That’s not Bessie,’” Price said with a laugh. “But we didn’t tell anybody.”
It was just a random cow that the vet school brought. The real Bessie was allegedly on her victory tour and let someone else take her place.
To this day, Price keeps a scrapbook of all the events that unfolded surrounding the election. In it, she wrote down a conversation that a friend asked how Bessie was taking the victory.
“Very complacently,” Price recalled. “She doesn’t say much. She just stands there and chews her cud.”
Clarification: Betsy Price's maiden name is Betsy Butgereit. She has gone by Betsy Price after graduating and getting married.
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