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Miss Cloquet (above), Laura Bakken, waves to the crowd during this year's Labor Day parade in Cloquet. Joel Soukkala/Pine Journal

A year on the job made Miss Cloquet love her hometown even more

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One of Laura Bakken's favorite stories about being Miss Cloquet came in her first official appearance during last year's Home for the Holidays parade. There she was, wearing layers and layers of clothes to keep warm and waving at all the equally bundled up people, when she spied a little girl, doing the "princess wave."

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"You never get told to do that, nobody tells you to do this kind of wave," said Bakken, demonstrating the window-washing motion favored by royals. "I had been waving normally, and this little girl - doing her princess wave - gave me this look, like 'Don't you know what you're doing?' So I've been doing it ever since."

The daughter of Mary and Scott Bakken (and younger sister to Alex), Bakken didn't grow up aiming to be Miss Cloquet or Miss Anything. In fact, she never would have applied were it not for the high school secretary.

"I listened to Mrs. [Rhonda] Mielke, because she's always right," Bakken said with a chuckle, noting that the scholarship money that comes with the title was the major attraction. The fact that community service and good grades were the two most important qualifications was another reason to apply.

No swimsuits or formal gowns are required, just an application form and an interview with Kiwanis representatives.

"It's not a beauty pageant," said Bakken, who said she would recommend other girls apply for the title. "Looks don't go into it at all. It's just about the passion that you have for serving your community."

Bakken has the resume. Before graduating from Cloquet High School last year, she was involved in a range of activities - pep band, National Honor Society, Link Crew, cross country, Junior Executive Board, cheerleading and golf - plus she's been on two mission trips with her church and teaches religious education with best friend Claire Rosen.

Over the past year as Miss Cloquet, she's gotten even more involved in the community through her advisor, Renee Birman, and the Kiwanis Club, which sponsors the competition and scholarship funds.

She weighed fish at the Kiwanis Last Chance Fishing Contest, painted faces and made phone calls for the Memorial Blood Drive and sold raffle tickets for "At the Hop," the 1950s-themed Community Memorial Hospital Foundation fundraiser. She attended numerous community events, including the Easter Egg Hunt at Veterans Park, the Dash for Cash, Mutt Strut and even a Chip Cravaack meet and greet.

Birman said Bakken has been an excellent Miss Cloquet.

"You can call on that girl for something and she's there," said Birman, who took over the reins of the competition a couple years ago. "She always makes time."

For her part, Bakken said having Birman as a sponsor has made the gig that much more enjoyable.

"Being around her has given me a great example of someone who can completely just be a great role model in society," said Bakken of Birman, who owns Cloquet Ford Chrysler with her husband, Al Birman, and is involved in a number of organizations and events in the area. "She has this way of putting everyone at ease when she's talking to them. She's really inspired me."

When speaking of role models, Bakken also talks a lot about her family. She has always looked up to her brother, Alex, who is three years older. She's also obviously been influenced by both mom and dad, sharing her father's love of the outdoors and golf - "I'm a Daddy's girl," she admitted - and studying to become a teacher, just like her mother. She's a freshman at the College of St. Scholastica, her mother's alma mater and a school that her brother highly recommended (even though he ended up transferring to the University of Wisconsin Superior to study criminal justice). She's majoring in English education with a minor in Spanish.

"A lot of people have laughed at me for going to St. Scholastica, an expensive school, to be a teacher," Bakken said, explaining that people point out that she won't make a lot of money teaching. "My parents have always taught me that 'passion trumps salary' and that's really important to me. ... I feel at the end of my life that my accomplishments shouldn't be based on money."

Confident, intelligent, community-minded ... Bakken appears to be a remarkably well spoken, together, young woman. At the same time, she's quite modest.

She chuckled and shook her head "no" when asked if she has singing talent, like her mother.

"I wish I could," she said. "It's not pretty."

She enjoys reading - listing "Pride and Prejudice" as her favorite book - fishing, spending time outdoors and sports.

"I've seriously tried about every sport you can imagine," she said, "but I'm very uncoordinated."

That's OK, though, because to Bakken, it's all about trying things. That's the one thing she would tell kids growing up in Cloquet, to try lots of different activities, whether it's band or photography or a sport.

"Really, that's how you meet people," she said. "I feel like I made really good bonds. And all the coaches I had taught me a lot about life.

"Still, you have to watch out letting that take over your high school career," she added. "You have to remember that you're there to learn."

Speaking of learning, one teacher who had a tremendous influence on Bakken was Dan Naslund. She took a college course from the CHS English teacher called Romance and Revolutionism.

"I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, but he helped me decide I really wanted to pursue English," she said, admitting that she flirted with other occupations briefly but always returned to the idea of teaching. "Just the way he always asked our opinion on things, and he really looked into our interests and asked big questions."

Where would she like to teach?

Some place like Cloquet.

"I like going to school in Duluth, but I would never want to live there," she said. "I started going to small schools and I live in a small town. That's the size I'm comfortable with."

When asked what she would tell a stranger about growing up in Cloquet, Bakken paused a moment, then said she would describe how beautiful this area is. She would tell them about the river, and how she would go fishing there with her dad or swimming with her friends. She would explain how Pinehurst Park is right in the center of town - "It draws everyone in," she said - and makes a wonderful place to play no matter what the season.

"I like that everyone kind of knows everyone," said the Cloquet native. "Some say it's a curse, but I think it's more of a blessing."

She launched into a story about meeting local businessman Barry Bergquist, and how much fun that was because her grandfather painted the giant horse years ago that sits outside Bergquist Imports. In more recent years, her aunt Patty has repainted their signs.

"It's all in the family," Bakken said, laughing. "I like all the

connections."

Although she will soon be handing over the title of Miss Cloquet to someone new, Bakken said it's been an experience she will never forget.

She also said the princess wave wasn't the only thing she learned during her year-long reign. In fact, it's not even the most important thing (although there may be some little girls out there who would dispute that).

"People say there's nothing to do in Cloquet," she said. "There's a lot. You just have to look for it.

"I guess being Miss Cloquet has opened my eyes to everything that goes on, to all the people that have worked so hard for the things that go on in this city. We've got some really inspirational people in this town."

Including one who wears a Miss Cloquet sash on occasion and adopted a new wave so she could live up to the expectations of a little girl.

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