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Miss Mass. says she never gave up quest

Molly Whalen, 21, of Middleborough lost her first try at the title, in 2008. Molly Whalen, 21, of Middleborough lost her first try at the title, in 2008.
By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / July 17, 2011

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MIDDLEBOROUGH - All the voice teachers at the Burt Wood School of the Performing Arts were hoarse on Monday, two days after longtime student and Middleborough resident Molly Whalen was crowned Miss Massachusetts 2011 at the 72d annual scholarship pageant in Worcester.

“We try never to scream,’’ said school owner Lorna Sleeper Brunelle, who has taught Whalen voice, acting, and pageant skills and is the official voice coach of the Miss Massachusetts pageant. “But today, no one can talk.’’

Who could resist such exuberance, she said, as they watched a young woman who came to them as a tiny 5-year-old with a head full of blond curls sweep the high-profile contest, rising from Miss Taunton to represent her state.

Whalen, who turned 21 Wednesday, was picked from among 15 contestants, earning more than $8,500 in scholarships.

She moves on to Las Vegas in January to vie for the Miss America crown.

Whalen competed in the Miss Massachusetts pageant once before, in 2008 as Miss Southcoast, and was named the most talented nonfinalist. Then she took a few years off to concentrate on school.

“Long after Molly applies the final penny of her scholarship to her education, I will remember her face when the MC announced her name,’’ Brunelle said. “I will never forget her expression of pure shock and joy.’’

“I still can’t believe it,’’ Whalen said by phone while spending a few days on Cape Cod with family. “Never give up is definitely my motto. It’s my one chance, and it’s a dream come true.’’

The only child of Robert and Maureen Whalen graduated from Taunton’s Coyle and Cassidy High School in 2008 and from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Science this year, earning a bachelor of science degree in dental hygiene. She is headed this fall to Northeastern University’s master of science degree program in applied nutrition.

Brunelle’s students have won more than 125 crowns, titles, and awards and thousands of dollars of scholarship money for college expenses.

Six of last weekend’s competitors were her students. Besides Whelan’s win, Amanda Narciso of Taunton won first runner-up; Taylor Kinzler of Lakeville won second runner-up and best interview; Maggie Wakim of Norton placed in the top eight and won preliminary talent and swimsuit; and Jenna Nowlin of Bridgewater won most talented nonfinalist.

Another student, Emily Bird of Lakeville, did very well but did not place, Brunelle said.

The overall feedback from judges, according to Brunelle, was that Whalen had “the it factor’’ and a winning combination of intelligence, beauty, talent, grace, compassion, perseverance, culture, drive, style, humor, and, above all, she said, “kindness.’’

Whalen said she is excited to further her dental health platform “Smart Smiles’’ during her yearlong reign as Miss Massachusetts, as well as upcoming responsibilities as a goodwill ambassador for Children’s Hospital Boston.

Pageants have long meant more than beauty, and they shine attention on community service and education, Whalen said. Scholarship money will make college bills a little easier for her parents, she said. “Every little bit helps.’’

Whalen had words of support for her competitors, which her mother said is a window into the kind of person she is.

“They were amazing, and we all got along so well,’’ she said. “I would have been equally happy if any one of them had become Miss Massachusetts. I was so proud of them and how they did.’’

Her pride extends to her hometown, which may be the state’s second-largest community geographically, but exudes a friendly, small-town feel, she said.

“I just love Middleborough. I can walk down the street and someone will know who I am and wish me luck.’’

Whalen considers Brunelle her guiding star.

“When I was 7, I saw the girls on Miss America, and I idolized them,’’ Whalen said. “I never dreamed I’d be there.’’

Her advice to young girls who might wish to follow in her path? “It might sound corny, but just believe in yourself and in your dreams.’’

Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.