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On Saturday evening, during the seventy-second annual Pennsylvania State Laurel Festival, after a fabulous parade through Main Street on June 15, Wellsboro’s High School Auditorium will fill with thirty-one beautiful girls wearing gowns of every color of the rainbow.
Susanne Lee, representing Sonestown, Pennsylvania, was crowned the 1963 Laurel Festival Queen fifty years ago.
The 2012 Laurel Queen, Corrin Binford from Troy, Pennsylvania, will wait to crown the new 2013 queen. And in the stands, watching from above, will be Susanne Lee, the queen from 1963, remembering her own moment fifty years ago when she was crowned (while wearing a dress of blue).
Susanne, who represented Sullivan Highland High School in Sonestown, Sullivan County, and who was raised in Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania, is coming back to Wellsboro to celebrate the Laurel Festival. She lives in Maryland now, and she reminisced about her life growing up in small-town Pennsylvania.
“I think it was the first time ever my high school had been represented. I have no idea who nominated me! I had been the May Queen. We did not have prom kings and queens back then,” Susanne said. “But we had a May Court. So I think that was the reason why I was selected to go.”
Susanne credits Eagles Mere as a wonderful place to be raised. She was the oldest of five siblings, one of whom is Dr. Scott Lee of Wellsboro, and
“It is an amazing place in the mountains. It is the town that time forgot, with old Victorian cottages, kind of like Wellsboro,” Susanne said. “It closes down in the winter, but in the summer, when I was growing up, they still had resort hotels that would open. So in the summer things really bloomed.”
“It meant then that I had jobs in the summer. I was an usher at the play house. I was a waitress at the hotels. It expanded my horizons to more than just Sonestown.”
Susanne grew up in Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania, and enjoyed spending her time outdoors at Eagles Mere Lake.
There were only twenty-six students in Susanne’s graduating class, so, she noted, “Everyone was involved in everything. There were no girl sports back then. The only thing we could try out for was cheerleading so yes, I was a cheerleader,” Susanne said.
“There were a lot of outdoors activities. We played outdoors a lot. There were three girls in the town of Eagles Mere at the time, so we just did all of the guy stuff. We skied. We skied to school at least once a year, just to say that we could do it.”
Susanne remembered what the Laurel Festival was like in 1963, and noted that it was not as big a festival back then. “I do remember that I stayed with a family for the weekend. I remember being interviewed for the radio station,” Susanne said. “I assume that we were being watched throughout the weekend during the events, but there weren’t even many events as I recall. I was crowned on the Green, but now I hear that they do it inside. I guess the weather just played havoc too many times,” Susanne joked.
Similar to today’s pageant, the candidates in 1963 were taken on a tour to different places in Pennsylvania.
During her reigning year, Susanne had the opportunity to speak in Harrisburg about the Laurel Festival. On the left, is W. Stuart Helm, the Speaker of the House, next to Susanne’s father, Kenneth Lee, who was the House Majority Leader.
“My father was in the state legislature at the time. I got to go to Harrisburg where they had a presentation on the State Laurel Festival and I got to speak,” Susanne said. “That was a highlight. I don’t think any queen had done that before me. I did come back the next year to help crown the new queen, but there weren’t any events in between like there are now.”
After high school, and being crowned the Laurel Queen, Susanne set her sights on her education.
“It was an interesting time for women because it was a time when everything was opening up to us,” Susan recalled.
She attended Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, majoring in political science. “I spent my junior year abroad in Bologna, Italy. I came back and went to the University of Pittsburgh to get a degree in International Affairs. Then I got a Fulbright scholarship to do my thesis in Milan, Italy,” she said.
“I came to Washington D.C. and my first job was working for the poverty programs. I was interested in women’s issues, especially in family planning,” Susanne said. “I was involved when President Nixon was trying to close down the poverty programs.”
Then she set her sights on law school, attending George Washington University Law School in Washington D.C., and went to work in the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services handling Medicaid litigations.
“My real love though, she said, “which sort of comes from growing up around here, is environmental issues.
“I transferred over to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. I ended up as an assistant general counsel there and worked there for seventeen years.”
About five years ago, Susanne saw a job description that she just couldn’t ignore.
“I ended up being the environmental lawyer for the government of Palau, a little island in the western Pacific. I worked there for two years. It was like a dream come true. I spent two years diving the coral reefs and also protecting them,” Susanne said.
She came back to Washington D.C. in 2010 and now she is back working part-time as a Technical Adviser to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Susanne (middle) poses with her daughter Lauren and her mother Marjorie. Susanne notes that her mother was so proud of Susanne being crowned Laurel Queen, and she talks about it often.
She has two grown children, Graham, who is a criminal defense attorney in the San Francisco Bay area, and Lauren, who was a Peace Corp volunteer in Nicaragua, is currently getting her masters in public health from Columbia University in New York.
“It’s a good life, it just keeps rolling,” Susanne said. “We didn’t have big goals because we had these kinds of backgrounds, and incredible moms who were still traditional. It was a time when we could use the opportunities.”
“I think that being a part of the Laurel Festival and becoming queen did give me confidence. My mother was so proud of me. We joke that it was the highlight of her raising me. She is so excited that I am coming back,” Susanne said of her mom, who now lives in Williamsport.
Susanne is looking forward to coming back to Wellsboro, to see how the Laurel Festival has changed.
“I have always loved Wellsboro. I love the natural beauty. It is always fine to come back. There is no tradition yet of the queens to come back so I have no idea what to expect,” Susanne said.
“I am so excited to see what happens because Wellsboro does such a fabulous job with its promotion of the event.”
She is looking forward to seeing the crafts festival, and also to seeing her relatives lined up on the parade route as she rides down with the queen candidates once more.
When asked what advice she would give to the new 2013 queen, she said, most appropriately, “Just use it as a great stepping-stone for lots of other things that you can do in your life.”