More than 500 spectators poured into the W.W. Walton Chapel at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor last weekend to cheer on their favorite young lady as 24 contestants vied for the Miss Mary Hardin-Baylor 2014 crown.

“It’s amazing,” said Deanna Dawdy, 22, a nursing student seated in the reserved section, telephoto lens at the ready. “These girls have practiced since August and they are just awesome on the stage.”

The pageant history at UMHB is venerable, predating the Walton Chapel’s 1967 completion. The original event, Miss Bluebonnet, was a production of the school’s yearbook staff in the 1950s — it became the Miss Mary Hardin-Baylor College Pageant in the late 1960s. After a short affiliation with the Miss Texas Pageant system, and with the official university accreditation, the current Miss MHB moniker was chosen.

The pageant is “entirely student directed and produced,” according to the school’s website. Technical assistance and supervision is provided by the campus activities staffers. One of the purposes of the event is to give financial assistance to the student director as well as the pageant winner and runner-ups.

The student director for the 2014 pageant, Ashton Ellegood, was perky and energetic as she described the contestants, their “hearts of gold,” ready to “shine onstage with the talents the Lord has given them.” Girls “sign up during spring semester,” Dawdy said, “and work on their talent until the pageant night.”

Two separate follow spots and a professional theatrical ambiance, which included well-timed emissions from fog machines, moved the audience into an arena-type concert mindset, as colorful lighting patterns were projected on the ceiling. Contemporary Christian music was the choice of nearly every contestant, either as recorded accompaniment to the vocal talents, or as background to dances.

Presentations from the contestants included Christian rap, ballet dancers, interpretive readings, vocalists, a song sung in sign and emotionally delivered mini-sermons. One of the few all-secular talents was fourth runner-up cellist Kelsey Kunk, whose reflective, resonant tones made her unaccompanied solo stand out.

“You won’t believe this,” a breathless Megan Wright, 20, said as a contestant began painting a large easel-mounted blank canvas.

Using wide brushes and bold colors, the painter swiftly completed an abstract-appearing composition to the beat of recorded religious music.

Flipping the canvas end-for-end, a likeness of a bearded man was seen, and the crowd cheered. In the final moment, the contestant grabbed handfuls of bright red paint, flinging the subject with splattering drops of blood. The audience exploded, and Wright jumped to her feet, clapping and yelling.

It’s a pageant too big for one evening — the talent segment alone takes up Friday, with the evening gown and finalists announced Saturday. Linny Mitchell was crowned Miss MHB 2014 by the reigning queen, Kat Pasichnyk. Mitchell was also winner of Miss Congeniality, an award voted on by contestants for “the individual most exhibiting Christ-like behavior.”

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