Saturday, September 27, 2008


When I was 12 I attended a state 4-H Junior Leaders Conference in Fort Collins, Colorado. It was hundreds of teenagers from around the state, mostly rural communities like my own which then had only 1,500 inhabitants. My town is called “Craig,” the way that Indiana has a city called “Gary,” and it was the coldest place in the nation until Alaska was annexed. We had no Main Street, instead it was called Victory Way, a hopeful vision of America—a Christian town with a bar called “The Office” so that husbands wouldn’t have to lie to their wives when they called late at night to report their whereabouts.

At the 4-H Conference the final and inspirational speaker was Marilyn Van Derbur who had won the Miss America Pageant in 1958. She was in her early 40’s, wearing the power suit of the day, and she started off telling us how she entered the pageant with no talent at all. Invoking the ‘power of positive thinking’ she decided to learn one piece on the piano---well actually two, a medley of “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” and “Tea For Two”. She practiced, she said, hours and hours to get it all down, with both hands flying and most of all: a confident smile. She somehow won the Pageant with this combination of moxie and no doubt beaming through the swimsuit and evening gown competitions. I do not know if she was ever asked the dreaded ‘political question’ that now flummoxes so many beauty contestants. Part of what she won, she went on to explain, was an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, then the most popular stage in America. Much to her surprise, Ed suggested they do a piano duet together and a piano miraculously appeared. Marilyn said she pinned on her smile and made sure she positioned herself on the piano bench upstage with Ed facing the audience, then she pretended to move her fingers on the keys and smiled winningly through it all. She had just explained to us how she had faked her way through the pageant, and now she ‘inspirationally’ told us how we could fake our way through any situation when we didn’t know what we were doing by donning a winning smile. She ended her speech by singing acapella “To Dream The Impossible Dream,” which proved that perhaps the piano was indeed her more significant talent. I was dumbfounded. Had we really just heard this woman encourage us to fake our way to the top? But I looked around and many of the young girls my age and older were crying, they had boarded the space ship and were flying off.

I’m afraid when watching Sarah Palin on Katie Couric, and even before on Charles Gibson’s interview, I constantly thought of Marilyn Van Derbur. She had become an inspirational speaker who still circulated the country, a back-up to Anita Bryant, and who had added an instance of childhood sexual abuse to her range of topics in reaching out to rural conference communities. I saw the same smile, the same decision to try to dodge a direct challenge with a faked delivery. I became even more worried that she might someday be in a position of real power.

I have my own pageant confessions, for years later I did enter and locally win a Junior Miss Pageant, which in the small town (as part of a tri-county area) was one of the only things that was like a talent show. It had no bathing suit competition, instead you were judged on your academic grades and had to master a fully-clothed physical fitness routine. For talent I had done 5 paintings about the state of politics in America that I presented with an oratory about the confusions of the day. One was a black-edged 3-D frame of portraits of Bobby and John Kennedy with Martin Luther King, Jr. One was a painting of a wounded Vietnam soldier holding his dead friend based on a Larry Burrows photo, another showed a politician ranting, another a group of protesters with upraised fists; the final one showed a map of America with a thousand worried faces. There are eerie echoes of this same worry now. I had not wanted to win, simply make a statement and had assumed the other girls, far more glamorous than I, would take the prize. I was the shy art student who rarely said anything, least of all at home. When I did win, my parents were called onstage—a newspaper photo shows them looking stunned on either side of me, like deer caught in headlights, with me in my conservative gown and the shining rays from my braces emanating to the four corners of the picture.

At the state pageant, the cold ambition of the other contestants totally frightened me and I tried to make myself into a small ball, like a sow bug avoiding attack. There was a new feature at this level: the judges interview. The five judges of the contest took all of us out to dinner where we table-hopped, spending about 10 minutes with each judge explaining our beliefs. I was asked, sometimes with amusement, why I had been doing independent study the last two years, first researching the tribes of East Africa and the next year learning Swahili from a small plastic record and rare book of its grammar. I thought their questions were serious and didn’t hesitate to reply in my naive way. They assumed, they said, I must want to join the Peace Corps. Yes, well, I’d thought about that I said, Or to become an anthropologist, they suggested. I hadn’t considered that so I thought I should make myself clear: “I’d really like to join a tribe.” I said. One fairly hip-looking bearded judge looked at me in disbelief. “Join a tribe?” “Yes,” I explained how I found the tribal structure and housing, the customs to be so far preferable to life in the American high school that I fervently disliked. “I don’t want to change their way of life,” I added, “I want them to teach me theirs.” Needless to say, I did not win the contest, though they gave me a prize for my paintings. And though the naiveté that haunts all of us growing up in remote small towns (which I thought of as “Nowheresville” with the rest of the world as Elsewhere) rears its head from time to time, it has not compelled me (much to everyone’s relief I imagine) to seek public office.

My mother, however, came to the town as a community organizer and still, at 82, holds a prominent role in a wide multi-county area. Over the years she helped local families deal with financial woes and embrace new ways of doing things to improve the quality of their lives. She is on the board of a large area non-profit that looks to the future and joins businesses with other non-profits, with government organizations and public services like the hospitals and community colleges. She has worked to generate this kind of communication for the betterment of all her whole life and to me and so many others, she is a beacon of what one person can do for their fellow human beings. She has done so selflessly, and is the the real thing, the antithesis of faking ones way through anything. She is not like Sarah Palin at all.

(Photo: Marilyn Van Derbur)

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