When Lois Willig decided to enter the Miss Millersville pageant on a lark in the early 1970s, her mother reacted in an unusual way.
“She howled and she howled,” Willig said Wednesday. “... She said, ‘Be a gracious loser.’ I kid you not.”
Her mother, however blunt, was merely protecting her daughter from the inevitable.
Willig, who was taught to be humble, had never been in a pageant before. She didn’t have a talent at the ready. She couldn’t carry a tune. She didn’t dance.
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She wasn’t a “Rose.”
Rose was a pro and would seemingly stop at nothing to become the next Miss America.
“I’m so glad you’re here to give a little show,” Rose told Willig and the other contestants on the day of the pageant. “But I’m going to win.”
Willig, who had no doubt Rose was right, listened as the judges called out the name of the second runner-up.
It wasn’t her. And it wasn’t Rose.
She listened as the judges called out the name of the first runner-up.
It wasn’t her. And it wasn’t Rose.
“Oh well,” Willig thought, “I didn’t expect to win, but it would’ve been nice to place.”
When the judges called out the name of the new Miss Millersville, Willig smiled at Rose and applauded her success.
And as she celebrated Rose’s win, Rose glared at her.
“Get up! Get up!,” Willig’s fellow contestants (not Rose, clearly not Rose) told her.
“Why?” Willig asked them.
“That was YOUR name.”
“I heard Rose’s name!,” Willig, now a retired teacher and Sun City Hilton Head resident, told me Wednesday.
Rose didn’t win. Willig did.
After the pageant, her father was asked by a local newspaper what he thought of his daughter’s win.
“I always knew she had her mother’s brains,” he told the reporter, “and her father’s good looks,”
Since that pageant, Willig has racked up many more surprising wins in her life — the latest of which is a seven-day trip to Barbados, presented to her live on Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest’s popular morning talk show Tuesday.
Over the years, Willig has won some serious prizes — like a Caribbean cruise from Meow Mix — and some confusing-to-her-husband prizes, such as the one from her very first radio call-in contest.
She was so excited about that win, she called Wally at work.
“Guess what,” she asked him.
“We’re going to the arena,” she said, “and we’re going to see Black Beauty!”
He went with her and he had his photo taken with a horse like a good life partner.
It wasn’t the last time he’d have questions, though.
Once she had him pick up a prize for her at a radio station.
When he got home, he handed her a piece of cardboard — a sunshade for her car.
“I drove 30 miles for this?,” he asked her.
Every prize Lois competes for is either for her own use, to give away to a friend or to donate to a charity.
She has won gift certificates and aprons and concert tickets and electronics. She has filled out countless entry forms, waited on hold for untold hours, faced her fears of singing “Meow meow meow meow” on stage in front of strangers, created recipes from random ingredients, picked up strewn diapers looking for the “dirty” one (I didn’t ask ... I really should’ve asked), and stood with her hand on a vehicle hoping she’d be the last woman standing.
“My bucket list,” she said, “is to win a car.”
It is a hobby she picked up in retirement. She keeps track of every swing, every miss, every homerun in a notebook.
But she has a different notebook, a special one, for “Live.”
This is where she takes notes on the trivia questions she might get asked should the show ever call her.
She writes in that notebook until it fills up, then she gets another one and does the same and then the same with yet another.
She has been doing this for years.
So it figures “Live with Kelly and Ryan” would call when they did.
Life works this way.
Willig and her husband were packing their bags Tuesday morning to basically evacuate from the hotel they had evacuated to in Columbia, which had lost power the night before because of Hurricane Irma.
They were with two friends, one 93 years old, the other 87, and a bird, so the situation was a little dicey at the moment. Willig was worried about the women not having lights or hot water and wanted to get everyone back safely to Bluffton after their whirlwind road trip.
Then she saw New York City pop up on her cellphone.
She knew exactly who it was.
“Lois, what are you wearing?” Kelly Ripa asked Willig before assuming the horrified and deeply apologetic look of someone who just accidentally made a creepy sex joke to a hurricane evacuee.
Willig didn’t miss a beat.
She had been through this one time before in the Regis and Kathy Lee days. She had received that call while on a trip to Alaska.
She did not win that prize.
But she was going to win this one.
She had her trusty notebook with her and answered her Jessica Alba trivia question in a hot second, erupting in contagious joy when she heard she was correct.
She happily thanked the hosts and asked them to say prayers for everyone else who had evacuated for the storm.
“I’ve never seen a trivia caller get a standing ovation,” Ripa told her.