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Tears aren’t exactly foreign to livestock show rings at local county fairs.

Competitors get overjoyed when they win; young handlers overcome to part ways with their animal at the end of the season. 

But at the Iowa County fair in July, unexpected crying erupted when fair queen Madalynne Yenter walked to center ring.

Handing her steer to an attendant, she grabbed the mic and declared she was donating the profits of her sale — $4,993 — to Tate Schaefer, a local boy whose battle with a rare, inoperable brain disease has rippled through his small eastern Iowa community since its discovery around Christmas time.

“At these small county fairs there are a lot of big farmers who don’t show their emotions but when she said that, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” said Penny Yenter, Madalynne’s mom. “All those big farmers were sniffling, tucking their hats down, trying to cover up that they were crying.

“Even the auctioneer got a little teary-eyed,” she added, herself getting a tad emotional talking about her daughter.

As Iowa County’s queen, Yenter, who is much wiser than her 16 years might suggest, understood that she had a platform and a unique opportunity to make an impact. This moment, she realized, was her shot to not throw away. So instead of just educating on a cause or merely attempting to raise funds, she put her steer money where her mouth is.

Yenter was one of the more than 100 other girls competing for the title of Iowa State Fair Queen over the weekend. Hannah Koellner, 18, of Eddyville won the crown Saturday night

Yenter plans to continue raising money for Tate and his family as they persevere fighting his disease.

“The way their family has handled this situation with such positivity and faith inspires me and has inspired a lot of other people across the state and country,” Yenter said.

“And, more than anything, sharing that story is just really important to me.”

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Who is Tater?

By all accounts, Tate Schaefer is as rambunctious and sports-obsessed as most every 11-year-old boy is known to be.

But in the fall, Tate’s family noticed their normally vibrant kid was having issues with balance and coordination, according to the Williamsburg Journal Tribune.

Tate has always been an active kid, with a deep love of basketball, baseball, football and golf, but all of a sudden something was just off when he took the field or the court, the family told the newspaper.

A mid-December MRI revealed the source of Tate’s issue: A tumor was putting pressure on his brain stem, and, because of where it was, surgery wasn’t an option. The official diagnosis was a Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), a rare condition, that sees only about 300 new American cases diagnosed each year.

“Obviously getting news like this has rocked our world, but the prayers, well wishes, and offers of help in this short amount of time have already been beyond what we could have imagined!” Tate’s parents, Brad and Darcy Schaefer, told the newspaper in January.  

Soon after learning the diagnosis, the family immediately began a series of 30 radiation treatments at the University of Iowa hospital. Since then, they've started additional therapies in San Francisco.

After years of supporting their small community, neighbors, friends and local businesses responded in kind with cash donations or emotional encouragement. Even the Iowa men’s basketball team helped get the word out by sporting “Tater Tough” — the family’s motto — shirts during warmups.

“All this support continues to fuel Tate and puts a huge smile on his face,” the Schaefers said.

Don't call it a beauty pageant!

After her center ring declaration, Yenter made her way into the arms of some of Tate’s family for a big hug and a few more tears.

Being able to make a difference in her community was one of the reasons she ran for Iowa County queen in the first place, she said.

As a kid, she loved the shine of the crown and the sparkle of the sash, but she came to understand the role meant she could speak for others — and highlight stories she felt needed to be told.

(In the same way, she tells me that she is not interested in being held up as anything special for this story. Instead, she wants you, the reader, to hold Tate and be proud of the way his family has handled his struggle.)

Among her fellow contestants Yenter’s bright smile certainly stands out, but these 100 young women are truly the cream of the crop in Iowa. Before they walk the stage, we are told that they have a combined average 3.58 GPA and a list of extracurriculars as long as Santa’s December roll.

“This pageant isn’t about looks at all,” said the State Fair Queen director Jessie Peters. “This is about choosing the best person to advocate for the state and the Iowa State Fair.”

I’ve long felt that to describe today's contests as "beauty pageants" is to label them with a misnomer left over from a different era. Today, women are fighting for a cause, not for the glory of being the most physically beautiful.

But for those who don't believe me, they can look to these Iowa girls for proof.

As they introduced themselves during the start of the fair, the girls offered their goals for the next year. 

Page County’s representative wanted to create a free series of classes to help women learn how to do their taxes or take out loans. Mahaska County’s queen hoped to figure out how to address the growing concern of hunger in her county.

Scott County’s delegate looked to offer services to stem the rising suicides among farmers, while Sioux County’s member worked to start a mentorship program that helps girls resist societal gender norms and Worth County’s deputy asked her school district to improve sex education with one-on-one classes led by older students.

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Yenter plans to continue to raise money for the Schaefer family to ease their travels from Iowa to San Francisco for ongoing treatments.

Her next goal is to get the entire community involved in one big "Tater Tough" event. She’s thinking a 5K or a fun run.

But that’s an assignment for after the fair.

Right now, standing in the shadow of the stage, Yenter has another story to prop up: The one of her fellow queens.

Because if you ask her, “Every one is worthy of a crown.”

“We all have really high goals that I think are attainable for all of us,” she said, “so I think each of us is really going to make a difference in our counties and communities.”

COURTNEY CROWDER, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. Her goal for next year would be to help increase news literacy in elementary school, or to raise funds for public libraries. You can reach her at 515-284-8360 or ccrowder@dmreg.com. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.

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