Under the leadership of Larry Strong, the Augusta pageant has set new standards in expectation and excellence
Fewer things are more all-American than the Miss America Pageant and Larry Strong has always enjoyed everything about it.
"I watched it growing up and thought it would be so cool to be involved," he added, "Miss America has been a tradition since 1921 and is still relevant. It continues to be about service, success, style and scholarship."
Larry has been involved with local pageants since the first Miss Butler County Pageant in 1974. He's also attended every Miss Kansas Pageant since 1967, except for the two years he was serving in the Army, 1969 and 1970.
The local pageant was dropped for several years until Larry helped revive it in 1974. As a member of the Augusta Optimist Club he was asked to help create a service program promoting youth. He presented his ideas on a Miss Augusta Pageant and the club adopted the project, sponsoring it for a number of years.
It became a labor of love. He, along with his late partner Jerry Fenske, mentored numerous young ladies. Larry was not the pageant director, preferring a role mostly behind the scenes. They helped the contestants with style, talent, interview skills, poise, and public appearances.
"It wasn't about changing them - we helped them to be the best they could be. And the goal was not only to get to Miss Kansas, but on to Miss America," he explained.
Larry and Jerry enjoyed tutoring the girls in the areas of talent and public appearances, but their favorite part was shopping for the evening gowns.
"That was the fun part! We spent a lot of our own money, but it was worth it."
The two assisted Emily Deaver in choosing a gown the year she won the Evening Gown competition and the crown at Miss Kansas 2008.
Since Jerry's death two years ago, Larry has sponsored the Evening Gown Award in Jerry 's memory at the local pageant, and at the Miss Kansas Pageant, as well.
Larry has directed the last four Miss Augusta/Miss Butler County Pageants and credits a majority of the successful projects to Kevin Unrein.
"A few years ago I met this incredible young man who wanted to provide lighting and sound. He and Clare Thompson have stepped it up each year. I just can't praise Kevin enough. He is a blessing and I appreciate him so much. They are techno-geniuses."
The local pageant with its professional state-of-the-art sound, lighting and effects has people all around the state talking. The production caught the eye of Miss Kansas officials, who have asked to use a video of last week's pageant as a teaching tool for others producing pageants.
In addition to Unrein and his crew's assistance, Larry also appreciates the community's support, Augusta High School Principal Donna Zerr and her staff, and the generous sponsorship of Dr. Kreg Boynton and Foggy Bottom of Wichita, where Larry works as a buyer, sales representative and a window designer.
Years of pageants hold many memorable moments for Larry. He smiles when recalling a pageant talent competition in the 1970s when a Miss Kansas contestant twirled machete knives.
"It was actually scary. Luckily, no one got hurt," he added, "They no longer allow such things or flaming batons - and no animal acts, either.
Other special memories include sitting next to Debbie Barnes' family members the night she became Miss Kansas 1968. She went on to become Miss America. He is also proud of being a judge at the Miss Flinthills Pageant where Tara Dawn Holland won, advanced to Miss Kansas, and went on to be crowned Miss America 1997.
"One of my best pageant moments was when Jerry and I had the opportunity to meet and visit with Lee Merriweather of Miss America and television fame."
He is no fan, however, of the television show Toddlers in Tiaras or child pageants.
"They give pageants a bad image. The Miss America pageant is no where close to that. If I had children, I would not put them in pageants. Those mothers are living their dreams through their children. And that Honey Boo-Boo is absolutely disgusting!"
Larry is quick to explain that Miss America is about scholarship and community service and he believes it is much more conservative, more tasteful and sophisticated than the Miss USA competition.
As pageant director, Larry feels his job is all about working behind the scenes, "This is not about me. It's a way to give back. Life is about charitable acts - service to others without any fan fare."
He has no plans to slow down and is looking forward to many more pageants. "It' can be a lot of work, but I really enjoy it. I love it."