By Vernon A. Williams, Gary Crusader
I feel your pain, Oscar.
Academy Awards organizers fielded scorching criticism. Skeptics charged conspiracy theory. Even the sympathetic wonder “how?” From die-hard movie fans to casual observers – there was this seismic “OMG!” For comedians and social media mania, the ridicule was both brutal and unending.
It was the worst that could happen – the most horrifying blunder imaginable at the most conspicuous time of this global event when “La La Land” was announced best film when the actual winner was “Moonlight.”
Awkward. But truth is, even am-idst the best intentions, stuff happens. I am a witness.
For 13 years, I served as Executive Director of the Miss Gary Scholarship Pageant sponsored by the Lake County Association of Black Communicators (LCABC). It was the official local preliminary competition for the coveted Miss America title and the primary fundraiser for our organization.
In 1981, the LCABC crowned the talented, smart, effervescent Gary Roosevelt High School senior Veleta Jenkins. An elated Veleta absolutely beamed as the dazzling sash draped her shoulders, before embracing a huge bouquet while a glistening tiara was deftly placed atop her coif. The ritual climaxed with her regal runway promenade.
It was a storybook moment.
The next morning, I was awakened before the Sunday alarm clock could go off. Even more surprising was the voice on the other end of the phone.
It was my lifelong friend Lanel Chambers, who happened to be treasurer of the organization. His pageant responsibility was chairperson of judges.
In his customarily stoic tone, Chambers tersely remarked, “I’ve got some bad news.” My groggy response was, “Tell me anything but that we crowned the wrong queen.” Without missing a beat, Chambers’ deadpan response was simply, “We crowned the wrong queen.”
The error was procedural. Judges use all categories to determine the five finalists for the pageant. Afterwards, the finalists compete from point zero – meaning there is no order in which they were determined. Every contestant has an equal chance of emerging victoriously. The problem was that the head judge failed to discard previous points in his or her tabulation – yielding a false score.
On review of the judging sheets, Chambers discovered that if the previous scores had been discarded – as rules stipulated – the winner announced would have been Lisa Lee, a young lady every bit as smart, talented and personable.
We immediately engaged LCABC co-founder and president Imogene Harris, Gary Info Newspaper icon. After getting over the initial shock, the three of us concluded there was only one thing that we could do. We had to correct the painful error and maintain the integrity of the process.
We were an organization of journalists. Back then, credibility still meant something.
Chambers, Harris and I converged at the Jenkins’ modest west side home. We told them that we needed to talk – without revealing details. We were welcomed in by the entire family. They were surrounding the morning issue of the Gary Post-Tribune where pageant results appeared on the front page.
The warm hospitality and cheerful expectation soon dissipated and was transformed into a deep chill as we had to break someone’s heart reclaiming a tiara, a sash, a trophy, and worst of all, a title. We finished the conversation with her amazingly understanding and kind, though soundly disappointed parents – long after a devastated Veleta retreated to her room in tears.
Obviously, the drive to Lisa Lee’s home less than a mile away concluded in the opposite scenario.
Admitting the error was a gut-wrenching ordeal but it was something that had to be done. Both Veleta and Lisa went on to impressive accomplishments over the ensuing 26 years. As a matter of fact, knowing her interest in media, I involved Veleta in the local cable news telecasts that I anchored and produced back in the day.
The pageant blunder created one of those days I wish had never happened. The Oscars fiasco conjured the bitter memory – a reminder of how painful innocent mistakes can be for people with the best intentions involved in a good cause; and how life goes on and, mercifully, time really does heal wounds.
CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.