Picking the Best

Buckhannon, West Virginia, USA - May 18, 2019: Strawberry Festival, The Strawberry Queen and her court, on a float, going down Main Street

Judging contests in East Tennessee is not for the faint of heart

I don’t remember how or why it happened, but there I was seated in a special roped off section of the auditorium judging a child’s beauty contest. Stop this madness, I thought to myself. These children should not be wearing makeup and showgirl costumes, and I should not be part of it. When I was introduced as a young local attorney, I wanted to hide under the table that was provided for my personal use. I was very uncomfortable and wished I had never agreed to serve as a judge for this contest for five- to ten-year-old girls obviously living out their mothers’ dreams.

That was the beginning of my contest-judging adventure five decades ago. Little Miss Knoxville was the billing it was given by the Junior Chamber of Commerce, but for me it turned out to be more of a public disgrace than a civic responsibility.

A guy I recognized from playing basketball at the YMCA when we were kids came to my roped off area just to remind me that we played ball together 20 years earlier and, oh, yeah, to advise me that his niece was No. 8 in the contest. He wanted me to give her every “consideration.” The good news was that I was going to give every child “consideration,” but the bad news was the other parents, uncles, aunts, brothers, and sisters didn’t know that, and they might have believed I was being influenced by this ghost from my past. I feel I was thought to be on the take. Throughout the dreadful evening, I was approached several times and tried to be gracious. What had I gotten myself into?

At the conclusion of the program, I and my fellow judges selected a well-deserving sweet girl with a beautiful voice. The crowd quickly revolted at our intelligent and unbiased choice, and I was literally chased by a group of angry mothers to my car in the parking lot. That night, I made a commitment to never judge another contest.

Of course, a man of my vast experience and knowledge could not be allowed to retire after only one contest, and soon came an invitation to serve as a judge for the Miss Loudon County contest. No, no, no – but this was a Miss America sanctioned contest with the winner in competition for Miss Tennessee and on to Atlantic City. (By the way, in case you overlooked it, the Miss America contest celebrated its 100th birthday in September of this year.) The best part of this contest, however, was we were now talking about big girls—something I know a little about. After all, I married a beautiful girl and at least know something about picking the best. A real bathing beauty contest? I’m all in.

The contest was held in the high school auditorium, and I was introduced as a judge, along with several local dignitaries. I was the only judge from out of county, and they made my resume sound quite qualified. Again, I and the other judges are provided every comfort, a pitcher of water and a paper cup, along with a roped off section of the auditorium. But first, the preliminary interviews.

In a Miss America competition, there are very strict rules, including a scripted interview each judge shall conduct with each contestant one-on-one. I was placed in a classroom and all contestants were paraded through like cattle at a branding, and that’s when it happened. The most naturally beautiful young lady entered my room for her interview, and I was immediately taken not only by her beauty, but by her simplicity. Her talent was a pom-pom dance. Okay, I like pom-poms, and I gave her a few tips on playing to the audience—of course, judges are not allowed to give the contestant tips. Then came the big scripted question: “What kind of young lady do you believe Miss America should be?” There was a short pause, then my Miss Loudon County spoke. “Well, she should be smart, but, God, I’m dumb. I make F’s in school.” I had to stop and catch my breath. She’s not going to make it. I cautioned her not to be so candid and honest with the other judges. She should talk as little as possible and just smile. Dance—don’t talk. I loved her honesty and naivety, but I knew this lovely damsel would not make it because the other judges surely would not fully appreciate her alluring charm.

I voted my Miss Loudon County first in every category, including her pom-pom dance (more for the dance than for the pom-poms), but that was only good for third place since she was not selected by any other judge in any category. Single-handedly I had promoted my Miss Loudon County to respectability.

Again, I had participated as an honorable, independent thinking judge. I often have wondered what happened to my Miss Loudon County. She probably has told thousands she came in third in the 1975 Miss Loudon County beauty contest.

You would think after the stress of two beauty contests I would learn that I’m not cut out for this stuff, but along came another offer and one I simply could not refuse: judging the Knoxville Chili Cookoff. Here, I admit that I made several mistakes. First, I assumed everybody strived for a good, mild, traditional chili like mine. Second, I forgot that I react negatively to hot peppers. Third, I failed to limit my volume when I occasionally found a chili I really liked. Fourth, I refused to drink milk between each sample as suggested because I did not think milk went well with chili. As a child, my mother always told me never to drink milk with fish or chili.

It took several people to help me to my car, and my wife, Norma, drove me home before the first round of voting by the judges. I never heard how the contest turned out and didn’t care. That was over 35 years ago, and I still have difficulty eating a bowl of chili.

My only attempt at legal judging also came early in my law career. I was asked to substitute for a sitting judge at the courthouse. I considered it an honor to be asked and could not wait to exhibit my vast knowledge of the law. From Administrative Law to Taxation, I had studied it all and even taught Business Law for several years at the University of Tennessee College of Business. If ever there was a student of the law prepared to dispense justice from the bench, it was me.

I reported for duty and would decide non-jury, overflow cases sent to me from the chief judge in the large courtroom down the hall. The first case was easy. Something about a woman who hit another woman in the head with a cookie sheet at a church bake sale. Then there was a man asking for rent for the use of a ladder his neighbor had borrowed and refused to return.

Finally, in walked a true legal challenge. A large 20-something boy in overalls and his rotund girlfriend entered the courtroom holding hands. They announced that they wanted me to perform a “proper” wedding ceremony. Stop! I know nothing about wedding ceremonies, much less what would constitute a “proper” ceremony. I must admit that, notwithstanding my wealth of legal knowledge, I did not know what to do, but I was eager to serve. First, I tried to avoid the responsibility by asking if they were sure that marriage was right for them and had they thoroughly discussed it. They responded, “Yes.” They were sure, but they did not want the “preacher” who hung around the courthouse for just such occasions to perform the ceremony. I didn’t blame them but, at least, unlike me, the “preacher” knew what he was doing. They insisted that I marry them that day.

Finally, I came up with a plan and told them it was my lunch break, and since I had worked so hard judging all morning, I needed about an hour and would they please come back about 1:00 p.m. if they were still in love. In the meantime, I ran to the law library and searched the Tennessee law books trying to find the “proper” language for an official to conduct a marriage ceremony in Tennessee. I found nothing, and at 1:00 p.m. I advised the couple that I could not marry them because I had no jurisdiction to conduct weddings (a good escape judges sometimes use). They reluctantly left the courtroom to find a real judge or live their life in sin.   

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