THERE were two homecomings last week in the world of pageants.
The venerable Miss America pageant, which six years ago moved to Las Vegas, announced it was returning to its birthplace in Atlantic City. And Kevin McAleese, longtime executive director of the Miss Philadelphia pageant, died Friday evening at a friend's home in Pottstown. He'd been under hospice care since January.
McAleese, 55, of Fairmount, was a larger-than-life figure who loved all things Miss America.
To local contestants, he was more than a pageant director. He also was a surrogate dad - walking them down the aisle when they got married, nudging them to return to school to further their educations, or encouraging losing contestants to try again. And when he found himself in need, members of the close-knit sorority of former Miss Philadelphias were there for him. Moments before McAleese died, Kiplee Bell, Miss Philadelphia 1998, sang to him the same song she'd sung the night she snagged the crown - "I Believe."
"He went in peace. He had no suffering," said Bell, a physician's assistant who also served as McAleese's medical proxy.
In 2010, doctors discovered that McAleese had five cancerous brain tumors, one of which was inoperable. At the time of his diagnosis, the retired Army Reserve colonel had been working for the Navy's Wounded Warrior program while running the Miss Philadelphia pageant, an institution he'd invigorated after taking it over in 1996.
Winners of Miss Philadelphia go on to compete in the Miss Pennsylvania Pageant. If they're successful there, they compete in the Miss America pageant. The annual tradition began 93 years ago as a bathing-beauty contest to extend the summer season at the Jersey Shore. In recent years, however, the Miss America pageant has struggled to stay relevant as competing in high heels and a bathing suit for scholarship money seemed off-kilter.
Pageant officials moved the contest to Nevada, hoping to attract younger TV viewers. But the magic was never the same again. Pageant traditionalists felt that hosting Miss America in Sin City was bad mojo. They were thrilled to learn last week that it's coming back to Atlantic City, including the pre-pageant Boardwalk "show us your shoes" parade.
"Knowing [McAleese], he would have loved that. He used to go all the time. He used to go every year to the Miss America pageant when it was in Jersey. He never went to Vegas," said Christina Guzman, Miss Philadelphia 1999. "He loved how Miss America used to be."
A handful of previous Miss Philadelphias have volunteered to take up where McAleese left off to keep the Miss Philadelphia tradition alive and operating at the same highly organized, professional level at which McAleese had it for nearly two decades. Victorious Miss Philadelphias typically walk away with at least $10,000 in scholarship money.
The former misses have a long way to go. The pageant, scheduled for March 2, recently lost a big sponsor, TD Bank. Guzman said they have only about $5,000 for this year's winner.
"It's going to be really hard for me," said Guzman.
"I know he will be there with us in spirit. But I don't think it will ever be the same."
A viewing will be held Tuesday and Wednesday at Dinan Funeral Home, Spring Garden Street near 19th. A funeral Mass is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Thursday at St. Francis Xavier Church, 24th and Green streets.
On Twitter: @JeniceAmstrong