Eyes on the Prize

Centralia baby contest brings young and old together to celebrate new lives and looks
Sunday, March 6, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:54 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

At the Stuart House retirement home in Centralia, the question keeps popping up this time of year.

“Isn’t it about time for the babies?”

Stuart House owner Judy Barela started the annual cute baby contest in 1998 as a Valentine’s Day celebration in an effort to add some giggles, tumbles and smiles to the elderly residents’ lives.

On pageant day, 20 residents take their seats in the foyer as the contestants and their family members trickle in the door and prepare for the contest.

  Hair — if present — is combed. Clothing is straightened. Smiles are encouraged. The clock strikes 2:30 p.m. The seventh annual Stuart House cute baby contest is officially under way.

Cries are mixed with laughter and baby talk conversations as the nine babies, ages 3 months to 12 months and in a variety of shapes and sizes, are introduced.

  Proud parents Jennifer and Shawn Wieber hope their daughter Jenica has the stuff to bring home one of the day’s three cash prizes; $100 for first place, $75 for second and $50 for third.

  At 3 months old, Jenica just made the cutoff age. She is wearing a lavender dress with white lace, a baby shower present finally put to good use.

Other contestants’ parents and relatives gather around the outside of the pageant circle, film and video cameras in hand.

“Look at the blue shirt and the blue eyes, ain’t he cute?” says Barela, who doubles as master of ceremonies, gesturing to 8-month-old Ethan Adams, an immediate crowd favorite because of his blue eyes and matching shirt.

One by one, the babies’ names and ages are announced as they make their way around the circle of attentive retirees.

With a firm grip on Jenica, Jennifer Wieber makes her way around the circle. The infant’s view changes little from resident to resident: flocks of smiles, gray hair and staring eyes. Wieber returns to her seat and watches as the other mothers show off their babies.

Tension mounts as the contestants await the sole judge’s final decision.

“It’s hard ’cause they’re all so cute,” says judge Marcia Dennis, Barela’s sister and a social worker at Columbia Regional Hospital.

With so many cute little faces and pudgy sets of feet and hands, the babies’ interaction with the residents — or lack of crowd-pleasing coos and gurgles — becomes the deciding factor in this pageant.

First place goes to Ethan and his unforgettable blue eyes. Jenica, aided by the show-stopping dress, takes second.

Judging by the looks on the residents’ faces, though, winners can also be found among those whose childhoods are distant memories.

“Whenever babies come around the house, the residents’ faces light up,” Barela says.

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