BELVIDERE – It began with screams.
The first words that Olivia Johnson and Tallory Wendell used to describe the moment that they realized that they would be crowned as Queen and Little Miss at the 2013 Miss Boone County pageant.
Wendell could hear her mom, Jill Wendell, and brother Griffin screaming as she was announced as Little Miss. “I was really excited during that moment,” Tallory Wendell said. “I was so excited and just couldn’t wait for the year to begin and find out who I was going to be with.”
Moments later when the MC Chelsey Lee said the first few sounds of first runner-up Savanna Hansen’s name, the crowd erupted into such thunderous screams that it drowned out everything else. “I didn’t know what was coming from where. I just knew I had to go to the middle and get my crown,” Johnson said. “It was all so overwhelming.”
In the moments after she was crowned, Johnson’s mind was racing. “I remember thinking. I was so excited. I had a bunch of thoughts going through my head. I cannot pinpoint them. I started thinking about the whole week I was going to have, or the whole year and all of the excitement. And my family - wondering where they were,” Johnson said. “At the same time I was trying to sit there still while the other Queen was pinning the crown on me. Just in that moment I was so excited.”
“I was really thankful, and I was thinking here is my opportunity to make a difference and talk to little girls. It was an exciting time all over.”
After getting crowned as Boone County’s royalty at the pageant, the County’s first real view of the Queen and Little Miss is during fair week as they have a full schedule to attend many of the shows and events. “I love the day after the pageant,” Johnson said. “Once you win, you get that first day and it was just Tallory and me. We were able to bond and get closer.”
“It was fun being the Queen and the Princess, Wendell said. “There is the Queen and the Princess. Oh look there they go! I want a picture with you guys,” Wendell said of the crowd’s reaction to seeing her and Johnson as they moved throughout the Boone County Fairgrounds.
“We went to a ton of animal shows. We got out hand out awards. We got a ride on a draft horse. We helped with the kids games and gave out awards and trophies. We participated in the watermelon eating contest,” Johnson recalled many of the events that she and Wendell attended during fair week. “We went to all of the shows at the grandstand. We got to drop the green flag for the derby.”
“The egg throwing contest,” Wendell interjected.
“We lost that right away,” Johnson laughed as Wendell smiled broadly at the memory.
“During the fair week is when I started to see a whole other side of our community through the events I was taken to,” Johnson said.
“I had no idea until I actually won the title. My eyes were completely opened to our community.”
Their first Boone County public appearance after the Boone and Winnebago county fairs was the ice cream social at the Boone County Historical Society in mid-August. “I also loved that we have an ice cream social. I never knew that we had one before,” Johnson said. She and Wendell entertained the crowd by singing a duet together.
“The pie was good,” Wendell added.
“The pie was delicious!” Johnson exclaimed “Pie, ice cream, sing, and there are cars. It was great.”
“Growing up I wished we had events like this. I wished our town did things like this or that. And then I realized that we did. Now I want to go to these events more often.”
Johnson made 35 public events during the course of the year. During one weekend in February, she attended a Flora Grange spaghetti dinner, the Boone County Fire District #1 pancake breakfast and the Boone County Rural Fire District #3 pancake breakfast. With a welcoming smile on her face, Johnson served meals to thousands of hungry diners. Over the course of the weekend, the height of her heels decreased from high heels on Friday night to flats on Sunday. “I was wearing heels for flipping pancakes. I learned how to dress for different events,” Johnson laughed.
One of the most poignant events that Johnson attended was when she travelled with the Lutheran Emergency Response Team to Washington, Ill. after a devastating tornado. Wearing boots, jeans, a coat and her sash and crown, Johnson dug in to help separate rubble from the tornado victims’ precious belongings.
The pair competed with Lyle Lee and Al Henninger to represent the Fair Board in the Food Cart Frenzy sponsored by Prairie Grange at Pacemakers. Johnson walked with the nine contestants for Miss Boone County 2014.
Johnson travelled to Springfield in January to compete with 71 other contestants for the title of Miss Illinois County Fair Queen. If Johnson thought that Boone County pageant director Sharyn Geske had strict rules for attire, she most likely appreciated Geske’s firm expectations by the time she reached the state pageant. The state pageant has strict rules regarding how low the neckline for a swimsuit or evening gown can plunge, how high of a slit can be on a contestant’s dress, and even the contestant’s cyber presence.
“We have to be strict because the state is very strict about this. Outfits are measured for modesty,” Geske said. “They have gown pictures and swimsuit pictures. The gown you put on to go on stage had better be the one that goes on stage.”
“We are portraying ladies.”
Geske spoke of a contestant from another county who posted some questionable photos of herself on social media. A week before the state pageant, the contestant was brought before her pageant director and stripped of her title. The first runner-up assumed the post and had a week to prepare, learn the routines and be fitted for the original queen’s attire.
Wendell traveled to Springfield to cheer on Johnson in the competition. Megan Magee from neighboring Winnebago County was named as first runner-up of Miss Illinois State County Fair Queen. “It was really cool to see Miss Winnebago got first runner-up,” Johnson said. “I was really proud of her.”
In May, Wendell, Johnson and Hansen participated in the Young at Hearts parade in Loves Park. The theme of the parade was America’s favorite past time – baseball. Given the choice between dressing in their evening gowns or baseball attire, the trio decided to dress up in baseball uniforms.
As they waited for the parade to get moving, Dave Geske’s 63 Bonneville convertible died. Rather than pulling out of the parade, the women made a last minute decision to walk the parade.
“We heard a few remarks such as ‘Boone County doesn’t have a car,’” Geske said. Those astonished remarks quickly changed to “oh look there’s Boone County. They’re walking the parade! They’re baseball players. Isn’t that cute?”
“It definitely made an impression we were here.”
As their year as Queen and Little Miss, Johnson and Wendell began the process to prepare their replacements. At the Queen’s party, “I told them I did 35 events. I let them know this is a serious thing. I absolutely love it,” Johnson said. “
“I am not ready to give up crown yet. I think whoever is going to be Miss Boone County is going to make a great Queen. But it is going to be really hard for me,” Johnson said. “I have this new love for my County and the people. It is going to be really hard to hand it over. I will still be friends with the Fair Board and the Granges, but it will not be the same. I will not see them as often and that is going to be really hard.”
Both Johnson and Wendell looked forward to attending Boone County events in the future. “It has made me realize what goes on in our community. I am going to go to this event next year and this event because now I know about them,” Johnson said. “It definitely makes me think more about the future and if joining the Granges is what I want to do, being more aware of what is happening in our community, and seeing how many of our people in our community come together.”
“I want to go to a bunch of events that we went to this year that I didn’t know our county had,” Wendell added.
“They have both been excellent representatives of the county,” Geske praised Johnson and Wendell.
As for Wendell, Boone County has not seen the last of her. She has plans to run for Miss Boone County Fair when she is older. “Lyle said he wants me to do it too,” she said.