The very brief, albeit tolerant, reign of a St. Mary's County pageant queen

Contest promotes pride, involvement in county

September 25, 1999|By Neil Irwin | Neil Irwin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LEONARDTOWN -- Outside, sheep are being blow-dried, cow dung cleaned from the road and cotton candy wiped from children's mouths. Inside, 11 young women stand around in evening gowns, straining to subdue the butterflies in their stomachs.

"I'm sooo nervous," says Colleen Mattingly, a senior at Chopticon High School in Morganza.

"All of our friends are coming. They say they're going to yell and stuff," says Emily McNamara, a senior at St. Mary's Ryken High School.

The St. Mary's County Fair, an annual celebration replete with greasy food and prize-winning livestock which concludes tomorrow, has a uniquely Maryland twist -- a pageant to name the Queen of Tolerance, an event marked by a combination of high ideals and low necklines.

It's fitting homage to Maryland history: It was in St. Mary's County that the state's Colonial legislature passed the Toleration Act of 1649, which granted religious freedom to Catholics and Protestants alike.

But why tolerance? A comparable pageant up the road in Charles County names an annual Queen Nicotina, in honor of the area's leading cash crop, tobacco.

The answer: No one's quite sure.

"They just picked it," says Theresa Sterling, the Leonardtown woman who has managed the contest for longer than anyone can remember.

The contest has evolved since its 1947 debut. It started as a contest to see which young woman could raise the most money. Now, each high school puts forth candidates who are judged on their poise and personality. "It's not a beauty contest, and talent isn't part of it," says Sterling.

The prospect of addressing a crowded auditorium has these girls pacing. It's Thursday evening, the first night of the fair. They chatter, bubbling with enthusiasm, comparing notes on plans for homecoming at their respective schools.

Friends come by to pose for pictures and reassure candidates -- "You're so beautiful!"

A helpful mother intensifies one contestant's make-up.

"Right now I feel so special," says Mattingly, a varsity cheerleader who is active in student government.

Kathy Atlas knows how they feel. In 1965, as Kathy Bell, she was crowned queen. "The girls I competed with are all friends," she says. "We still laugh about it."

A retired medical technician now enrolled in college, Atlas finds the pageant and its theme a source of unity for participants and the county at large.

"It gives them a sense of commitment and involvement and pride to be in St. Mary's County," she says. "We're sometimes depicted as backwoods. It's good to see this enthusiasm."

While the concept of tolerance isn't widely discussed during the competition, organizers say the pageant remind people of Maryland history.

"There's a lot of new people moving into the county," says fair president John Richards, referring to an influx of new workers at the Patuxent Naval Air Station and its contractors. "This sort of thing can show them what Maryland is known for."

Former Queen of Tolerance Atlas jokes: "My kids tease me about it. They sometimes don't find me very tolerant."

As pageant time nears, anxious parents and friends take their seats in the auditorium, overpowering the buzz of fluorescent lights with the hum of conversation. The clock drifts past the scheduled 7: 30 start time as the contestants grow tenser. They line up in the back, awaiting introduction.

McNamara's prediction comes true. Clapping and cheering fill the room as each contestant's name is announced. One by one, they walk through the auditorium to the stage, each with an escort. Many have chosen their fathers.

The master of ceremonies poses a question to each contestant. Mattingly is asked whether television cartoons are too violent, and she nails it with a quick and straightforward response.

The two judges have previously analyzed the candidates' resumes and interviewed them in private. After hearing the public responses, they retire to deliberate.

A seemingly endless 15 minutes pass, and the judges return with their decision.

"The first-runner up is -- Emily McNamara." Her friends cheer.

"And the 1999 Queen of Tolerance is -- Colleen Mattingly."

The other contestants gamely congratulate the winner before exiting the stage.

Disappointment notwithstanding, "The spirit isn't competitiveness so much as community and representing their schools," says Atlas.

Now in her crown and cape, Mattingly hugs everyone in sight and answers reporters' questions.

"I was shocked," she says. "I thought everybody spoke so well."

Her father, Bill Mattingly, is beaming. "I'm so proud of her," he says. "We have four daughters and she's been such a good child."

What are the new queen's thoughts on tolerance?

"Tolerance is about being patient and involved and being a leader," she says.

The actual duties of the Queen of Tolerance are minimal. Mattingly is to ride at the head of the Fair Parade today, and issue prizes at a speech contest and a baby show. By the end of the weekend her official responsibilities will have been fulfilled.

As goes the county, so goes the Queen of Tolerance pageant.

Says Richards, the fair president, "It's changed a lot. The early queens were from a time when this was very much a rural, isolated place. This newer generation goes to college and spreads themselves throughout the country. It's nice that they can have this memory of growing up."

Pub Date: 9/25/99

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