Countdown to Miss Maryland crown begins tonight

June 26, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

Nikki Gouker, Miss Monocacy 2003, started dancing when she was 3 - about the same time she first heard "There She Is ... Miss America," the national pageant's trademark theme song.

As a little girl, she watched the annually televised pageants with her family and decided she would one day be Miss America.

"I wanted the glamour, I wanted to dance, I wanted that crown," Gouker says.

As she makes her fifth bid for the Miss Maryland title, Gouker's perspective has changed.

"I have grown up so much. I feel I've come full circle," she says.

"I've realized what the pageant was all about," Gouker says. "Anybody can work out. Anybody can put on a pretty gown." But holding a title is a job, being an ambassador, Gouker says.


Four area women, along with 26 other state titleholders, will compete for that ambassador's post in the Miss Maryland Scholarship Pageant at 8 p.m. tonight at The Maryland Theatre.

Gouker will be joined by Miss Washington County Stacy Miller of Hagerstown, Miss Western Maryland Danielle McGarvey of Hagerstown and Miss Potomac Tiffany Hawbaker of Greencastle, Pa.

The contestants' titles have provided opportunities to educate the public about things they care about. Gouker's platform - the focus of her community service efforts, her educational and career goals - is deafness awareness and basic sign language education, topics she's been interested in since she received a sign alphabet card when she was in second grade. She's pursuing a graduate degree in that field and plans to teach a sign language class along with her English classes this fall at Urbana High School.

Hawbaker's platform, "Waiting, the Smart Choice - an Abstinence Education Program," has been developing since she was a student at Messiah College, talking with high school students, promoting sexual abstinence before marriage. Now a sixth-grade teacher at Broadfording Christian Academy in Hagerstown, Hawbaker volunteers as abstinence education coordinator at Hagerstown Pregnancy Center, presenting information to middle and high school-age girls.

Danielle McGarvey's platform, prevention of teen violence, has been part of her life since she was a high school junior at the time of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School. McGarvey, now 20, helped developed the "Help Fight Hate" Web site at North Hagerstown High School. Her platform has evolved as she's taken it into county elementary schools, presenting information, helping to train peer mediators. "It's important to start at a young age," she says.

The Miss Maryland contest will be McGarvey's third try for the crown. She will dance - a ballet en pointe to Carlos Santana's "Oye Como Va" - a change from the more traditional selection from "Don Quixote" that earned her the nonfinalist talent award in the 2001 state competition. She says she's hoping for a little audience involvement with the Latin-influenced music.

Gouker, who tap-danced her way to the talent award in 2002's preliminary competition will dance again, but this year it will be to Keith Urban's "Rollercoaster," which she describes as "a lightning-fast country instrumental."

"I want it to be pure enjoyment for myself, and I want the audience to enjoy it," she says.

Hawbaker, who will sing "I Will Always Love You," competed in a local pageant preliminary to Miss Maryland in 1998. She was a contestant in the Miss Pennsylvania competitions in 2001 and 2002. Working in Maryland qualified her for the Miss Potomac title. She says she gets a little bit nervous before she performs, but her psychology degree helps her. "I can psyche myself out," she laughs.

The 2003 competition is Miller's first try for the state title.

"Of course, I knew about Miss America," she says. But she never knew about the local pageants or how the girls got involved.

In January, a local member of the Miss Maryland organization told her about the pageants' scholarship opportunities. Miller, 22, entered the local competition. "I had no idea what I was doing at all," she laughs.

She figured it out and won her crown in February.

Miller, a 2001 graduate of Hagers-town Community College, says she hopes to go to Shepherd College to continue her education. The chance to win scholarships to continue her schooling in art education is important to her.

"My dream is to be able to finish school," she says.

McGarvey and Gouker each have been awarded more than $10,000 in their years of participation - Gouker $6,600 just last year.

More than $59,000 in cash scholarships are available to contestants. The value of the pageant's "in-kind" scholarships is $5 million, according to a Miss Maryland Scholarship organization spokeswoman.

Miller also is using the pageant to get the word out about learning disabilities, a platform derived from having a sister who had difficulties.

"I used to get so angry (on behalf of her sister)," Miller says. She wants kids to get the help they need. She has and will continue to tutor in local schools.

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