Joy is infectious, and Saturday night in Las Vegas I watched as it spread from one American's dream to envelop an entire family in its warmth. From there it spread into the crowd and the country to include friends, well-wishers and even random strangers in the celebration.
More than 8 million Americans watched last Saturday as my cousin's daughter, Mallory Hytes Hagan, won the title of Miss America. The show was broadcast live from Planet Hollywood in Vegas, and I joined several members of my family to watch it in person. There is a special kind of energy one feels experiencing an event like this, more so when a member of your family is out there on center stage and you're seeing it through her extremely proud grandfather's eyes.
Mallory worked toward this goal all of her life and her story strikes me as one of perseverance. Though she represented New York in this pageant, she was raised in Alabama (where many members of my family still live). Mallory's mother owns a dance studio in Opelika, Ala., and she grew up with a love of the stage and of dancing.
She was part of many pageants, winning some, but also finding herself as the runner-up - close, but no cigar (not that she would smoke a cigar anyway).
But each experience was an opportunity to learn and refine and tackle challenges anew. Her grandfather Stan (my uncle) said that one time after narrowly losing a competition, the young Mallory cried a little bit but then picked herself up the same day and was asking "How soon can I re-enter that contest?"
That never-say-die spirit and the support of a loving family sustained her as she grew and eventually decided to move to New York to pursue her dreams 4½ years ago.
She was runner-up in the Miss New York pageant twice before finally achieving the title this past year, her last chance before she was too old to enter.
Uncle Stan stayed with us during the Miss America pageant and we drove to Vegas and back three times during the preliminaries and the final televised event. If there was ever a prouder "Paw," I can hardly imagine one. He was fit to burst with pride for Mallory and all that she had achieved, even before her big win.
I think this was his own American Dream come true, to see his granddaughter live her dreams, set a goal toward a bright future and achieve it in a way far bigger than we had hardly dared to hope.
Just to be there was an accomplishment, and when Mallory made it into the Top 15, we felt beyond blessed. And then she made it into the Top 12 - then the Top 10 - Top 5 ... at this point it almost started to seem surreal.
Then she was in the Top 2 ...
It was interesting to see the production of a live broadcast. There is a lot that goes on the stage that the TV audience doesn't see. There were award ceremonies, a comedienne who warmed up the audience (Dena Blizzard, "One Funny Mother," and she was), and announcers encouraging the crowd that we're "live in 30 seconds...let's get some applause!"
But the TV audience also sees some things we didn't. For instance, we later learned that Mallory won the swimsuit portion of the pageant. That was announced on TV, but we had no idea.
We were sweating bullets the whole time, having no idea what was going on in the judges' minds.
When we found out, the world changed for Mallory, her family and friends, which in turn affected many of those around us. Uncle Stan floated away on Cloud Nine and I am not sure he's ever coming down!
I had printed "I Love New York" signs to wave during the show and we carried those out as we exited the auditorium. People, seeing the signs, were congratulating us and even having their picture taken with Miss America's grandpa!
Later, I saw that the people sitting next to Stan had recorded our reaction when we learned Mallory won with their phone and then posted it on Youtube. We all sort of "floated" down to meet up with other family members in a happy swirl of joyful shock. In the midst of the large crowd, we happened to meet the family of runner-up Miss South Carolina, Ali Rogers, and Ali's grandmother, who had to be (understandably) disappointed, graciously congratulated Mallory's grandfather.
Uncle Stan was eventually able to go up and see her and give her a big hug. (Unfortunately, my Mom and I were unable to - once Mallory became Miss America, she was on a very tight schedule with an extremely limited number of visitors allowed. We did get to congratulate my cousin Phil and his wife Mandy, Mallory's parents. They were beaming with pride and joy. And to think, I remember when Phil was a teenager with a Billy Idol poster in his room!
No cameras were allowed during the show, but I did take a tablet photo of Stan at this point, coming down the hallway of the hotel with a dazed smile on his face after seeing Mallory.
The whole family has been celebrating ever since, with Facebook posts, phone calls and watching Mallory's numerous television appearances.
People around us have been able to share in the joy, from the fellow audience members sitting next to us and joining us to cheer Mallory on at the end of the show to crowds of people in Opelika, Ala., who gathered and celebrated as Mallory won.
It's a wonderful, amazing whirlwind of appearances, interviews and extremely proud relatives who want to shout Mallory's accomplishments from the tops of the trees.
I felt blessed to not only watch the American Dream unfold Saturday night but be a small part of it and see the joy it brought to many of the people I care most about.