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Sue Lani Madsen: ‘Training young women to be leaders’

Lilac Court members hold hands awaiting the crowning of Lilac Queen during the 2018 Lilac Festival Queen and Court Coronation on  March 4, 2018, at West Valley High School. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Lilac Court members hold hands awaiting the crowning of Lilac Queen during the 2018 Lilac Festival Queen and Court Coronation on March 4, 2018, at West Valley High School. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Blowing and drifting snow made it impossible to get home from Spokane last Saturday. It was a tough day, and not because of the weather. Five judges interviewed 19 high-energy young women for the Lilac Royalty Scholarship Court. There were only seven openings, and 12 girls to be disappointed. I was one of the judges.

We met girls with impressive academic records. Girls with color-coded planners juggling schedules for school, church, work, sports, clubs and community service. Girls who made me want to cry. Girls with posture so perfect it made me sit up straighter.

The candidates had received four weeks of intensive training to polish their confidence and add new skills. Some had a natural gift for interviewing, knowing when to stop answering and leaving us wishing we could visit for an hour. A few were more reserved, but had learned to look us in the eye and answer directly. Enthusiasm bubbled over on some queries, others were greeted with, “That’s a hard question!” And then they answered articulately anyway. Those were the answers that made me want to cry – stories of surviving hard times and tough situations.

We met girls with the composure of mature young women. We didn’t want to disappoint any of them.

Lilac Festival Royalty has been not-a-pageant for more than the 10 years of Kristy Hamby’s involvement. She serves as Lilac Festival Association President.

“It’s all about training young women to be leaders wherever they go,” Hamby said.

The program teaches skills in interviewing, public speaking and business etiquette, and a platform to practice them. Last year’s speaker at the Lilac Week Queens Luncheon was a former Lilac Queen, now corporate CEO for a $2 billion company. Shelley Gilchrist Broader credited her Lilac training in 1982 with giving her a leadership edge.

Cecilia Stephens and Clare Patton, longtime volunteers serving as Co-Vice Presidents for Royalty, ran Saturday’s selection process with precision. We volunteer judges were given lists of interview questions to ask each candidate, in the same way and in the same order. Not one candidate was late despite the road conditions. Punctuality and reliability were two qualities candidates cited when asked to name critical attributes for a member of the Lilac Court.

The locally supported Lilac Royalty Scholarship Court and the national Distinguished Young Women of America program (formerly America’s Junior Miss) provide the route to riding a float for most Pacific Northwest communities, but some day the floats may include young men. The Northwest Festival Hosting Group, including the Wenatchee Apple Blossom Festival and Leavenworth’s Autumn Leaf Festival, meets once per year to discuss common interests. The 10 members have regularly discussed bringing boys into the festival royalty programs.

According to Hamby, there are many pragmatic issues, but the Lilac Festival mission statement to empower all youth keeps the question on the table. Originally, the program provided a place uniquely necessary for young women because they had fewer opportunities, but now, “I’m seeing more of a level playing field,” Hamby said.

It’s no longer about being a teacher or a nurse, the traditional occupations open to women in earlier generations. The young women of 2019 expressed ambitions from architect to zoo veterinarian and had plans to get there.

The Lilac Festival directors will keep asking themselves if it’s time to recognize boys developing into well-rounded young men as part of the court. Meanwhile, the Lilac City’s Got Talent Show celebrates high school seniors of both sexes, offering cash prizes to help them further their education or pursue their talent.

The challenge for an 81-year-old organization is how to be true to tradition while still being relevant in a society discussing gender fluidity. But navigating the cultural challenge is less of a barrier than the money. Doubling the court would require increasing the budget to handle more chaperones, more hotel rooms, more lilac-themed wardrobe items for the young community ambassadors.

In last Saturday’s interviews, the young women recommended two other qualities necessary in members of the court. One was genuineness, seeking those who are always themselves with everyone they meet. The other was kindness. Genuine kindness is worth celebrating in girls and boys, women and men.

The training for the final seven continues through the Lilac Queen’s coronation March 3. It was an honor to be a part of selecting this year’s Spokane Lilac Festival Royal Court:

Brooke DeRuwe, Central Valley High School; Madison O’Callaghan, Cheney High School; Maggie Bailey, Freeman High School; Lillian Kay, Liberty High School; Sydney Lyman. Mead High School; Makayla Juntunen, North Central High School; and Grace Cvancara, The Oaks Classical Christian Academy.