Longtime pageant organizer took it to national level

Longtime organizer helped Sweetheart event grow into national prominence

HOOPESTON – For more than 30 years, Delores Crabtree has been a major organizer of the National Sweetcorn Festival's Sweetheart Pageant, a local event that has grown into a training ground for Miss America hopefuls from across the nation.

Crabtree, 74, retired a year ago as the pageant's longtime director, a volunteer position she shared for several years with her late husband, O'Dell Crabtree. But she's still a volunteer, chaperoning four of the contestants to various activities this past week; and her son, Clifford Crabtree, has taken over as pageant director.

In the early days, Crabtree said, festival organizers had to persuade contestants to come to Hoopeston for the Sweetheart Pageant, but now, "they beg us to come." Most are first-runners-up in their state competitions, and Hoopeston is a great training for their ultimate goal of Miss America, said Crabtree, whose longtime involvement in the pageant was merely happenstance.

News-Gazette reporter Tracy Moss recently interviewed Crabtree. The discussion follows:

How did you get involved with the pageant?

Because of my husband, O'Dell Crabtree. In 1958, he joined the Hoopeston Jaycees. (The Jaycees coordinate the entire festival.) He jumped in with both feet, and by 1963 was festival chairman. In 1968, he got involved with the pageant, and I just started making his telephone calls to other states to get contestants. I was more or less his secretary.

Over the years, the pageant has become a family affair for you, right?

Our six kids grew up around the pageant and festival, and our youngest son, Clifford Crabtree, worked behind the scenes for many years and is now the director of the pageant. His wife, Michelle, was the producer for years and retired when I did.

Last year was the first pageant in many years that you were just a spectator. What was it like?

I sat there wondering if this was done or did they think to do that?

In your many years of pageant work, how many Hoopeston contestants have become Miss America?

I can't recall the exact number, but it's been between six and eight.

What were some of the most memorable pageant "emergencies?"

One year, our crown "walked off," and we didn't have anything to crown the winner. We didn't realize it until that night. I think Miss Hoopeston let us use her crown. Another year, one of the girls just walked off the stage when she didn't make the Top 10. Her family was in the audience and walked out too. She really thought she should have been in the Top 10. But her talent (dancing) wasn't that good.

After all the years running the pageant in Hoopeston, did you ever attend a Miss America pageant?

Yes, a group of us went to the pageant in Atlantic City one year. I was really disappointed because of all the TV commercial breaks. You just sit there. They could have brought out some talent and entertained us.

So, what would you recommend, the Hoopeston Sweetheart pageant or the Miss America pageant?

I would say Hoopeston, because it's more entertaining. You get to see all the girls, all the talent and all the interviews. All you see is the Top 10 at Miss America and not all of the talent and interviews.

How has the pageant changed since you and your husband first got involved in 1968?

Swimsuits. First, they were all one piece. Now, they're like Band-Aids. And the gowns. They used to be big and puffy. Now, they're slim and fit like a glove and maybe even slit all the way up to the hip.

You've likely become an expert over the years on what it takes to win a pageant. Do you often know when a girl has the potential to become Miss America?

No, only one year was I close to guessing which of our contestants might win Miss America, and that was Debbie Turner, who became Miss America in 1995. The judges and I don't agree. It all comes down to the interview.

What's been the most rewarding part of being involved with the pageant for so many years?

You meet so many people; so many friendly people from other states. I have yet to meet someone that's not friendly, and you get to know some of them well, like the pageant directors from other states, and you look forward to seeing them again every year.

What's your most memorable moment as a pageant volunteer?

I don't have just one.

– We used to pick up the contestants at O'Hare Airport in Chicago and you could usually pick out the girls as they came through the gate. One time, greeting one of the girls, my husband used the girl's first name only, asking if she was that girl, and she said, "yes." We all walked away, and he asked for her luggage ticket and was surprised she had only one piece of luggage, which was unusual for contestants. After questioning her about having just one piece of luggage, the girl asked, "Who do you think I am?" Then we realized we had the wrong girl but with the right name.

– When my daughter-in-law and I retired, we were presented on stage with the same gold pins that are given to the pageant winners and are made locally, but only for the pageant.

– In 1995, my husband and I were featured in the magazine "Pageantry," as co-organizers of the Sweetheart Pageant.

So, have you always been a pageant person with leadership and organizational skills?

Oh, no. I was never a leader in high school. I wouldn't have been involved in the pageant at all if it weren't for my husband. You can do anything once you make up your mind. The first time you might fall on your face, but pick yourself up and try it again and don't let it bother you. You've got to be able to laugh at yourself.

GETTING TO KNOW DELORES CRABTREE

Age: 74

Hometown: Hoopeston

Family: Husband O'Dell died in 2001; she has six children and many grandchildren

Community service: About 30 years working with the pageant, several as organizer; longtime parent-teacher organization volunteer; coordinator for the Grant Township food program

Quote: "You can do anything once you make up your mind. The first time you might fall on your face, but pick yourself up and try it again and don't let it bother you. You've got to be able to laugh at yourself."

Topics (2):People, Technology
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