Napa County pageant traditions try to carry on

2012-01-31T00:00:00Z 2012-01-31T23:37:40Z Napa County pageant traditions try to carry onJENNIFER HUFFMAN Napa Valley Register
January 31, 2012 12:00 am  • 

The hairdos and dress styles may have changed, but young women have been competing to become Miss Napa County or Napa County’s Junior Miss for more than 30 years. However, lately the future of those titles hasn’t always been so certain.

A bad economy, lack of sponsorships, and volunteer and leadership turnover have caused the two programs to falter.

Now, a new group of supporters has stepped up to the stage with hopes of reviving the longtime traditions. 

Sarah Rutan is the new executive director of the Miss Napa County organization. But Rutan’s no stranger to the program. She won the 2008 Miss Napa County title, along with its crown and $4,600 in scholarship funds. 

“I owe my whole college education to the program,” Rutan said. The first year she competed as Miss Napa County, “I walked away with $1,027 — just for participating. I remember it down to the dollar; it meant so much to me to be awarded that,” she said. Over the four years she participated in the program, “I won more than $10,000 in scholarships,” Rutan said.

During those years, longtime pageant executive director Lani Bunch Robertson and a dedicated group of volunteers had built the competition into a powerhouse preliminary event to Miss California. 

Bunch Robertson could not be interviewed for this story, but her husband, Barry Robertson, recalled the kind of program his wife produced.

“Under her guidance as executive director, she brought the program into prominence through the state as one of the premier local pageants and in terms of scholarship dollars,” Robertson said. Bunch Robertson, herself Miss Napa County 1961, turned the crowning into a gala spectacular, he recalled. 

More than $20,000 in scholarship money was typically raised and awarded to 12 to 15 contestants who made the final cut for the program, Rutan said. But after Bunch Robertson retired, the program faltered. 

Volunteers came and went, and with the economy in a tailspin, the amount of funds raised plunged. In 2011, the program could only afford to award $500 to the winner of Miss Napa County, and $100 to each of the six participants. The show had to be combined with a Miss Solano competition. Miss Napa County was crowned in Vacaville last year. 

This year, Rutan has been able to assume the role of executive director for the program. Still recovering from the leadership transition, the event will be held in conjunction with Miss Solano again, but Rutan is determined to restore luster to the title. 

“It’s very important to me. I love everything it teaches the girls,” she said. “I’ll never let it die.”

Rutan said Bunch Robertson inspired her to keep the pageant going. “She had done so much for me when I was a contestant,” Rutan said. “I grew so much through the system,” learning interview, presentation and public speaking skills. 

“It was important for me to give back to the program and carry on something that meant the world to her.” 

Rutan has her work cut out for her. This year, 10 girls have begun meeting for the competition. Sponsors need to be found to award scholarships to the participants. “We make sure that every contestant walks away with some kind of scholarship, no matter how much,” Rutan said. “Even if it’s $100.”

Is the program still relevant to today’s young women? 

Yes, Rutan said. “I see the excitement in the girls,” she said — and not just about the money. “They are excited to see how involved they can become. They are able to promote their platforms and make a difference in the community.”

Local high school juniors have participated in the Napa Valley Junior Miss program since 1975. But after the most recent chairperson stepped down, the future of another local scholarship program (renamed America’s Distinguished Young Women in 2010) hung in the balance.

After a public plea in December for help, Christa Gonzales, a longtime production chair and choreographer of the event, stepped forward and assumed the leadership role.

“I felt like I had to,” said Gonzales, who competed in Junior Miss in 1997. “I didn’t want to see it fall apart or not continue.”

Gonzales faces the same challenges Rutan does. “I’m trying to make sure I have enough volunteers and delegate the jobs,” Gonzales said. Recruiting for the upcoming competition has just begun, she said. “So far, I estimate 10 (juniors) are already interested. I’m sure it will grow.”

Finding sponsors for the program has been hard, Gonzales said. A recent letter to the editor in the Register generated some interest, but more donations are needed, along with a volunteer to help manage that process, Gonzales said. 

In addition to the Distinguished Young Woman medallion the winner receives, the program also includes multiple scholarships — in some years as high as $3,500.

“The more sponsors we get, the more money we get for the girls,” she said. “You don’t want anybody to walk away empty-handed.” 

In 2011, a total of $6,650 in scholarships was awarded, compared to $10,500 for the 2008 winner. “This year it’s my responsibility to build up the program again,” Gonzales said.

Is the program still relevant to today’s high school juniors?

“I would say it is,” Gonzales said. “There are a lot of pressures out there for girls. We try to send a positive message that every girl is beautiful inside and out.

“It’s not a beauty pageant,” she said. “The girls grow from the program. They learn interview, essay-writing skills (and) they learn to work together as a group.”

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(7) Comments

  1. concernedlocal
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    concernedlocal - January 31, 2012 11:01 am
    Did the writer of this article do any research? It seems she may have gotten all of her information from Ms. Rutan. When Lani Robertson was unable to continue the program, she strongly urged Mary Jean Bruce and daughter Katelyn Bruce, a former Miss Napa, to take over the program, which they did for 3 years. Each of those 3 years they awarded the highest or second-highest amount of scholarships to their contestants of any program in the state, and were awarded the top volunteer awards from the Miss California Organization. They were also kind enough to give much of their stock of pageant items to Ms. Rutan. Seems odd for them to have been left out.
  2. ProudtobeaNapkin
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    ProudtobeaNapkin - January 31, 2012 2:29 pm

    It is great that we have such a nice program continuing in the Napa Valley! I think that when this program was held in Napa, be it directed by Mrs. Robertson or by Mrs. Bruce, the local monetary support was pretty darn strong. Perhaps hosting the program in Napa again will do it some good as well as doing public fundraisers. In the last two years I stopped hearing about fundraisers for the Napa program; are there fundraisers happening outside of Napa now that it has moved to Solano County? My coworkers in Napa that were regular donors stopped being asked so they stopped donating. Food for thought. Especially in this economy it takes a lot persistence to earn donations. I love the tradition of this program being a part of Napa. Good luck to this year’s contestants!
  3. pingita
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    pingita - January 31, 2012 4:19 pm
    If you were a regular donor for the Miss Napa please contact Sarah. She would love any and all the help she can get. Unfortunately I don't think she has the list of former donors. Sarah only recently acquired the title of director. There are a few former Miss Napa's that are helping to keep it going as well.
    It would be nice to bring it back to what it used to be. The young women learn so much and the scholarship money is needed now more than ever.
  4. SenorCuriouso
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    SenorCuriouso - January 31, 2012 7:50 pm
    @concernedlocal, you may want to double check your facts. Under the direction of Mrs. Bruce, the scholarship amounts dropped significantly and were NOT anywhere near the highest awarding locals in the state. Many of the other local programs in Northern & Southern CA continued to award over $15,000 to their contestants during those three years, despite the downturn in the economy. In the last year that Mrs. Robertson directed the program, Miss Napa County alone won over $6,000 and almost $30,000 in total for all contestants, while in 2009 and 2010 only $8,500 and $6,500, respectively, in total scholarship were awarded. Not only did scholarships and sponsorships dwindle, but so did contestants.
  5. SenorCuriouso
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    SenorCuriouso - January 31, 2012 7:56 pm
    @ProudtobeaNapkin, the Miss Napa County program was taken on by the Miss Solano Scholarship Organization for the 2011 competition year after Mrs. Bruce decided to not continue the program only two months before the scheduled competition. The young ladies planning on competing for Miss Napa County, some of whom already had secured sponsors, were left in the cold. Under the request of the CEO of Miss California, the Miss Solano Scholarship Organization hosted the title of Miss Napa County 2011 so that the young ladies of Napa County could be contestants. For this reason, Miss Napa County was crowned in Vacaville on the same night as Miss Solano 2011.

    Given that this is an all-volunteer organization and the last minute efforts to save the program from failing, the Miss Solano committee was not able to organize as many community appearances as Mrs. Robertson used to although they would have liked to, but they did an excellent job preparing Miss Napa County for the state competition.
  6. concernedlocal
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    concernedlocal - February 01, 2012 9:51 am
    @seniorcurioso I am not going to go into the falsity of your comments. My only point, really, was that it seemed very strange and insulting for the article to skip directly from Mrs. Robertson to Ms. Rutan. A lot of girls benefited from the program in between those years, and Mrs. Bruce spent a great deal of time and effort on the program.
  7. MrMagoo
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    MrMagoo - February 02, 2012 11:08 am
    Seniorcurioso: Interesting that you are showing that you a) assume the worst in people (referring to Mrs. Bruce) and b) have little appreciation for VOLUNTEERED time. I strongly hope that you are not one of the current volunteers associated with the Miss Napa Program. If you are a current volunteer than you have clearly lost sight of what volunteering should be all about: selfless acts of kindness. Volunteering should not be competitive or for self promotion. Most often, the hardest working genuine volunteers go unnoticed because they are the ones behind the camera/scenes. Lets stay focused on the fact that it is wonderful that through the kindness of ALL of the volunteers the Miss Napa Program has continued.
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