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Miss Minnesota, Madeline Van Ert was introduced during Miss America Pageant arrival ceremonies last year in Atlantic City. Her reign as Miss Minnesota came to an end June 16 in Eden Prairie, when a new Miss Minnesota was announed. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Last weekend, Rochester native Madeline Van Ert's reign as Miss Minnesota officially came to an end as she handed off the crown and the title to Miss Minnesota 2017, Brianna Drevlow, at last weekend's pageant in Eden Prairie.

"It's a weird feeling, that sense of finality, knowing there is a very limited amount of time left and making sure I made the most of that week leading up to it," Van Ert said. "It was definitely different than when I was competing the last few years (Madeline was second runner up in 2015 and then won the title in 2016). It was a weird transition to not be there in any way that was competitive, or stressed out or nervous, just to be at peace with everything."

As Miss Minnesota, Van Ert went to Atlantic City for the Miss America Pageant, and while she didn't win the title of Miss America, she DID win Miss Congeniality, something she always jokes is because of "Minnesota Nice" but it's really just Madeline. She is genuinely a pleasure to be around, has a great personality, is very nice, and … congenial.

Madeline, a phenomenal musician who comes from a family chock full of talent, had her final performance on stage as Miss Minnesota that featured another well-known Rochester musician.

"John Wheeler (pedal steel guitarist for the band Six Mile Grove) played with me (she played piano) and I sang my Miss America talent song, 'What a Wonderful World,' which has been my song since last year's Miss Minnesota," Van Ert said. "We played it a little slower, a little more emotional, and that moment really hit me. It felt like everything had come full circle. Here I am performing, having had all these experiences, and now with this journey behind me, coming back not as a new person, but as a changed person, yet circling back still to that message of the song, because it IS a wonderful world.

"It was a beautiful moment when I stood up everyone in the audience stood up," she said. "All the support that I felt from people around me throughout this whole journey has constantly overwhelmed me, I'm always so humbled by it and in that moment, to feel that again, I was just brought to tears."

While the past year has been full of experiences and memories, you might be surprised at what sticks out most for Van Ert.

"Competing in Miss America, winning Miss Congeniality, the trip to Paris (for Fashion Week, at the invitation of Lebanese fashion designer Georges Hobeika, the designer of the dress she wore to the Miss America Pageant) — those are the most dramatic highlights because those were BIG moments, and I really love all of the service work, but the moments that are most impactful are the little ones — being able to just connect with people on a really personal level," she said. "Someone I meet on my way to my car after an appearance who wants to talk to me about their life, or their connection to Miss Minnesota, or the impact that I was maybe able to have."

Van Ert has been able to use the crown and the sash to do good things and impact others.

"It's very inspiring to see the difference I can make in someone's day, just by showing up and being there for them," she said. "I was able to do an appearance at the pediatric intensive care unit at Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare, and I always feel like it's silly for me to feel like I have a place walking into this room where people are suffering these tremendous trials, and be like, 'Hey, look at me, pay attention to me,' but I remember after that, one of the moms came and found me and said she hadn't seen her little girl smile in so long, and then she did when I was there.

"Those moments that I'm able to hear the amount of impact I can have from very little effort, I think that is something that everyone should be able to hear, because I think that it's true: A small action, a kind word or kind deed can go a really long way," Van Ert said. "Those moments really warm my heart and those are the ones that really stick out in my memory as most important."

Van Ert started a program in Rochester for free arts lessons to children from elementary schools because she realized a lack of funding in public schools and found a way to help fill that need, something that will continue long after her title.

"Now I will have even more time to focus on that, which is really exciting," she said. "I think it's important for people to take those things they are passionate about and actually do things about them. At the very root of who I am is believing that we should all be working to empower our communities and make things happen, so I think this is something that naturally follows."

Van Ert is a senior at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, where she studies political science and Latin, and will be graduating in December. As she looks back on this past year, she's also excited to look forward.

"I'm honored to have served as Miss Minnesota, and so excited for the future," she said. "I'd like to thank everyone for all their love, support, and kindness. It matters."

Megan Kennedy is a longtime mid-day radio personality. Seen & Heard highlights local people with interesting stories. Send tips to life@postbulletin.com.

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