In 1956, KETC-TV from St Louis, Missouri would be bringing1200 children, by train, to tour Mark Twain points of interest in Hannibal. The Hannibal Chamber of Commerce felt special greeters for the youth would enhance the visit and announced they would sponsor a contest amongst seventh grade students in Hannibal to portray Twain's famous couple Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher. On May 5, 1956, Hannibal crowned its first Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher, Chris Winkler and Perva Lou Smith, in front of 1,200 St. Louis children. The Tom and Becky program has continued to select Hannibal youth to portray Tom and Becky as "goodwill ambassadors", and now celebrates its 68th year.
In the beginning, the contest consisted of each school in Hannibal selecting one boy and one girl from the seventh grade class to participate. The first judging committee from the Hannibal Chamber consisted of George Pace (chairman of the Chamber Tourist Development Committee), Woodrow Moore, A. G. Barnett, and Robert Welch. Members of the Missouri Press Association, the Mark Twain Research Foundation, and the Missouri Historical Society performed final judging. The selection was based on costumes, personification, and personality and from illustrations in the first edition of Tom Sawyer and the Gilded Age. Final judging was held the morning of the students tour.
Prior to the announcement, word of the event reached Walt Disney who was opening Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland in June of that year and an invitation was extended to the winners of the Tom and Becky contest to participate in Disney's Tom Sawyer Island's opening ceremonies.
Since 1956, the Tom and Becky program has continue to select young people from Hannibal to serve as ambassadors for the city and the tourist industry and as word of the program spread so did the opportunities for Tom and Becky. Tom’s and Becky’s have participated in numerous parades not only locally, but nationally. They have made many appearances throughout Missouri, have been to Washington, D.C., Florida, New York, Minnesota, Iowa, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Texas, Arizona, Kansas, Ohio, Tennessee, Illinois, Hartford, Connecticut, and many visits to California. This year Tom and Becky will return to the Calaveras County Frog Jumping Jubilee in Angel's Camp, California and also to Carson City, Nevada.
Through the years, Tom and Becky have had the opportunity to visit Japan (twice), Canada (twice), Mexico and the Islands of Bermuda. They have made appearances at schools, libraries, ground breaking ceremonies, conventions, greeted tour buses, attended ribbon cuttings, festivals, and met passengers arriving by riverboat. Tom and Becky have served as guest speakers at local functions, and spoke before civic and school groups about Twain's writings, Hannibal's history and tourism.
Hannibal's ambassadors have greeted Presidents, Vice Presidents, first Ladies and governors and had their images in magazines, newspapers, billboards, and appeared on television and documentaries across the world.
To meet the many appearance requests, the selection process has changed and the number of Tom and Becky ambassadors selected has increased to 5 boys and and 5 girls. In the early years of the program the schools were responsible for selecting representatives from their school to participate and winners were chosen based upon personal interviews before a panel of judges usually the morning of the announcement. In 1981 an orientation was added where the contestants toured the historic district and attractions, and in addition, a 20 question written test on Hannibal and Mark Twain was added with Final judging held on July 3rd. The announcement of the winners followed the Hannibal Chamber of Commerce sponsored frog jump.
In 1987 the test format was changed to 20 questions with written answers and 10 questions with true or false answers.
Changes to the contest came again in 1992 by opening it up to all 7th grade students who lived in the Hannibal Public School District. 100 students applied that year. Teachers then narrowed the field to 40 students who prepared a speech. The speeches were performed before a panel of judges who again narrowed it to 20. Contestants took a written test on Mark Twain and Hannibal and had personal interviews before a panel of judges. This panel narrowed the field to 5 boys and 5 girls. An orientation period and final judging followed this selection. The final judges were responsible for selecting the official Tom and Becky.
Today, the contest runs from February to July 4th each year with invitations sent to all seventh grade students residing and attending school within the Hannibal Public School District. This includes public, private and home schooled students. Students who are interested in the program sign up through their school or at the museum offices. Students then present to a panel of 9 judges a 2 minute speech on why they would like to be a Tom or Becky or would make a great Tom or Becky. Judges select 12 boys and 12 girls to move on to the semi-finals. The candidates then take a written test on Mark Twain and Hannibal that consists of 110 to 118 fill in the blank answers and have personal interviews before a panel of 5 judges who are familiar with the program, Hannibal, and Twain's writings. This panel narrows the field to 5 boys and 5 girls. Finalists then prepare their costumes and participate in a 2-day orientation where three judges observe them and score them how they interact with each other and visiting tourist, their aptitude for the job, manners, and their ability to portray the character, as well as; stories for items in their bags, the engagement scene, and their costumes. On July 3rd, three out of town judges observe and score the candidates in the historic district during the morning and in the afternoon they conduct personal interviews of all 10 finalists. The cumulative score from the test, orientation and final judging is used to select the official Tom and Becky who are announced in Central Park on July 4th.
In 2015, stewardship of the Tom and Becky Program was transferred from the Chamber of Commerce to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum where the program has found it’s current home.
You can follow Tom and Becky and all their appearance through the year on Facebook at The Tom and Becky Program.