A new day for state pageant

VICKSBURG — A new era in the Miss Mississippi Pageant begins this week as it will be the first without the full leadership of the Hopsons, who’ve been involved for more than 35 years.

Dr. W. Briggs Hopson Jr., CEO and chairman of the board, and his wife, Pat Hopson, executive producer, announced their retirements from the Miss Mississippi Corporation in January. They will retain their titles, with one addition — emeritus — and are serving in advisory roles only this year.

It was time to pass the torch, they say.

“When you get to a certain age, you need someone else who is younger to be the leader,” said Dr. Hopson. “It’s time for the young people to step up and be leaders.”

Taking Hopson’s place is David Blackledge, who has been executive director of the pageant for 17 years and will retain that title.

“With his (Hopson’s) retirement, the board asked me to take over,” Blackledge said. “I could not have asked for a better mentor in the Hopsons. They have certainly given me the opportunity to learn about the pageant and develop.”

Alongside Blackledge will be vice chairman John Wayne Jabour. He is also secretary of the Miss Mississippi Corporation and is the pageant’s longest-running officer with 41 years in the business.

“If David is not around, I can make the decision after talking to (him),” said Jabour.

Taking Mrs. Hopson’s spot in the production role are Norman Ford and Allen Ditto, both Vicksburg natives. They bring a total of 39 years of pageant experience to the stage.

Ford, a longtime pageant veteran and an executive director in 1993, joked, “It took two people to replace Pat.”

Ditto, whose day job is audio engineer for country music star Martina McBride, said, “This is still Pat Hopson’s baby. I want her to be proud and say, ‘I taught them well.'”

Mrs. Hopson says she’s more of a theater-style producer, whereas Ford and Ditto will bring more of a technical element to the production.

“I wanted the guys to do it. They’ve been around long enough,” said Dr. Hopson. “They work hard.”

The main reason for the Hopsons’ retirements is needing more free time. During the past year and a half, cancer has attacked their family.

Their youngest son, Jay Hopson, who is a football coach at the University of Michigan, had been in cancer remission after being diagnosed 12 years ago, but the disease came back. And, the couple’s daughter-in-law, Ali Hopson, wife of state Sen. W. Briggs Hopson III, was diagnosed with breast cancer nine months ago. She has been treated with chemotherapy.

On a brighter note, the Hopsons have 10 grandchildren — five who live in Vicksburg — and look forward to attending more of their sports functions. It was difficult, Mrs. Hopson said, if a board meeting was scheduled at the same time as a game.

“It was just time (to retire),” the couple said.

The Hopsons started their Miss Mississippi careers in 1973 — Dr. Hopson as a pageant physician and his wife as a hostess.

If one of the girls had a headache, he was the one to call, Mrs. Hopson said. Through the years, Dr. Hopson has treated everything from a fainting judge to an Atlantic City local wanting a leg amputation.

During the Hopsons’ tenure, the pageant became tops in scholarships and was a three-time Emmy Award-winning production.

“For the last 25 years, we’ve given more cash scholarships than anyone in the country,” said Dr. Hopson.

This year, more than $560,000 in scholarships is on the table, with more expected. In 2008, $698,638 was awarded.

A major change the pageant has seen is television.

Dr. Hopson remembers the days when he and his wife drove from here to the Gulf Coast, asking TV stations to carry the pageant. Their efforts paid off in 1975 when it was first televised on WJTV, a Jackson CBS affiliate.

These days, Jackson NBC affiliate WLBT carries the pageant, live. And, for the first time ever, this year, the pageant will be broadcast live by way of the Internet, at www.missmississippipageant.com.

For the Hopsons, the pageant has been a family affair.

In 1981, daughter Karen Hall, who now lives in Keller, Texas, was crowned Miss Mississippi. Their other daughter, Kathy Ricks, who lives in Vicksburg, is the pageant’s costume designer and stage manager.

The Hopsons’ home has even been touched by the pageant. Dubbed “Hopson’s Inn,” it has been, through the years, a home away from home for a bevy of pageant workers, designers and contestants.

Miss Mississippi herself would even stay with the Hopsons for the couple of months before the Miss America contest, which, until a few years ago was always in September and always in Atlantic City. Now, the pageant is in January in Las Vegas.

“We treated these girls like daughters,” said Dr. Hopson. “They were like one of our family.”

The couple kept the young women on a diet and exercise routine, and Mrs. Hopson remembers making turkey sandwiches, minus the mayonnaise.

Dr. Hopson recalled helping Miss Mississippi 1978 Cheri Brown train for the Miss America Pageant.

“I told her we were going to go out to Warren Central and run — to really see if she can improve her muscles and her calves,” he said. “On the first day, it was hot and humid … 4:30 in the afternoon. She made one lap on the track and absolutely fell out! I said, ‘Oh my God. I killed ol’ Miss Mississippi,’ and I ran out there. After that we would take her out at night and run.”

Mrs. Hopson says she’ll remember all the people who helped make the pageant a success and hopes to assemble a book of memories in her free time.

“I think everybody in this town should take their hats off and shake the hands of the volunteers who worked on the production,” she said. “They worked very hard.”

As for Dr. Hopson, he’s just “looking forward to sitting down on the front row for a change. This is the first time I won’t have a stopwatch in my hand.”

Manivanh Chanprasith/Vicksburg Post