A look back at the Miss Rural Electrification Program through the memories of a Wisconsin Winner and the co-op leader who helped make it happen.
About a month before her crowning moment at the 2023 Miss America Scholarship Program in December, Grace Stanke took her place on a panel of formidable experts at the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association (WECA) annual meeting in Stevens Point to discuss nuclear energy and the role it can and should play in a clean energy portfolio (See “The Power of Grace,” WECN, January 2023). In doing so, the nuclear engineering student won over the room of co-op leaders with her command of the topic and her passion for educating the public, especially youth, about the merits and myths of nuclear energy.
Stanke, however, is not the first accomplished young woman to wear a crown in representation of the Dairy State, promoting issues that are important to electric cooperatives, nor is she the first to have earned the proud support of Wisconsin’s electric cooperative community.
Young women from electric co-ops throughout the state vied for a similar opportunity from 1962 to 1975, when Wisconsin participated in the national Miss Rural Electrification contest. Hosted by The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), the Miss Rural Electrification program followed a pattern similar to that of the Miss America program. Participating electric co-ops would hold contests for young women between the ages of 17 and 21 whose families were members of their local electric cooperatives. The winners would advance to their respective statewide association contests for the opportunity to represent their state at the Miss Rural Electrification competition held at NRECA’s annual meeting, typically in February or March.
The program had all the familiar pageant elements, including behind-the-scenes interviews with the judges, an on-stage question-and-answer session, an evening gown competition, and even a swimsuit competition, although Wisconsin’s contests did not always include one.
The ultimate winner was crowned Miss Rural Electrification and spent the following year traveling the country as an ambassador of electric cooperatives, speaking at national events such as the Future Farmers of America national convention, the Farm Electrification Conference, and the National Grange annual meeting.
Wisconsin wasn’t the most active among the statewide associations that participated in the Miss Rural Electrification program; interest tended to be heavier in the southern states. In fact, NRECA had been holding the competition for 12 years before Wisconsin got involved.
However, Wisconsin’s representatives held their own, with two Miss RE Wisconsins winning the national title during the state’s relatively short run in the program: Sandy Meissner from Clark Electric Cooperative, who won in 1968, and Sandi Torkilson of what was then known as Rock County Electric Cooperative, who won in 1972.
It’s About the Scholarships
Times have changed considerably since Sandy and Sandi won their crowns. Once fairly ubiquitous, pageants of the Miss Rural Electrification type began falling out of favor by the later 1970s and many disappeared. Even the iconic Miss America competition has been retooled over time to shift the focus to competitors’ accomplishments rather than their appearance. However, Torkilson—now Hargrave—said the Miss Rural Electrification competition was always about accomplishments and opportunities.
When she reunited recently with Marian Trescher, longtime Rock Energy Cooperative director who started the Miss Rural Electrification program at her co-op and chaperoned Hargrave as she traveled the country during her reign, both women recoiled slightly at a description in a historical account of the program.
“Well, for starters, they shouldn’t have called it a beauty pageant,” Hargrave said of what she’d just read.
“It was more about the scholarships you could win, and I just enjoyed being involved in things,” she added. “I was a cheerleader, I was in the band, I was a majorette, I was really active in 4-H. This was something that seemed like another neat opportunity.”
Trescher saw the Miss Rural Electrification competition as a way to connect youth with the greater rural electrification program and get students involved with their own cooperatives. She also recognized the program’s educational value.
“We were pushing the scholarships,” she said. “We were just encouraging students to be educated and get involved.”
Launching the Miss Rock County Electric Cooperative competition was largely an extension of what Trescher had already been doing. Her late husband, Howard, was first elected to the co-op’s board of directors in 1962. Trescher would eventually be elected to his seat after he died in 2004, but she was actively involved long before officially becoming a director, often typing up Howard’s board meeting notes and accompanying him to various meetings.
It was at one such meeting—a statewide annual meeting—when she first saw a Miss Wisconsin RE competition and wondered why her own co-op wasn’t involved.
Trescher immediately recognized the potential value in participating. Both she and Howard were already active in promoting youth involvement and would often take a member of the co-op’s own youth program with them to the statewide annual meetings to serve as a youth representative. One of those very youth—Morris Nelson—would eventually serve as a co-op director himself.
Rock County Electric’s manager at the time, Marty Oberdeck, was also active in community youth activities, having served on the fair board and as a 4-H leader, and Trescher said he encouraged such activity among his directors. With his support, Trescher organized Rock County Electric’s local contest, which debuted in 1968.
As a public school teacher, Trescher already knew which students were eligible and might be interested, and she had no problem recruiting 11 participants for the co-op’s inaugural pageant. “It wasn’t hard to find contestants,” she noted.
Unlike other co-ops, Rock County Electric held its competitions separate from the annual meeting. Rock’s was held on a Saturday evening, which gave the event more of an entertaining, pageant-like feel. A local radio personality served as emcee.
“It was fun,” Trescher said. “We got the judges, we got the place, at some of them we had meals. We would start in the afternoon with judges doing the interviews and in the evening we’d have the talent competition.”
No swimsuit competition. “Heavens no,” Trescher said.
By 1971 Rock County Electric’s competition had evolved to the point where Trescher no longer had to recruit participants. Among the contestants that year was a Milton College music student named Sandi Torkilson, and Trescher said she thought right away that Rock County Electric Cooperative might have a big winner.
“I thought she was exceptional,” Trescher said of Hargrave (Torkilson). “I had been to several of the national competitions with Howard before that so I knew what the judges were looking for. We were pretty confident.”
Miss Rural Electrification had to have the poise to handle a full load of public-speaking engagements, sometimes in front of thousands of people. Her speaking engagements would also require a thorough understanding of, and appreciation for, electric cooperatives.
Hargrave’s background made her a solid candidate from the start. In addition to her school activities, which included Student Council and National Honor Society, Hargrave had served a number of leadership positions in her community. As a high school student, she had attended WECA’s Youth Leadership Congress and was elected secretary of the Youth Board. She also held multiple offices for her local 4-H organization and was selected for several outstanding achievement awards. In addition, she served on a teen board for a local department store and modeled for three years.
A gifted musician, Hargrave performed a piano solo for the talent competition and ably handled her interviews and on-stage question.
“The interviews really centered more on the youth at that time and how they could make more of a connection with the adults in the program,” Hargrave explained. “It was about making youth aware of cooperatives, what they do, and what they can do, for the future.”
After she was crowned Miss Rock County Electric Cooperative, Hargrave’s focus was on the Miss Wisconsin RE title, which was determined at the WECA Annual Meeting in Milwaukee two months later. She won that title too, along with a college scholarship, and spent the summer appearing in some local parades and revisiting the Youth Leadership Congress, this time as a featured speaker, as she prepared for the national competition.
On to Nationals
At the end of February 1972, Hargrave accompanied the Treschers to Las Vegas for the NRECA annual meeting, where Miss Rural Electrification would be crowned at a pageant held March 1 at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Hargrave recalled a whirlwind week of appearances and tours in Las Vegas with the other candidates, who quickly became friends.
“It was fun because we were all there for the same reason and it was amazing to meet all these people and hear about their states and their lives,” she noted.
Her newly formed friendships and the confidence gained from a year of public appearances no doubt helped calm the inevitable nerves as the competition began. Hargrave stepped onto a much larger stage than she was used to, with a huge crowd, bright lights, and live orchestra. She had admitted to being nervous for the swimsuit competition—her first—acknowledging to a local reporter beforehand that she “probably will fall walking in my shoes.”
But Hargrave didn’t stumble, not during the swimsuit competition nor anywhere else. By the end of the night, she stood victorious as Miss Rural Electrification 1972, with a large contingent of family and co-op supporters in the audience.
“The orchestra played ‘On Wisconsin’ when I won and I just remember that being so exciting,” Hargrave said. “I was very surprised when I won. There were just so many wonderful girls there that any one of them would have made, I think, a very good queen.”
Hargrave discovered just how proud her community was when she returned home from Las Vegas. A blizzard had rerouted their flight and delayed their arrival, yet a crowd of supporters waited for several hours at Rock County Electric’s headquarters in Janesville to greet Hargrave upon her return.
“We were so proud, so happy! The co-op was so very proud,” Trescher said.
That pride continued as Hargrave fulfilled her Miss Rural Electrification duties throughout the year, all while continuing her college classes. Her national crown came with a $1,250 scholarship—no small sum in those days—which helped Hargrave complete her studies at Milton College.
With Trescher as her constant companion and mentor, Hargrave made about one major appearance a month during her reign, including NRECA’s Youth Tour in Washington, D.C., where she met REA Administrator David Hamil; the American Institute of Cooperation meeting in Ames, Iowa; the Farm Electrification Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio; the FFA National Convention in Kansas City, Missouri; the NRECA Coopmanship Conference in St. Louis, Missouri; the National Grange Annual Meeting in Hartford, Connecticut; and the International Farmfest in Mankato, Minnesota.
Hargrave described her year as Miss Rural Electrification as an “overall wonderful experience.” She relished the chance to travel, something she had little opportunity to do growing up on a farm, and said she gained from each public appearance.
“Any time you can be speaking in front of people, you gain confidence,” she said. “And the more you do it, the more people you meet, the more you take away from it.”
Hargrave enjoyed the chance to represent electric cooperatives on the national stage so much that she recalls being in tears the following year in Dallas when she crowned a new Miss Rural Electrification. After her reign came to an end, she finished college, got married, raised two children, lived for a time in Florida, and enjoyed a successful career as a travel consultant, inspired by the travel opportunities she enjoyed as Miss Rural Electrification.
However, the Miss Rural Electrification program never really left her, as it helped shape the person she came to be. And, it seems, the crown is always still there.
“To this day, for whatever reason, I run into people who ask, ‘You were the REA queen, right?’ ” Hargrave said. “It is kind of cool.”—Mary Erickson