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50 years and still going

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50th Junior Miss/Distinguished Young Woman to be crowned Saturday

By Stevie Lowery

On Saturday night (or perhaps early Sunday morning) the 50th winner of the Marion County Distinguished Young Woman program will be announced.
For most of its history, the program was known as Junior Miss, and briefly, it was referred to as Young Woman of the Year.
But, whatever it’s called, it has become a Marion County tradition and, for many, a source of community pride.
When the program was announced in late 1964, the event organizers stressed that it was not a beauty pageant. Instead, the program focused on character, citizenship, high school activities, personal ambition and lady-like poise and demeanor, but personality, scholarship, community service, religious interests and intelligence were also considered.
Twenty high school seniors from Lebanon and Marion County high schools participated in the first program, which was held Jan. 10, 1965.
The prize was a $300 scholarship. Admission was $1 for adults and 50 cents for children.
“A crowd of more than 400 jammed the Lebanon High School auditorium for the three-hour program that was sponsored and conducted by the Lebanon Junior Chamber of Commerce,” the Enterprise reported.
The winner was Polly Young, a 17-year-old senior at St. Charles High School. For her talent, she recited “The Ballad of the Harp Weaver.”
The paper noted that she was editor of the St. Charles yearbook, a member of the honor roll, and eight-year 4-H member, and a three-time 4-H county speech champion. She also worked part-time at Abner’s Shoe Store in Lebanon.
Young, who now lives in Louisville, said Marion County didn’t have a lot of activities for young women in 1965.
“It was something to do. It was something to experience. I don’t think the majority of us were trying to win,” she said. “It was an adventure, and everyone enjoyed it.”
In fact, Young laughed when she recalled that on the way to the pageant, her father told her that he didn’t think a girl from out in the county would win.
She added that Marion County didn’t have just one high school at that time, so many of the participants did not know one another when they started practices about 45 days before the event. Nevertheless, they all had fun, and they felt love and support from the community.
“It was just a good thing, and it wasn’t about Polly Young or any one participant,” she said. “It was about the whole group.”
To Young, one of the most important aspects of the program was that it inspired all the participants to try things that may have been outside of their comfort zone.
“It was a good stretch for everybody,” she said.
Charles Lancaster Sr. was part of the Junior Chamber when the event got started, and he’s proud of that.
“It is an enjoyable show. It’s good for the community, the girls, the people involved and the families,” he said.
He and Young both agreed that the participants have become more and more talented, and Young added that the show itself has become more difficult.
“If they were doing the same things then that they do now, I’d have never made it,” she said.
Looking back on the history of the program, Lancaster said it has been enormously successful.
“It is first-class, and I’m proud to be part of the beginning of it,” he said, “and I’m even prouder of the way it has evolved.”
As others have observed, Marion County’s program enjoys a strong reputation around the state, and that reputation has been well earned.
Many years, the local program has more participants than the state program, and Marion County has produced three state winners: Allison Spragens Barrier (1973), Christine Mattingly (2011) and Paige Wilson (2012).
Dr. Mikki Jo Leathers Bowman won the local program in 1992, when it was known as the Young Woman of the Year. She recalled speaking with another state program participant who had come to Marion County to watch, but had a little trouble finding it.
“She asked, ‘Does your entire town shut down for Junior Miss?’ She could not find a place open to ask for directions,” Bowman said.
She added that the program has remained popular, in part, because it has become a tradition for many local families. Many young girls can remember attending the program with their mothers, and many of them were participants as well.
When she was a child, Bowman and her friends would play Junior Miss. They took turns winning, she said.
“Young girls looked up to the girls that were on stage and aspired to be one of those girls,” Bowman said.
Renee Schooling and Misty Kehm are the co-chairwomen of this year’s program. For months they have been combing through microfilm copies of the newspaper at the library to find the names of every winner and gathering photos of past events.
They learned that in 1965, there were actually two programs. Young won the first event in January, which was held less than a month before the state program, and Mabel Mattingly Stilger was named Marion County’s second Junior Miss on Dec. 12, 1965. Since then, the program date has gradually moved to November, then October, then September, and now August.
Schooling wanted to participate when she was a student, but the program was a little later in August than it is now. At the time, she had a conflict with her participation in the marching band.
“We actually had a competition on the day of the program,” Schooling said.
That didn’t stop her from getting involved as an adult, however. She worked in the dressing room for 14 years before she joined the local Distinguished Young Woman committee three years ago. She admits, it’s hard not to call it Junior Miss.
Schooling said she has enjoyed watching the participants grow as they prepare for the show, and she also believes participants realize the significance of this year’s program.
“Our girls have worked really hard. They know it’s the 50th,” she said.
Hannah Wilson is the reigning Marion County’s Distinguished Young Woman. She has returned to help with this year’s program, and like her predecessors, she will be present to pass along the title to this year’s winner.
According to Wilson, the program has become a rite of passage for many young women in the community, and it’s fun, too.
“It’s like a Vegas show, and being able to be a part of that was just something I really looked forward to,” she said.
While it has changed over the years, some things have remained the same. Like Young, the county’s first Junior Miss, Wilson also believes that the program encourages the participants to push themselves.
“Junior Miss prepares the girls involved to be better people,” Wilson said.
She explained that for some, that might mean facing a fear of speaking in public, while for others, it might mean learning to maintain their poise while walking in heels and a nice dress.
Wilson does not think too many participants go into the program expecting to win, and yet, according to Young (and others), that’s exactly what they’ve done.
“Each and every one of them are winners,” Young said. “I don’t speak for myself when I say that. I speak for everyone from 50 years down who’s participated.”

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Distinguished Young Woman Program is Saturday
The 2014 Distinguished Young Woman will be chosen Saturday, Aug. 3, at Marion County High School. The doors will open at 6 p.m., and the program will begin at 7 p.m.
Twenty-two young women are participating in this year's program.
Tickets are $6 in advance and $8 at the door. Advance tickets can be purchased at Citizens National Bank, Community Trust Bank, Farmers National Bank, US Bank and Peoples Bank.

Exhibit opening Friday at Heritage Center
To commemorate Marion County's 50th Junior Miss/Distinguished Young Woman program, the Marion County Heritage Center is hosting a special event Friday, Aug. 2, to unveil a new permanent exhibit dedicated to the program.
The exhibit includes items donated from several past winners.
From 6 -7 p.m. Friday, the heritage center will host a special reception for previous program winners, their guests, program chairmen and chairwomen, past participants, masters of ceremony, and anyone else who has worked on the program.
A public reception will begin at 7 p.m.