I was only there for the extra credit.
I remember that late September afternoon like it was yesterday. I was 17 and a senior at John Muir High School in Pasadena, California. All of the senior girls had been invited to an assembly, sponsored by the Tournament of Roses Association. The purpose of the assembly was to tell the girls about the upcoming try-outs for the 80th Annual Tournament of Roses Royal Court. The head of the Queen Selection Committee was there as well as the reigning Rose Queen, Linda Strother. I'm sure it was a great assembly, though I couldn't tell you a thing about it. You see, I slept through the whole thing. My girlfriend had to wake me up when it was over.
When we were leaving, I saw that they were making all of us go out the same door. That way we could say 'hello' to, and shake the hand of Ralph Helpbringer, the head of the Queen Selection Committee. This was the last thing I wanted to do. I didn't even want to be there. I only came for the extra credit I was going to get from one of my teachers. As I approached the door, I ducked my head and tried to rush out without stopping to say anything. No such luck. Mr. Helpbringer caught me by the arm and pulled me back. He looked at me and told me me how much he hoped I would be at the try-outs. I returned his look and assured him that I had no intention of attending. He asked me why. I told him that it would be a waste of time for both of us. He asked me 'why' again. I looked him squarely in the face and told him that I didn't have blond hair or blue eyes, therefore I didn't stand a chance of being chosen. Mr. Helpbringer didn't bat an eyelash. He just asked me again to come, and gave me a smile. I ran down the auditorium steps as quickly as I could. How dare the school make me attend this assembly and how dare he pressure me like that!
A bit of history.
The organization that started the Tournament of Roses in 1890 is the Valley Hunt Club. It was, and still is, a very exclusive private club for the very wealthy and elite. Needless to say, it was completely WASPish in it's membership and I don't think the word 'diversity' was a part of American vocabulary then. It was a horrible time in history for African-Americans.
The Tournament of Roses was noted for not having any minorities in it's organization, or as a member of the Royal Court. In the 1960s the Pasadena NAACP was actively protesting and boycotting the parade.
By the time try-outs had rolled around, I had pretty much gone into hiding. Everyone was bugging me to go. My mother, my teachers, my friends, other relatives; it was a nightmare. I finally made a deal with them. If they would all leave me alone, I would go to the try-outs. They agreed.
The day came and I left for the try-outs. I wouldn't allow anyone to accompany me. I wanted to be miserable all by myself. When I arrived at the Tournament House, I was stunned. There were girls everywhere. (I later heard the count was over 800.) I realized I had made a terrible mistake and turned to leave. I don't know what I was being punished for but who should I run smack into? You guessed it; Ralph Helpbringer. (Was he stalking me?). To make a long story short, he steered me back to the try-outs and made sure I had a seat, and a number. He also ended any hope of escape.
Trying-out consisted of walking in front of the judges, smiling, stating your number, and number only, turning and leaving. That was it. That was the only chance you had of making a lasting impression. Some girls burst into tears when they were clear of the judges. I, however, was not concerned because I was done and didn't have to give it another thought.
When I got home, my mother wanted to know how it went, I gave her a re-cap then went to do my homework. At school the next day, everyone was curious about the try-outs. I told them all about it and then reminded them that I had kept my part of the deal and now they had to keep theirs. I could breath easy.
Three days later, the mail came and I was to learn that God really does have a sense of humor. I received a letter with a suspicious logo on the envelope. Tournament of Roses. I got this queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach as I opened the letter. I stared in total disbelief. I had made it through the first elimination and my presence was 'requested' at the next selection phase.
I couldn't believe it. What next? Nobody said anything about a next. What was I going to do? I definitely did not want to do this, but how could I refuse? It was written as a command, without an option. This was so not fair.
Destiny takes over.
I went back for the next try-out and did exactly the same thing. Walked in front of the judges, smiled, said my number (which was 56), and left. Three days later I received another letter. Same logo on the envelope. I had made the second cut. I went the third time, the same procedure and three days later received another letter. Same logo on the envelope. Now I was one of fifty semi-finalists. The next round was to be very different; there would be an interview. When our number was called, we would go before the judges and sit in a chair. My number was called. After a moment one of the committeemen looked at me and asked, "Define for us the generation gap." All the oxygen left the room and my brain. However, my father had taught me to never panic because you wouldn't be able to think. I knew I couldn't miss a beat. I looked back, smiled and replied, "Generation gap? I wasn't aware there was one!" I couldn't have had a better response if I had planned it. We talked a little bit about my relationship with my family and I was done. Three days later, the letter came. Same logo on the envelope. I made it through. I was now a finalist. I was invited to a breakfast, at which time the seven Royal Court members would be announced.
This news should have been so exciting for me, but instead, it was devastating. I hadn't wanted to do this in the first place and now I was a finalist. And worst yet, I really wanted it now but knew I would never be chosen. Everyone was ecstatic. They didn't understand. I cried myself to sleep that night.
The day for the breakfast came and I was a bundle of nerves. I think I knew how Jesus must have felt in the garden before his crucifiction. I got dressed and left for the Tournament House. It was unusually quiet. The girls weren't that talkative, and who could eat? Everyone was a bundle of nerves. Finally they rounded us all up on the front steps. The press was there as well as spectators. Finally the first girl was being announced. They told what school she was from (John Muir) and talked a little bit about her activities. It sounded like my friend, Janice Lowe, from my school but she was Chinese so it couldn't be her. But it was someone from my school. Then they said the number; 56. I heard it but I didn't believe it. Then everyone was hugging me. They brought me a bouquet of red roses and I started to cry. Another girl that was called was a childhood friend, Janice Fuller, whose grandfather founded Fuller Theological Seminary. And then they called Janice Lowe, my Chinese friend. The crowd went crazy! The racial barrier had been broken--twice.
When I got home that evening, our whole house was filled with roses. The smell was intoxicating. There were tons of telegrams congratulating me from all over the world, and from people I did and didn't know. In a day I was famous.
Preparation for New Year's
The next few weeks would be devoted to grooming us and training us in all aspects of public life. Walking, poise, etiquette, stage presence, public speaking, etc. It was very grueling and intense. It was the equivalent of attending the finest of finishing schools. When completed, we were prepared to meet and dine with the Queen, should the occasion arise. While all this was going on we were being fitted for clothes, getting new hairstyles, and getting formal portraits taken.
The next big event would take place within a week or so-the selection of the Rose Queen. The evening that was to take place, we were all at the Tournament House. The Queen Selection Committee was upstairs making their decision. It was taking forever. Finally they all came downstairs but they didn't look happy. They didn't have a queen. It seems that we had all gotten straight '4's' (which is the highest) on our assessments so no one stood out. We were all equal. We were also the youngest (four were 17) and smartest (3.5 GPA average) court they had ever had. Pamela Anicich was chosen to reign as queen.
We would be on many television shows. Two of my favorite people were Lawrence Welk and Betty White. Lawrence Welk would later become a Grand Marshall. Little did I know I would see Mr. Welk again while I was in college in South Dakota! I absolutely loved dancing the polka with him on his show. Betty White would pinch my dimples and say that I was the only person she knew who had dimples as big as hers!
Our schedule in the three months before New Year's Day was crazy. Sometimes we would have multiple engagements in a day and I was constantly out of school. (Now I know why they required the girls to have a certain GPA.) Teachers were accommodating so my grades did not suffer. I did get sick once with the flu but I couldn't take to my bed. Everyone was giving me Nyquil, and I got a little tipsy one night and had to speak in front of 2,000 people. They got me off stage pretty quick! Needless to say, the Nyquil was removed from our travel kits!
It should be noted that we were at all times chaperoned. There were seven committee men and their wives. We were each assigned a couple who became like surrogate parents. We were always picked up and returned home by the same people. They got to know us very well and we all became quite close.
The Court, the Grand Marshall, and the POTUS
We hit the jackpot with Bob Hope as our Grand Marshall. It was getting close to the holidays and we were preparing for the Grand Marshall's Ball. Unfortunately Mr. Hope was not able to attend the Ball due to a prior commitment. We were disappointed but that did not stop us from having a great time. There were so many dignitaries there. There was one of us to a table of extremely well-known and important people, and it was our job to act as hostess for them. We were on our own but this is what we had been trained for. It was quite a night.
We were getting ready to have a run-though for the Rose Bowl and the game. You know, our entrance, security, etc. Then we were notified that President Richard M. Nixon wished to attend the game. (President Nixon was a Grand Marshall himself in 1960.) Everything came to an abrupt halt because the FBI and Secret Service would be taking over and handling everything. What a nightmare! We would not be entering as planned. We would be entering with the President and be under the jurisdiction, and protection, of the Secret Service. It was interesting to watch them. They never looked at us or the President, they watched everyone else. To make it even better, the evangelist and good friend of the President, Billy Graham, came also.
The big day came and it was everything I dreamed it would be, and more. The theme was "A Time to Remember". The excitement, people yelling your name and taking pictures was overwhelming. There was a whole group of people from Indiana, the state where I was born, and they went wild! The parade lasted two and a half hours, but it went so quickly. We would end up at the armory where we would depart the float and head for the Kick-off Luncheon with the Ohio State and USC teams. I, however, would not be attending the luncheon.
The Rose Bowl-Ohio State VS USC
The morning had started out chilly so we were given white mink stoles to wear on the float. Our float was also heated. I was at the front and close to one of the blowers. Shortly after the parade started, it started to warm up, however, we had to keep the stoles on. To make matters worse, the heater malfunctioned and it wouldn't turn off. I managed to make it to the end of the parade, but when the float pulled into the armory, I collapsed from the heat. I was taken into the armory but I was in no shape to attend the luncheon. I was put in a cool room and given plenty of liquids, etc. and I went to sleep. When I woke up there was a pretty lady with a kind but concerned smile holding my hand. I was a little disoriented, and when I finally focused, I realized that it was Dolores Hope who was sitting beside me. She had stayed with me. I changed outfits and we left the armory and headed for the Rose Bowl and the game.
With the exception of Nancy Henno and Queen Pamela, we were all for Ohio State. USC hadn't been too impressed with all the high school girls and were pretty rude, especially O.J. On the other hand, those Ohio State boys were wonderful! And yes, they won-Ohio State, 27- USC 16. Ohio State quarterback Rex Kern was named the Rose Bowl Game Player of the Game. Side note: Princess Nancy Henno went on to marry Rex Kern.
The game was over, the parade was over, life was going to return to normal, but it would never be the same. I would never be the same.
You may be wondering why I picked the middle of June to write about a winter event. Well, I just happened to run across a blog on another site talking about the parade, and the memories came flooding back. While the blogger was writing about the Tournament of Roses from a secondhand perspective, I have a personal experience with them. I thought, "Why not."
I met so many extraordinary and wonderful people that year. And, things did not end for me after January 1st. I was to have more speaking engagements. I also made it into two text books! There was a journalist who kept track of me throughout the year and wrote an article about me that still makes me cry when I read it. Some of my friends still remind me of how I went 'kicking and screaming' to those try-outs!
With the exception of the group of girls, all of the pictures are from my year, 1969. I hope you have enjoyed my walk down memory lane. It was an experience I will never, ever forget and was truly A Time to Remember!
- Valley Hunt Club Pasadena | Don\'t Even Think About Joining This Club - Los Angeles Times
Barber-neat hedges buffer the Valley Hunt Club from the world hurrying by on Orange Grove Boulevard, the busy Pasadena street known as Millionaire's Row before condos began displacing its deep-lawn
Avery Gibson on May 11, 2020:
what do you mean by memoirs
Liz Schneider on December 11, 2015:
What an extraordinary story story Sylvia!
lbmonteros on December 11, 2015:
Thank you wo much for writing this story! I've interviewed a few Rose Queens for my column on Examiner.com, but only get a few words from the Princesses. I don't think most people realize just how extraordinary the girls on the Royal Court are. I am constantly amazed by their intelligence, confidence, poise, and individuality.
Sylvia Van Peebles (author) from Southern California on July 01, 2011:
Thank you so much PenMePretty!
PenMePretty from Franklin on July 01, 2011:
voted awesome/beautiful...I enjoyed every word. Really special. Thanks for sharing in any season.
Sylvia Van Peebles (author) from Southern California on June 26, 2011:
Thanks Amy! I am my father's daughter. Yeah, I've never had too much trouble speaking my mind. LOL
Amy Becherer from St. Louis, MO on June 26, 2011:
What a unique, exciting, nerve-wracking experience for you, Sylvia. I would normally expect it to have been a huge confidence builder, but it sounds like you started out with a healthy dose of self-esteem from the get-go. I got a vicarious thrill just reading about your excellent adventure! Thanks