New Tom, Becky take first bows to kick off National Tom Sawyer Days

John Maune, left, and Riley Stevenson, center, are congratulated by well-wishers after the pair claimed their titles at the end of the Tom and Becky competition Friday in Central Park in Hannibal, Mo. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)
Posted: Jul. 4, 2014 8:42 pm Updated: Jul. 19, 2014 2:15 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

HANNIBAL, Mo. -- John Maune thought for a moment he wouldn't be named Tom Sawyer during the annual Tom and Becky competition Friday on the first day of National Tom Sawyer Days.

Last year's Becky winner, Ashlyn Nichols, was walking between the five Tom finalists before announcing the winner when she reached out to give Maune an old-fashioned fishing pole, then quickly pulled it away. The winner of the Tom Sawyer competition receives the pole each year.

Nichols came back around and gave Maune a kiss on the cheek, signifying that he won.

"That was a down part for me," said Maune, referring to Nichols' antics with the pole, "but that kind of hinted that I was going to get, because she wouldn't be that mean. I'm pumped up so much right now."

Maune and Riley Stevenson, both Hannibal Middle School students, were named this year's Tom and Becky to top off the competition in Central Park.

Stevenson couldn't believe she was named this year's Becky Thatcher after she was given the coveted title by last year's Tom winner, Nathan Lewton.

"I'm so thrilled," she said. "I thought I wasn't going to make it honestly, but once I found out, I just like died."

Both spent many hours preparing for the roles.

"I went over my study guide about a million times," Stevenson said. "I've been to the cave I don't even know how many times. I got together with some past judges and had mock interviews. If you name it, I probably did it."

Melissa Cummins, coordinator of the Tom and Becky program, said it is a staple in the community.

"(Kids) have grown up with the Tom and Becky program, and they have wanted to be a Tom or a Becky," Cummins said. "I have two daughters that were Beckys, and I have a little boy that's 9, and he says he's going to be a Tom Sawyer when he gets older."

Tom and Becky serve as ambassadors for Hannibal during their yearlong reigns.

"We may have a tourist come in and want to know what they can do for the weekend," Cummins said. "The kids will help them, as well as reaching outside of Hannibal and promoting Hannibal and Mark Twain and his boyhood home and inviting people to come to visit us."

Cummins said the program is open to all seventh-graders who attend Hannibal Middle School or the city's parochial schools, or who are home-schooled. The students sign up for the contest in February.

The Tom and Becky hopefuls give speeches to a panel of judges, who choose 12 boys and 12 girls to move on in the competition.

They are required to take a 114-question test on Mark Twain and the history of Hannibal and complete a 10-minute interview in front of a panel of five judges, who trim the group down to five boys and five girls as finalists. The finalists then prepare their costumes and after a two-day orientation are judged on how they engage tourists and how well they portray the characters.

"These kids have gone through six months of a process of narrowing it down to this point," Cummins said. "The great thing is that every one of these boys and every one of these girls get to be Tom and Becky for one year. They will make anywhere from 200 to 300 appearances throughout the year."

Maune said he is looking forward to coming up with new ideas for how he and Stevenson can help out and where they can perform their duties.

"I'm also just looking forward to being a Tom," he said.