The Queens of Roscommon
This summer marks the 50th anniversary of a time when the Roscommon community came together in support of the 1962 Miss Michigan and Miss Roscommon, Carole (VanValin) Chirgwin in her quest to become Miss America.
“My parents bought me a ticket on a Greyhound bus,” Nancy (Albosta) Perry, Miss Roscommon 1963 said of her trip to Atlantic City, NJ to see Chirgwin compete in the Miss America pageant with bus loads of other Roscommon residents.
“Carole was really something special,” Perry said of Chirgwin’s personality. “She was absolutely the most wholesome individual you could ask for, she was beautiful.”
A self proclaimed tomboy, who loved trout fishing and outdoor sports, Carole (VanValin) Chirgwin, the 1962 Miss Roscommon said she became Miss Michigan and made it to the Miss American pageant by “happenstance.”
She said her pageant career began her senior year of high school when she participated in the Roscommon Crystal Ball in January of 1962. She said by default she became Miss Roscommon who would then go on to the Miss Michigan pageant in June 1962.
“I wasn’t groomed for it (pageants),” Chirgwin said as she had to scramble for a talent.
Chirgwin didn’t have a musical talent, couldn’t sing and didn’t dance and said she really didn’t have any suitable talent for a pageant.
Her talent search came to an end when one day her father, Pete VanValin told her of a dream he had of her reciting a dramatic reading about the opening day of trout fishing season.
“His dream was that I would do this poem,” Chirgwin said.
Soon after the suggestion was made, she found herself practicing with dramatic reading coach, Jeremy Jones in full fishing gear including hip waders, a vest and hat with flies secured to it.
“I felt very comfortable with that,” Chirgwin said of her talent which she thinks was recognized by the judges. “I was more comfortable in waders than heels.” Chirgwin’s enthusiasm for the outdoors showed through as she was also named Miss Michigan Winter Sports.
When she won the Miss Michigan pageant, Chirgwin said her life changed in the fact that she had to attend community events all over the state including parades, openings of bowling alleys and crowning girls at smaller regional pageants.
With the instant celebrity, Chirgwin said her parents were persistent in making sure she stayed true to who she was.
“My mom and dad didn’t want me to lose my naturalness,” Chirgwin said.
Chirgwin’s natural nature came out she said when she attended the September 1962 Miss American pageant held in Atlantic City, NJ with a talent, a “try my best attitude” and a bus load of community members.
During her interview portion, Chirgwin was asked “what do you think is the most important thing when getting along with other people.”
“The Golden Rule, treat others how you’d like to be treated,” Chirgwin told the judges.
She added she believes that answer came right from her heart and that hit home with the judges.
“I think I had a really good attitude,” Chirgwin said as she wanted to do her best. “I think I wanted to just enjoy every moment of it.”
Chirgwin remembers the pageant as a fun time with a lot of people fussing over her hair, dresses, shoes and bathing suit. She added the bathing suit would be considered extremely conservative in the fact that it had to have a panel for extra coverage, it had to be completely black or white and the girls were always being checked for “enhancements.”
She added the conservative nature of the pageant also stressed the fact that the girls in the pageant could not communicate with any male including their father. However, she said the overall experience was exciting with interviews and interaction with the other contestants.
At the end of the pageant, Chirgwin placed in the top 10 of contestants and didn’t see her placement as a negative as she had the support of her community.
Upon her return to Roscommon, she said there was a welcome home parade that stretched from Houghton Lake to Roscommon.
Looking back on the experience 50 years later Chirgwin said she would do the whole thing over again because pageants helped her to have a successful career as a speech and language pathologist.
Winning pageants gave her enough scholarships to get through college at Michigan State University. She said obtaining a degree opened several doors for her including her 30 year career in the Grand Traverse Intermediate School District.
Pageants changed her in other ways, she said the experience gave her confidence, poise and a lot of great memories.
“It’s fun looking back on it,” Chirgwin said.
Although her stint in pageants was a “wonderful” time in her life she said she doesn’t think about it too often now, really only when she attends gatherings for past queens. She added her two daughters know of her accomplishments but don’t really talk about it and her husband, Marty refers to her as “my queen” when it comes to it.
Nancy (Albosta) Perry
In 1963, the year after Chirgwin made her appearance in the Miss America pageant, another Miss Roscommon was named and was making her way through several pageants before participating in the Miss Michigan contest.
Like Chirgwin, Nancy (Albosta) Perry began her pageant career as the winner of the Roscommon Crystal Ball, giving her the title of Miss Roscommon and the opportunity to participate in the Miss Michigan pageant in the summer.
Perry participated in several pageants after the Crystal Ball, but calls her hometown pageant her favorite because it was a community event where women of all ages came together to mentor and support each other. She added it was also a time to get to know her fellow classmates as there was a clear divide between “the lake girls” and “the town girls.” The separation between the two groups was not on purpose. At that time the 12 miles that separated the village residents and the people who lived on the lake was actually considered a far distance and there wasn’t much interaction besides limited time at school.
“It was a fabulous time, I got to meet my classmates,” Perry said of the ball. “It was a delightful experience.”
From there, Perry participated and won the Miss Michigan Winter Sports Queen pageant at Hanson Hills two weeks after being named Miss Roscommon. She said that pageant was more than just being a pretty face who interviewed well, she said she had to show the judges that she could ice skate and snow ski and had knowledge of winter hunting and ice fishing. She then participated in other pageants like the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City and the National Trout Festival in Kalkaska.
At each pageant Perry said she didn’t feel much pressure to win, she said the real stress came in the form that her “job” was to “make sure you represented your county well.” She said at times she was the face of Roscommon County and her job was to make sure she created a positive reputation for the county in the hopes that outsiders would visit. Perry said the best way to make people remember her and Roscommon County was by being memorable.
Throughout her pageant career which included approximately 12 competitions from January to July of 1963, Perry had a “clever” chaperon named Thelma Dutton. Dutton conjured up several interesting ploys to help make Perry stick out and be remembered by the audience and judges.
“Thelma would pretend her horn was stuck,” Perry said of one of her arrivals at a pageant.
Perry said this was one of Dutton’s plans to make people take notice of her, she added Thelma would make a big commotion of the horn being stuck and she would encourage her to wave and make light of the situation.
“Her thumb was comfortably pushed on the horn,” Perry said of Dutton’s ploy.
When she entered the building she said there was already a buzz about her with people saying things like “Oh, can you imagine the horn being stuck” and “That’s the girl with the stuck horn.” Perry added she was already sticking out before the pageant even began.
“You’ve got to be savvy,” Perry said. “She wanted to cultivate a personality for me.”
She added that Dutton was always looking for clever ways to give her an edge.
Along the way, Perry said her personality developed from a quiet 18-year old girl into someone who was able to “switch it on.” She added the pageants gave her confidence in herself as well as her appearance.
At the age of 18, Perry was six-feet tall and had a size 12 shoe. She saw her height as a positive and challenging physical characteristic.
“I was always known as the tall girl,” Perry said, adding that is still how people remember her.
Looking for pageant clothes was tough, as Perry remembers it was nearly impossible to find dresses in Roscommon County long enough to cover her lengthy body and shoes were another headache all in their own. She said she and her mother, Ginny would scour Roscommon, Houghton Lake and Grayling for dresses and conservative white paneled bathing suits that were long enough to cover her elongated torso.
They often came up short in their hunts and ended up making dresses themselves and repurposing shoes. At times she wasn’t able to find the right shoe in a size 12, so they would paint them or recover them to meet their needs.
Despite the challenges that came along with pageants she said she had the support of her community especially when she was a contestant in the Miss Michigan pageant.
While participating in the Miss Michigan pageant, Perry won the swimsuit competition and called the win “a big buzz” because Roscommon was creating a pageant dynasty. Perry didn’t win the pageant but said it was a positive experience because she was able to do her best and have a great time doing it.
Like Chrigwin, Perry said she never expected to win every pageant and had an attitude that it was supposed to be fun for her and the Roscommon community as many of her female classmates attended the Miss Michigan pageant showing their support from the audience.
“I don’t even know if they had any idea how much it meant to me,” Perry said of her friends screaming for her in the audience. “It gave me a lot of confidence.”
Participating in pageants also helped Perry in other ways. While participating as an “extra” in a Miss America pageant acting as a “hometown representative” for delegates from other states Perry was exposed to marketing and business and she turned her love of marketing into a career.
She said she participated in Miss America’s marketing campaign in the form of “newsreels” which were small clips of what was happening at the pageant. She added those clips would be viewed at movie theaters and would be looked at as today’s “Inside Edition.”
Perry later went on to market all types of businesses including her late husband Chuck’s construction business.
Looking back on her pageant life, Perry said, “This was a life changing experience, not life defining,” as it helped her along the way.
She added her time in pageants is rarely talked about now, however, there was a time when she returned to Michigan from her current home in Gainsville, FL for a trip at Hanson Hills where the Miss Michigan Winter Sports pageant was held and a picture of her was on the wall.
She said Chuck noticed the photo after she had passed by it without even giving it a glimpse. She added their grandchildren were with them and she had to explain why she participated and what she did in pageants.
After explaining it to them, Perry said the oldest grandson’s response was “that’s cool” and she said she knew her experience was something special.
Contributions to the Roscommon Area Historical
Both Carole (VanValin) Chirgwin and Nancy (Albosta) Perry recently donated some of their pageant items to the Roscommon Area Historical Society. The pageant display is currently on display at the society’s Richardson School.
The exhibit includes pageant trophies, sashes, a pageant bathing suit, tiaras, newspaper articles, a doll and several other pictures.
“I just had them [her pageant items] in a basement in a box,” Chirgwin said.
She added she decided to give her memorabilia to the society because it would provide people with the chance to see a part of Roscommon’s past.
Perry, a member of the society said she gave her things to the society because she is a “home girl” and loves Roscommon and wanted to give back a piece of history.
“I’ve been carrying them around forever,” Perry said.
She added she is “thrilled” to be able to share part of her family’s legacy and give people who were around at that time a way to remember an exciting time in Roscommon history. The society is open every Friday and Saturday from 12-4 p.m. until the end of September. Admission is free. For information on the new exhibit or the society call RAHS President Ron Swain at (989) 344-7386.