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Cover Story

Queens of Green

3/16/2016

The luck of the Irish has Des Moines doubling down on green this year. Not only is the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament coming to town, it’s pushing the 2016 Friendly Sons of St. Patrick’s Day Parade back a day. While this makes some feel a little blue, maybe the grass is actually greener on this side of the fence because the postponement actually doubles the consumption potential of all things green.

When the parade finally gets going at noon on March 18, The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick will have a newly crowned queen presiding over the shamrock-shaking, bagpipe-blaring mayhem.

Cityview had coffee with five former parade queens to shoot the blarney about being a queen and to find out: Is it the time of your life, or a royal pain in the green beer?

The rules say applicants must have Irish heritage, be older than 21 and be unmarried in order to serve as queen, but how does one make it happen? What’s the process and selection procedure? How does one become royalty?

The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick will host its annual parade at noon on March 18.

The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick will host its annual parade at noon on March 18.

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By any means necessary

Bribes don’t work. That’s the conclusion of the queens when asked about the process of becoming a queen.

Both Constance Bell and Meredith Cooney have worn the crown, but before they were called “queen,” they once competed against each other in 2013. The competition was stiff that year, as there were eight applications. Constance decided to grease things a bit and baked triple chocolate brownies for the judges. They both think it backfired, though, and Cooney edged Bell for the 2013 title.

In 2014, Bell came back better than ever. She dyed her hair red and left the brownies at home this time. But when she saw someone else had brought the judges Irish car bomb ingredients, she worried if she’d made the correct call. She did. The judges apparently will eat bribes but won’t act on them.

The competition isn’t always so fierce.

“When I was queen, I didn’t even have to apply,” Charlotte Pettit admits.

The others refer to Pettit, the 1989 winner, as “the chosen one” because the Sons simply asked her to reign and she said, “yes.”

Paula Chizek (1995) recalls her selection process a little differently as well.

“I could drink more beer than the pretty girls,” she said. “So they let me be their queen.”

Advice for aspiring queens

Besty Craig, the queen in 2015, said the key to winning the crown is “having a good sense of humor.”

“You have to be quick witted to hang out with the Friendly Sons,” she said.

“And be a good storyteller,” said Chizek.

“Wear comfortable shoes,” advised Cooney.

All the former queens claim they were asked to spell “leprechaun,” too. So be prepared, ladies.

The actual reigning queen has duties to perform at the parade and needs to attend monthly meetings and other events like the Sons’ fitness events, raffles, fundraisers and the Christmas party. Lastly, the queen has to introduce and crown the next queen at a March meeting a few days prior to the parade. This year’s queen will be crowned on March 14.

The queens are now driven to the parade in a limousine.

“My favorite part of the parade was after breakfast, riding over to the parade. One of the Friendly Sons sang the whole time. No one talked,” recounted Cooney about her limousine ride to the parade.

“A little ‘me time’ in the limo,” is a nice touch, Bell agreed.

But Chizek contended the limo hasn’t always been so.

“The queen gets a limo now,” she said, emphasizing the word “now.” “Let’s be clear: We got a horse-drawn carriage.”

The former queens have a float of their own in the parade; they all get to ride together. These queens are now seasoned veterans as it pertains to parade waving but warn that some waves will make your arm tire too quickly.

“My arm went numb,” Cooney laughed.

That’s why Chizek usually puts the queens through some pre-parade stretching. She does an orientation for the new queen and a refresher course replete with an organized practice for everyone else.

“It’s very intense” Chizek joked. “We do the orientation on waving and then go over what we call ‘sash safety.’ We do it every year. It’s a very rigorous orientation session.”

Everyone puts her own spin on the waving action, but in general, they agree proper waving form goes elbow, elbow, wrist, wrist.

“No,” Chizek said sternly when asked if any queen has ever reported tendonitis. “That’s because we do proper stretching. Nine out of 10 queen injuries happen due to improper stretching.”

The parade isn’t always clear sailing. The float starts and stops a lot during the parade, and they’re Irish, so…

“(The sashes) work well if you have to grab someone from behind and keep someone from dangling off the side,” Chizek explained.

One of the more recent queens deferred a question to the “elders,” and Chizek feigned outrage at the designation.

“Hey!” she shouts teasingly. “You’re going to the back of the queen float this year, sister.”

They all laughed, and there’s clearly a comraderie amongst these women. There are other benefits to being queen as well.

Before wearing the crown, Cooney didn’t know much about her heritage. Becoming the queen led to a lot of great conversations with her family about being Irish.

Paula Chizek with Tom Ward (her dad) in 1995.

Paula Chizek with Tom Ward (her dad) in 1995.

Bell said it’s a treat seeing the Sons all around town. She was also prompted to run her first 10K ever while queen.

These women are so Irish you might run into them in a back alley selling shamrocks. What’s St. Paddy’s like growing up Irish? What’s it like as queen, and what has the day transitioned into after queen-ship?

Bell usually skipped school growing up on St. Patrick’s Day, ditto for Craig. Chizek goes so far as to say skipping school is a rite of passage for the Irish. She never went to school on the holiday, nor has she ever attended work on March 17.

They all agree that spotty attendance is OK for the Irish on the 17th, except Cooney. The young attorney said she did indeed attend classes as regularly scheduled.

Bell came clean and wondered if her family let her skip school so she could be their designated driver. Everyone laughed and agreed there might be a grain of truth.

Chizek took it one step further.

“I once made taking St. Patrick’s Day off a condition of employment,” she said.

Chizek said being queen isn’t the sort of thing you put on a resume, but not everyone sees it that way.

“I put it on my resume!” Cooney disagrees vehemently. “I swear to God I did. It’s a great conversation starter.”

Being queen is more than just riding in a car for a day. The Sons want someone who will represent the Irish community and help celebrate Irish heritage for a lifetime.

“St. Patrick’s Day is the best day of the year,” Chizek said. “It’s up there with your wedding day or having children. I love St. Patrick’s Day because it’s the day we all get back together.

“We’re an extension of a fraternal organization (the Sons), but the queens have become their own…”

“Sorority,” Cooney said, finishing her sentence.

“(The Friendly Sons) do a tremendous amount of important work for charities,” Chizek went on. “Because we’re Irish, we do drinking, dancing and all the things that come with it, but then we give back to the community. As an ‘older’ former queen, those are the things that are important to me, too.”

Betsy is the current queen, and after all the talk of “community” and laughter on the other float, she’s asked if she’d rather be the queen on her own float or be together and laughing with her friends on the group float. Apparently the special community feeling only goes so far.

“You always want to be the queen,” Craig answered.

“Dumb question,” Parade Chairman Michael Dennis stated flatly. “But once a queen, you’re always a queen. They’re all queens. There isn’t any different level of queens.”

“Kiss” rhymes with “piss”

Talking to the current and former Friendly Sons of St. Patrick’s Day Parade queens, one quickly realizes they know just about everything there is to know about the Irish. They know why there aren’t many windows in old Irish homes. (During English tyranny, the Irish were taxed for every window, thus even the light of day was subject to taxation.)

Smooching the Irish Blarney Stone supposedly grants one the gift of gab, or “blarney,” which is eloquent or clever speech. Irish politician John O’Connor Power says blarney is “flattery sweetened by humor and flavored by wit.”

But the queens also pointed out that they aren’t supposed to kiss the Blarney Stone anymore, apparently, as Irish teens urinate on it for a laugh.

“I kissed it anyway,” Chizek admitted amongst the laughter of her fellow queens.

St. Patrick’s is a Christian holiday in memory of the man who brought Jesus Christ to Ireland. How did it become the drunkest day of the year?

“(St. Patrick’s) is a family thing,” Chizek pointed out. “There is alcohol, and in some cases, young college kids consume unnecessarily. But I’m a mom, and I drink on St. Patrick’s Day, but my children are there with me. The purpose isn’t drunken debauchery; it’s to be together.”

“We celebrate our heritage,” Pettit offered. “It’s the Orangemen that give the day a bad name.”

Orangemen is a derogatory term used by the Catholic Irish for the protestant Irish.

Pettit’s great grandpa was a stowaway as a 14-year-old during the Irish potato famine. He used to claim the Irish weren’t required to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. He said green stands for Ireland, the white stands for peace, and the orange stands for the northern part of Ireland.

“The reason the Friendly Sons banded together was to celebrate Irish heritage,” said Chizek. “Cousin of a cousin, it doesn’t matter. If you’re Irish, you’re family.”

“Jameson isn’t drinking; it’s toasting,” Bell claimed, but added that this is only true at funerals.

This prompted Charlotte to tell a joke: “What’s the difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish funeral? One less person.”

Who are the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick?

“I lost my home in 2002 in a (3,000-degree) electrical fire,” Pettit explained.

She paused and felt the emotion of the moment and the memory of being homeless for a year.

“The Friendly Sons were there to help me,” she said. “I lost everything except the clothes on my back. The Friendly Sons contributed a donation that was almost what we needed. I saved all the money and put it down on the house I live in now.

“When I die, I want my crown on in my coffin.”

“You know what?” Chizek said and turned to Pettit. “We’ll get it there.”

“That’s how blessed I feel for being chosen,” said Pettit. “The Friendly Sons are like brothers.”

It’s said that the three-petal shamrock was originally used by St. Patrick to teach the Irish about Christianity and the nature of the trinity. The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick also have more than one purpose. Besides setting up the parade, the Sons is a benevolent organization that celebrates Irish heritage. The group stages several community events each year, including the parade, a 5K, a 10K run and a Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day Celebration and Bike Ride.

The Sons received $10,000 to move the parade date due to the NCAA Men’s Tournament being held in Des Moines. The money will be used wisely, Dennis said.

“Since we are a philanthropic organization, the money will go a long way toward charitable donations or what we call our ‘Community of Caring.’ That amount would take us almost a year to raise through our normal events,” said Dennis.

“Friendly Sons come from very diverse socioeconomic backgrounds,” added Chizek. “They are made up of police officers, CEOs, business people and farmers. If you look at the former queens, you see the same thing — teachers, attorneys and executives. Most importantly you have wives and mothers. It’s easy for us old queens to stay good ambassadors because you want to be connected to an organization that’s doing good.”

Dennis said he volunteered in order to finagle a better spot in the parade lineup, but the joke was on him. Running the parade can be a daunting task, so nobody else wanted the position.

“Now I’m in charge of it,” he laughed.

On St. Patrick’s Day Eve, a young Chizek used to go to bed wearing green for fear she’d wake up and be pinched by her sisters. It’s obvious at this point that all the queens like being Irish, but what’s the best part?

“Family,” Craig answered first without hesitation.

Cooney echoed the sentiment, “I was going to say the same thing: family.”

“At this point in my life, being Roman Catholic,” said Pettit. “Family, faith and friends.”

Then queens asked a question of their own, “Are you Irish?”

“For 40 bucks, we can make you an Irish member of the Friendly Sons,” Dennis quipped.

Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. CV

Record keeping has not historically been a strong suit for Friendly Sons, but here is what they have for records of past queens.

Year        Queen
1985        Jackie Morrissey
1987        Mary Beth (O’Donnell) Heddinger
1988        Mary Riley
1989        Charlotte Pettit*
1995        Paula (Ward) Chizek*
1996        Meghan Cohan
1997        Mary Kay Craig
1998        Andrea Flanagan
1999        Melissa Fears
2000        Heidi Henson
2001        Katey (Hand) Olson
2002        Jill (Curran) Evans
2003        Shauna Donovan
2004        Tiffany (O’Donnell) Holmes
2005        Angie Brees
2006        Lauren Orcutt
2007        Charlotte O’Hern
2008        Whitney (Holmes) Mazzie
2009        Heather (O’Donnell) Evans
2010        Megan Carey
2011        Allie Reiter
2012        Lindsay Reinert
2013        Meredith Cooney*
2014        Constance Bell*
2015        Betsy Craig*

*Denote queens interviewed by Cityview for the story.

**Mary Beth O’Donnell (1987) is the longest active queen and is lovingly referred to as the “queen mom.”

St. Pat’s Schedule

Thursday, March 17
8 a.m.: Flag raising at Sully’s

Friday, March 18
8:30 a.m.: Members’ breakfast at the Marriott
10 a.m.: Parade staging begins: MLK Parkway
Noon: Parade 15th to Grand
1-4 p.m.: Public reception at the Marriott

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