The Woman Behind the Ladies Behind the National Cherry Queen
The Queen Mother
By Lynda Wheatley | July 1, 2017
If you’re talking to Kay Relyea, the longtime director of queen’s activities for Traverse City’s National Cherry Festival, you’d better get two things straight: First, the court- and queen-making system Relyea and her team of 12 women orchestrate and oversee isn’t a pageant — it’s an intense, year-long process rife with interviews, speeches, and not just a few secret judges. Second, the winner of that process, the tiara-topped, 19- to 24-year-old gal ultimately awarded an $8,250 scholarship and up to a $2,500 wardrobe to fulfill her queenly duties … ? Don’t call her the National Cherry Festival Queen — she’s the National Cherry Queen. And she’s charged with representing one of the North’s preeminent industries, around the state and the nation, for the next year. Relyea’s job is to help get her there.
Express: How did you get into this role?
Relyea: Well, 33 years ago I went to work for a local dentist [Dr. Gary Kaberle], whom I actually still work for, and he was very heavily involved in the Cherry Festival. I think I was on the job about seven days and he goes, "You've got to do festival with us," and so I started doing that, and in the course of the last 33 years, I've done a lot of different jobs throughout the festival. I was president in 2003. I've served on the board a couple of times. I was president again in 2010 — the first female to ever be president and elected twice to be president. I actually came on to Queens Committee, not as the director, but I came on to the committee, I think, around 1999. I’ve been director for about 12 years.
Express: How many hours would you say you put in to this job?
Relyea: Honestly, for myself and my committee ... This is nothing I do just by myself. I've got some amazing women that support me at this. But it is a full-time — it's a year-round commitment. We really like to give each of these girls, whoever the Cherry Queen is, any opportunity and every opportunity we can to serve this community … So I don't think I could honestly give you — it's whatever is required for that year because every year is a different year.
Express: So what kind of a commitment is the Queen expected to fulfill?
Relyea: Education first, always. We say that there are probably five things throughout the year that we really need her at, but everything else is upon availability if she's in school. The girls work really hard. They talk to their professors. They let them know what's going on. In most cases, the professors are great and work with them. But how many hours? I don't know. You know, now that we have so much social media and stuff, [2016 queen] Abbey [Kaufman, pictured above with Relyea] is always posting about where she's going and where she's been. Late at night I see her posts come up. I can't even imagine how many hours these girls put in. I really, really can't. It's whatever opportunity comes up for them. I've never had a Queen since I've been doing this that hasn't honestly stepped up to every opportunity that we passed to her … The only thing that ever holds any one of them back was — well, it's been a while now, but one of our Queens [Maggie Schneider, 2004] was in a really bad car accident. I think that, since that accident, she’s had like 26 or 27 surgeries. But she’s never missed a Cherry Festival. Every year she comes back.
Express: It sounds like Cherry Fest alone is a full-time job for you and the crew.
Kay Relyea: It kind of feels like it is. Oh yeah, I would say that for sure. We chaperone the girls 24 hours a day. There's always two chaperones with them at all times. These girls do not ever leave the hotel unless we're all together. Starting Friday morning [first day of festival] until Friday night after the Queen’s Ball, these girls are with myself and committee members for the entire week. They’re never on their own. They don't have any cell phones. They don't have any computers. They're not open to social media, and the only times that they talk to their families or friends is when we're back in the hotel, and we share the chaperone phones. We pass them around, and they get to call their family and friends. The reason for that is we want them to be very present. This is an amazing week. It is the experience of a lifetime for these young women to see the festival from the view they're going to see it from, so we want them to be very present. We want them to be their own person, and we try to take away all distractions.
Express: So how do you see your role — more as mother hens, executive assistants?
Relyea: Well, for me, jokingly, everyone calls me the Queen Mother. Then for the chaperones, we just are mentors for them. We're there to make sure that anything that they need is taken care of. We're also there so that, for an example … if someone asks something inappropriate, or if we see that someone is monopolizing their time too much and we need them to move around a little bit, we're there to buffer for them, to say, "I'm really sorry, we're going to need to move you," and we move them along. Obviously during festival, hopefully everyone is enjoying themselves, some people a little too much.
Express: So you're like bouncers too?
Relyea: Don't say that word! Well, I guess … Look, we're moms. We're moms! Every one of us that's on the committee, most of us are grandmas now, but the committee is also made up of a lot of past Queens. They've been in these young women's shoes before, so they're such an asset to this committee. But we have grandmas, and we have young moms, and we want to take care of [these girls] ...
Express: Can you give me either an unforgettable or best or worst moment — something that stands out in your mind as a quintessential Cherry Festival or Cherry Queen moment you’ve experienced?
Relyea: I'll try to do it without crying. It was when Maggie was able to stand up and walk at the Queen’s Ball for the first time … after her accident. To see her — when she had this accident, and she was going through all this stuff, she had other events that she wanted to make it to and most of the events she was in a wheelchair or was just throwing up profusely before she got there because she wasn't feeling well, but she went in with a smile every time. To see her stand up and walk that night — that was incredibly powerful.
The crowning of this year’s National Cherry Queen will be announced at 9:45 p.m., July 7, at the Queens Ball, which will be held at the Hagerty Center, 715 E. Front St. Get tickets at cherryfestival.org.