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Holding Court

By Jeremy Pelzer

Springfield State Journal-Register

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. Like any good queen, Viola Suits Palumbo has her own Cinderella story.

Before being crowned Miss Illinois 1948 and becoming a pre-eminent beauty pageant organizer for decades, Palumbo, born Viola Hutmacher, was a 21-year-old self-described tomboy who scrubbed pans in her father's bakery in Quincy.

"The Jaycees wanted to start a Quincy pageant, so someone had told them that Dad had a daughter," Palumbo said. "So they went up to my dad in the bakery and they said, 'Mr. Hutmacher, we understand you have a daughter that might be in our queen pageant.'

"And I'm down there scrubbing, not paying any attention. And I look up, and these Jaycees look down at this scrubby woman."

But with a $10 taffeta dress and a borrowed bathing suit, the baker's daughter won the Quincy pageant, then was crowned Miss Illinois 1948. She is the only person from Quincy to win the title.

Long after she stopped entering beauty pageants as a contestant, Palumbo organized and ran them, including the Miss Illinois County Fair Queen pageant, the

Sangamon County Fair Queen pageant and the Miss Rural Electrification competition.

Today, at her residence at the Montvale Estates retirement home in Springfield, her beauty pageant past is evident in framed pictures and a shelf of scrapbooks full of photos and newspaper clippings.

Palumbo said her involvement with pageants was accidental.

"I never had any ambition to do anything," she said. "Everything I did I fell into. ... I was a tomboy. I was not queen material."

She found that out when she represented Illinois at the 1948 Miss America competition. While other contestants brought along professional hairstylists and coaches, Palumbo did most of the prep work herself.

"You had to fix your own hair," she said, "So I bobby-curled it and then just brushed it out, and that was it, which was the wrong thing to do."

Afterward, Palumbo returned to her studies at Quincy College. She then married and began teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. Palumbo moved to Springfield in 1950 when her first husband got a job there.

She soon landed a job as former Gov. William Stratton's receptionist and eventually was put in charge of hiring all pages, doormen and secretaries at the Capitol. After 18 years in the Capitol, though, Palumbo got bored and was hired to manage all special activities and events at the Illinois State Fair.

A group of lawmakers asked Palumbo in 1960 to start the Miss Illinois County Fair Queen pageant, in which county fair queens from around the state vie to reign over the Illinois State Fair.

Palumbo turned over control of the pageant in the mid-1990s. Today, she continues to attend local pageants as a guest and watches national competitions on TV, though she said she doesn't often like what she sees these days.

"Boy, that Miss USA I saw that pageant the other night on TV," she said. "I thought that was just like a big beef show."

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