Addie Burkett stuffed her backpack with a change of clothes and her few remaining possessions, the sum of her 17-year-old life. When the bell rang, she had no idea where she'd lay her head that night.
She repeated that routine for a lot of the spring semester, actually, the last gasp of her junior year in high school.
Her home — a baby blue house on a hill on the outskirts of Winterset — had been ripped apart by the March EF4 tornado that tore through the rural town, one connected by gravel roads and a deep sense of community.
The Burketts made it to their lower-level storage unit just as the powerful winds pulled apart their siding and sliced off their roof, throwing nearly everything in Addie’s bedroom asunder. Huddling in a corner, Addie clutched her younger sister as her mother held them both in a bear hug and her father laid on top of all three, a final layer of protection.
When they opened their eyes again, the sky was peeking through where their living room floor had been. The house was a total loss, but they’d made it out with cuts and scrapes — no major injuries.
Well, nothing visible, said Addie.
For the next few months, Addie only slept in fits, mostly because she couldn’t stop crying. She was always scared, even when the sky was clear and the winds were calm. Research told her she had post-traumatic stress disorder.
But as she worked on her own recovery, she couldn't shake the faces of all the other kids she’d seen on TV, other victims of tornados and hurricanes and floods sitting in the rubble of their lives. She had to figure out a way to tell their stories, to highlight that PTSD happens to more than just military veterans.
An offbeat idea burrowed into her mind: What if she ran for Iowa State Fair queen?
Queens have platforms, not just stages
In Iowa, there is no bigger platform than the fair, Burkett figured. And while it’s easy to look at a bunch of girls in taffeta and see a vestige of a forgotten time, the Iowa State Fair queenship focuses on citizenship, community service and finding the best advocate for the state.
She entered and won the Madison County fair queen contest. And on Saturday night, Addie Burkett stood alongside 101 other women — yes, there are more queens than the 99 counties — to vie for the title.
The competition was stiff: The group’s combined GPA was 3.8 and the list of their extracurriculars was as long as Santa's December roll. The collection of causes they’d promised to spend their next year working towards varied widely. Among them: creating programs to address teenage suicide; instilling confidence and self-love in their peers through styling sessions; educating about the lives of law enforcement officers by making care baskets and mailing them around the world.
When the envelopes were opened, Burkett won Personality Plus, an honor voted on by her fellow queens. The big crown went to Mary Ann Fox of Osage in Mitchell County, who hopes to tackle the issue of agriculture teacher retention in rural Iowa.
“I’m just speechless. My knees are shaking. I really can’t feel anything. I’ve been with an amazing group of girls this whole week and I honestly thought it was going to be someone else rather than just me,” Fox said right after accepting her crown.
Like so many of the women on stage, Fox and Burkett loved the shine of the crown and the sparkle of the sash when they came to the fair as kids. But in the month or so they've been their respective county queens, they've come to understand that the role meant they could speak for others — and, just as Burkett hoped, highlight stories they felt needed to be told.
For nearly 60 years, the Iowa State Fair queen program has given women a platform and a unique opportunity to make an impact. Even just running for queen has taught many of these women to speak up, to stop waiting for someone to give them a seat at the table and to instead pull up their own chair.
“It's about who you are as a person,” said the outgoing queen, McKenna Henrich, of Plymouth County. “It's about the person that you were raised to be and how you carry yourself. For me, the process of being queen was amazing because I didn't have to be anybody but myself.”
With so many of the girls in their late teens, becoming a queen is about using this moment of metamorphosis to chart the path to who you want to be and what you want to see in the world. It’s about harnessing who you already are to bring out the best in others.
Or, to put it simply: This is not your average beauty contest.
‘Every one is worthy of a crown’: Community over competition
A text to the 2022 queens group chat doesn’t go more than a few seconds without being answered.
Throw out a need — Can someone practice my interview answers with me? Can someone help me braid my hair? — and three people respond with lightning speed.
“I’ve made like 97 new friends,” said Hailey Tweedy, the Lee County fair queen. “It doesn’t even feel like a competition.”
While each county queen worked toward her dream of becoming the state fair queen in the days leading up to Saturday’s crowning, many recognized that the hardware came second to their community and to the cause they’d selected to champion on this year.
During the queens’ introductions Friday, Polk County's representative said she wanted to educate her peers on hospitals' need for blood and hold drives, a cause close to her heart as her mom battles leukemia. Adair County's queen hoped to figure out how to address the growing concern of hunger in her county.
Jackson County's delegate looked to offer services to stem rising suicides among people in farming, while Linn County's member worked to start a mentorship program that helps girls feel confidence in their bodies and Poweshiek County's queen sought to find new ways to get young women interested in auto mechanics.
“I feel like I'm more understanding because there's so many different girls here. There's so many different backgrounds. There's so many opinions,” Burkett said. “I feel like I have come to understand so many more outlooks on life.”
But what unites all these women are their exceptional credentials as students, leaders and community members. Like so many, Burkett’s CV reads more like a grocery list than a resume: She’s in band and choir, performs in her theater department, takes dance classes, is a cheerleader, played soccer and volleyball, shows chickens with 4-H and sits on the group’s state council. All while going to school, of course.
“These girls are the pick of the patch of Iowa,” Burkett said. “These are the epitome of good people that you want to meet, you want to have a role model of, you want to be friends with. Really, that you want to be.”
To her, she said with a bright smile, "every one is worthy of a crown."
From tragedy comes triumph — and a new calling
Burkett’s PTSD usually manifested right before bed. She’d find herself lost in the memory of her old room, the one that had her medal rack, the one she was lounging in on that Saturday evening, March 5, when she saw her dad running toward their house.
There’s a tornado, he yelled.
For a split second, Burkett whipped out her phone to film the funnel cloud — hey, she is an Iowan after all — but her father quickly ushered them all downstairs. Her mom, the high school’s librarian, grabbed the family laptop, the one with all their important documents and as many of their photos as they'd digitized. As Burkett rounded the corner on her way to the lower level, the walls of her bedroom were creaking, the sound, she knows now, of them being stretched to their capacity.
When the wind finally died down, her family’s belongings were scattered across the hills of Madison County. With just days to spare before the state tournament, Burkett found her cheerleading uniform — covered in dirt but otherwise unharmed — stuck in a tree a half mile away.
For the next few months, she found scraps of the dance recital posters that had hung on her walls in the debris around the remnants of her house. She's been picking them up, collecting them to see if she could jigsaw-puzzle one or two back together.
She still hasn’t found her class ring or the baby pink blanket her great aunt from California knitted when she was born. It has a huge hole in the middle from her tendency to pick at it when she was little, Burkett said with a laugh.
Sometimes she wonders what happened to them. Are they in someone’s storage unit? The back of an unknowing neighbor’s truck? Still buried under other the debris of other people’s lives?
“That tornado killed six people, I could have been the seventh,” Burkett said. “There was a split second during the tornado that I thoroughly thought that I was going to die.”
In the immediate aftermath, the Burketts stayed with friends, and then in a hotel. A local relief fund was able to secure them a nearby vacation unit for a while until they found a long-term rental to use while her dad, the owner of a construction and electricity business, rebuilds their baby blue house on a hill.
As the spring marched on, Burkett struggled to be her usual, positive self. She didn’t want to be pitied, didn’t want extensions on assignments or excuses out of class. She wanted to be “semi-normal.” So she cheered and she took the ACTs and she kept her grades up.
All the while, she was struggling with her fears, her anxiety.
But then she formulated her plan: She’d run for fair queen, using her title to educate on trauma and organize a relief fund for mental health resources for future victims of natural disasters.
“I was kind of like, thrown into a big, old pit of lions without any protection,” Burkett said. “And I don’t want what I had to go through to happen to anyone else.”
Standing on stage holding the plaque her peers awarded her, Burkett was overcome with emotion, her voice catching and her eyes like fountains. This moment should mark an end, and in some ways it is. But Burkett said that for her, it feels so much more like a beginning.
Even though she didn’t leave with the biggest crown, Burkett has used her queenship to carve a path forward, one she hopes can leave a legacy in her county and in the community she has leaned on since that spring evening.
And, like so many queens before her, the title has helped Burkett arrive at her truest self — one ready to harness this new chapter.
2022 Iowa State Fair queen competition results
Queen: Mary Ann Fox, 18, of Mitchell County.
First runner-up: Annabelle Newton, 18, of Benton County.
Second runner-up: Reagan Schneiter, 17, of Jones County.
Third runner-up: Megan Swan, 18, of Davis County.
Outstanding Leadership Award: Halle Evans, 18, of Union County.
Personality Plus Award: Addie Burkett, 17, of Madison County.
Queen Alumni Award: Bridgett Murphy, 16, of Taylor County.
Courtney Crowder, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. Her State Fair food must-get is the ice cream brick known as the Bauder's Peppermint Bar. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Winterset tornado victim helping others through Iowa State Fair