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A celebration of full lives


As they waited to parade before the judges yesterday afternoon, the 11 contestants in the Ms. Senior Maryland Pageant huddled nervously offstage, their gowns of sequins, rhinestones and beads shimmering under the lights.

"I'm flying," said Irene Patton, 79, of Columbia, her long, slender fingers fluttering. "Whoever thought I'd have the courage to compete in this event?"

Angie Rounis, 74, of Catonsville told her, "You've got to be nervous to be good."

Nearby, Ann Sophocleus, a 63-year-old Columbia resident, stood quietly. She was too nervous to talk.

Inside the auditorium at the Catonsville Senior Center, there was standing room only. More than 200 people had come to watch the contest for women over 60, who were judged on grace, talent and philosophy of life.

The winner will go to the national Ms. Senior America competition in Reno, Nev., next month.

Yesterday, the contestants were introduced by the reigning Ms. Senior America, Joyce Reilly Clautice. She had been named Ms. Senior Virginia but pointed out that she grew up in Govans in North Baltimore.

Before bringing in the contestants, she told the audience that she has osteoporosis and reminded those present to get bone-density tests.

"Beautiful young people are an accident of nature," Clautice said. "Beautiful old people are a work of art." Later, she performed a seamless and lyrical ballet.

Finally, the contestants paraded in their gowns before the four judges, one of whom was Peggy Ruppersberger, retired director of the Bykota Senior Center in Towson and mother of Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

In the promenade, they seemed too poised to be amateurs. Many were longtime theater performers, dancers and singers. Others began performing after retiring.

After the gown competition, the women rushed into dressing rooms to put on their costumes for the talent event.

Lois Grieger, 80, of Baldwin lay on the floor in the women's restroom and asked a visitor to zip her into her tight, green-sequined Carmen Miranda dress.

Onstage, Rounis demonstrated belly dancing, which she took up when she was 48. Sophocleus sang "One Moment in Time."

Patton acted out a monologue, and Ethel Riggin, 79, of Towson, former secretary to the president and chairman of the board of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., imitated Carol Channing singing "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend," clad in a rhinestone-studded costume.

Later, the women put their gowns back on and modeled for the judges while tape recordings of the contestants discussing their views on life played in the background.

They spoke of living life to the fullest, being thankful for good health and always helping others.

It was a competition to see who was the greatest optimist.

"Some of the darkest moments of my life have led to some of the sweetest memories," said Kathryn Smith, 77, of Severna Park.

Later, as the contestants waited for the judges to tally their votes, Sophocleus stood quietly in the hallway. "I'm nervous," she said. "I've never done this before."

Then she joined the others, along with previous winners, onstage while master of ceremonies Ed Lanehart sang the Frank Sinatra song "Young at Heart."

It had not been a typical beauty pageant. It was more an afternoon of hope and renewing faith in long life.

But when Lanehart announced that Sophocleus, the nervous singer from Columbia, had been named Ms. Senior Maryland 2000, the winner did what many beauty pageant winners do.

She wept for joy.

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