Queen is part of a rosy legacy

Former Rose Queens say the experience was rewarding.

  • Former Rose Queen Sally Stanton Rubsamen (1941) and 2012 Rose Queen Drew Washington pose with each other after a luncheon that hosted Washington and the past rose queens at the Tournament House in Pasadena on Friday, December 9, 2011. (Tim Berger/Staff Photographer)
Former Rose Queen Sally Stanton Rubsamen (1941) and 2012 Rose Queen Drew…
December 18, 2011|By Kelly Corrigan, kelly.corrigan@latimes.com

Once a Rose Queen, always a Rose Queen. As 17-year-old Drew Washington prepares to wave to the crowds as the 94th Tournament of Roses queen on Jan. 2, 64 living former Rose Queens can recall how they came searching for a piece of the Rose Parade magic. Several say what they received in return has paid lifelong dividends.

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Caroline Hsu was a cheerleader and editor of the San Marino High School yearbook when she became one out of nearly 1,000 girls trying out for the 2002 Rose Court.

“I never thought it would really happen,” she said. “I just went for it and thought, ‘What the heck, it can’t hurt.’”

Hsu became the first Chinese-American rose queen. She still cherishes the inside jokes she shared with the court and the etiquette tips and experience she gained in a single year as she juggled college applications, exams and the Rose Queen’s relentless schedule of public appearances.

“I did learn how to start drinking coffee that year,” she said. “I haven’t stopped.”

A few more habits persist. Hsu still pens handwritten thank-you notes to anyone who offers a gift or invites her into their home. Her lady-like tendencies are so ingrained that she still steps out of a car as though she is royalty.

“You kind of swivel your bottom in the seat so both feet go in and out of the car together,” she explained.

Today Hsu lives in downtown Los Angeles and is a physical therapist at the UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center.

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When Leslie Kawai was made Rose Queen in 1981, she became the first non-white queen to reign over the parade. It was a momentous surprise for many, Kawai recalled, especially for her family.

A third-generation Japanese American, Kawai resides in Pasadena where her grandfather settled in 1898. Kawai’s father played baseball alongside Jackie Robinson, and like Robinson faced racial discrimination.

“Things came around full circle,” she said. “For my family, it was overwhelming.”

Then a freshman at Pasadena Community College, Kawai kept busy with appearances and extra events within the city’s Japanese-American community.

“It was an incredible time,” she said, adding she didn’t recognize all of the lessons she learned as queen until some years later.

“I didn’t really understand and have the appreciation I do now of the rich tradition,” she said. “If I think back, there are so many lessons. It exposed me to so many different people. You have to learn to think on your feet. I learned to expect the unexpected.”

After her year as queen, the trained ballet dancer modeled for print and television advertising around the world.

“I like to think that I went to the university of life,” she said.

Today, Kawai is raising her 16-year-old daughter, works as a sales representative and teaches dance.

“It’s nice being at this point in my life. I can go back and still be a part of an esteemed institution that was really special to me,” she said.

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Robert Cota, 92, still beams whenever he speaks of his daughter, the rose queen.

“That’s the first thing out of his mouth,” said the queen herself, Carole Cota Gelfuso.

Gelfuso reigned in 1966, when Walt Disney was the Rose Parade’s grand marshal. Gelfuso met Disney in his Burbank studio, after he told tournament officials he would only commit to the parade if Mickey, Minnie and the gang circled his car.

Back then, rose princesses received two dozen long-stemmed red roses at every event they attended.

“We’re all 18, 19. One day you’re a college student and the next day you’re whisked off to Bullock’s and you’re fitted with an entire wardrobe with hats and gloves and suits, casual wear and coats. It was just over the top,” she said.

Gelfuso welcomed it with all her heart. Four months before she became queen, her mother died suddenly. Gelfuso was 19 and a freshman at Pasadena City College.

“The tournament brought so much joy to our family when it was a very, very sad time,” she said.

Then an Eagle Rock resident living in the home her grandfather built in 1914, Gelfuso was the first queen selected from Los Angeles.

At the time, she was dating Frank Gelfuso. (Their wedding reception was at the Tournament House on Sept. 17, 1966, and earlier this year they celebrated their 45th anniversary.)

Together they’ve raised a son and daughter and through their business have restored 30 historically significant houses in Pasadena.

“Being a rose queen didn't change my life,” Gelfuso said. “Rather, it enhanced every aspect of my life. It has been said that being a rose queen is enough recognition to last a young girl her lifetime. I must agree.”

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