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A homecoming walk to remember for Connie Gowen, first Miss Florida Seminole

Connie Gowen waves to the crowd while accompanied by Kyle Doney as they cross midfield during Florida State University’s homecoming crowning ceremony Oct. 23 in Tallahassee. In 1957, Gowen became the Seminole Tribe’s first princess. (FSU Photography Services/Bruce Palmer)

The walk from one sideline to the other at midfield of Doak Campbell Stadium was far more than just a ceremonial stroll for Connie Gowen.

The steps she took at halftime of Florida State University’s football game against the University of Massachusetts on Oct. 23 were filled with emotion for the Seminole Tribe’s first-ever Miss Florida Seminole.

On her way to crowning FSU’s homecoming winners, Gowen walked the same path more than 30 years ago with Larry
Frank, whom she helped raise and considers her son.

Mr. Frank, who was a general manager at Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, passed away in August at age 68. Gowen
agreed to do this year’s crowning as a tribute to him.

“I would do it only for one reason, for my son, Larry Frank,” Gowen said.

Around the mid-1980s, they were the first from the tribe to perform the crowning. It came at the request of then-Chairman James E. Billie.

“Chairman Billie said FSU wanted someone to represent the tribe at homecoming. He didn’t ask me, he just told me I was going to represent,” Gowen said with a laugh.

Thus started a decades-long tradition in which the tribe is a focal point of the homecoming crowning and other activities during the week. Gowen said for a few years it was done by different people from the tribe, but then she suggested the tribe’s royalty – Miss Florida Seminole and Jr. Miss Florida Seminole – perform the crowning.

The princesses have done it ever since, but not the past two years because the pandemic has halted their attendance at events and forced the postponement of the past two princess pageants.

When Gowen accepted the invitation to fill in and do this year’s crowning, she knew she would be in good company. The tribe’s Kyle Doney, a 2007 FSU graduate who is on its alumni association’s national board of directors, escorted Gowen for the walk across the field.

Gowen usually uses a walking cane for assistance, but determined to do the walk in front of 51,915 spectators without it, she instead used Doney for support.

“I wasn’t nervous because Kyle is my adopted grandson. He’s always been there for me,” she said. “It was a long walk, but I was hanging on to Kyle. I almost ripped his arm off.”

Upon reaching the home sideline, they crowned two sets of homecoming winners, one for this academic year and one for last year when there was no crowning ceremony.

“Grandma Connie means so much to the Seminole Tribe and all who are fortunate enough to know her,” Doney said. “Having the tribe’s first Miss Florida Seminole do the crowning at FSU homecoming 2021 was such a wonderful moment, I was just honored to be her escort during the event.”

Gowen has other connections to FSU’s homecoming. She’s attended homecoming for many years as a vendor with her Seminole arts and crafts, which she sets up on campus for the parade and in the VIP suites area during the game. One year she was absent because she thought she wasn’t invited, but when people at FSU wondered where she was and found out why she didn’t come, they told her she has a lifetime invitation.

She used to do the vending by herself, but is now joined by Bobbie Lou Billie.

“She has beautiful bead work,” Gowen said.

Gowen’s involvement even extends to the turbans that are worn by the male homecoming winner. She’s made the turbans for many years, something she kept in the family after her mother, who was the first to make them, suffered a stroke.

“I worked with her and she taught me a lot of things. I knew how it was done, but I had never [done] a turban on my own. It was scary the first time I made it,” said Gowen, who has been making the turbans since about the late 1990s.

Gowen’s ties to the tribe’s princess program stretch back to before there was a program. In fact, it wasn’t long after the
tribe was first federally recognized in 1957 that tribal leaders, including President Bill Osceola, determined they wanted someone to represent the tribe in a variety of functions. They selected Gowen. There was no pageant or judges at the time; just a request from the leaders. She was hesitant at first to accept, seeing it as a big responsibility. Plus, she was living in her hometown of West Palm Beach and figured there must be women on the Dania Reservation (now Hollywood) or the other reservations better suited. But soon she heeded the advice from her mother that “first you try to do it” and agreed to be the first Miss Florida Seminole.

Nearly 65 years later, she is still representing the tribe.

“I’ve always tried to participate and help where I can,” she said.

Connie Gowen and Kyle Doney enjoy their time after they crowned FSU’s spring 2021 homecoming chief and princess Oct. 23. (FSU Photography Services/Bruce Palmer
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Kevin Johnson
Kevin Johnson is senior editor. He has worked for The Seminole Tribune since 2014. He was previously an editor, photographer and reporter for newspapers in Southwest Florida and Connecticut. Contact Kevin at kevinjohnson@semtribe.com.
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