By STEVE EIGHINGER
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
RUSHVILLE, Ill. -- Everybody knows Megan Ervin and her family in this small town, which in many ways is a comfortable throwback to a much kinder and gentler time.
Ervin, the reigning Miss Illinois and Miss Quincy, has without any great fanfare become one of Rushville's quiet treasures in her own effervescent way.
Sue Sheppard is a waitress at Pizza Unlimited, which sits in a cozy little structure just off the town's southeast edge. The walls are covered with pictures of TV series such as "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Leave it to Beaver," not to mention a wall dedicated to Elvis and the Beatles.
When Sheppard talks about Ervin, her smile lights up the building.
"Oh yes ... I know Megan and her family," she said. "They like sausage and pepperoni on their pizza, and they love our Chicago-style stuffed pizza. It's better than you can get in Chicago."
Such is the relatively slow pace of life in Ervin's hometown, where drivers politely wave at pedestrians across the street near the city square that is near the end of an extensive renovation project.
Ted's Barber Shop closes most days at 1 p.m., but if you need a late cut, he'll be open until 5:30 on Wednesday afternoons. Other storefronts are the Rushville State Bank, an ACE Hardware store, a Subway sandwich shop and a Moreland and Devitt pharmacy that has "proudly served the area for 50 years."
"I still feel like a small town girl," Megan says. "I try to stay true to who I am -- it's what has gotten me to where I am."
Where Megan is now is preparing to compete for the title of Miss America. She and 52 other contestants will vie for the crown Jan. 12 in the Theater for the Performing Arts in Paradise, Nev. Pageant winners from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have their eye on being named the 86th Miss America.
The pageant will be broadcast worldwide by ABC-TV.
Odds were against her
Ervin, 23, is seeking to become the sixth Miss Illinois to be named Miss America and first since 2002. The last local winner of the Miss Illinois pageant was Mary Lee Inzerello, who was Miss Adams County, in 1966. The last Miss Quincy winner to win the Miss Illinois pageant was Viola Hutmacher in 1948. Ervin is the first pageant winner from West-Central Illinois since Carthage's Colleen Metternich, who was Miss Heart of Illinois in 1973.
To say the odds were against Ervin winning the Miss Illinois title is probably an understatement. Twenty-seven of the past 37 winners have come from the immediate or greater Chicago areas, while Ervin hails from Rushville, a town of 3,192 according to city clerk Stacey Briney. Of those 3,192 -- which, by the way, would hardly make a good-sized neighborhood in Chicago -- most likely know Megan and the rest of the Ervins.
"Most of the town was excited when Megan won Miss Illinois," Briney, a longtime friend, said. "I don't think some realize how (rare) it is for someone downstate to win. It wasn't surprising to me she won, and it won't surprise me if she wins at the next level."
Briney says Megan likes everyone, and everyone likes Megan.
"Megan's very upbeat, and a very positive person about everything," Briney said. "She was always involved in everything growing up."
Being named Miss Illinois means Ervin is surrendering a year of her life to wear the crown, sash and six-inch high heels on a daily basis to ribbon-cuttings, interviews, public appearances, giving speeches and similar events. (For the record, there are days when she can go sans crown, but the sash and heels are a must.)
"Some days, there is no time to catch your breath," Megan said. "It is a sacrifice for a year, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It makes you grow up pretty fast."
Staying busy no problem
As Miss Illinois, Ervin cannot hold a job or attend school (she was a student at Western Illinois University). She must keep up with current events so she is well-informed during interviews, and she also must work in preparation for the Miss America pageant. She must hone her interview skills for the all-important face-to-face meetings with pageant judges, and she must work on the dance routine that will represent the talent portion of her Miss America experience. During the Miss Illinois competition, she performed a jazz version of the Ike and Tina Turner classic "Proud Mary," which she plans on changing up for the Miss America pageant.
"My only major complaint about my schedule is I don't have the time to work out like I did before," Ervin said. "I like to work out two to three hours a day."
Being busy is not a problem for Ervin. She was a multi-sport athlete in high school and was involved in other extra-curricular activities.
"The Ervin family is a good Christian family. They're just good people," Jerry Wynn of Rushville said. "They help out a lot with sports at the high school and other things. It's exciting to have something like this, and we're all proud of her."
"Megan's always been very outgoing, and she worked hard to be Miss Illinois," Wilbur Kindhart, another Rushville resident who has known Megan most of her life, said. "She's just a very nice girl from a very nice family."
Cindy Ervin, Megan's mother, readily admits day-to-day life now is much different from when her daughter held such titles as Miss Macomb or Miss Schuyler County Fair.
"This has changed our lifestyle immensely over the last few months ... but I think Megan really understands the phrase, ‘No place like home,' " Cindy Ervin said. "I think she'll always be a small-town girl who will (eventually) live in a bigger city."
Megan agrees, saying she will probably wind up in a city like Quincy or Springfield. She wants to eventually own her own fitness-related business.
"I will definitely stay in Illinois," she said.
And by saying "Illinois" and "bigger city," that will never translate into Chicago. She already has spent enough time there for Miss Illinois duties to know that is not where she wants her permanent home to be.
"Do you know it cost me $42 to park there the other day -- for three hours?" said Megan, whose favorite food is sushi and who never misses an episode of "Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team."
Dad warming up to pageants
Megan's dad, Jeff Ervin, admits he was not gung-ho -- not even close -- about seeing his oldest daughter get involved in beauty pageants several years ago.
"I was against it at the beginning," he said, shaking his head in a negative fashion.
Dad's main concern was having his daughter parade around a stage in a swimsuit, which at the early competitions was a one-piece. The two-piece suit she will wear on the Miss America pageant is still a rather touchy subject.
"Especially on national television," he said.
Mallory Ervin, Megan's 21-year-old sister, also is a former Miss Schuyler County Fair winner (the Ervins are only the second set of sisters in the event's history to both wear the crown). She says their father has mellowed quite a bit.
"We now call him Percy the Pageant Guru," Mallory said. "He's even getting pretty good at predicting the winners."
Megan smiles at Mallory's words.
"Dad's changed a lot," she said.
For the record, Jeff Ervin is not done worrying. Missy, the youngest of the three Ervin sisters, likely will be entering pageants in the not-too-distant future.
What actually worries Jeff and Cindy Erwin the most about Megan's hectic schedule is all of the traveling she does, while working to keep her well-grounded and to remember the glitz and glamour of the Miss America pageant are not the "real world."
"We have a good support system in place for Megan," Cindy Ervin said.
Jeff Ervin said a good example of what Megan's life is like these days involves the upcoming four-day Thanksgiving holiday. Megan will be in four Illinois cities in as many days, attending and participating in major public events, including the Chicago Thanksgiving Day parade.
Megan also has sung the national anthem at a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field and threw out the first pitch at a Chicago White Sox game at U.S. Cellular Field. She also will be performing at a Chicago Bulls game in the not-too-distant future.
Mallory is Megan's biggest cheerleader and has been involved with her through this process. The two sisters are good friends and even shared an apartment for three years at WIU before Megan became Miss Illinois.
Mallory also is good for providing her sister with a good reality check, if needed.
"We were heathens growing up," Mallory said, poking fun at her big sister. "And don't let her kid you. She eats, sleeps and breathes beauty pageants."
Mallory also has serious questions about her sister's non-pageant related skills -- such as cooking.
"Megan's not very good with a microwave," she confided.
Mom and dad just sit, listen and watch.
"We could be a reality TV show," Cindy Ervin said. "We're a fun family, but we're not one of those ‘pageant' families."
Goal is to make top 15
Megan says her goal at the Miss America pageant is to make the final 15, who will get the most air time on the broadcast. All 53 will be introduced to the viewing audience, but the cut is quick to 15.
Cathy Redshaw said she will not be surprised to see Megan do "very well" in the Miss America competition. Redshaw, who owns the local Dairy Queen and an insurance agency, is a longtime friend of the Ervins. She's also the state director of the Miss Illinois County state pageant and has been one of Megan's strongest backers from the beginning.
"I knew Megan was special when I first started working with her," Redshaw said. "There's nobody else quite like Megan. I begged her dad to let her be in Miss Schuyler County.
"I've followed Megan for the whole journey -- and I'll be in (Nevada)."
So will many other friends and family members. Cindy Ervin is estimating more than 75 will be heading west for the pageant.
"We've been told it's one of the biggest groups the pageant has ever had," Cindy Ervin said.
Rushville Mayor Scott Thompson is ecstatic about Megan's accomplishments and what they have meant to the area.
"It's awesome!" he said.
Redshaw, however, may have best captured the community's sentiment surrounding Megan and her bid to be Miss America.
"Megan will always be our queen," she said.