Matters of State

Carol Takafuji, left, and Norene Gerstner strum at the Hawaii State Society's weekly ukulele gathering, one of the events that help members travel over the Pacific without going outside the Beltway.
Carol Takafuji, left, and Norene Gerstner strum at the Hawaii State Society's weekly ukulele gathering, one of the events that help members travel over the Pacific without going outside the Beltway. (By Sora Devore For The Washington Post)
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 25, 2007

Fifty-six years ago, the Wheel of Fortune stopped at "Wyoming."

And there she was: Maldi Tarris, chosen Cherry Blossom Queen 1951 by fate, her smile a veritable picket fence of pride. For a time in April, she and her fellow princesses were the public faces of their state societies -- Washington's social clubs for transplanted Wyomingites, Dakotans, Carolinians and the like.

The tradition continues today. The wheel will spin again at the Grand Ball on April 13, the climax of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, but the state societies' activities happen year-round.

Are you from the state of Washington? Prepare for Potlatch in May.

Mississippi? Eat catfish on the Mall in June.

Georgia? Pop in on the Pig Jig in October.

No state is farther from Washington than Hawaii.

Four thousand eight hundred and twenty-six miles separate Honolulu and Falls Church. But in that Virginia 'burb this month, 20 people and their ukuleles conjured a serious slice of the Aloha State. So much so that you could swear Lake Barcroft -- twinkling in the moonlight outside Tom and Trippi Penland's waterfront home -- was Hanauma Bay off Oahu.

Every Wednesday, the Hawaii State Society's ukulele club strums, potlucks and dances hula together. With rocking bodies robed in aloha shirts, right hands strumming gently, hips circling in imagined sunshine -- the ground, the air and the vibe all feel Hawaiian. That's the point of any successful state society event.

Some of these bipartisan nonprofit clubs are coming back from the dead thanks to fresh blood: Alabama, Connecticut, Iowa, Louisiana, Nebraska, Nevada, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington are all being nurtured by presidents 30 years old or younger.

"There's a lot of history with state societies, and I put a lot of faith in history," says Ohio State Society President David All, 27, who is revving up a membership drive for the society. "I'll likely stick around Washington forever, so it'll always be good to know there's a place to find fellowship with other Ohioans."

Most societies not only are fulfilling the time-honored tradition of sponsoring a Cherry Blossom Princess, but also scheduling year-round events for compatriots to unite under the banner of shared roots.

Read on for a closer look at Hawaii and five equally dedicated groups, plus get the skinny on the exploits of every other active society.


Who they are: The Hawaii State Society, with 450 on the mailing list, is less centered on Capitol Hill activity than others, forgoing the usual happy hours in favor of kanikapila, or playing music together. Up until 1999, membership was restricted to those born and raised in Hawaii. Now it's open to anyone who has a connection to or love of the state.

What defines a transplanted Hawaiian?"We spread our aloha everywhere we go," says Vienna resident Carol Takafuji, 61, the society's president.

What they do: The annual luau June 9 will be followed by a picnic in August, a hukilau (a surfside party) in Virginia Beach in October and a holiday party in December. Ukulele players meet at a member's house every Wednesday from 7 to 10 p.m. Big upcoming events include the coronation and dinner for Hawaii's Cherry Blossom Princess, Erin Masui, on April 7.

How does one reconcile the breezy aloha spirit with the trenchant grind of Washington?"I think the people here from Hawaii are extremely motivated -- they manage to have a balance of working hard but remaining true to their roots," says Masui, 23, who was born and raised in Honolulu, lives in Virginia and works as a legislative correspondent and staff assistant for Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).

Point of contact:

Membership:$12 per year for individuals, $5 for full-time students younger than 25, $17 for families.

THE WEST COAST: California

Who they are: With 600 dues-paying members in the area, the society draws a wide range of California expatriates, including Hill staffers current and past, plus students, lawyers and members of the military.

How to pick out a Californian on D.C. streets:"The flip-flops," jokes Paul Sweet, 59, a society board member.

What they do: Hockey nights when the San Jose Sharks are in town, Golden State Roundtable luncheons with California leaders, a pre-Oscar party (with red carpet and fake paparazzi). Upcoming big events include a reception for Nicole Johnson, the California Cherry Blossom Princess, in the Rayburn Foyer on Thursday and an annual picnic June 16.

What did her University of Michigan professors think when Johnson asked for a week off to fulfill her princess duties?"They're really excited, but they'd never heard of it," says the 19-year-old freshman and Maryland native, whose parents are from the San Francisco Bay area. "When I come back I'm starting exams, so hopefully I'll have time to study in between all the events."

Point of contact:, 202-543-9559.

Membership:$20 per year for individuals, $35 for families.

THE SOUTH: Louisiana

Who they are: With 100 dues-paying members and a mailing list of 300, the society is trying to draw people from outside the legislative branch. "If you're not actively working on the Hill, some people are hesitant," says Henry Abbott, 26, the society's president.

What defines a transplanted Louisianan?"Before Hurricane Katrina, you'd be from New Orleans or you'd be from Baton Rouge or Shreveport, but now everyone's just from Louisiana. You got a lot more feeling of community as a group," Abbott says.

What they do: Viewing parties for New Orleans Saints games, a king cake party in February and charity events that have raised more than $300,000 for hurricane relief. The big event is the annual crawfish boil: On May 13, a few thousand pounds of crawfish will be driven up from Louisiana for the all-day event, which also features a beer truck and DJ.

Where's the best place in town to capture some of Louisiana?"Heading over to the Smithsonian where there's open area in front of everything," says Louisiana's Cherry Blossom Princess, Aspen Steib, 23 and a 2005 Howard University graduate who works in the newsroom of CNN's Washington bureau. "I play flag football there, and the open spaces make me feel like I'm in the country."

Point of contact:

Membership:$21 per year for individuals, $31 for families.


Who they are: Its 1,000 members live in 25 states, three foreign countries and regionally from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay, from Baltimore to Richmond.

What defines a transplanted Maine-iac?"Their accent," says Lewis Pearson, 75, a past president of the society.

What they do: Maine-iacs help place 5,000 wreaths from Worcester Wreath Co. (based in Harrington, Maine) in Arlington Cemetery every holiday season. They make two trips a year to Gettysburg National Military Park to assist with the maintenance and preservation of two Maine Civil War memorials. The big event is the 62nd annual lobster dinner May 12, preceded by an April 12 reception for the Maine princess.

The biggest adjustment when one moves from Maine to the D.C. area? Getting into the groove of the big city, says Maine's Cherry Blossom Princess, Megan Shannon-Winterson, 25, a legislative assistant to Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine). "I think of Portland as a big city, and that has only 65,000 people," says Shannon-Winterson, who moved here in 2004. "But the new apartment I have [in Silver Spring] overlooks Rock Creek Park. We look out our windows and we see mostly trees, and it feels like home."

Point of contact:, 703-237-1031.

Membership: $10 per year for individuals, $15 for families.


Who they are: There are a lot of government and military people in the society, but there's also a shoe salesman and a person who owns a wig shop, says its president, Cory Colhouer, 28. It has about 250 dues-paying members, but the general mailing list -- which includes alumni from Nebraska colleges -- is about 2,000 strong.

What defines a transplanted Nebraskan?"There's probably nothing that's more common among Nebraskans than a love for Husker football," Colhouer says.

What they do: The group sponsors and funds a year-round intern program, an annual Taste of Nebraska (with Omaha Steaks), a softball tournament in July for states of the Big 12 Conference and a Nebraska Breakfast (a tradition since 1943) on Capitol Hill every Wednesday when the House and Senate are in session. On April 12, it will host a reception for Cherry Blossom Princess Desereé Johnston.

What will Johnston do if the Wheel of Fortune lands on Nebraska?"The winner gets to go to Japan to represent the U.S. there, and I think that would be fantastic," says Johnston, 19, a sophomore at Nebraska Wesleyan University who's interning for the semester in the office of Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). "I love to travel; I have a lot of international interests."

Point of contact:

Membership:$20 per year for individuals, $10 for students and seniors, $30 for families.


Who they are: Small in number but big on horsepower, the dedicated society has about 80 dues-paying members, with an additional 120 on the mailing list.

What defines a transplanted Wyomingite?"People from Wyoming tend to have pretty strong personalities," says society board member Misty Walsh, 32. "They know who they are."

What they do: The society's big event is COWPIE, an acronym for Committee of Wyoming People in the East, which celebrates the opening weekend of Cheyenne Frontier Days, one of the largest rodeos in the world. Started as a tongue-in-cheek backyard barbecue 30 years ago, the July event now features mechanical bull-riding, country music and dancing, Chugwater Chili and barbecue and beef shipped from cattle ranchers. The society also organizes an annual golf tournament in the fall, a holiday party in winter and viewing parties at the Crystal City Sports Pub for University of Wyoming football and basketball. The Cherry Blossom Princess reception will be April 12.

Where's the best place in town to capture some of Wyoming?"The Eastern Market area has the small-town feel of the town I grew up in," says Wyoming's princess, Leah Burke, 23, a native of Cheyenne who works as a staff assistant to Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).

Point of contact:

Membership:$15 per year for individuals, $25 for couples.

What the Rest Are Up To: Looking for a group of fellow transplants from your own home state? Find out how to contact your state society and see what events are in the works.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company