MOSS POINT -- The Young Men's Business Club of Moss Point celebrates its Diamond Anniversary this month -- 75 years of honoring community members through its Coronation Ceremony.
In continuing that longtime tradition, on Monday the club announced members of the 2014 royal court at the YMBC building in Moss Point.
A king and queen will be honored at the Coronation Ceremony, a sold-out event that more than 1,200 people will attend on Feb. 28.
"The coronation has always been about recognizing citizens for community efforts," member Richard Shields said.
Those individuals may be prominent people, but others are honored as well.
"It's also the people in the neighborhood who get up every day thinking about how to make the community better," Shields said.
During a time of the Great Depression, when poverty and unemployment were high and morale was low, a group of men in Moss Point wanted to channel their social frustration into a positive organization.
In 1932, the YMBC was born.
The club began to meet each Monday, providing community support. In 1933, the club sponsored Dorothy Eley as an entrant in the first Miss Mississippi contest where she won the crown. The YMBC then gathered the funds to send her to Atlantic City for the Miss America pageant.
After recognizing the accomplishment of locals, the club wanted to develop a way to honor them through a formal event.
Since the club had no prior knowledge of how to do this, a few of the members visited New Orleans to view how Carnival organizations selected their royal courts. The club adopted the method of using a secret committee to select their court, whose identities would not be revealed.
Even today, Shields said he doesn't know which club members are on the current committee or how they choose the court.
"There's no formula and no list to choose from," Shields said. He added, court selections aren't questioned.
The original committee served together for 40 years before the first vacancy, at which point the remaining members named a replacement.
The first king and queen of the court were Hermes Gautier of Pascagoula and Alice Colmer of Moss Point. Other past court royalty includes former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, his wife Patricia Thompson Lott, Jerry St. Pe, Elwyn Pope and Kathleen Cumbest, among many others.
Since the ceremony began, 2,000 Jackson Countians have been honored and presented to the community at the annual gala in the largest venue in Jackson County -- the B.E. McGinty Civic Center in Pascagoula.
However, the ceremony was interrupted for a few years because of World War II, the Korean War and Hurricane Katrina.
"We thought Jackson County needed it to take away the impact of Katrina, but we couldn't find a place big enough," Shields said. "It's the community social event of the year."
Tickets to the event have historically been difficult to obtain, but during the Golden Age of Radio, locals were still able to experience the gala over the airwaves. Shields said the announcers would describe every detail of the event, including the gowns. He recalls seeing a full typewritten page dedicated to a single dress that was to be read over the radio.
Saying 'thank you'
Jimmy Wheat has been a member of the club since 1974 and has participated in the court as both a duke and king.
For Wheat, the club is a family affair. His mother was on the court of the first ball, his father and uncle were both members and his son is now a member. His long family history of involvement affirms his belief in the purpose of the coronation ceremony.
"We want to find a way that's non-political to honor people in our area that have helped Jackson County economically or socially," Wheat said. "We want to honor people for what they've done, not just who they are."
Allen Lane is a 24-year member and co-chairman of the ceremony this year.
"I think it strengthens the community to recognize people for things they've done," Lane said.
Shields agreed. "I believe communities benefit from honoring people who make a contribution -- people who we owe a thank you to and never get around to thanking them."
In addition, he said a community benefits from its traditions.
When the king is honored at this year's Coronation Ceremony, he will wear the same crown used for the last 75 years and will be presented the key to the county, just as in previous ceremonies. A Lifetime Community Service award will also be presented, the 35th year for that honor.
Shields said the club wants to make the event as special as possible for its honorees.
For several years, the court arrived by boat at the harbor and were then driven to the ceremony, but one year of bad weather ended that tradition. The club developed another plan, instead. In partnerships with local car dealerships, club members pick up the court in nice vehicles and drive them to the event.
"I believe that Jackson Countians have a great deal to be thankful for and be proud of," Shields said. "The quality of the people in the area led to the original coronation. Quality people stand the test of time and as long as Jackson County has the kind of people that we're honoring, the ceremony will keep going 75 years from now."