Crowning accomplishment

SHEPHERDSTOWN – Though Allison Speaker’s reign as National Cherry Blossom Queen is almost at an end, the 23-year-old says she can’t wait for the festival that starts next week.
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The National Cherry Blossom Festival,

Because this spring marks the trees’ 100th anniversary, “This year’s festival promises to be the best one yet,” said Speaker, a graduate of Jefferson High and Shepherd University who now is in grad school at American University in D.C.

The festival’s roots date to March 27, 1912, when first lady Helen Taft accepted Japan’s gift of two cherry blossom trees as part of a small ceremony.

Though Speaker will step down as queen before the big centennial celebration, her time as festival queen has been special in a number of ways, notably her eight-day tour of Japan where she got a closeup look at the aftermath of last year’s massive earthquake and tsunami.

The 9.0 quake on March 11, 2011 was the most powerful ever to hit Japan, and one of the five worst recorded anywhere on earth since the dawn of modern record-keeping in 1900. The quake and its resulting tsunami created an official death toll that is staggering: more than 15,000 killed plus thousands of others listed as missing.

“To be able to bring just a little bit of joy to those who had lost so much was truly a humbling experience,” Speaker said.

As the nearly month-long festival gets under way March 20, Speaker is anticipating more joyful moments.

“The most incredible thing about the cherry blossoms, besides how beautiful they are, is that they represent the friendship between the U.S. and Japan,” Speaker said. “In Japan, the cherry blossoms hold so much national pride.”

Shepherdstown’s Allison Speaker, right, will reign as National Cherry Blossom Queen until her successor is crowned in April.

Among dozens of festival events, there’s a screening scheduled of “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom,” a documentary made by Oscar-nominated director Lucy Walker that highlights the Japan culture’s view of cherry blossoms as a symbol of rebirth.

Described as a “visual haiku about cherry blossoms,” the film will be shown March 17 in Silver Spring, Md. Tickets cost $11.50 for the showing, which is set for 7:45 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre at 8633 Colesville Road.

One of the most anticipated festival events is the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade, starting at 10 a.m. April 14 on Constitution Avenue from 7th to 17th streets.

Other free, family-friendly happenings include a master yoga class at the Washington Monument, hands-on art projects, a Japanese Street Festival, a kite festival, a fireworks show, Jazz at the Jefferson and other live music shows, and much more.

“It’s really a chance to see the best of what D.C. has to offer,” Speaker said.

For a list of festival events, go to www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org.[/cleeng_content]

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