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Royalty tradition continues for Cedar-roots cherry farming family

Maria Okorn with her 8-year-old daughter, Lydia.
Traverse City Record-Eagle
Maria Okorn with her 8-year-old daughter, Lydia.

Among the National Cherry Festival Princes and Princesses this year is 8-year-old Lydia Okorn, representing Immaculate Conception Elementary School.

She isn’t the first to wear the crown, as the royal lineage runs strong in her family tree — which of course, is cherry.

Lydia’s mother, Maria Okorn, was the 2010-2011 National Cherry Festival Cherry Queen.

Then Maria LaCross, she balanced the role of festival ambassador with her first full-time teaching job.

Before that, Maria’s aunt, Cindy Pleva, and sister-in-law, Kelsey Hewitt, were also Cherry Queens.

“It definitely is a family affair for us, and for some of the other queens, too; kind of a generational thing,” Maria said. “You certainly do not have to be part of a cherry-growing family or anything like that, but it just kind of worked out that way for us.”

Maria said she was raised on a cherry farm in Cedar, and her first memories of Cherry Fest are of helping her mom at a promotion booth. When she was 10, she won an essay contest to be the junior grand marshal.

“It was important to us that we were a part of the parade and able to give back to a school system that has given a lot to me and now is giving a lot to my child,” Maria said. “I feel pretty compelled to stay involved with the festival in different ways, different capacities.”

So Maria nominated Lydia to be a princess and her name was drawn from a hat.

With the time and effort that’s required to have your kid be junior royalty, she said it’s important to have kids nominated so their parents can decide to take on the tasks, too. On Thursday, Immaculate Conception’s parade float, modeled after the Dry Tortugas, joined the procession with the rest of the junior royalty.

Lydia said she was excited to wave to her family from the float as she goes by.

As a Cherry Princess, Lydia said she has some responsibilities and events to attend.

“One time we went to the Grand Traverse Pie company and we baked cherry pies for the kids in the hospital who were really sick,” Lydia said. “... and we went to Project Feed the Kids and we colored little bags for people and then we put food in them and we put them out in the refrigerator.”

Those bags with free meals are available to those who need them at J&S Hamburg restaurant.

But Lydia said her favorite part of being a princess is getting to be like her mom when she was a Cherry Queen.

In the junior royalty program, the cherry princes and princesses learn how to be bucket-fillers, Maria said. It’s about being kind, considerate and polite.

“I learned that we’re loved by other people and we can care for other people,” Lydia said. “People support you and then you’re able to support other people.”

Lauren Rice is a newsroom intern for WCMU based at the Traverse City Record-Eagle.
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