Here Come The Judge

The phone call came on a very gray New York day, and the voice on the phone was that of Eleanor Bullock, the Queen Coordinator for the National Watermelon Association. She offered me the honor of serving as a judge in the contest to select the new Watermelon Queen. I had never been to a Watermelon Convention and I certainly had never judged any kind of beauty contest. But I said I would do it and thanked the association for the honor.

All right, I admit it — the jokes started flying in the office 30 seconds after I agreed to serve as a judge. “It’s a tough job … but somebody’s got to do it,” I replied. But beyond the jokes, at the contest itself, I found something quite extraordinary going on.

The young women competing in the contest were not the kind of girls I knew growing up in a New York City suburb. They came from towns with names like Mendenhall, Mississippi and Troy, Alabama, and they were all as lovely as magnolia blossoms.

But attractiveness is really only a small part of the qualifications to be the Queen. The Queen is going to have to travel around the continent pushing watermelons with enthusiasm, stay on the road for weeks at a time, on her feet for many hours a day, and do it all with a smile.

I suppose that in all these contests, the participants explain that they love the product and believe the opportunity to travel and represent the association will be a growing experience for them. In this, the age of the liberated woman, I was not sure if there really was a place for beauty contests. Perhaps the whole idea of putting a pretty woman up for display was vaguely demeaning. But I know now that these women did not perceive it this way. They saw an opportunity to travel and learn, to meet people from across the country. And they saw no reason to be ashamed of their beauty and poise.

The most interesting lesson that the watermelon association may have to teach the rest of the produce industry is explained in the very fact that there exists a National Watermelon Queen. Think about it — there is a Florida Citrus Queen, but no National Citrus Queen, a Maine Potato Queen but no National Potato Queen, lots of local Apple Queens but no National Apple Queen. But the watermelon industry, though still maintaining important state organizations and state Queens, has recognized the essential truth of marketing an unbranded product: Most consumers have no idea if the watermelon they eat is from Texas or Florida, and most probably don’t care very much.

When you consider how much money is spent in this industry trying to convince people that individual states have superior commodities, and how uncertain are the results of all that spending, there may well be a lesson here for the entire industry. When the Watermelon Queen stands up to pitch watermelons, she talks about nutrition, about taste, about the economy, and about all watermelons. She gives a very persuasive pitch, not only because she has a good product, but because she doesn’t have to keep implying that all these great qualities are the exclusive possessions of watermelons produced in one state!

The selection of a Queen was important stuff. The Queen is a paid representative of the Association and would appear at supermarkets, wholesale markets, and public events, and be interviewed on radio and TV. This type of exposure could result in a lot of extra watermelon sales, which is, of course, the point of it all. But I suppose what was really bothering me was my own obligation to pick a winner and a loser in each event. It is a truism at these contests to say everyone is a winner. In fact, nobody reaches the national competition without triumphing in her own state first, so we did pick from a very special pool of exceptional women. Yet in the end, only one would come out wearing the crown.

The knowledge that I was standing in the way of the dreams of some of these women was depressing. It made me appreciate being a business person where at least the goal is to make everyone I deal with a winner: customers, suppliers, employees, shareholders, and so on.

The 1988 National Watermelon Queen is Diane “Renee” Thomas of Warner Robins, Georgia. I know that she will be growing during the coming year as she sees new things, visits new places and meets new people.

I would like to thank Renee, the other contestants, my fellow judges and the National Watermelon Association for giving me the chance to expand my personal horizons.