Destin Fishing Rodeo was a "family tradition" for Kelly O'Connor, Miss Destin 1982

Tina Harbuck
The Destin Log

Kelly O’Connor got a little emotional at the Destin Fishing Rodeo on Monday afternoon, as it brought back fond memories. 

O’Connor, served 39 years ago as Miss Destin in 1982, and this was the first time she’s been back to her hometown since 2014. 

Rodeo weighmaster Bruce Cheves was more than excited to announce to the crowd that Miss Destin 1982 Kelly O’Connor was on the docks. 

Miss Destin 1982 Kelly O'Connor stopped by the Destin Fishing Rodeo this week. Miss Destin 2021 Kaylie Sparks and O'Connor posed for a few photographs.

People clapped at the announcement and the current Miss Destin 2021 Kaylie Sparks and others had their photos taken with O’Connor. 

“It was really cool to meet a Miss Destin from 1982, and for her to come back and visit … just shows that she had great memories and experience as Miss Destin,” Sparks said. 

The role of Miss Destin is to be an ambassador for the city. But her main role is to reign at the Destin Fishing Rodeo, which is celebrating 73 years of fishing. During the month-long fishing tournament, which draws anglers from all over the United States, Miss Destin greets anglers and poses for photos with the fishermen and their catches. 

Miss Destin 1982 Kelly O'Connor chats with longtime Destin Fishing Rodeo weighmaster Bruce Cheves at the Rodeo this week.

“The Rodeo, it’s just tradition,” said the 55-year-old O’Connor. “It was very much a part of my family.”  

O’Connor’s parents, Bill and Mary Lou, who have passed away, loved to fish as well as both her brothers, Ben and Billy. Ben and Billy are now both boat captains in Destin and part of what she calls a “rich heritage.” 

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“It was our family tradition to walk the docks,” she said. 

So when she was named Miss Destin in 1982, queen of the Rodeo, it was a “big deal.” 

Miss Destin 1982 Kelly O'Connor visited the Destin Fishing Rodeo this week.

The pageant back then was held at the Destin Elementary School, in what is now the cafeteria. In recent years, the pageant has been held at the Destin Community Center or on stage at Shoreline Church. 

“It was very low-budget,” O’Connor said, noting she got a bouquet of red carnations instead of roses. 

The contestants, like the girls now, wore gowns. 

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However, back then they had to wear bathing suits as well. 

Today, the girls compete in gowns, casual wear and answer a mystery question. 

O’Connor doesn’t remember having to answer any type of questions, but she did get a sash and crown. 

This photo from 1982 show special visitors to the Destin Fishing Rodeo weigh-in. From left are Okaloosa County Commissioner Bill Peebles, Florida Gov. Bob Graham, Miss Destin Kelly O'Connor and Rodeo Chairman Bill Stichler, who is helping an angler with his catch. This photo is in the book "Fifty Years of Fishing The Destin Fishing Rodeo."

O’Connor said that the lettering on the sash was done with sticker type letters. 

“By the end of the Rodeo, some of the letters were about to come off,” she laughed. 

As for her duties as Miss Destin, she posed for photos with the anglers and climbed the ladder to change the leaderboard as anglers brought in their catches. The leaderboard was not even close to the size of the billboard-size leaderboard today. 

Looking at the leaderboard Monday afternoon, O’Connor said the old board was maybe about the size of just one or two of the columns on today's board. 

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The Rodeo in 1982 was held at what was called the old Rodeo docks, located at the foot of the Destin bridge at the opening to the harbor. The Rodeo docks have been gone for more than 25 years, but was home to the Rodeo until 1986. 

Today, the Rodeo is held on the docks behind AJ’s Seafood & Oyster Bar during October. The Rodeo office is upstairs at AJ’s. 

“We had a trailer on the hill,” O’Connor said.

The trailer served as a small office for Rodeo secretary Marcia Green. Bill Sherman was the weighmaster.  

Capt. Irby Windes, Miss Destin Kelly O'Connor and angler Virginia Pitts pose for a photo by the Destin Fishing Rodeo weigh-in board in 1982 with the grand prize-winning red snapper. The snapper weighed 34 pounds 2 ounces. This photo is from the book "Fifty Years of Fishing the Destin Fishing Rodeo."

When boats would come in with their catches to weigh, O’Connor said she had to go down the steps, which were many, to the docks. 

“I remember how rickety the dock was,” she said. 

But she loved every minute of it. “It was so much fun.”  

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As a teenager, O’Connor worked at Marina Point, which was just east of the Rodeo docks. Her job at the marina was to tie up boats, pump gas and get ice and bait for the captains. 

So when it came Rodeo time, she already knew a lot of the captains. 

And being Miss Destin was “a full-time job,” she said, noting she was at the docks every afternoon after school. She went to Fort Walton Beach High School. 

Miss Destin 1982 Kelly O'Connor.

“But being Miss Destin prepared me to be a public figure,” she said. 

Today, O’Connor lives in Denver, Colorado, and is an elder care consultant who works with people from all over. 

“I help people to navigate later life … to make later-life decisions,” she said. 

“And being Miss Destin helped prepare me for that stage,” O’Connor said of talking with people from all over. 

O’Connor said she has done a lot in her life and has lived in lots of places, but people don’t understand how big the Rodeo is. The Rodeo draws thousands of people from all over the United States to fish in a month-long tournament in a city touted as "The World's Luckiest Fishing Village." 

“It’s world class, … It’s the real deal,” she said.