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From promise to jail

June 22, 1997


Staff Writer

For the talent competition in the 1981 Miss America Pageant, Hagerstown's Robin Harmon chose a dramatic reading from "Antigone," a classic Greek tragedy in which the title heroine tumbles from grace into personal catastrophe.

Harmon, the first black Miss Maryland, was confident, stunningly attractive and smart enough to know there was life beyond the Atlantic City, N.J., Convention Hall stage.

At 24, she was planning careers in modeling, broadcast journalism and perhaps even acting. In two years, she boldly predicted, she would be on "The Tonight Show."


"She was really going places and really had some goals in mind," said John Rosson, a longtime judge in local and state pageants from Washington, D.C.

But now, at age 40, Robin Valeria Harmon's most publicized appearances have been in Washington County District Court, on charges she twice sold crack cocaine to a police drug informant.

No longer the beauty queen in a flowing gown and sparkling tiara, she was wearing a khaki jail-issue jumpsuit and shackles around her ankles.

"I've never been in trouble before one and a half years ago. I just want to get my life together again," she told Judge Ralph H. France II during a May 23 bond review hearing.

The news of her legal woes has shocked many who knew Harmon as a teenager from Hagerstown or as an ambitious young woman.

"We were just shattered," said June Wagner, who, along with her husband, knew Harmon from their involvement in pageants.

Harmon, who is being held in the Washington County Detention Center on $80,000 bond, turned down requests to be interviewed for this story.

But in a letter to The Herald-Mail she wrote that she has been "totally overwhelmed" by letters of support she has received since being jailed in May.

"It's just a real tragedy, a real tragic situation," said Leon Brumback, a teacher at North Hagerstown High School.

Brumback said he knew Harmon as a good student during her years at North High, where she was also a cheerleader and became the first black girl on the Homecoming court. She also was in the A Capella Choir, the Black Student Organization and Future Teachers of America, according to the 1975 "Heiskelite," North High's yearbook.

"She was a super young person," said Brumback, who was Harmon's class adviser.

He and others who knew Harmon then described her as intelligent, funny and popular without pretense.

"I really liked her a lot. She was real friendly and outgoing," said Dave Warner, a high school classmate of Harmon's who is now an associate professor of music at Hagerstown Junior College.

She graduated from North High in 1975, the same year she entered her first pageant - the Miss Hagerstown Pageant. She didn't win, but she did finish first runner-up. She entered the pageant again the following year and won, which allowed her to compete for the title of Miss Maryland.

Harmon came to the 1976 Miss Maryland Pageant with the requisite beauty but little else, and to the judges it showed.

She lacked confidence and poise, and generally needed to be more polished, judges said. She was stumbling over her words during her dramatic reading talent, so several took her aside and urged her to get more experience in pageants and public speaking.

"She showed a lot of promise . . . (but) she had a long way to go," said Rosson, one of those who counseled Harmon.

Harmon vowed to make the necessary changes, but there was some doubt among the judges as to whether Harmon had it in her to refine her skills.

"We had no idea she would really do anything," said Wagner, another judge that year.

But she did.

Harmon moved to Washington, D.C., and enrolled in Howard University, where she majored in broadcast journalism, and later earned a bachelor's degree.

Meanwhile, she earned scholarship money from entering and winning several local pageants, including Miss Black D.C. (1977), Miss Photogenic (1979) and Miss Georgetown (1980). And she went to modeling school, learning body grace and how to pose for pictures.

"When I left Hagerstown I couldn't walk properly. I'd always look down and carry my shoulders forward," she said in 1981.

That same year she entered and won the Miss Washington County Pageant. Again she would go to the Miss Maryland Pageant - five years after her debut appearance - but this time she was better prepared.

"It took a total of five years to get where I am today, and to get to the point where it felt rewarding to myself. It has been a long, hard road, and, though I have had many friends support me along the way, I have basically done it by myself," she said then.

Those who remembered the determined but unrefined teenager in 1976 marveled at the elegant young woman who appeared before them in June 1981. She was clearly the winner, they said.

"She just had it all together," said Rosson, who recalled a smiling, laughing and self-assured Harmon.

"She came a long way," Wagner said.

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