Elizabeth Wertenberger’s official homecoming party as Miss Michigan took place Saturday July 23 in Monroe. Here’s the photo by Kim Brent, and story by Dean Cousino, that was in Sunday’s edition of The Monroe Evening News:
Royalty from Dundee
New Miss Michigan from Monroe County gets a hero’s welcome
BY DEAN COUSINO
Since Elizabeth Ann Wertenberger was crowned Miss Michigan last month in Muskegon, she has traveled all over the state.
But there’s no place like home for the Dundee native who still cherishes Monroe County, where she has captured the hearts and minds of so many.
Miss Wertenberger, 22, received a hero’s welcome during a reception Saturday afternoon at Monroe County Community College. An estimated 150 people attended the event, including friends from both her family and her “pageant family,” like Denise Miller, a 1995 Dundee High School graduate.
Ms. Miller came with her daughter, Kadence, 8, who is competing in the Little Miss Monroe pageant.
“She is a big inspiration to my daughter,” Ms. Miller said. “I’ve known her for about 10 years and she’s an awesome young lady and I know she will represent Michigan very well.”
Among the admirers who came was a van load of seniors from The Lutheran Home, where Miss Wertenberger once volunteered and worked with residents. She called them her “gems.”
The daughter of Bruce and Mary Ann Wertenberger of Dundee, she had both her parents and grandparents — Melvin and Shirley Wertenberger of Dundee — present. The grandparents, who have been married 59 years, said they are a close family, but they don’t see their granddaughter as much as they did before she won the title because of her whirlwind schedule of appearances around the state.
“I just tell her to be herself,” Shirley, 77, said. “She’s not changed. She’s still the same common person she always was. We like to have fun together and go places to visit family and friends or to go up north to our cabin. We’ve been following her to pageants since she was 3.”
Melvin, 81, added he always looks forward to getting a hug from his granddaughter when she comes home. A 2011 graduate of Kendall College School of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Miss Wertenberger will attempt to become the second Monroe County resident to win Miss America when she competes in the national pageant in January in Las Vegas. The first to win that title — Kaye Lani Rae (Rafko) Wilson of Monroe in 1988 — also attended the reception and is one of her biggest fans.
“She is such a phenomenal dancer and so graceful and with ease,” Mrs. Wilson said. “That’s part of who she is. I knew this (title) would be part of her journey. God’s timing is always perfect.”
Before she spoke during a speaker program, Mrs. Wilson relayed a story of how she first met Miss Wertenberger when she was younger and then lost touch with her. The two women reconnected about six years ago at the hospital where Mrs. Wilson’s son, Joseph, was being treated for juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. They were coming in for treatment just as Miss Wertenberger and her mother were leaving the hospital after getting great news — her JRA was found to be in remission. Miss Wertenberger gave the family some advice on how to fight the disease that attacks the joints. The chance encounter inspired Mrs. Wilson and her son, who survived his illness and also is in remission. Today, he is a fifth-grader and playing CYO football.
“Since she had been through this, it gave me so much hope,” Mrs. Wilson said.
Later on the podium, Mrs. Wilson returned the favor and told Miss Wertenberger to cherish every autograph and appearance she makes.
The best lesson she learned as Miss America was “bringing joy to someone else’s life,” not your own, Mrs. Wilson said. “It’s not about the crown, it’s the time you spend with them. Whatever God has planned for you, enjoy that experience. You are ready for Las Vegas, and we all support you.”
Dr. David Nixon, president of the college, echoed that sentiment in his remarks.
“We’re rooting for her and we feel she’s going to win,” he said.
After making four appearances elsewhere in the state Friday, Miss Wertenberger returned to her hometown Friday night to see new state signs along M-50 announcing Dundee as the home of Miss Michigan.
“How cool is that?” Miss Wertenberger said at the podium. “I always wanted to be a part of this organization (Miss Monroe County Scholarship Pageant) and have my own road like Kaye Lani St.”
Mary Rehberg, a neighbor of the Wertenberger family, said she has known Miss Michigan since she was a baby. Mrs. Rehberg said her 98-year-old mother, Doris Pickens of Ann Arbor, still is thrilled when she brings clippings about the little girl she knew down the street that became Miss Michigan. Mrs. Rehberg called her “an all-American girl” with more than just a college degree.
“She’s a very determined, strong person,” Mrs. Rehberg said. “She has the whole world ahead of her.”
Other neighbors like Ray and Janet Russell of Dundee also spoke about high aspirations for Miss Michigan. The couple recalled the thrill of attending the state pageant with their daughter, Jennifer, who took excellent photos of the crowning from the balcony in the theater and even made large posters ahead of the pageant announcing she had won.
“She’s a beautiful girl inside and out,” Mrs. Russell said.
“She’s really done good and has kept her head straight,” Mr. Russell added.
Dione Oerther, co-executive director of the Miss Monroe County pageant, told the audience how they can donate to the Children’s Miracle Network sponsored by the Miss America pageant and how to attend the pageant in January to support Miss Wertenberger.
Other highlights of the program included a video of her crowning at the state pageant shown by Shelley Taylor, executive director of the Miss Michigan Scholarship Program, and a tribute from the state Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder presented by John Manor, representing state Sen. Randy Richardville, R-Monroe.
Miss Wertenberger was crowned Miss Monroe County in 2007 and was third runner-up in the 2008 statewide pageant. In June, she competed again at the state pageant as Miss Southwest Michigan and was better prepared this time. She stressed the importance of “touching lives of people in the community and competing for a platform you believe in.” Recalling a terrible bike accident just days before the Miss Southwest pageant and having survived JRA, she encourages children afflicted with chronic illnesses and shares her platform — working with the elderly and getting youths to interact more with senior citizens.
“This is a journey, and it doesn’t end here,” she told the crowd. “God had a different plan for me to be part of this organization. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for each and everyone of you.”