It’s June, and everyone in Oceana knows what that means. Asparagus. And asparagus festivities, which kicked off last weekend with the 2019 Queen’s Pageant.

Shelby High School had the usual crowd of fans, National Asparagus Festival luminaries and, of course the contestants for the crown — five lovely ladies resplendent in gowns of either green or purple, the NAF specified colors, in homage to the two main varieties of asparagus. Prior to the pageant, guests enjoyed an array of delicious appetizers courtesy of Shelby Schools food director Mary Rose Vanas, followed by speeches; acknowledgment of past royalty, who, wearing their winning sashes of yesteryear, graciously stood for enthusiastic applause; and the singing of the Asparagus Song, a bouncy tribute to “Oceana County, MI-CHI-GAN!” led by former Mrs. Asparagus Mary Anne Carey. 

And then, it was pageant time. As the audience filed into the auditorium, the Oceana Drive Trio — talented musicians Ruthie Eilers, Frank Galante and Tom Nelson [NEED TO CHECK HIS NAME]—provided a set of country/bluegrass songs and ballads. Queen Coordinator Christine Rickard then took over the microphone for her annual introduction, followed by State Senator Jon Bumstead’s ascension to the podium as Master of Ceremonies.

When the five candidates — Shelby’s Lori Beggs, Hart’s Alysha Sullivan, Crystal Hallack and Evelyn Vinke, and New Era’s Sherry Waller — were escorted onstage, the cheers could be heard all the way to Traverse City — or at least Walkerville. Never let it be said that Oceana doesn’t love its Queen Pageant. Bumstead’s first question — why did they want to be queen and what qualifications did they think they had for the job — received a variety of enthusiastic responses, the most memorable being Sullivan’s impromptu pirouette as she flashed a saucy “bring it” smile.

The contestants then had to answer the traditional questions, pulled from the “dreaded Asparagus Can,” as Bumstead dubbed the asparagus-decorated vessel that held pieces of paper with questions about everything asparagus, from growing times and preservation to past queens and festivals and even asparagus ancient history, like “How did the Romans preserve asparagus?” Answer: by transporting it to the Alps, where it stayed frozen for months.

The gals definitely knew their asparagus trivia, popping out the correct answers with gusto. Of course, they do get all the possible questions ahead of time, but they still have to study and memorize a whole bunch of information. After the big quiz, the candidates departed the stage as the judges —Hart City manager Lynne Ladner, former Mrs. Asparagus Lynn Glaser and Shelby City Administrator Robert Widigan — convened to determine who would be the lucky recipient of the crown. 

As the agonizing minutes ticked on, volunteers distributed a large selection of door prizes donated by local merchants, and the Oceana Drive Trio grabbed their instruments for a few more numbers. When Chris Rickard unexpectedly joined them to lead the crowd in, one more time, the Asparagus Song, belting it out with her wonderful voice, she brought the house down.

Then the 2018 queen, Kendra Larios-Mendez, gave her farewell speech. The departing queen had difficulty holding back the tears as she described “this truly bittersweet moment.” And finally, the decision everyone had been waiting for was at hand. The judges returned, the five hopefuls were escorted back onstage, and, as three of them were eliminated, Beggs and Sullivan were left standing to applause. “This year’s runner-up is…Lori Beggs,” Bumstead announced. Beggs stepped forward to receive her sash, crown and flowers, as the audience hooted and whooped for the new Asparagus Queen — Alysha Sullivan, who, laughing incredulously and wiping away tears, looked as astonished and ecstatic as if she’d just been awarded the Nobel Prize. And actually, who cares about the Nobel Prize? She’ll take Asparagus Queen any day.

The following afternoon, the 28-year-old Sullivan — a pretty, dark-haired, bubbly young woman who, she admitted, is more than ready to hit the ground running as the new queen — talked by phone with the Herald-Journal about her life, her excitement at being crowned, and the many plans she has for her coming reign.

Q: How are you feeling today?

A: I’m feeling…I’m just beginning to realize it’s real! I feel honored and blessed, to be recognized like this. And I’m so excited for the parade next weekend. It’s the parade I grew up with, and it’s been a lifelong dream to one day be riding at the head of it.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: I was born in Miami, Fla. but my mom, Deb Siebert, grew up in Elbridge and wanted to return home to raise her children in the safe, secure community she remembered. So we moved back here when I was three, to a house on Main Street right around the corner from John Gurney Park. I grew up on the same route as the parade. It was really exciting; people would park all over and there were hundreds of cars. My parents and their friends would all get their kids together and there were games and hula hoops and so much fun at the park. And I loved the parade and would think how cool it would be to be queen.

I spent a lot of my childhood at John Gurney. For two years, I was the only girl on the T-ball team, and I was also on the soccer team.

Q: What made you decide to run for queen?

A: When I turned 18 and graduated Hart High School, I moved to Alaska and got married. And when I started raising my own kids, I had the same feeling as my mom had, that I wanted to raise my kids here. So I came back to Oceana. But I didn’t consider running for Asparagus Queen because I figured I was too old, and that a queen couldn’t be married. But I found out that it didn’t matter if you were married or single, or what your age was. And then, when I lived in Marco Island, Fla., the Kokx family lived nearby. And I was inspired by the two Kokx girls, Danielle and Courtney, who were queens. That was another little clue that maybe I should give it a try.

Q: How old are your children?

A: I have a three-year-old boy, Onyx, and a two-year-old girl, Athena. 

Q: After the Greek goddess?

A: Yes, and after my grandmother Ena, who passed away before my daughter was born.

Q: What does your husband do?

A: Actually, he’s my fiancé. Well, partner. His name is Charlie Mantell. He’s from Texas, and we met in Florida. He works at Dune Side Auto Glass in Ludington.

Q: How did he react when you were crowned queen?

A: Oh, he was overjoyed! He was very proud, that I actually went forward and did it. Because I really never thought it would happen. He says he feels like a king! And he’ll have to wear more green.

Q: How did you feel, at that incredible moment when Senator Bumstead announced Lori as the runner-up? The moment that you realized you were the queen?

A: It’s a lot of emotions as once. You’re so excited and yet so nervous it doesn’t immediately sink in. I really honestly didn’t foresee myself being chosen. The other girls were so confident. I had butterflies the whole time, and when we went back on stage after the judges came back, I was shaking. So when I won, it was a very surreal moment — something I’ll never forget.

Q: What are some things you’re looking forward to in your new role?

A: Well, the parade, of course. And I would love to go to the different counties and show the younger generation that this is something they can become involved in. Things have changed since I was a kid; back then there were a lot of younger people who participated in the festival, but that number has dwindled. And I think it’s so important, to get the younger generation involved once again. Plus, I want to spread the word outside Oceana. You know, it’s amazing, but people in Ludington don’t even know anything about the festival, and the queen.  And it’s the same for Muskegon. I’d love to go to other areas and promote the festival, and the idea that they can promote asparagus the same way in their communities.

My dad, Charles Sullivan — my parents owned Sully’s Restaurant, at the Colonial Golf Course — is the chef at the Muskegon Country Club, and they said they’d love to have me come and spread awareness about the festival. I’m planning on going to the Muskegon Farmer’s Market, and other markets as well.

Q: How did you celebrate after the pageant?

A: We went to Big Hart Brewery, of course! It’s where I work, and many of my family members as well. My mom is a server; my aunt, Cassie Sullivan, is the manager; another aunt, Tammy Rodriguez, is a bartender; and my cousin, Zoey Rodriguez, does hosting and bussing. All the generations! And Big Hart is one big family —w e love everyone there.

Q: Did you get a big reception when you walked in?

A: Oh, wow. As soon as I showed up, the whole restaurant started clapping and yelling, “We knew you had it in you!” I didn’t realize how many people were into the whole thing in our little Hart! Oh oh — I’m getting emotional.

Q: Do you live in Hart now?

A: I live in a  house four houses down from where I grew up. I thought how cool it would be for my kids to live right by John Gurney, like I did.

Q: Do you dream of Athena becoming queen one day?

A: I’d love for my little girl to be queen!

Q: One last question. What’s your favorite asparagus recipe?

A: Well, I love to bake and my favorite recipe is asparagus sweet bread. I just throw it together. I also make asparagus Bundt cake, and a hummingbird cake with asparagus. But my favorite way to eat asparagus is the way my dad makes it — on the grill with Parmesan cheese and Sully’s Seasoning. It’s so good!

INSET

Sharing the reigns

Lori Beggs is thrilled to be Asparagus Queen Runner-Up

Lori Beggs is a young woman with a purpose that goes way beyond wearing a crown. A staff sergeant in the Michigan National Guard, she was deployed to Kuwait, where she served for a year. Imbued with a lifelong desire to help others, she’s completing her nursing degree and looks forward to practicing in rural communities, where she can “give back” to those who are most in need. 

It’s hard to believe that this tall, slender, beautiful blonde is a soldier — not only a soldier, but a soon-to-be commissioned officer. Upon completing her nursing degree in December, Lori will be upgraded to the rank of captain. But she doesn’t see her role as Asparagus Queen Runner-Up as all that much different from her role in the US Army or a career in nursing, because when all is said and done, it’s just one more way of serving her community.

Q: How does it feel to be Asparagus Queen Runner-Up?

A: I’m still kind of in shock! I feel really honored to be serving my community in this way. I’m very grateful to reign alongside Alysha — she’s such a sweet girl. We bonded after the Queen’s Tea, and this is really funny — before the pageant, we took selfies together, not having the slightest idea that we’d be queen and runner-up. A little like a premonition?

Q: Meant to be! Tell me about your background.

A: I’ve lived in Shelby for the past 11 years, and have lived in Oceana all my life. I graduated from Oceana High in Rothbury and after high school I moved to Chicago, to explore the world, I guess. I eventually moved back to Oceana — I can’t stay away from this place!

I joined the military when I was 22. My grandpa was in the military, and it was always a dream of mine. I was in the Michigan National Guard when I was deployed to Kuwait for a year. That was a tough time. What got me through was thinking of my family and our community back home. I kept remembering that we were doing this for them. Our community, and all the others like it, wouldn’t be celebrating our way of life if we in the military weren’t fighting to preserve it.

Q: Did you grow up dreaming of becoming Asparagus Queen?

A: When I was young, I never thought being queen was even a possibility. I never had the confidence that I could do it. But as I got older, and especially after doing military service, I gained more confidence in myself.

For me, running for queen was about love for my community. I wanted to do something different, to give back in a different way. In nursing school, I’ve volunteered in the community at the VA and other places. I’m a caregiver by nature; I’m very compassionate.

Q: What are some of the things you hope to accomplish as runner-up?

A: I’m looking forward to promoting the health properties of asparagus. There are so many. Asparagus is really high in folic acid — very good for women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant. Folic acid can help prevent birth defects like spina bifida. Asparagus is also high in vitamins A and C, and it’s loaded with anti-oxidants, which reduce stress, a major cause of disease.

The fiber in asparagus is really good for you. I work in endoscopy at Mercy Hospital, and I can tell you that colon cancer is on the rise because of our diet, which is way too low in fiber. Asparagus, with its high fiber and water content, helps to reduce the danger of this and other types of cancer.

Q: Do you have children? Are you married, and if so, what does your husband do?

A: I am not married. But I have two daughters — Nadia, 14, and Esme, 7.

Q: How do they feel about your being runner-up?

A: They are so excited! Even though they thought their mom should have been queen! But I told them, it’s not about that. It’s about giving to the community, in whatever way you’re chosen.

Q: What’s your favorite asparagus recipe?

A: Well, I like to cook, but I especially love to bake. I make an asparagus Bundt cake with a cream cheese icing that’s really good. But I love asparagus any way. My favorite way to eat it is bacon-wrapped on the grill. I also love it raw in salads.

Q: What are you most excited about as you embark upon your new duties?

A: I’m especially excited about the festival, because my birthday is Friday! I’ll be 33.

Q: Congratulations! What a nice coincidence.

A: Thank you so much!