COLUMBIA — Twelve women stand in a semi-circle to get tips on the etiquette of walking across a stage for an evening gown competition. Their coaches, two former Ms. Missouri Senior America queens, straighten their posture — shoulders back, heads up — and stand smiling. Slowly, the coaches walk, stopping center stage. They smile and turn, exuding a confidence that has nothing to do with a sequined dress.
Now, it’s the contestants’ turns. Each woman takes a turn, but after three professional practices at the Florissant Civic Center Theatre, Judith McKenney still struggles to get it right. She is walking too fast.
“I’m going to pretend that I am a bride,” McKenney said. “They have to walk slowly when going to the altar. Besides, they always think they’re beautiful, right?”
McKenney, 66, of Columbia, will compete this weekend with 11 other women in the Ms. Missouri Senior America Pageant. It’s something she’s never done before, but she decided to give it a try.
McKenney said she loves to perform and has sung professionally with an accompanist. She’s even starred in a movie, “Song of the Dead.” When she saw the pageant being advertised in a newspaper, she jumped at the chance.
“I had never been on stage where the ultimate goal was to be the person who represented the senior citizens for the state of Missouri,” McKenney said.
While the contestants in the Ms. Missouri Senior America Pageant aren’t as young as women in other statewide pageants, the competitions are similar. They all have in common a national crown and the chance to join a final competition in Atlantic City, N.J. The women in the senior pageant are judged in four categories: talent; poise and elegance in an evening gown; a 30-second philosophy of life statement; and, most importantly, a one-on-one interview with six judges.
The Ms. Senior America Pageant aims to give honor to the senior woman over 60, who has reached the “Age of Elegance,” the Senior America Inc. Web site says.
Susan Groves, 63, of Fulton, was the 2007 Ms. Senior Missouri winner and a top 10 national finalist. She said she entered the pageant for the fun, challenge and personal growth, and to share her talent. Confessing that she is a tomboy at heart, Groves said she didn’t believe she had the eloquence necessary to compete in a pageant. She said the pageant is more than a competition, however.
“It’s about the support, friendship and fellowship with the other woman — a sisterhood — and the gained confidence within yourself,” she said.
Groves encourages women to enter the pageant and to accept the challenge it presents. Pageant organizers teach the contestants how to compete in such areas as posture and clothing selection. Each contestant is paired with a mentor. Groves serves as McKenney’s mentor. Groves said that McKenney will represent today’s senior woman very well.
“She has the confidence, an inner-spark, a lot of enthusiasm and energy,” Groves said.
It doesn’t take long after you’ve met McKenney to notice her zest and joy for life. She sees the importance of a sense of humor. Something, she said, that is more necessary as one ages. A survivor of colon cancer, she knows the value of life. The experience shifted her focus toward others, she said. And it’s evident in her philosophy of life statement, which can be summed up in four words: trust, faith, understanding and giving of oneself.
“These words encompass how one does those things. If you do all these things, then you’ll be a positive influence for others,” she said.
Originally from Oshkosh, Wis., McKenney has lived in Columbia for 41 years. She taught music and second, third and fourth grade in Columbia Public Schools for 30 years. Her husband, Dr. W. Thomas McKenney, is a professor of composition and theory at MU’s School of Music. Married for 45 years, the couple has two children and six grandchildren.
Though retired, McKenney said she likes to stay active in the community. She is the program chair of the Women’s Symphony League, a soloist at the Christian Scientist Church, sings in the choir and is one of the Eucharistic ministers at Calvary Episcopal Church. She also is a member of the MU Choral Union and the Columbia Chorale.
As the day of the competition approaches, McKenney knows she faces tough competition from some talented women. There are tap dancers, singers, piano players, a comedian and a hula dancer. McKenney will be singing “Memory” from the Broadway play “Cats.”
“These women are all good examples of the age of elegance. But I would like to think that they’re going to like what I am doing enough to put me as the winner,” she said.
If McKenney wins, she’ll showcase her talent with the Cameo Club and speak about life as a senior woman in senior centers, schools and hospitals in Missouri, mostly in the St. Louis area.
“People my age and on up are really alive and vibrant today,” she said. “I’ll be able to share and make other people happy who might not be in as good of health. But also, I’m able to show young people that as you get older it doesn’t mean you just roll over, you just continue to be who you are and do what you love.”