The Royal Treatment

The Matrix
Miss Book Park, having her cake and eating it too.
Miss Book Park, having her cake and eating it too.
As summer wears on, the traditional crowning of various festival queens kicks into high gear across Ohio. But it's not all flowers and flashbulbs for these lucky Buckeyes, who have obligations to fulfill along with the accolades.

"I check with the mayor's office every few weeks to find out what appearances I should attend," says newly crowned Miss Brook Park, Becky Smith. Thrilled with her new title, the affable seventeen-year-old laughs when people think being a queen is just about doing the royal wave from the back of a convertible. "People don't realize what's involved and what responsibilities come with it."

Smith's year-long reign began at the recent Brook Park Days festival and will end when she hosts contestants for next year's crown. In between, there will be numerous city and school functions to attend.

The queens of Ohio's theme celebrations — the North Ridgeville Corn Festival and the Milan Melon Festival, for example — won't escape the royal duty roster, either. "Our queens are goodwill ambassadors for our town wherever they go," says melon maven Doris Weiss, who has been involved with Milan's Labor Day celebration for 41 years. "A lot of the small towns belong to the Ohio Festival Association, and we all send our queens to each other's parades. Our queen rides in an eight-foot slice of muskmelon set in a flower garden. When you're heading down the highway with that melon, it's good PR."

Whether it's the Vermilion Festival of the Fish Queen in her "Perky the Perch" float or the Berlin Heights Basket Queen riding in . . . well, you get the idea — the winners put in plenty of miles to be the toast of the town. "A lot of these queens are traveling five thousand miles a year for the parades," says Weiss. "It's a lot of work. But it's also a lot of fun."

Some of the fun is in the royal perks, which differ from queen to queen. The big winner this summer cruises her hometown streets in a sapphire Camaro T-top. She is eighteen-year-old Nicole Willaman, queen of the 1999 Pro Football Hall of Fame Game Week in Canton. Willaman might as well be Supreme Ruler of Canton while she's at it. For the month leading up to the August 8 game, she is the heart and soul of this football-crazed community, birthplace and holy land of professional football.

Because of the added significance of the Browns' revival and their participation in the Hall of Fame Game, the youngest queen in the history of the event is getting special attention. Besides having the Camaro for the summer, she recently returned from a three-day, two-night trip to Washington, D.C., where she met with Congressman Ralph Regula for a series of PR functions, including a White House photo shoot. "I couldn't believe it when the Secret Service guys took me to a huge group of people from all over the country, who all took pictures of me," Willaman says. "I was blushing in every picture."

The fullback-sized diamond is hers to keep, along with the designer dresses from her numerous public appearances. But diamonds and dresses mean less to her than the experience of a lifetime.

"I signed up for the pageant because I love the Browns. I was going to wait until I was older, but when I saw that they were coming to Canton, I had to do it. Now, after watching this parade since I was a little girl and dreaming of being the queen, it happens. And it all happens while I watch the Browns play on my high school field. It's unbelievable."

It's not a ride in a giant bratwurst, but it's close. — Tim Piai

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