August 17, 2011

One last try at county pageant
led to coronation at state fair

By Tom Campbell

Sara Alford’s reluctance to sign up as a contestant for the 2010 Wells County 4-H Fair queen contest was understandable.

The previous two years, she had been chosen as runner-up. She didn’t want to make it a three-peat.

“I didn’t want to be known for that,” said Alford, a Purdue University agronomy junior from Poneto, a northeastern Indiana town of 200 people south of Fort Wayne. “I didn’t want to be a three-time runner-up.”

2011 Indiana State Fair Queen

Sara Alford has several favorite places at the Indiana State Fair, including the Pioneer Village, a living museum of Indiana agriculture. (Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell)

It was her mother, Jackie, who persuaded her to give it one more shot.

The third time was the charm. Alford not only won her county fair competition last year, but shortly after, she also was selected as the 2011 Miss Indiana State Fair.

“It was crazy! The state fair competition was held on the last day of the 2010 Indiana State Fair. I won, and the next day I had to be in class at Purdue,” said Alford, whose win fulfilled a childhood dream.

“Every girl wants to be a princess,” she said. “Nobody thinks they can do it, but I did it.”

Nearly a year has passed. Alford is in the final week of her year as queen. But the details of her coronation will always be fresh in her mind.

“There was a ton of people in the Pepsi Coliseum, and I was very nervous,” Alford said. “Before they started calling out the 10 finalists, I had calmed down because I wasn’t expecting anything. I was just thinking, ‘OK, at least now I get to go sit down and get off these high heels.’”

She made the cut from 87 entrants down to the final 10.

2011 Indiana State Fair Queen in cart waving

Even while traveling on the back roads of the state fairgrounds in Indianapolis, Alford spreads good cheer with everyone she encounters. (Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell)


“They called out my name first. I was so honored to be in the top 10, but then I thought, ‘Oh, no. Now I’ve got to answer an onstage question.’”

In the moment that terrifies most contestants, the judge asked Alford, “What are two qualities every woman should have?”

“I kind of messed up,” Alford said. “I started off strong and said leadership and perseverance. I explained what I meant, and I felt like I was doing fine. But I didn’t know how to finish my answer, so I just kept talking.”

Whatever she said must have worked. The next thing she heard was the master of ceremonies proclaiming, “The 2011 Miss Indiana State Fair is Miss Wells...”

“That’s the only thing I heard because there was such a huge roar from the crowd. I didn’t even hear my name being called,” Alford said.

2011 Indiana State Fair Queen Alford lunching with volunteers

Alford, enjoying a chicken and noodles lunch with the volunteers at the Pioneer Village, says one of the perks of being Miss Indiana State Fair is the variety of food she gets to sample. (Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell) 

The night before the pageant, Sara’s mother had helped prepare her daughter for the emotions that would be felt by the 86 contestants who would not be named Miss Indiana State Fair.

“Now don’t be disappointed if you don’t win tomorrow,” her mother said. Not a chance.

“I never thought I would win, so I knew I would not be disappointed. But I think my mom had more confidence in me than I had in myself.”

In the audience, Jackie Alford screamed and jumped up and down with the joy only a mother can feel.

On stage, even as the tiara was being fitted on her head, Sara looked toward the judges in disbelief and thought, “Really? Why would you pick me?”

That contest started an incredible year that culminates with the crowning of the 2012 Miss Indiana State Fair this Sunday, Aug. 21.

Before this year’s fair opened  Aug. 5, Alford, the fair’s “official hostess,” had already rolled up more than 7,000 miles on her courtesy car visiting county fairs throughout the state, mostly with her mother as a traveling companion and chaperone.

“It was great. We visited 35 fairs in just under two months,” said Alford, including one special meeting in Johnson County.

2011 Indiana State Fair Queen Alford giving an interview

Alford has done many interviews, including this radio interview with reporter Andy Eubank of Hoosier Ag Today. (Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell)

“I remember I didn’t think I made a particularly good speech. I didn’t have anything written down,” Alford said. “But after I finished, a pregnant woman walked up to me and said, ‘You have inspired me to put my child in 4-H. I want all my children to have the same passion that you have.’ I almost cried. To know that I have that kind of an impact on somebody is pretty powerful.”

She has nearly the same effect on visitors to the state fair, with an appeal that cuts across all demographics. Mothers point her out to their children. She’s easy to spot, what with the sash and a smile as bright as her tiara.

2011 Indiana State Fair Queen Alford hugging young girl

Alford has become a role model for many young girls, several of whom just want to hug her as she roams the state fairgrounds. (Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell)

Young girls approach her for a hug. Older visitors want to talk to her. Teenage boys want to have their pictures taken by her side.

Alford admits her role as queen has been more difficult than she imagined.

“I know whenever I make an appearance now that I’m representing the state of Indiana, Purdue agronomy and Purdue Agriculture, my hometown, my county, even pageant girls all over the world. I’m representing a lot. I have to watch what I do every step of the way.”

Since the opening of the fair, Alford’s days have all seemed to start routinely. But once she hits the fairgrounds, anything can happen.

“I wake up every morning in my hotel room, do my hair and makeup, put on my sash and crown, and head over to the fair,” Alford said, usually arriving around 9 a.m. to begin the day’s activities. The first day of her reign was slightly different.

“I think I got here about 6:30 a.m. I guess I was a little nervous.”

Her official duties each day end with the conclusion of the daily Marsh parade about 6:45 p.m., but she can usually be found somewhere on the grounds long after the parade ends.

So was the case the night of Aug. 13, when she was at the outdoor grandstands before the music group Sugarland was about to perform. She had left the grandstands as a storm approached. Moments later, the overhead rigging of the stage collapsed, causing panic amid stunned crowds of people. She immediately pitched in to help.

“I was trying to comfort people, trying to keep people calm,” she said.

2011 Indiana State Fair Queen Alford attending memorial

Alford wipes a tear at a memorial service held Monday, Aug. 15, for five people who died in an accident that occurred two nights earlier at the state fair. An overhead stage rigging at the outdoor grandstands collapsed in a storm shortly before a concert of the music group Sugarland. More than 40 others were injured. (Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Keith Robinson)

Five people died in the accident, and more than 40 were injured.

Alford credited the work of rescuers.

“What a tremendous job the rescue team did in this tragedy,” she said, adding that others on the fairgrounds also did what they could in offering assistance. “Everyone really helped out.”

Alford attended an Aug. 15 memorial service on the fairgrounds for the victims. She sat in the front row, dressed in black, occasionally wiping tears from her eyes.

Despite the tragedy, Alford remains passionate about the state fair.

“I just love it. There are so many things I like. I love the animals. The Pioneer Village is great, and the nursery is great.”

2011 Indiana State Fair Queen Alford milking a cow

It’s difficult to tell who is more nervous, Elsie the cow or Alford, practicing for the celebrity milking competition a few days before the event. (Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell)

What’s not to love? A dairy calf born during her reign at the fair will carry on Sara’s name long after the fair concludes.

“They named her after me,” she said. “That’s so cool.”

But maybe not as cool as getting to visit anywhere she wants on the fairgrounds. So far, she has been able to stay away from the deep-fried ice cream and other legendary treats at the fair, as well as the midway rides.

Those wanting to get their photo taken with the 2011 Miss Indiana State Fair likely will find her the livestock buildings.

“I’m an ag kid,” she said. “I grew up a 4-H girl, and I love going around looking at the animals.”

Which is only natural. She and her brother have started a small business with 20 head of Boer goats in Poneto, Ind. But when her reign ends, Alford will return to Purdue’s West Lafayette campus to resume her agronomy studies with an eye toward graduate school to study cropping systems.

That doesn’t mean her pageant days are over.

“People ask me all the time if I am going to continue on in competitions,” she said. “I’m not sure, but I might try for Miss Huntington or Miss Purdue just for the fun of it. There is also the Indy 500 queen and princess that I definitely want to try because it is just an interview process and it sounds like fun.”

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