By Scott Jacobs

On a cold Sunday in February, I went off in search of some respite from the politics of the day and found myself sitting in the warm glow of the Plumbers Local 130 union hall on West Washington Street choosing the next queen for the St. Chicago Patrick’s Day Parade.

The contest has been held in the plumbers ballroom since 1956. (A few days later, Rahm Emanuel would use the same room for his election night victory party.) Ninety-five young lasses –– most apparently spurred on by mothers, sisters, or aunts who have competed in years gone by –– turned out to compete for the coveted title and one of four other spots on the Queen’s court.

The criterion for winning is pretty simple. The queen must be a young woman of Irish ancestry, between the ages of 17 and 27, never married, and, in the opinion of the judges, the fairest lass in the land. Determining this last pesky detail is the main purpose of the contest. But––this being Chicago––there are a number of other factors that weigh into the decision.

A Long Afternoon

I arrived at the union hall around noon, unaware that the contest was an all day affair that would not end until near dinnertime. The girls – yes, this is one of those affairs where the word is still appropriate – checked in downstairs with their high heels and semi-formal dresses while I joined their parents upstairs in the ballroom.

That is where I found James T. Sullivan, the business manager of Local 130, who proudly explained that the contest, along with pretty much everything else related to the parade, has been the exclusive bailiwick of the Plumbers union since it started. “We provide the marshals. We dye the river green. We do everything,” he said.

In the hierarchy of the plumbers union, few jobs are as coveted as being on the crew that dyes the Chicago river green. The task dates back to the era of Sullivan’s predecessor, Stephen Bailey, who noticed a young plumber with green all over his hands after applying plumber’s paste to a toilet leak. If such a small quantity had that effect, Bailey surmised, it wouldn’t take that much more to dye the whole river green, and thus a tradition was born.

The Son of An Irish Rebel

Although Sullivan holds the title of general chairman of the parade, the Queen contest bears the indelible stamp of its host Bob Ryan. He is the one who must supply the lively banter that keeps things moving as the field slowly narrows from 95 to 40 to 20 to 5 –– and finally The One.

Ryan is a bit of Irish royalty himself, coming from the family of the late Tommie Ryan who marched in the Middle Column of Middle Limerick during the Irish rebellion of 1916. After serving 14 months in prison for his rebellion, Tommie came to Chicago after the 1922 peace treaty was signed and started the Shannon Rovers Irish Pipe Band in 1926. For the next 30 years, he led Shannon Rovers in the west side St. Patrick’s parades. (This was a time when Chicago’s south and west side Irish held separate parades.) When Mayor Richard J. Daley was first elected, he asked Tommie Ryan to organize the first “unified” citywide parade in 1956, and a Ryan has been at the center of it ever since.

Two National Anthems

The Queen contest begins every year with the Shannon Rovers marching down center aisle and splitting to the sides to welcome the 20 judges. Ryan, who has made quite a name for himself as a singer at Irish events, leads the crowd in the singing of two national anthems: Ireland’s “The Soldier’s Song” and the United States’s “Star-Spangled Banner.” Then the girls start making their way to the podium, escorted by six tuxedo-clad young lads.

The Cattle Call

They come to the stage in groups of ten, carrying their contestant number demurely in front of their dress. On their first pass, they walk, turn and smile, but say nothing. On a second pass, the contestants are asked to step to the microphone to say their name (first names only) and a few words about themselves.

If I were to characterize them as a group, I’d say they are all pretty and all studying to become nurses, teachers or long distance runners. The Catholic high schools of Chicago are well represented, and more girls than you’d expect have already graduated and are making their living as marketing consultants for good causes. But my three favorites after the first round (and I was not the only one betting on the outcome) are:

• (#14) A waitress attending Elgin Community College who is transferring to Georgetown next year to pursue a degree in International Studies.

• (#31) A wedding designer and professional voiceover artist who was just happy to be here.

• (#32) An Art Institute graduate and independent TV producer who is competing in her fourth year.

There is no talent contest, no swimsuit competition, no evening gown showcase to help the judges make their decision. There is not even a chance for the contestants to speak out on behalf of world peace. From these brief remarks, the judges will have to eliminate 55 of the would-be queens.

Sifting and Winnowing

While an Irish dance troupe does a little Jiggin’ at the intermission, the judges tally their votes. For a third time, with the field now narrowed to 40, the girls walk to the stage carrying their number. This time, each group of ten is given a few minutes to step down and introduce themselves to the judges. Earlier, Sullivan told me the contest winner was usually chosen based on a mixture of grace, personality and poise. After listening in on a few conversations with the judges, I also wouldn’t dismiss the importance of blarney.

Another group of step dancers takes the stage while the judge’s again winnow the field down to the final 20. Then, for a fourth time, the girls––still carrying their numbers–– walk the center aisle, pose on stage, and have a last chance to charm the judges in one on one conversations.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Your Queen

One of the regulars at the annual contest is Mike Houlihan, who used to write the “Houlihan in the Hood” column for The Sun-Times. Houlihan has just finished a public television documentary on the contest called “Her Majesty Da Queen” in which he notes that this year’s queen almost always comes from last year’s court.

The 2009 winner Julie Popp, for instance, served two years in waiting on the court before gaining the crown. Her successor, 2010 Queen Kerry Brennan was Popp’s first runner-up the year before.

All of this bodes well for one of my favorites (#32) Sara Collins. She served on the Queen’s court for each of the last three years running and was first runner-up to Brennan last year. In the parade program book, she is honored by a full-page ad from “The Collins, The Suglichs, The Doyles, The Mastersons, and “Uncle Matt with loving memories of Grandpa Marty.”

When Bob Ryan invites the last five girls to the stage to announce the winner, I sneak close to the dais to with my little pocket camera to catch Collins’ “surprise” at being named the St. Patrick’s Day Queen.

Sure enough, Bob Ryan ticks off three finalists who will serve on the court, but not as queen. Collins is one of two left in contention for the honor.

“And our first runner-up is . . .” Ryan says (inserting the appropriate space for anticipation) “Sara Collins. And our St. Patrick’s Day Parade Queen this year is Sarah Goreski.”

Sarah Gorecki?

You cannot grow up Irish in Chicago without knowing in your bones that life is sometimes unfair. Sara Collins had all the attributes of a queen, and she made all the right moves to get selected. Now here she was losing out to a newcomer in the contest, a graduate of LaPorte High School in Indiana and current DePaul University student whose parents live in Norwood Park under a Polish last name.

I was all but ready to call the decision foul when I read Mike Sneed’s column in The Sun-Times the next day where she claimed that, despite the name, Gorecki is Irish to the core. As proof, Sneed noted that her aunt is executive director of the Irish Fellowship Club of Chicago.

And then I understood. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

The St. Patrick’s Day Parade will kick off at 12 noon on Saturday, March 12, televised on ABC Channel 7. The parade will run along Columbus Drive from Balboa north to Monroe Street. The Grand Marshalls this year are Richard M. and Maggie Daley.

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