(Part 9 in Dwight Kessel series)

By Ralphine Major


“Why did you twirl fire?” my mother asked looking at the picture.

“My teacher’s idea,” I replied. My unlikely bond with the baton had started nearly a year earlier when my brother decided the trumpet was not a good fit for him; he claimed my clarinet. The band director needed an oboe player for concert band, so my parents bought one for me. But the oboe could not be played in marching band since it required a double reed mouthpiece—a delicate and expensive mouthpiece! Our family’s one-income salary was already paying for piano and organ lessons.

I am not sure exactly how the idea came about for me to take baton lessons and try out for the majorette corps, but we found a great teacher in former University of Tennessee Head Majorette and former Miss Majorette of America Judy Barton Cox. At the old Fountain City Lions Club building on Essary Road, I learned the routine she choreographed to Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” When tryouts took place in the spring, I became a majorette.

Fall came and brought with it the Knoxville Jr. Miss Pageant sponsored by The Kiwanis Club of Northside Knoxville. It was during the pageant activities that I first met Dwight Kessel, a Kiwanis Club member. Onstage at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium, Sinatra’s voice rang out over the speakers while I performed the only solo routine I knew. But I knew it well!

I wore my only baton twirling outfit, our navy band uniform with a simple V-shaped accent of white sequins to match the military style band uniforms chosen by our Band Director, the late S. L. Valentine. My waist-length locks were tightly curled to stay clear of the fire baton.

It was a fun night for this then 16-year-old student. I later learned my grandfather passed up the weekly wrestling program on television to come to the pageant. While I did not win the 1972 Knoxville Jr. Miss Title, I was the recipient of a savings bond awarded to the Scholastic Achievement Winner from East Tennessee’s late Congressman John J. Duncan, Sr.

Afterwards, The Kiwanis Club Pageant Officials gave me the treasured photo shown here. The pageant was over and pictures packed away. Years later, I would meet Kessel again.


Words of Faith: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” Psalm 119:105.