Volunteer likes pageant out of the spotlight

Published 12:29 pm Wednesday, July 7, 2010

As the daughter of a pageant official, Laura Blackledge gets a big sister each time a new Miss Mississippi is crowned. And, after 23 years, she says it’s still a lot of fun.

Every summer for the last decade, Blackledge, daughter of David and Jan Blackledge, has volunteered in the Miss Mississippi Corporation’s administrative office to help with errands and odds and ends. She has been to countless rehearsals and might have even been able to perform pageant production numbers herself. But she doesn’t.

“I know too much about the pageant to compete,” she jokes. “But I stay involved. It’s a lot of fun.”

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David Blackledge, a banker, has served nearly 27 years in the corporation that owns and produces the annual Miss America preliminary. He was named chairman and executive director last year following the retirement of Dr. W. Briggs Hopson Jr. and his wife, Pat, who hold emeritus status.

Laura Blackledge said she enjoys working behind the scenes, whether it is running papers from one executive to another or putting an OK on a food order for a large staff.

Her father remembers one year when she showed an interest in competing.

“At one time, she mentioned that she had thought about it,” he said. “I would have stepped aside as director and let her compete like Dr. Hopson did when his daughter competed and won.”

The Hopsons’ daughter, Karen, was crowned Miss Mississippi in 1981 and was a runner-up to the Miss America crown.

Laura attended her first Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, N.J., with her parents when she was 5 years old.

“I remember back then I would bring Mallory (Graham) his drink,” she said. Graham, who lives and operates a dance school in North Carolina, is the pageant’s director of choreography.

David Blackledge remembered, “Those big, blue eyes were so ecstatic about being there in Atlantic City. She certainly enjoyed it and she loved walking on the boardwalk.”

But Laura opted to stay out of the spotlight, and her father said that was fine with him. “At an early age, she was capable and willing to take on responsibilities,” David Blackledge said.

For the past few years, Laura, also a preschool teacher at St. Francis Xavier Elementary, has been instrumental in coordinating the annual pageant’s ticket sales, a step up from volunteering as a courier and office assistant.

“She’s really a very hard worker,” said Wayne Sutter, executive secretary of the Miss Mississippi Corporation board. “You can’t find anyone like her. She will do anything you ask.” Sutter has been with the corporation for more than 20 years.

While Laura Blackledge volunteers year-round, other volunteers who have worked with the pageant in past summers include Ashleigh Ford, 22, daughter of pageant producer Norman Ford, and 19-year-old Lindsey Blackledge, Laura’s sister.

Chesley Sadler Lambiotte, 32, volunteered one summer in 1996, but danced for several years in the production while a teen. She has been the production’s assistant choreographer to Graham since 2005.

“Mallory was someone I looked up to and admired,” she said. “He’s been a mentor to me. We’re all like family here.”

This pageant week, Laura Blackledge can be seen around the Vicksburg Convention Center, where all competitions are held, toting papers or running errands. After a winner is crowned, she will help the new Miss Mississippi prepare for the Miss America Pageant, set for Jan. 15 in Las Vegas.

“I get to help Miss Mississippi pick out dresses,” she said. “I enjoy doing it and I support my dad. It has made us all a family. All the formers call us all the time. We stay in touch with everyone.”

First night

The Miss Mississippi 2010 pageant kicks off tonight with the first of three nights of preliminary competition at the Vicksburg Convention Center at 8. The new Miss Mississippi, one of 45 young women competing, will be crowned Saturday night in a show that will be broadcast live on WLBT-TV3. Tickets to the pageant, the 53rd in Vicksburg, are available by calling 601-638-6746 or visiting www.missmississippipageant.com.