BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — TOPSFIELD — Crowning Amelia DiGregorio, a young mother of two young kids from Peabody, as the 2014 Mrs. Essex County at the Topsfield Fair yesterday afternoon was no easy feat.
Being one of four judges, I got to interview the seven women who competed on the quilt-flanked stage in Coolidge Hall yesterday, and got a behind-the-scenes look at the 43rd annual pageant.
The panel of judges also included Peter Gibney, a member of the fair’s executive board; Kelly Schetzsle, associate publisher of Northshore Magazine; and Kim Mello of Boxford, Mrs. Essex County 2007, someone who helped guide us through the judging process.
Mello said the contest is more than a beauty or homemakers pageant — it’s a celebration of women who can do it all.
The judges gathered at 11 a.m. and we were greeted by Mrs. Essex County 1992 Carrie Crouch and Mrs. Essex County 1999 Cathy Carroll, co-chairwomen for the pageant who both live in North Andover.
The criteria to be eligible to be Mrs. Essex County is simple: You must be a married woman living in Essex County with her husband, be at least 18, and enter a prepared food for a cooking contest. This year’s category was “your favorite dessert.” Unfortunately, the contest judges did not get to taste these entries. DeGregorio happened to win the cooking contest with her Amelia’s apple crisp recipe.
All seven women, we found, had competed in the past, and they all made convincing presentations. They came with a long list of service to the community or agriculture, deep personal reasons why they would make a great “face of the fair,” and good ideas how to improve the fair’s outreach. Picking a winner was not easy.
The contestants also professed a willingness to represent the fair at the fair, not only today, Columbus Day, but for two weeks next year.
That’s when, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., they will represent the fair and the Essex Agricultural Society, announcing acts on stage, attending events like tractor pulls and even riding the wagon of the famed Hallamore eight-horse Clydesdale hitch. Some of the contestants said they were already putting in long hours volunteering in buildings or manning gates.
Winners are also asked to commit to attending at least one event a month throughout the year, from Essex Agricultural Society’s banquet to Agriculture Day at the Statehouse.
“I’m looking forward to it,” DiGregorio said of being Mrs. Essex County. “I am looking forward to meeting everybody who volunteers here, who works here, who makes the fair as great as it is, and I’m just learning how I can be a help and an ambassador to all of the hard work that they do.”
I was asked to be a judge this year, having covered the pageant for The Salem News in years past. I could see the pageant continues to support and be supported by past winners, many of whom were in attendance yesterday. One of the past winners, Priscilla Gerard, serves on Essex Agricultural Society’s board and served as the hostess of yesterday’s pageant.
“This is just a dream come true for me,” said DiGregorio after being crowned, “and I’m so glad to join the sisterhood of these wonderful women.”
Interviews for the contestants took place in a small room off the stage where the pageant was held. When it was my turn to ask a question, I asked contestants how they and their families were involved in the community and what was their most important role. Patricia Babbitt of Lawrence spoke about being a worthy matron of the Order of the Eastern Star. She later won this year’s “Mrs. Congeniality Award.”
Christine “Tina” Cochran of Georgetown, a mother of an 8-year-old boy, spoke with passion about her love of agriculture, her volunteer work at Herrick Dairy Farm, her work with Middleton Congregational Church, and her desire to find a volunteer role at the fair.
Kathi Syska of Peabody, this year’s first runner-up, works as a floating substitute teacher in Peabody. She gets involved as an example to her six kids, who range in ages from 11 to 21.
“Everyone just brings you through every step. It’s very smoothly run, a well-oiled machine, it’s great,” Syska said of her experience competing yesterday. Syska won the Beth Geddes Memorial Award, named for the 1994 winner who died from breast cancer midway through her reign.
Jean Cormier of Salem spoke about her volunteer work with the Marblehead Peace Committee and her love of singing, giving her gift of song to both to her church and to hospice patients.
Joan Lagasse of West Boxford, a preschool teacher in Haverhill, is well known at the fair as a longtime volunteer with the Essex County 4-H program. She also coordinates a community service project at the fair to make holiday Christmas cards for troops. Lagasse gets her inspiration from the young girls she oversees as a 4-H leader.
“My experience with the fair is always wonderful. I’ve been with the fair a long time and doing this today was just the ultimate,” Lagasse said. She was named the second runner-up.
Lisa Spencer of Byfield is a mother of three and an assistant cook at Georgetown High who spoke about how great it was to be at the fair with her brother for the first time since they were in high school. Her brother, David Hurn, serves as a Navy pilot.
DeGregorio, 38, a California native, was competing in her third Mrs. Essex County pageant, skipping last year because she was pregnant with her second child. She spoke about being an active member of the Junior League of Boston. She works full-time with an economic consulting firm in downtown Boston. Her husband, Steve, was there to cheer her on. DeGregorio was the first runner-up in 2011, and the second runner-up the year before.
“It’s such a fun experience,” DeGregorio said after the pageant. “All of the ladies are just incredible people, they are fun, dynamic women, and it’s fun to be able to meet different people from different communities, and see what the common thread is that we have, which of course is the Topsfield Fair.”
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.