It’s National Asparagus Festival time, and Christine Rickard is all over the place. As NAF secretary, she’s in charge of making sure every detail is in place and running like clockwork. In fact, she’s the one who’s running, to meetings and events from Hart to Lansing. “I’m so busy I’m ready to collapse!” is her frequent lament. But you’d never know it. Somehow, like the Energizer Bunny, this 66-year-old ball of fire with the boisterous personality and infectious laugh seems to have an infinite supply of go-go-go.
And that supply is what she draws on for what she might say is her most important, and most cherished, duty: Queen Coordinator.
Rickard is in charge of the NAF’s annual Queen’s Pageant and Fundraiser, shepherding the contestants vying for the envied title of Asparagus Queen through the process from start to finish. She guides the hopefuls through their applications. She arranges the Queen’s Tea. She’s there to give advice and moral support. And when the new queen and runner-up are crowned, amid tears and cheers, she’s right there with hugs and kisses and contracts for them to sign.
And then, does she breathe a sigh of relief? Ha! The pageant isn’t the end of her duties—it’s just the beginning. For the year ahead, Rickard will be there for her charges every step of the way, arranging their appearances, setting up their transportation and lodging, making sure all the details are in place, and often accompanying them herself to various festivals and other events both near and far. Which is why she’s affectionately known as the Queen Mother.
“They started calling me the Queen Mother because before me, there was basically no one to take care of the queens’ appearances and schedules,” Rickard explains. “In the past, the queens had to do all their own scheduling, arrange their own transportation, pay for everything. Can you imagine?
“And it was disorganized. A lot of them were out there doing their own thing, and sometimes not representing the festival in a great way. We had a few rogue queens! So we made the queens accountable to the NAF board and the Queen Coordinator.”
As Queen Coordinator, Rickard must approve any function a queen wants to attend. “We have around 15 events in a year that are required,” she notes. “But the queens are free to go anywhere, as long as they run it by me.”
But Rickard doesn’t just act as an administrator. She’s truly a mother hen when it comes to her girls.
“I send the girls e-mails, with all the info they need. I let them know what they’ll be doing all the time. I make sure there’s someone to meet them wherever they’re appearing. I even have a ‘queen bag’ for them. I pack water, protein bars, a sewing kit, sunblock, hair spray, Shout wipes. One time we showed up at Country Dairy and the queen and runner-up had long hair and it was getting in their ice cream! So now I put hair ties in the queen bag. You have to be prepared for everything!
Since its inception some 45 years ago, the National Asparagus Festival has evolved from a homegrown, hometown celebration of local agriculture to a full-fledged business operation with an office, donors, and a real budget that can promote their efforts to raise asparagus awareness throughout the country. Rickard has had a large hand in that transformation, along with people like NAF board vice-president Jessica Woodworth, who’s “wonderful at getting sponsors,” says Rickard. “We have big sponsors now, thanks to her. I mean, it takes money to put on the festival!”
Becoming Asparagus Queen Mother was something Rickard could never have imagined in her wildest dreams. Born in Chicago and raised in California, she moved back to Chicago years later, where she met her husband, Stan Rickard. They married in 2001, and in 2004 made the big transition—at least for Chris—to Hart.
“Stan always wanted to move back home,” she says. “But it was tough for me. I didn’t know anyone except a few of his relatives. So I tried to become involved in the community. I decided to go to an NAF meeting and no one even said hi! I mean, I didn’t know a soul.”
That’s sure changed. Today, Chris can’t walk down the street without being hailed by a dozen people. At the Pink Elephant, where we’re having our interview, people from other tables wave and joke with her. “Now I can’t go anywhere without getting into a conversation!” she laughs.
That first NAF meeting delivered an unexpected socko punch to the new attendee.
“It was March, and they were just starting to discuss the festival,” Chris recalls. “I knew absolutely nothing about it. I’d gone to the parade once, I think. They were selecting board members. Linda Foster, who was then president, passed out straws. And I picked a long one. That, I learned, meant that I was committing to the board for three years!
“I went home and said to Stan, you’ll never guess what happened. And I told him. ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ I said. And I started to cry!”
Today, Chris only cries tears of joy, for the new queens ascending the throne, or the old ones saying goodbye to it. Although she’s had more than a few crazy experiences that might have been worth a good bawl. Like the time she took the queen and runner-up to the Gerber Baby Food Festival Parade in Fremont and narrowly escaped being carted away to…jail?
“It was 2015, I think, and Courtney Kokx and Connie Tariske were the queen and runner up,” Chris recalls. “We weren’t taking the queen’s float, so I had to borrow a convertible. Anyway, when we got to Fremont there was a terrific storm. We were sitting in the parking lot and the sky was getting blacker and blacker and the wind was whipping up…it was really scary.”
There were, it turned out, tornado warnings. Chris and the queens, along with thousands of others, were sheltered in a school for the night, and the parade was canceled. In the morning it was still pouring, but the tornado danger had passed.
“We went out and got into the car,” Chris continues. “We were soaking wet and it was this old red convertible, with, you know, the canvas top and the plastic rear window! We headed out somewhere, anywhere, for breakfast and ended up at the Moondance Café, which was, of course, packed because everyone else had the same idea and there was no parking anywhere.
“Well, I was driving around, searching for a parking space, when I saw this flashing red light in my rear view mirror. It was a cop. I figured he wanted me to get out of the way so he could pass me—he must have been on an emergency call—so I kept on driving around until I found a spot.”
By this time, the police car’s horn was blasting. An officer from the Newaygo County Sheriff’s Department got out and marched over to the little old red convertible.
“He was screaming at me!” Chris exclaims. “’License and registration! License and registration!’ I had no idea what I’d done. I tried to explain to him that I was just trying to find a safe place to get out of his way, but he accused me of not stopping when he turned on his light. Meanwhile, here are these two lovely queens next to me, with their crowns and all!”
Chris tried to explain that it wasn’t her car. Meanwhile, Connie was fishing in the glove compartment. She came up with the registration—but it had expired! And she couldn’t find proof of insurance.
“The officer gave me a big ticket for driving with an expired license, without insurance, and failure to stop for a police officer. Thank God he didn’t book us! When he left, we went into the café. The whole restaurant was staring at us. ‘OK, fine, here I am!’ I said. ‘I’m the criminal!’ Everybody started laughing and we had breakfast. When we got back outside, the sun had come up. So we drove home with the top down and our hair flying in the wind! It was great!”
And it’s an experience she’ll never live down.
“Now I’m not just Queen Mom,” she laughs. “You know our NAF mascot, Gus the Asparagus? Well, Courtney and Connie gave me a new name: Gustine. And the new queen is always warned about me. ‘Watch out for her. She’s Gustine the Jailbird!’”
Gustine aside, Chris will always be, first and foremost, the Queen Mother, there to support, guide and inspire the young women who have long dreamed of wearing the queen’s crown, often from the time they were little girls.
“I love the fact that being queen isn’t about being young, or beautiful,” Chris reflects. “It’s not a beauty pageant. We honor women of any age. At the pageant, before the candidates go onstage, I always tell them, ‘Remember, the value is not in the crown. The value is in you. You’re all winners in my book.”