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Grand Forks teacher recalls when Dick Clark picked her as 'Miss Photogenic'

Meeting someone famous and admired can be an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime moment. But for Grand Forks teacher Sandy Espe, her teenage encounter with entertainment icon Dick Clark was life-changing.

Sandy Espe
Grand Forks Central High School teacher Sandy Espe holds a copy of her Buffalo High School senior portrait that earned her the title "Miss Photogenic" by entertainment icon Dick Clark during a visit to the school 32 years ago. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

Meeting someone famous and admired can be an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime moment. But for Grand Forks teacher Sandy Espe, her teenage encounter with entertainment icon Dick Clark was life-changing.

In 1980, Clark picked Espe's photo as Miss Photogenic from the nine contestants in the Miss Buffalo (N.D.) contest. For Espe -- who'd grown up with a front tooth discolored from a childhood mishap on the monkey bars and who wore glasses she describes as "Coke bottle lenses" -- it was an amazing moment of affirmation.

"Wherever it is that you find your niche in life, where you feel you belong or get approval that you're OK, to feel that from your peers or from someone like Dick Clark -- that was -- 'Wow,'" she said.

Espe was a ninth-grader in Buffalo, N.D., when she met Dick Clark, the host of "American Bandstand" and "New Year's Rockin' Eve" who died April 18. Clark was married to Kari Wigton, whose sister, Debbie Strubel, was Espe's music teacher in Buffalo.

One day after school, Strubel invited the swing choir (of which Espe was a member) and jazz band students to her house to meet Clark, who was visiting his sister-in-law. Espe said she remembers Clark, good-looking and smiling, sitting on the edge of his chair like he was posing for a picture.

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"We were in awe. He was" -- here Espe lowered her voice and put a little growl into it -- "Dick Clark. He was a handsome man."

Miss Photogenic

But that wasn't the end to Espe's brush with the famous entertainer. Two years later, when she was a junior in high school, Buffalo was celebrating its centennial, part of which was a Miss Buffalo contest. A contestant had to be a senior in high school to be crowned Miss Buffalo, but the contest organizers decided they needed more girls, especially ones who could sing, so they convinced Espe to enter.

"They said I would get to ride in the parade in an open Corvette," she said. "That was more alluring to me than any part of the pageant."

By this time, Espe had had her "black tooth" fixed and was wearing contact lenses and makeup. But she still felt self-conscious about her appearance. After all, she was still the girl whose friends had teased her about borrowing her thick glasses and using them to start fires like the Boy Scouts use a magnifying glass to light kindling.

So when Dick Clark was asked to judge the contestant photos from the Miss Buffalo competition and picked her as Miss Photogenic, it was, to say the least, a big deal, Espe said.

Espe, a career resource educator, works with sixth- through 12th-graders for Grand Forks Public Schools and surrounding districts, teaming with counselors and teachers to help students explore career options. Her work with young people reminds her how important it is for them to feel positive affirmation, that they belong and have a place in the world.

Looking at her Miss Photogenic photo today, Espe laughs and says she's still not sure why Dick Clark picked her. But it certainly was a confidence-booster at a time in her life when she needed one.

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"Here's this famous person saying -- he didn't know any of us and I was chosen Miss Photogenic," Espe said.

Reach Tobin at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or send email to ptobin@gfherald.com .

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