In seven days, a talented and accomplished local woman will compete for the title of Miss America.
Twenty years ago, another talented and accomplished local woman did the same and came within two people of winning the crown.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Shipshewana native Shelli Yoder’s journey to Atlantic City as Miss Indiana. This week, the current Miss Indiana Jackie Jerlecki is in Las Vegas, the pageant’s current home, competing against 52 other young ladies for the title.
There are a few similarities between the two women. Both are vocalists. Jerlecki has more than 100 supporters making the trip to Vegas. Yoder had four busloads of supporters make the drive to Atlantic City.
Both also won the Miss Indiana title on their third try. Jerlecki competed as Miss Elkhart County and Miss Duneland. She was a non-finalist her first try; in the top 11 in 2010 as Miss Elkhart County; and won the crown in 2011 as Miss Duneland.
Yoder, now living in Bloomington with her husband and three children, competed at state as Miss Limberlost at age 18. She sat out of pageants for five years, then won the Limberlost title again and was first runner-up at Miss Indiana. A year later, in 1992, she competed as Miss Elkhart County and won the state crown.
At the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City in September 1992 Yoder won a preliminary swimsuit award and a final placing as second runner-up.
Yoder and Jerlecki also met up in a rather unusual situation in 2010.
“I had the somewhat uncomfortable job of judging Miss Indiana in 2010,” Yoder said.
That was an anniversary year and Miss Indianas from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s were asked to be judges.
“That was so hard for me,” Yoder said. “I was Miss Elkhart (County) so my heartstrings were touched.”
She said the job of a judge is to decide who is ready to take on the job of Miss Indiana at that exact time.
“It wasn’t that time for Jackie,” she said. “I hope she doesn’t have any ill feelings of me from that. She is an extraordinary young woman. It is exactly her time, now.”
In an interview in The Goshen News right after being crowned Miss Indiana, Jerlecki also talked about that timing. She had graduated in December, 2010, with a double major in musical theater and youth theater, so was ready to take on the duties of Miss Indiana.
“This (the title) really came at a good time in my life,” Jerlecki said.
Yoder’s memories of her time as Miss Indiana have much to do with the people she met.
“What I took away from that experience is the value of being able to just celebrate with people,” Yoder said. “That’s the great thing about Miss Indiana. You are invited to so many celebrations. You are also invited to sit along the bedside of someone who is ill. Those moments are all very profound. That year, I was involved in so many people’s lives.”
One of the most special things to Yoder in 1992 was the support she received from the community, both during her time as Miss Indiana and during her time at Miss America.
“It was incredible,” Yoder said. “I had the most loving, supportive outpouring from my community and surrounding communities. It seems like it was just yesterday. I can’t believe it has been 20 years.”
She said as an adult with many responsibilities, she now fully appreciates those people on the buses who made the trek to Atlantic City.
“They had jobs, families, volunteer (duties) church — to take time out to go somewhere to celebrate someone else’s Miss America experience — well I have a better understanding of the sacrifices that people made to get there,” she said.
The 1992 Miss America trip, Yoder said, was still steeped heavily in the traditions from the pageant’s 85-year history in Atlantic City. The pageant moved to Las Vegas in 2006.
Yoder’s Miss America experience lasted 20 days. The contestants flew into Philadelphia and saw many tourist sites, made public appearances, attended a Philadelphia Eagles professional football game and spent time getting to know each other. They took a train into Atlantic City, where their arrival included a boardwalk parade and a large audience.
“It was completely like the 1940s,” Yoder said. “You get off this train platform, lots of people were wearing hats, it was nothing like 1992 in the real world. It’s sad to see those experiences go, even though the move to Las Vegas was smart.”
On stage the night of the final competition, Yoder had the good luck of having her named called first for both the top 10 and then the top five.
“I didn’t have the stress with those countdowns,” she said.
And then came the anticipation as the runners-up and Miss America were named. Yoder’s name was called third as second runner-up. Miss Florida, Leanza Cornett, won the title that year, which was actually for 1993.
There’s no pretending that losing the crown stings, no matter how high you place, Yoder said.
“You get so close,” she said, “and you think, ‘Oh my word, what else could I have done.’”
Still, in the past 20 years, she has had a lot of time to analyze Miss Indiana and Miss America.
“Now I think what a great experience and honor,” Yoder said. “It is important to keep it in perspective — the experience itself can trump a lot of things that are much more important. You can get caught up in it and the celebrity of it. But hopefully, in the years that followed, I have been respectful of that experience as well as reflective, and have had it be beneficial to the greater good.”
In her spare time from her job at Indiana University and caring for her three children, Yoder is working on a 20th anniversary gathering for the 1992 Miss America contestants.
A chance glance at the photo of a woman in a Bloomington newspaper garnered Yoder some help with the anniversary project.
“I kept looking and looking at the picture of this person,” Yoder said. “I kept thinking, ‘I don’t know her, I just moved here.’”
It turned out her interest was warranted. The woman in the photo was Miss New Jersey 1992, who Yoder had gotten to know fairly well during the pageant.
The two reconnected and are working together on planning the reunion.
On Jan. 14, however, Yoder plans to be in front a television set, watching and hoping to see another 23-year-old Northern Indiana woman realize her dream and become Miss America.
“I hope Jackie wins,” Yoder said. “She’s an extraordinary, special young woman.”