Sarah Grace Paul is shown when East Henderson students signed yearbooks, soon before graduating this year. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
By Pete Zamplas- Reigning North Carolina State Homecoming Queen Sarah Grace Paul of Saluda admires two women who made impact a century ago, including Edith Wilson as the first actual female commander in chief.
Paul, an Appalachian State freshman studying art therapy, graduated from East Henderson High School in May. She had a busy, competitive spring and summer.
First, she beat eight other finalists to win the state homecoming contest in mid-April in Rock Hill, S.C. She was also Miss Congeniality.
Next, she reached the top 10 (out of 33) in America’s Favorite Homecoming Queen pageant, July 27-31 in Memphis, Tenn. A year ago, she prevailed among eight contestants in a school-wide vote to get crowned East’s homecoming queen at an Eagle home football game.
In the state pageant, judges reviewed 90 applications. They chose the top 10 percent — nine finalists. Community service, awards and academic and personal resume were chief factors. Paul’s East sports were soccer, tennis, track and cheerleading.
She has also been active in such pursuits as acting, such as in Flat Rock Playhouse YouTheatre’s production of The Little Prince in spring 2013.
She told The Tribune she likes being a role model to younger youths on leadership, achievement and “how you act.”
The civic-based homecoming contests featured on-stage questions, advance interviews, and brief speeches about the state and community. There were no individual talent and swimsuit/fitness segments. In the prom gown segment, Paul walked across the stage in the same dress she had on as East’s queen. State contestants wore evening gowns, and danced together — stepping side to side.
The state homecoming pageant’s organizers emphasized that, above all, “we are looking for the all American girl, who wants a career.”
Expressive arts therapy major Paul wants to work as an art therapist, with autistic youths or elderly with dementia in a nursing home. “I’d like to open up a store within my home,” to sell art created or “revamped” with recycled materials.
By reaching the national contest’s top 10, she answered a question on stage about her special interest of autism. She spoke heartily on how to “integrate autistic children into society,” and alternative communication. “Art therapy helps them (and some dementia patients) overcome their lack of speech, and express themselves without requiring words.”
Emotionally, “art helps people cope. Autistic people can get violently frustrated, over their trouble in communicating.” They also find a creative niche and boost self-esteem, attention spans, relaxation and rest. Paul said it is clinically “proven that both making and viewing art opens up parts of your brain. It helps you be more creative. They also argue it makes you smarter…Art is so necessary.”
She most enjoys mixed media, and watercolors such as a portrait of her blue-eyed grandfather Gary Letchworth in a cowboy hat and munching on peanuts. “That was our special activity we did together,” she recalled. The former missionary is culturally “well-rounded, and encouraging.” He is is among her mentors, along with her parents Joy Biggers and George Paul and her four elder sisters.
State homecoming queen finalists each wrote an essay on the meaning of freedom and American spirit. They got a packet of questions ahead. They were interviewed in person mostly about civics, and issue views. A standard question was about teens’ main problem, and a solution.
“Apathy is probably the biggest issue for teens and young adults,” Paul said of her response. “It’s important to encourage others to be voters.” She suggests high schools “require community service hours per semester. It’s an opportunity for students to get outside of themselves, to help the community.”
Paul got active, as among initial Henderson County Teenage Republicans a year ago despite some peers’ anti-cool label about the GOP. At East Henderson “A.P. history and government made me very passionate about politics,” she said. Teacher Shelby Lewis taught “it’s OK to feel uncomfortable about politics,” but not to totally ignore it.
As a contestant, Paul enjoyed the challenge of elaborating about a hero younger than 30. She opted for a political activist who by chance had her surname — suffragette Alice Paul (1885-1977). Alice fought for the 19th Amendment that in 1920 gave American women the right to vote. In 1923, she got Congress to introduce the Equal Rights Amendment that remains in limbo. She lobbied and got a sexual discrimination clause added to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Alice earned a Ph.D. in sociology, and later three law degrees.
Alice Paul did a hunger strike for women’s rights, in England in 1907-10. Back in the U.S., she and Lucy Burns co-founded the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. In 1916, it became the National Woman’s Party (NWP).
Alice Paul was among NWP “Silent Sentinels” attacked by mobs in 1917 during WWI, when staging the first-ever picketing of the White House. “Kaiser Wilson” banners depicted then-Pres. Woodrow Wilson as a heartless dictator.
Skirting free expression, authorities arrested the female protestors for obstructing traffic. In a rat-infested work prison in Virginia, they were reportedly beaten and force-fed to counter their hunger strikes. Sacrifices prevailed. Public sympathy over harsh prison conditions reportedly prompted Pres. Wilson to switch, and back women’s voting rights as a “war measure.”
His second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson (1872-1961), inspires Paul by exerting hands-on ultimate executive power. Much is made about Hillary Clinton’s crusade to formally become the first female U.S. president. But as Paul notes, “Edith Wilson was the first” woman to serve as de facto commander in chief. And “she was a very amazing woman.”
Edith managed the White House for a year and a half after WWI — from soon after Woodrow had a severe stroke Oct. 2, 1919 to March of 1920, when his second term ended. Early in 1920 the stroke made news. But the nation did realize its severity, nor how Edith shielded Congress, the Cabinet and staff from her husband. Wilson later mumbled how “broken” he was; he died in 1924.
Historians debate to what extent Edith merely passed on data to Woodrow and had him decide matters of state, or ultimately decided on her own — which in her memoir she denied doing. She admitted screening matters, deciding “what was important” to take to him.
Edith set up a desk, ran meetings, and conferred with officials supposedly relaying Woodrow’s intent as he was secretly bed-ridden. She cloaked his paralyzed left side in a blanket, for his rare meetings with senators.
All of this avoided Congress realizing how paralyzed he was and perhaps cognitively restricted or it would have declared him incapacitated, and replaced him with V.P. Thomas Marshall. Woodrow’s stroke was from exhaustive campaigning in Europe then the U.S., for the WWI treaty then a new League of Nations which fizzled without the U.S. to referee European rivals.
In the 2016 presidential campaign, Paul sided most with GOP primary candidate Carly Sneed Fiorina who ran Hewlett-Packard. “In debates, she’s straight to the point,” Sarah Grace Paul said. “Yet she doesn’t point fingers” as the two main presidential finalists did. Those two are “so bad, their supporters have to rationalize who they’re voting for” — and against.