INDEPENDENCE, Mo. – Nell Shepherd was past her century mark when she competed in her first beauty pageant with a walker and lively stories that made judges tear up with laughter. She reveled in the shows, so much that she insisted she be buried with her sparkling tiara.
"We bawled, my staff, when we heard that" request, said Carla Lungren, co-chairwoman of the Ms. Missouri Nursing Home Pageant, which plans to crown its 29th annual champion Wednesday at the Hyatt Regency Crown Center in Kansas City.
Lungren and other organizers of the three-tiered, statewide competition say Shepherd's request epitomizes why such pageants are so important.
"That's totally why we do what we do everyday in long-term care," said Lungren, who works with the Missouri Health Care Association. "To touch people's lives and make them meaningful until the very end. Nell's was. There's no doubt about it."
There's no extravagant prizes or evening gown competitions, though some women prefer to wear a fancy dress or adorn their wheelchairs with flowers as they tell stories of growing up during the Great Depression and World War II. Some reminisce about vacation mishaps or decades-long marriages — and of their children, grandchildren, even great-great grandchildren.
Georgia, Alabama and California also have long-running pageants, and West Virginia held its event for many years before the death of its organizer.
"Our residents just love it," said Georgia's pageant coordinator, Belinda Price, who works with the Georgia Health Care Association. "I've had them in intensive care on Thursday say they have to get out because they have a pageant on Saturday. That scares us to death."
Shepherd, a sharp-witted woman crowned Missouri's first runner-up in 2007 and 2008, had the judges "rolling on the floor" when she competed for the last time at the age of 105, said Cathy Wolverton, activity director at the Wilshire at Lakewood nursing home.
But when she died in May, Wilshire staff hesitated until her family insisted Shepherd would have wanted the tradition to continue. So it joined about 90 nursing homes across Missouri this year that invited residents to answer questions about their lives, participation in nursing home activities and attitudes toward life.
The facilities sent women, usually chosen by fellow residents or through mini-pageants, to one of seven district-level pageants. Winners there moved on to the state competition, Lungren said.
During a district pageant in Independence, a suburb of Kansas City, Wilshire's crowned queen Marietta Kirkpatrick coasted before four judges in a wheelchair with pink pompoms on its handles. Silk pink roses were taped to the wheels.
The 89-year-old entertained the judges with stories of her late husband of 50 years, her love of "the Young and the Restless" and her 2003 Ford Mustang that she's determined to drive this summer.
"You are just as old as you feel," the great-great grandmother told the crowd, then smiled and added: "Sometimes I feel 16, and sometimes I feel 116."
Contestants also spoke about attending one-room schoolhouses and hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak. Frances Page said she was living in the Lexington Care Center nursing home that she helped found with her husband years ago.
"Life has come full circle," she wrote in a biography given to judges and read before the questioning began.
Families, friends and staff from the facilities cheered as the winners were announced. Kirkpatrick was second runner-up among the dozen women at the pageant held at a hotel earlier this summer.
Afterward, Kirkpatrick said she never imagined when she was young that she would ever be in a pageant.
"When I was in school, I was a very quite, introverted person," she said. "And I've changed."