On the Record with... Marisa Merkel

Former Miss McHenry Marisa Merkel poses for a portrait Friday in Chicago. Merkel has helped run the Miss McHenry pageant for years and is also invovled with the Miss McHenry County pageant.
Former Miss McHenry Marisa Merkel poses for a portrait Friday in Chicago. Merkel has helped run the Miss McHenry pageant for years and is also invovled with the Miss McHenry County pageant.

McHENRY – After the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, most people avoided flying – but Marisa Merkel decided to become a flight attendant.

The McHenry resident had thought about it before.

She and her husband, Pete, had applied before, thinking that it would give them the opportunity to travel more.

That time hadn’t worked out, but in 2002, the Merkels’ youngest child was grown and the long stretches away from home wouldn’t be as difficult. She decided to give it another go, and more than 12 years later, she’s still in the business, now as an assistant base manager for Southwest Airlines’ flight attendant department at Midway Airport.

That’s saying something for Merkel, who said she career hops like “some people change their jeans.”

She also serves as the director of the Miss McHenry pageant, a position she plans on stepping down from after this year so that she can assume the sole directorship of the Miss McHenry County pageant.

Marisa Merkel sat down with reporter Emily Coleman to talk about her job and the pageants she helps run.

Coleman: What does an assistant base manager do?

Merkel: There is a base manager and two assistant base managers at Midway. There are 1,600 flight attendants based in Chicago. It’s the largest of Southwest Airlines nine bases – soon to be 10 with Atlanta. … Most people don’t realize this, but flight attendants are pretty much a self-managed work force, so we put out fires and help them with their health insurance and deal with discipline issues.

Coleman: I understand it’s been a pretty hectic winter for you.

Merkel: The thing about our department is we’re not what we call pushing the plane. We take care of the flight attendants. It’s been hectic with rerouting and getting the flight attendants home. … A lot of people don’t realize this, but flight attendants only get paid from the time the airplane door closes to the time it opens. People think, “Oh, they must be making all this money from delays, and they’re just sitting around, reading a book.” That’s not true.

Coleman: How did you end up in the airline industry?

Merkel: It was just something that always spiked my interest, and I have friends that fly. They always told me about it, and they loved it. I changed careers like some people change their jeans. This is kind of crazy. I want to say I have, like, a 20-page resume, and I had a tendency to get really bored with jobs. I would get that feeling, and after about two or three years, I wanted to move on with my life. I hadn’t settled on what I wanted to do, and then all of a sudden, I found this and fell in love with it.

Coleman: What are some of the jobs you’ve had?

Merkel: Let’s see. I started working when I was 14 years old as a gift wrapper over at Gladstone’s on Green Street. I worked at the Riverside Bakery when I was a kid. Who hasn’t waited tables at multiple places between food and cocktail waitressing? And I worked at McHenry State Bank. I was an orthopedic surgeon’s assistant and X-ray tech, a personal trainer and an aerobatics instructor. I managed health clubs. I was an administrative assistant at what was the Crown Plaza in Elgin. … Oh, we owned the sporting goods store McHenry Favorite Sports with two other couples for nine years. Then I worked for FedEx.

Coleman: Switching gears a bit, you’re the director of the Miss McHenry pageant, and I heard you were Miss McHenry yourself one year?

Merkel: I was in 1975. That was actually the last year it was called the Marine Festival queen. After that they changed the title to Miss McHenry.

Coleman: Were you a pageant kid?

Merkel: No. [Laughs.]

Coleman: So how did you end up competing for Miss McHenry?

Merkel: I have no idea. Girl, that was so long ago. I don’t know what prompted me to do that. There were a lot of girls that did it that year when I think about it. There were probably almost 20 girls in the pageant that year when I think about the panoramic picture. It was just one of those things where a couple of my girlfriends were probably doing it. The Miss McHenry pageant back then – and maybe still is to this day – it was part of Fiesta Days. It was just a big part of that tradition of Fiesta Days, and it was one of those things that you did as a kid.

It was great, [especially] the tradition. This year will be 67 years. It’s been around a really long time, and there’s so many girls that have gone through that. We’ve pretty much to this day kept a lot of the traditions of that pageant, especially when it comes to charm chorus and the things we teach. We’ve kept it the same as it was 30-some years ago.

Coleman: What was your talent?

Merkel: That was the good thing. You didn’t have to have a talent because otherwise I wouldn’t have won. Now back then you did have to wear a swimsuit, which you don’t now. Now you have to wear aerobics wear.

Coleman: How did you end up volunteering for it?

Merkel: What happens with the pageant, which we like, is that the queen comes back the next year and the girls on the court if they would like, and they work on the committee. They help mentor the next group of girls. Then if they’re around, there’s always an open invitation for the girls to come back every year and help mentor the next group of girls.

I continued to stay in the McHenry area. I didn’t leave, so I stayed. After about three years … I took over the pageant then and I was the director. I stayed as the director until ’84. That was when my daughter was born. Fast forward to 2006 when the director was Corki Hobson. She was looking for some folks to help out on the committee, and she knew I was in the area. Then she retired the next year, so then I took over and I’ve been the director again ever since.

Coleman: What do you like about it?

Merkel: What I really like about it is working with the contestants every year, working with these young girls – they’re between the ages of 16 and 20 – and getting to know the girls in that age group every single year. When we work with these girls, we start out in April and we work with them once or twice a week every week until the pageant the third week of June, so you really get to know the girls.

We’ll do fundraisers together. We try to do some volunteer work together. We go through a lot. It’s quite an experience. You get really close to them, and you get to know them. You get to watch them evolve from the time they start. We work on everything. We work on posture and walking and sitting and public speaking and interview skills and hair and makeup and clothing. Some of the girls may have never worn a high heel in their life or never put on makeup.

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