We got the news in the winter of 1960, that our family from West Warwick would represent Rhode Island in a national contest to be held in the spring.
We were Rhode Island’s candidate for “All-American Family.”
This was no small honor, for families all over Rhode Island competed to represent our state.
It was 1960, when Wheaties ‘Breakfast of Champions’ sat on tables across the land, a time when America boomed along, post World War II; President Dwight D. Eisenhower (Ike) was in the White House.
My generation of kids was the product of renewed faith.
My father had entered the statewide contest. It made sense, for he loved contests of all sorts. That’s how I got my first roller skates, the ones with the key. He’d solved the jingle and won. Instead of the crazy leg lamp the Dad won in “The Christmas Story,” my Dad won a pair of girl’s roller skates. Now, I skated up and down the sidewalks in our neighborhood, one of the few girls with skates, skurr…skurr…skurring for hours.
But since the All-American Family contest was big, we’d get far more than skates if we won. We’d be semi-famous and we’d become owners of a brand new, modern ranch home in the recently-built development of Lehigh Acres, Florida.
The contest sponsors flew us to that southernmost state, where we checked in, met others, and began the week long elimination process. There was interviewing and a talent contest. Here, we Kelly’s had the advantage, since my family was used to on-the-spot questioning, for Dad had us kids compete, in yearly science fairs, from a young age.
Each morning, we fifty families filed into a big auditorium where we breakfasted with Don McNeil of “The Breakfast Club” radio show. He was joined by former beauty queen/TV star, Anita Bryant, who sang “Come to the Florida sunshine tree,” in TV commercials seen all over the United States. An outspoken Christian, she’d get in trouble, years later, for her homophobic commentary. But during the period we met her she was one of America’s darlings.
Our disadvantage in this contest (according to Mom) was the fact we lacked an important family member. West Point wouldn’t allow my older brother to join us, for he was in his first (Plebe) year and the Army didn’t think vying for America’s top family spot was valid enough reason to release him.
On one occasion, each of the “Fab Fifty” ( a name I gave) families stood aside a water hole, pretend-fishing, dangling poles at the same spot over the side of the dock, smiling for the camera. It was a silly photo-op in that Mom wore a dress and heels (who does that while fishing, except maybe Barbara Billigsley of “Leave It to Beaver” fame?)
Those photos were sent to all state and hometown newspapers for publication (copy of newspaper photo is above.)
For one solid week we were on our best behavior which meant that on Sunday, we Catholic families traveled by bus, over a hundred miles, to church, since none were in our area. What do I recall of this journey? Passing miles of palm trees, barrenness and Seminole Indian villages alongside muddy canals in a seemingly-blighted territory.
Finally, at the end of the week, it was announced: Our neighbor to the north– the Massachusetts family– took top prize and the house in Lehigh Acres.
Ten years later, another West Warwick-ite’s family would win. Andrea Peterson had married Michael Mucha and they’d go on to have four children. They lived in Coventry but Andrea had been raised in West Warwick. Now, in 1970, her family was crowned Rhode Island’s All- American Family. They, too, went off to a week-long competition in Lehigh Acres, Florida.
Apparently, our little town produced champions in more areas than sports.
West Warwick native, Colleen Kelly Mellor (firstname.lastname@example.org), is a motivational speaker and freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Wall St. Journal, Scripps-Howard, and many regional newspapers. She is author to the children’s books Grandpa and the Truck (grandpaandthetruck.com) and is regular commentator in the Providence Journal. Her website is colleenkellymellor.com.