For the first time since Queen Neelahs have graced Independence's festive celebration, Neewollah, a reunion that was once a thoughtful idea will soon become a reality from Friday, Oct. 28 through Saturday, Oct. 29.

Spearheaded and planned by Gail (Moore) Woltkamp, the Queen's Reunion will have more than 30 past Queens revisiting the city and of course, Neewollah.

The theme for the reunion meshes well with this year's Neewollah — "Queen Neelah: Part of Neewollah's World Since the 1920s!"

"Back in Feburary, Stacey Yakshaw, who is a long-time friend and classmate of mine from growing up in Independence contacted me and asked my thoughts about getting the past queens together on Neewollah weekend in honor of this year's crowning of Queen Neelah, the 75th," Woltkamp said. "I thought the idea was great and we agreed that having a weekend event, as opposed to just Tuesday night would allow more queens the chance to participate."

Yakshaw is now this year's Generalissimo, and Woltkamp served as Queen Neelah for the year 1983. The two friends planned out details over the months, but Woltkamp also credited past queens in assisting her with gathering mailing addresses and email addresses for each of the queens.

A full itinerary has been planned; starting Friday night as queens begin traveling in, they will be welcomed back with the "Queens' Gathering" at the Booth Hotel from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. 

"At the Gathering, they'll be able to pick up their sashes, and this will be where we first see each other - again, it's going to be exciting," Woltkamp said. "On Saturday morning, we have been invited to the Generalissimo's Breakfast, organized by Ann Crow, that they hold annually and will take place before the Grand Parade. Then we will gather for a group picture before hopping on a float and riding in the Grand Parade!"

According to Woltkamp, the last reunion for Queen Neelahs took place in 2007.

"I am very excited about this year's weekend reunion," she said. "We have our queen from 1959 (Sylvia McCalla) coming back, and she told me she has not been back to Independence since the 1960s. We have queens from all the decades participating and I love that! But I am also glad we organized this because as queens, we are all part of Neewollah's rich history. I think it's important to recognize how far Neewollah has evolved since 1919."

As time goes on and to keep things entertaining - society changes, as with festival events. Neewollah, while keeping up with tradition, has given Woltkamp a bird's eye view of the comparisons between back when she was crowned, and to the now.

"In 1983, we had 38 contestants, which I think is a few more than what they have had in recent years. A favorite memory that I like to share is about Talent Night. Back in the 80s, Talent Night was held in the High School auditorium. I will never forget all of us giving up our seats and sitting on the floor right below the stage to accommodate the packed house. Talent Night was becoming just as popular as the Coronation itself," she reminisced. "I had so much fun sitting with friends, cheering for each other and getting to see each other's performances. Needless to say, Monday's Talent Night was moved to Memorial Hall the following year. Also, the crown was not mine to keep. It was passed down to me from the previous queen, and then I passed the same crown down to the new queen the following year. At the Pre-Parade Breakfast, the year after I was queen, I was given my own crown. In today's Queen Neelah world, the keeps keep the same crown they are crowned with."

Since the last reunion, she expressed a desire to see more reunions take place during Neewollah, but no longer high schoolers, these Queens have grown up, had families, and are successful in their chosen careers that have taken many all over the country and beyond.

"I do wish it could be a more frequent occurrence, but most of our queens live out of town and some rather far. For instance, one of our queens lives in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Another lives in New Hampshire. Others live in Seattle, California, Tennessee, Texas, Colorado, Kansas, and Louisiana - the list goes on," she said. "Our queens are all busy, accomplished individuals who reside all across the country. Getting everyone together can be a challenge."

But it's a challenge she eagerly accepted as Woltkamp, the main coordinator, smoothed out details and made contact with many of the past queens.

"I love that the Queen Neelah pageant has become more and more sophisticated each year," she added. "Independence has such talented, accomplished young ladies and the pageant is a great opportunity to share that with the public. I also like that the contestant who is crowned Queen Neelah gets the opportunity to move on and compete in the Miss Kansas Pageant as 'Miss Neewollah.' We did not get that chance in the '80s."

She was a Neelah Deb in 1981 and an active dancer in the Neewollah musicals during the 1980s. 

"I took ballet for many years and was excited to perform my talent, which was a character ballet, on Coronation Night in 1983," Woltkamp said.

She was also selected as Miss Congeniality. During her years at the Independence High School, she was a three-year member of the Bulldogs Grand Champion Cheerleading Squad, an officer in Student Council, a member of the Forensics Team, Girls Varsity Volleyball Team and performed in school plays and musicals. Woltkamp was also the first recipient of the Peter Lewis Reid Memorial Scholarship.

"About three years ago, I was asked to give a speech to Queen Neelah contestants at their Pre-Parade Breakfast. I have always loved being part of Neewollah. I think this year's theme, 'Be Part of Our World,' is perfect! Our Neewollah programs list the first queen in 1920, but some sources suggest the name 'Queen Neelah' was not coined until 1923," she said. 

Woltkamp, who has had a part-time career as a marketing exec for nonprofit organizations, and her husband, Bill, a banking officer for 18 years and currently a small business owner, reside north of Kansas City, near the city of Kearney, Mo. They have two boys, Ryan, a freshman at Northwest Missouri State University and member of the Bearcat Marching Band, and Grant, an 8th grader and Cross Country runner at Kearney Junior High. 

"I have lived in the Kansas City area for most of my adult life. I am so happy that my hometown has a festival that I get to return to each year and that it continues to fulfill its original promise of offering the community of Independence and it's surrounding area a safe and fun-filled family event that is reflective of its volunteer commitment and civic pride," Woltkamp said.