Meagan Kurmel has spent a fair amount of time in slow-moving convertibles this summer, smiling and waving to the crowd.
She's done so while wearing a crown and sash and a kroj (pronounced kroy) — a traditional Czech costume generally involving a tight-fitting vest, full skirt and huge, puffy sleeves adorned with ribbon and embroidery.
Both of Kurmel's parents are of Czech descent, and her family, while small, is very close. So when Kurmel heard last year that the Omaha Czech Cultural Club was looking for a queen, she was happy both for the chance to learn more about her own heritage as well as to wear the crown.
Her duties as the 2012-2013 Omaha Czech Cultural Club Queen have taken her to Clarkson, Dwight and Wilber in Nebraska and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, among other places. She'll go to the State Fair and Nebraska City's Applejack Festival, too.
She's had her photograph taken with girls who admire her crown, and she's spent a lot of time talking to adults of Czech descent, who are glad to see a young college student like Kurmel doing her part to keep Czech culture alive in Nebraska.
To prepare for her reign, Kurmel and her parents researched their ancestry, pinpointing both the town and the actual house a great-grandmother had grown up in back in what is now the Czech Republic. They called on aunts, uncles and other family members to share memories of their ancestors and knowledge of their Czech heritage.
An uncle taught Kurmel how to play the accordion, which became her talent in the state competition in Clarkson earlier this summer. Kurmel and her mother put together her kroj, complete with a vest her great-grandmother had brought with her when she immigrated to the United States generations before.
“It was a whole family effort,” she said. “You can't do it on your own.”
And she heard stories of her relatives that she had never heard before. For example, when her great-grandmother stepped off the boat at Ellis Island, someone handed her a banana. The 16-year-old had never seen one before, and she ate it peel and all.
It was a funny family story, one Kurmel also saw as an illustration of how alone and small her teenage great-grandmother must have felt, in a new country by herself.
“I couldn't have done that,” Kurmel said.
Instead, she's paying tribute by practicing the accordion, by visiting Czech museums (she was particularly impressed with the one in Cedar Rapids, where she and her mother pored over intricate Czech embroidery patterns) and by meeting other Czechs in Nebraska. Next month, the Omaha Czech Cultural Club will choose next year's queen, and Kurmel may do it again.
She's enjoyed the research and town festivals and people she has met.
And she doesn't mind the sash or tiara, either.
“It's kind of a chance to be queen,” she said.
Contact the writer: