Growing up on a farm outside of Ladoga, Indiana, Nikki Carpenter, Wabash’s Senior Administrative Assistant for Enrollment and Operations, remembers spending her summers walking pigs, sewing and baking with mom, and perfecting modeling for the Miss Montgomery County 4-H Queen Contest. The 10-year member learned valuable life skills participating in 4-H, and now she’s excited to watch her own kids follow in her footsteps.
WM: You grew up in a family of 4-H’ers, and participated in swine, foods, sewing, and modeling—among other projects. What got you excited the most? What kept you motivated to put in the hard work every year?
NC: The pigs are my passion. I’ve been around them my entire life. You have to put in blood, sweat, and tears when it comes to raising livestock. There were definitely days I didn’t want to walk my pigs, feed them twice a day, give them water several times a day, and clean the pens, but I had the discipline to do it.
It was always rewarding to get recognized and earn that trophy at the fair, but I don’t think the competition was what kept me going. I just love the pigs. They’re like dogs. When you go into the barn every day, they learn to like you. They like their ears grabbed and bellies rubbed. We’ve had several over the years that if you just touch them, they flop over and want love.
What was showing like? Did you ever get nervous before going in front of the judges?
Montgomery County is super competitive with its pig shows, and has one of the best in the state. Aside from showmanship, judges are looking at the body style of the pig—how it walks, holds its head up, if it is groomed properly. When it’s showtime, the pig needs to be between you and the judges, so that they can see both sides of it, front and back. A lot goes into getting your pig ready from when you first sign up in January to fair time in July.
You can show up to four pigs, and every year my brother and I always showed four. I was never really nervous—maybe my first year with my very first pig, but after that it was just second nature.
As the 1999 Miss Montgomery County 4-H Queen, there’s another side of you that loves the glamour with fashion and modeling. Tell us about that passion.
As a little girl, I remember watching the pageant shows and saying, ‘I’m going to do that.’ Back then, you could be crowned queen at 16. Current regulations require contestants to be 18 to compete for the 4-H queen title. I ran my first year and I got first runner-up for county queen, and was crowned pig queen. My second year, I got first runner-up again. I was excited, but pretty bummed and questioned whether I was going to run my last year. I felt like I was just ‘first runner-up material.’ With encouragement from my mom and friends, I tried again my third year, and I’m glad I did. I was shocked when they called my name. The tears were everywhere. Winning queen wrapped up my 4-H career, and was the perfect cherry on top.
I handmade my formals every year for my sewing projects. They were my prom, Christmas dance, and homecoming dresses, and I wore them in the queen contests as well. When I won, I asked my parents if we could buy a real dress from a shop to wear at the state fair queen competition, and they thankfully let me do that.
As a co-coordinator for the Miss Montgomery County 4-H Queen Contest since 2000, what’s it like being on the other side of the pageant?
The best part is watching the growth of these girls. When they come in at 16, some are scared to death. We had one girl who cried the entire time she was modeling her professional wear. She was terrified and shaking, but she got through it. She got through her speech. She got through the contest, and at the end of it all she said, “I did it. I will come back next year and know what to do. I got this.” Her confidence blossomed. I get goosebumps thinking about it. I love being there for the girls, mentoring them, sharing my own experiences, and watching them pull it all together and succeed.
This is the first year your oldest daughter, Courtlyn, is running for Miss Montgomery County 4-H Princess. How are you feeling?
I’m just beside myself! She’s a mini-me. She does fashion review and loves modeling. She’s already got her dress and has been practicing interviewing and perfecting public speaking. She’s confident, outgoing, and personal. She’s so focused and excited for her first year. I really think she is going to do well. Even if she doesn’t win this year, I know she has a bright future in the contest.
All three of your children are involved with 4-H. What do they participate in?
Cohen (10) will be a second-year, Caelyn (13) is a fifth-year, and Courtlyn (16) is going into her eighth year as a 4-H member. They do a lot of the same projects I did, but they’ve also found their way and discovered their own passions. All three show pigs. My son also participates in tractor driving and farm toy scene. Both girls take foods (baking), flowers, sewing, and fashion. Courtlyn also takes photography, and has an amazing eye for it.
What skills did you gain in 4-H that you hope your kids will develop as members?
Time management is definitely the first, and probably biggest, skill I gained that’s helped me succeed in life. With every project, you only have a set amount of time to get everything done. Let’s look at foods, for example. You have time to practice and tweak recipes for a couple months after you sign up in January, but the finished project presented to judges needs to be made the night before so it’s fresh. If you want to have the best-tasting and best-decorated cake, you have to keep practicing to get to that point. You can’t procrastinate and hope for the best.
There are so many other important life skills and traits I hope my kids gain— responsibility, leadership, the ability to communicate effectively, and take constructive criticism—and I’ve already started to see all of that. But another big thing I hope they appreciate are the friendships made along the way.
Any fun facts you’d want the Wabash community to know about you?
I was bored one day in college and decided, Hey, I want to be on a game show. Let’s try Wheel of Fortune.
Random, I know, but that’s just how my mind works. Two weeks after applying and going to a casting call in Indianapolis, I got a letter in the mail that they chose me. That November, I flew out to L.A. for filming. They have contestants draw numbers to see what episode they are going to be on and who they’d play with, and my episode aired in 2003 on New Year’s Eve. I made it to the bonus round and won $22,500.