Miss Philadelphias Seek Donations
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Date Posted: 21:59:33 02/24/14 Mon
THERE SHE IS, Miss Philadelphia . . .
Does anybody still care?
Col. Kevin J. McAleese did. But the pageant's former executive director died last year at age 55.
Rather than let the pageant fade away, as it had from the late 1980s until McAleese revived it in 1996, some former winners are stepping forward to keep the tradition alive.
It hasn't been easy.
"Kevin did everything that it's taking teams of people to do," said Kiplee Bell, a physician's assistant who was Miss Philadelphia 1998.
Last year, organizers tearfully struggled through the contest just weeks after McAleese's funeral. From all accounts, it was successful, but moving forward without his infectious enthusiasm isn't exactly a stroll down the runway.
Take, for instance, the new Kevin J. McAleese Memorial Scholarship, which organizers hope to present annually to a contestant who best embodies his passion for community service.
The plan was to get 100 donors to give $100 each so organizers could give away a $10,000 scholarship at the 2014 pageant, scheduled for March 15. But with the pageant just weeks away, only about $1,975 has been raised. Now, they'll be happy if they raise $5,000.
"Kevin would have had the 10 grand by now," Bell said.
This year's pageant will take place March 15 at the University of the Arts, on Broad Street. About 40 women auditioned for the pageant, and 20 will compete.
Big shoes to fill
The proverbial pageant bug bit McAleese in the early 1990s after his Army Reserve unit escorted some Miss America contestants visiting Philadelphia.
Afterward, he asked around and was dismayed to find that Philly hadn't hosted a local pageant since 1989. So, in 1996, he took it upon himself to revive the dormant tradition. Even when McAleese was deployed overseas in Iraq, Bosnia and Germany, he stayed on the job, seeing to it that things stayed on course.
He almost single-handedly took Philadelphia from not even hosting a Miss Philly pageant to having one of the top locals in the Miss America system. Along the way, he doled out more than $150,000 in scholarship money.
"Every day, something comes up and I think, how did Kevin do all of this?" said Kate Wilson Cohen, a former Miss Philadelphia (2000) who now serves as a co-executive director. The other co-director is Mary Kaye Jacono Anthony, Miss Philadelphia 2006.
"He was just one person," Cohen said. "We have a whole team of formers [Miss Philadelphias] working together, and we still can't do all that Kevin did."
He had a gift
I met McAleese, a New York transplant who worked as an executive recruiter, sometime in the late 1990s when he showed up unannounced in the Daily News newsroom with a newly crowned winner, looking for someone to interview her.
My first reaction was, "Really?" But then, McAleese, who was dressed in his military uniform, turned on the charm.
"He had an incredible way," said Agnes White, a longtime pageant volunteer whom McAleese recruited. "He could walk into a room and get somebody to do whatever he wanted. I saw it many times.
"Mary Kaye and Kate are doing an amazing job considering they have their own lives and their own careers," added White, who serves as this year's judges chair. "But none of us has that gift that he did. While we all have our gifts, it's kind of hard without him in that regard."
In 2008, McAleese asked me to serve as a judge.
Watching the care and attention to detail that McAleese put into the pageant was eye-opening. Yes, contestants strut their stuff in bathing suits and high heels, which is ludicrous. But I love how in the Miss America system each contestant champions a cause, such as anti-bullying or AIDS awareness.
"Kevin was always there to remind you, 'This isn't really about you,' " Anthony recalled. "He would remind you that this is about what you can do for other people."
Friends to the end
Bell, a new mother who lives in Manayunk, is the point person for the new McAleese scholarship. She and he were so tight, she considered him a surrogate dad. He went house hunting with her and, after she bought one, went to the closing with her.
In 2010, after doctors discovered that McAleese had five cancerous brain tumors, he asked Bell to be his medical proxy, a job she was honored to accept.
Despite his worsening health, McAleese escorted her down the aisle for her 2012 wedding in Antigua. Following his death in February 2013, Bell felt that it was time to move on.
"You get older. You don't want to be one of these pageant ladies of old trying to live through these women," Bell explained. "Honestly, for me, I was content to let my participation die with him."
But that was before a chance encounter with a young woman at church, who told Bell that she'd competed in the Miss Philly Pageant the previous year. Bell took it as a sign that McAleese wanted her to stay involved.
Other former winners are similarly motivated.
"He was a selfless person - he just gave and gave," Cohen said. "Every day we think, 'Oh gosh, Kevin did that?' We had no idea."
Anthony recently got a new job from a contact she met through McAleese, who before his death also worked with the Navy's Wounded Warriors project to help service members find jobs.
"I felt like when I was with him, he helped challenge me to understand the meaning of true service," Anthony said. "We feel like he did so much for us. We just feel like this is the best way to honor him."
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