SANDY — They have labored as doctors and engineers and computer programmers and steel workers; mothers and fathers and then grandmothers and grandfathers and on and on as time passes.
But on Tuesday, they were all pageant contestants.
Five men and 11 women vied for the Utah Health Care Association's Mr. and Ms. Golden Years crown at South Towne Exposition Center. Some, like Viola Goff, said she didn't even know she was going to be in a pageant until the care workers loaded her up in the car. Others were told earlier, but later forgot.
For first runner-up Enid Whiting, it ended up being quite a surprise.
"It's the most wonderful day I've ever had," she said, as her children arranged her sash, flowers and trophy. Her son, Robert, said he and his siblings were told early on, and three of Whiting's eight children were able to attend the pageant with their spouses.
And while Whiting said, upon winning, that she felt like a princess, it was her family that was the best part of competing.
"I really didn't know until I got here," she said. "It sure was a surprise."
This was the pageant's 15th year. Pageant director Mindy Smith said she heard of similar events in other states and felt compelled to put something together in Utah.
"A lot of them said they never felt special and it made them feel special," Smith said of the elderly residents she works with. "It makes people happy."
This was true of Yongsuk "Sue" Orana, 67, who claimed the ultimate prize as Ms. Golden Years.
"I was always told I'm an ugly duckling," she said after hearing her name announced, later adding she was "so happy" to have won. She said her two sons, on the other hand, were shocked.
"Somebody told me I looked too young," she said. "That's OK. I just want to have fun."
In so doing, Orana accomplished another one of Smith's goals, as she said she wanted the pageant to give those involved an opportunity to do something fun and different.
"They get to the point where they feel like there's not a lot to look forward to in life," Smith said. "This makes them feel good."
Getting the Utah Health Care Association and its deputy director Deb Burcombe involved made a big difference, Smith said. Burcombe served as the event's emcee and said she relishes the experience.
"I love the opportunity to celebrate and learn about their lives and their wisdom," she said, "being with them and being their granddaughter for a couple of hours. It's fun being able to flirt with them and draw out their stories. It's like having 19 grandparents."
She said the contestants are nominated by the staff of the various nursing homes and assisted living facilities in which they live and were judged by a panel that, this year, included Lt. Gov. Greg Bell.
Burcombe said there are "no losers" in the pageant and Bell handed out framed certificates and trophies to each contestant, exchanging niceties for hugs, kisses and handshakes.
Last year's Ms. Golden Years, Rhea Stilson, who lives in an assisted living facility in Springville, said she "blossomed" during her tenure with the title.
"When I won, I had a cane," she said. "Now, I can get around without the cane. ... I think it's wonderful. It's very beneficial."
As Ms. Golden Years 2010, Stilson said her responsibilities mostly consisted of appearing in a few UHCA commercials and "wearing the crown." She said she even wore it to church services.
"My daughter said: 'Mother, don't you think that's a bit much?' and I said: 'They like it, they're asking for it,'" Stilson told Burcombe before helping to crown this year's winner.
The contestants were asked questions about what advice they would give to young people today, who they would take to lunch if they could ask anyone and what they liked about where they're living now. The responses ran the gamut from humorous to sweet.
Robert Gamble said he'd like to take Burcombe to the moon for lunch. David "Dee" Stevens, said he would take his wife.
"She's not alive today, but she's the only one I'd ask," he said. "First, I'd take her where she'd like to go, then I'd try my best to make it pleasant."
"She sounds like a mighty fine woman," Burcombe said.
"Mightier than that," he responded. "She was the best."
Elinora Green said she would have an entire banquet "where we could all sit and visit about all the fun times we had when we were young." And as for her advice for the youth?
"They ought to take every opportunity to do everything in their life they can," she said. "Life is short."
Mr. Golden Years 2011, Wayne Taylor, 82, guessed at how the conversation would go when he told his six children the news.
"What do I think they'll say? ... Why?" he said.
He said he was told about the pageant about a week ago.
"I was scared to death," he said. "I always end up in something like this."
He didn't expect to win and was "flabbergasted" when he did.Comment on this story
"I didn't think I would," he said, noting he felt both silly and excited to have been proven wrong.
But Hugh Gates summed up the sentiments of most contestants.
"I had a lot of fun," he said. "I met a lot of people. It serves a useful purpose because it involves so many people. And it shows the talent enthusiasm for something relatively new. ... We just eat this up."