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ORANGE CITY, Iowa | Rita (Van Steenwyk) Van Oort delayed knee-replacement surgery because of a commitment to the Orange City Tulip Festival.

Van Oort returned on Saturday to help headline the popular Queens’ Tea at Living Waters Community Church. The 1950 queen was the … ahem … senior member of the group, which consisted of dozens of past queens and royal court members.

“I’m the oldest of the living queens,” said Van Oort, who resides in Omaha. “I wasn’t going to go this year as I’m scheduled for knee replacement. Then I realized that if I didn’t go, they would think I’m deceased.”

She laughed. As with most humorous tidbits, there was but the smallest grain of truth.

“I’m 83, heavens!” she said.

Rita Van Steenwyk was working as a secretary at the Wiliam F. Rieckhoff Company in Orange City in 1950, just after her graduation from Northwestern Academy, a four-year high school affiliated then with Northwestern Junior College in Orange City.

“People nominated you at that time,” she recalled. “After the votes were in, they called the nominees in. The people of the town did the voting.”

The daughter of the late William and Tillie Van Steenwyk was elected to preside over the 10th festival. A representative from the Netherlands visited the Sioux County seat and crowned the queen that year.

“I got off a parade float and walked to the band shell in the park and that’s where the crowning was,” she remembered. “I wore a white formal and the attendants dragged this heavy, deep purple robe that nearly choked me to death.”

The dress wasn’t authentic Dutch; not like those found in current Tulip Festivals.

“I had wooden shoes and wore them some, even split one pair,” she said.

The secretary, who was 18 at the time, spent part of the year visiting neighboring communities to talk up tulips and Orange City’s Dutch heritage.

Three years later, she wed Harris Van Oort. She got out the white Tulip Festival formal and nearly wore it for the wedding. Instead, she bought a green suit for $60 and that’s what she wore while exchanging vows.

“Later on, I wore the green suit for work,” she said. “I also wore it for our 25th wedding anniversary.”

The Van Oorts moved from Orange City in 1953. Since then, they’ve resided in Ireton, Iowa; Baltimore, Maryland; St. Louis, Missouri; Denver Colorado; LaCrosse, Wisconsin and Omaha.

The Van Oorts have three children, two grandchildren and, well, one bad knee. It’s Rita’s left one and it’s arthritic and rubbing bone-on-bone. She wore a dress fit for Dutch royalty during the Queens’ Tea on Saturday, but not the traditional wooden shoes.

“Wooden shoes?” she asked, returning my question with her question. “Wooden shoes? That’s a NO!

“I can walk fine,” she assured me with a laugh. “I just don’t want to go up too many steps.”

As she has in past return trips to Orange City, Queen Rita visited relatives and enjoyed her time catching up with past queens, like her good friend, Marvella Duistermars, of Orange City, who reigned over the Tulip Festival in 1951.

She marveled at the city’s growth and how it has remained a clean town with a strong festival that expanded to three days for the first time in 1950, a year Van Oort remembered as being a bit damp, much like 2015.

“The weather wasn’t real nice in 1950,” she said. “It rained some. My bouquet of tulips came from the greenhouse.”

Does it seem like 65 years have passed since the rookie secretary stood in front of her hometown and told everyone what an honor it was to represent Orange City?

“No, it really doesn’t seem that long ago,” Van Oort said. “The time has gone pretty fast.”

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