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story.lead_photo.caption Miss Greater Jonesboro Maggie Benton sings during the talent section of the competition before being crowned the 2017 Miss Arkansasat the Robinson Center in downtown Little Rock on Saturday. - Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun

Saturday night, Maggie Benton subtly shook her head in disbelief on stage at the Robinson Center in the moments after it was just announced that she was crowned 2017 Miss Arkansas.

"The nerves of just being on TV and out in front of your friends and family were definitely real," Benton said. "But also just knowing that it was going to happen the way that it was supposed to. It ended up being more than I could have ever hoped for."

She reflected back nearly five years ago when her pageant journey began, a memory that triggered the shock she said she was feeling. Benton didn't always see herself as a pageant competitor, much less a future Miss Arkansas, but a particular day when she was 17 years old sticks out to her in terms of when it all started.

"When I was a senior in high school, I was at a Make-A-Wish Foundation fundraiser, a philanthropy I am very passionate about, and Kristen Glover Belew was there," Benton recalled. "She was Miss Arkansas 2011 and was there having an appearance in Jonesboro. I saw her signing autographs and playing with kids. She spoke to the crowd and I realized in that moment what Miss Arkansas was all about, and I decided that was a job I wanted to have."

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Photos by Stephen B. Thornton

Benton set a goal that day, and began to do pageants. She won the first one she entered.

"I was completely shocked. I thought I had won Miss America," she said, laughing.

Later that year, she competed in her first Miss Arkansas pageant and got a taste of what it was like. Five years later and four Miss Arkansas pageants later, she's at the peak of her journey.

Benton stood on the stage Saturday night next to the four other finalists still in the competition, and in front of the 38 other contestants and waited a suspenseful handful of minutes as the runners-up were announced.

"It went so quick that I was Miss Arkansas before I could even blink," Benton said. "It was actually contrary to everything that I have ever heard. Most people say that moment feels like a hundred years, but I think that they started to narrow it down and had not called my name yet, the more I was like, 'Oh, my goodness. I need more time.' It went so quick, and then it was all over. It was definitely a blur."

In a way, the entire process has ascended quickly, from high school senior listening to a former Miss Arkansas speak to being in those same shoes herself.

Benton said she feels prepared for the challenge. She was student body vice president at University of Arkansas, a place where she was always a leader on campus.

"I fell in love with that whole area and everything it had to offer," Benton said. "I definitely credit them for a lot of this, just being ready for this year, that job that I had on campus and some really important mentors that I had on campus."

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She recently graduated with a degree in communications, and was accepted into the Clinton School of Public Service for her master's degree, but has now put that on hold for a year in order to focus on her duties as Miss Arkansas. The $30,000 scholarship she received for winning the pageant will now cover her tuition when she returns to school.

"It absolutely changes everything," Benton said. "The burden is so much lighter now."

Her platform is called "Giving is a Gift" and scripts a simple message about giving to others and the satisfaction it brings.

"Really promoting philanthropic efforts for adults and kindness for everyone," Benton said. "I really think it is a message that I can take to anyone at any age across the state, and hopefully build communities and morale across the state through that message."

It has already been a whirlwind 24 hours for Benton, whose phone buzzes so frequently that she eventually had to turn it off in order to accomplish some of the things on her schedule. She said she knows she has many people to thank, including her family and friends who were in the audience Saturday night.

"I could not have done it without them," Benton said. "Having everyone there and that support is kind of what gets you through each phase as you go through the night."

The next year will be a busy one for her as she assumes a responsibility and a challenge that she said she takes very seriously. Benton wants to take Miss Arkansas to places it has never gone before, and meet as many people in the state as possible, while promoting her platform.

"I have heard it flies by, but I hope it goes slow," Benton said. "I am excited to go to places that Miss Arkansas has never been before. Hopefully we will have some new experiences this year for this organization and, hopefully, myself."

Metro on 06/19/2017

Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun
Maggie Benton, Miss Greater Jonesboro, was crowned Miss Arkansas Saturday evening in Little Rock. A native of Jonesboro, she graduated in May from the University of Arkansas. Darynne Dahlem of Greenwood, Miss University of Arkansas, was first runner-up. Benton will visit Northwest Arkansas next week.

Print Headline: Miss Arkansas seeking new trails; Pageant winner wants to reach more lives with state’s crown

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