As Cookie Lockhart sat in a park in Steamboat Springs and reminisced about her more than 50 years as a groundbreaking female auctioneer, she stopped mid-sentence to reply to a friendly “Hi, Cookie!” from a guy walking down the bike path.
“Hi!” she hollered back and she cracked a huge smile, waved and shrugged. “No idea who that was.”
Everyone knows Cookie.
It’s been that way since she was 5 years old and was praised in the Steamboat paper as a local fixture, a brassy little girl always riding her horse down the town’s main drag. Now, the 81-year-old is still unmistakable here, with her big, bejeweled glasses and bright, shiny outfits — and always, that loud, warm, husky voice that’s carried her into an industry that had almost no women when she began.
“People always say, ‘Well, what do you sell?” she said, before reciting a line both practiced and delightful. “And I say, ‘Well, bulls, buttons, buffalo, bulldozers, rabbits, rakes, ratchets, real estate, planes, trains, canes. I've sold it all!”
Growing up, both Cookie’s father and brother were in the auction business. She never considered it for herself until she was in her 20s, pondering her next move as a divorced mom with two young daughters. She was thinking about beauty school when her mother made another suggestion.
“And I said, ‘Auction school? Isn't that for boys?’” Lockhart recalled.
She ended up the only woman in a class of more than 120 and had an armed guard at her dorm’s door.
“I don't know whether that was to keep me in or keep the guys out,” she joked.
She started out intimidated but soon found the rapid-fire auction chant came easily to her. She even got prove her mastery on television in the mid-1960s as a contestant on the game show “To Tell the Truth.” Lockhart honed her skills in consulting and marketing, as well, which said are actually the bulk of an auctioneer’s job.
For a time, she worked alongside her brother, Darwin, whom she called a “visionary.” Part of what she learned from him is that auctioneering isn’t just about business, it’s about shepherding people through major life events, like deaths in the family.
"He was an excellent auctioneer, but he was really good at helping people."
After he died at 40, Lockhart was determined to keep her family name synonymous with auctions.
She remembers how proud that made her father, Si. Lockhart could be holding an auction in Wyoming or New Mexico, and he’d just show up, having hired a driver or even chartered a plane.
“He just loved the auction business. Loved it,” she said. “He just lived for auctions and me, I think, the rest of his life.”
There were plenty of men not ready to accept Lockhart into the almost patently male industry, however. It was only a few years before, in 1950, that the first woman in America had called an auction. Some male auctioneers refused to share a stage with Lockhart. Some men wouldn’t let her auction off their property.
“I feel like real secure men really accepted me. But you know, a lot of people have complexes,” she said, with a laugh.
Her skills were undeniable, though. In 2007, she was inducted into the National Auctioneers Association Hall of Fame, the first woman ever. She was too busy auctioneering to celebrate her 80th birthday in 2018. When her birthday came around again, she declared she was turning 80 for the second time.
The big bash included dozens of young opera singers belting out “Happy Birthday” (Opera Steamboat is planning a production about her life, after all). An untold number of folks in cowboy hats and big belt buckles showed up from all across her life. More than one called her the “Queen of Steamboat.”
Nancy McCormish, who met Lockhart at a local writers group, is one of many who look up to her. When Lockhart became an auctioneer, “women weren’t allowed to do that,” McCormish said. “It was impossible. Women could be a stewardess, a nurse, a secretary, or a wife. That was it. That was it!”
Lockhart broke new trail anyway and did it in style, McCormish added. The 61-year-old likened her to the cowgirls of the Old West, persevering through the doubts of others.
“I’m a horse person, so I just say, keep your tail high,” McCormish said, “ and that’s what she does, and we need that.”
That’s especially true for other women in the auction business like Janelle Karas, 51. Their numbers are still small, she said, but they’ve grown a lot since she started auctioneering 20 years go.
“I attribute that part to Cookie, just kind of laying the groundwork and getting in there,” she said.
Probably the only person not talking up the legend of Cookie Lockart was Cookie herself. She said that feeling so celebrated was like going to her own funeral, but better.
She even held an auction at her own birthday party. As she whipped up the crowd, bids poured in on an old jacket of hers, a signature number, covered in shiny gold sequins. It eventually fetched $190.
She said people ask her all the time when she’s going to retire, but she feels when you find your calling, you’ve got to use it.
“I just think when you retire from life, life retires from you,” Lockhart said. She’s not ready to get off the stage.