By John Smist | October 9, 2020 at 10:39 PM EDT – Updated October 10 at 3:59 AM
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – Since 1969, Azalea Belles have been part of the North Carolina Azalea Festival, but on Tuesday the Cape Fear Garden Club announced that the Belle program would be ending.
For former Azalea Belle Shelly Wilkie, it’s a tradition she doesn’t want to see lost.
“It was a rite of passage for me,” said Wilkie. “I was 16, it was 1990 and I have an opportunity like that to be picked…it was an absolute honor. I was representing my town and I couldn’t have found a better way to do that.”
Wendy Hunt grew up in Wilmington and she believes the Belles are as big a part of the Azalea Festival as the event itself is to Wilmington.
“My friends were doing it,” said Hunt. “It was always so much fun. You go to the garden party and you see all the girls all dressed in these dresses that are 50 or 75 years old. And each year, the girls wear the same dresses and they’re tailored to them.”
To make sure future generations of girls have the same opportunity, Wilkie started an online petition opposing the decision by the Cape Fear Garden Club to end its Azalea Belle program.
“We have Belles that have reached out to me since 1983,” said Wilkie. “We have people that have reached out to me that…their girls aren’t even Belles yet and they’re so upset; that’s the one thing their girls wanted to do.”
While understanding that things change, Wilkie says the 900-plus signatures on her petition show a lot of people don’t want the Belle program to be one of those changes.
“We don’t want to hurt anyone,” said Wilkie. “We don’t want to disrespect anyone. We aren’t trying to be this hard-core southern way, but this is a tradition. It’s something that we cherish here in our town.”
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