It was their grandmother’s wish that the three cousins compete in this year’s Days of ‘47 Royalty Pageant. Fulfilling the wish last spring, they became their family’s third generation to participate.
Aumanae Hitesman, Audrey Parks and Rebecca Van Oene had all felt some pressure from their grandmother, Marene Redmond of Tooele, to compete. Redmond said she had enjoyed her experience in the pageant decades ago, and having her granddaughters participate wasn’t about winning — it was about the experience.
The cousins became contestants in the three-day pageant, which was held April 20-22 at the LDS Conference Center in Salt Lake City.
Parks, the oldest of the three cousins at 22, attended Stansbury High School, and now attends Salt Lake Community College. Hitesman, 21, went to Tooele High School and recently returned from an LDS mission to Russia. She now attends Utah State University. Van Oene, 19, went to high school at Davis High and now attends Weber State, majoring in accounting.
“This was the year we could all do it together,” Hitesman said.
“We thought it would be so much more fun as a group,” Van Oene added.
Parks said, “I was asked to do it, so I did it.”
The pageant began on a Thursday with rehearsals and seminars. That night, the girls danced at a ball. Friday they rehearsed even more, while Saturday’s events featured pictures, dinner and on-stage questions.
A prerequisite for the pageant is that participants must be descendants of Utah pioneers. The cousins have so many pioneer ancestors that each one was able to choose women from different family lines. Hitesman chose Serena Torjussen Gardner, Parks chose Samuel Wallace Park, and Van Oene chose Priscilla Merriman Evans.
One part of the pageant that impressed the cousins was a dance step they learned from an instructor who taught them to raise their arms toward a section of audience seating. The instructor said they should imagine their ancestors are sitting in that section, and as the cousins raise their arms during the dance routine, they are saluting their ancestors.
All three women were also impressed with the other pageant contestants. Meeting them, as well as getting to know the women who manage the pageant, were highlights.
“The other girls were amazing, and the women who run the pageant are angels,” Hitesman said.
“My favorite part was meeting the girls,” Van Oene said. “They all come from so many backgrounds.”
Melinda Russo, one of Redmond’s five daughters, competed in the 2003 pageant, despite being in training at a police academy. She said she participated alone because her four sisters weren’t around at the time. Russo is married and is in law enforcement today.
The pageant then was only one day long and everything — scheduling, contact information, etc., was done on paper, not online, Russo said.
There were also specific rules then, she added, and the contestants had to wear two-and-a-half-inch heels on stage. Van Oene noted that now the contestants aren’t allowed to wear shoes that make any noise on stage.
“My mother asked me to do it several times,” Russo said. “Finally I told her: If I am not married by next year, I will do it. So I did it.”
Russo was hesitant to participate in the pageant, but now says she is grateful for the experience.
“It was nice,” she said. “I got to meet some new people and I studied my pioneer heritage beforehand. So, it was nice that I could get on stage and mention who I was. I am grateful I carried on that tradition.”
The family’s favorite memory of Russo in the pageant is her answer to one of the questions she was asked. They still quote and laugh about it today.
She answered her question by saying, “Ever since I was knee high to a grasshopper …”
There are other differences that have occurred in the pageant over the years. The reward for winning was a $1,000 scholarship in 2003. It was $3,000 this year.
While the scholarship amount has gone up, the number of contestants has declined over the years. There were 21 women in the pageant this year, with 56 in 2003 and 74 in 1962, which was the year Redmond started the family tradition.
Redmond said she got involved in the pageant because her mother was a member of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers. DUP members are the volunteer group who plan and oversee the pageant. Redmond has a strong love and appreciation for Utah and the work the DUP members put into the pageant, as well as what the competition represents.
“Utah is a great state and we think that the pageant is great,” Redmond said.
Redmond, whose maiden name is Gardner, was dating Roger Redmond when she participated in the pageant. During the pageant, she was asked what she would do if she didn’t win. Her answer was “get married.”
Happily, she said, she didn’t win and married Roger. The two have been married for 55 years. Redmond said she wanted her daughters and granddaughters to participate in the pageant so they could increase their knowledge of their family history and have a memorable time.
“I wanted them to do it because it is such a good experience,” Redmond said
Redmond’s love of family history has influenced her family’s life, from the time she raised her children to now when her children are grown and raising their own.
“We were told stories constantly growing up,” Russo said. “She has such a strong honor in the pioneers and our heritage.”
None of the women in any of the three generations has been selected as pageant royalty. But they agree what they did win could be considered more meaningful than a $3,000 scholarship: They learned about their pioneer ancestors and what those women went through.
They also learned about the importance of family and tradition. The three generations of women also agree that they are grateful for their ancestors.
“All of us are grateful for our pioneer heritage and those who put on the pageant,” Russo said.
What the three cousins learned and felt from their experience they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. While no one in the next generation has promised to participate in the pageant — who knows? Maybe in a couple of years a few more generations will take part in the family tradition.