As a Sacred Heart School student in Yankton at the time, Kristen Rezac’s choice for a homework assignment received a royal response.
The youngster wrote the 2009 letter to Queen Elizabeth II.
“Kristen had to write a letter to a hero,” said her mother, Barb Rezac. “She told (the queen) in her letter that she was one of her heroes because she was a female leader.”
To Kristen’s surprise, she received a letter from Her Royal Highness --- or at least her office ---on official Windsor Castle letterhead.
“I remember Kristen being so excited when (the queen) sent her a letter back,” Barb Rezac said. “Of course, I’m sure it was her staff, but it made a pretty significant impact on her.”
The message, thanking Kristen for the correspondence, came from a woman who personally signed the letter as the queen’s “lady in waiting.”
While attending Yankton High School, Kristen Rezac sent another letter to Her Majesty and again received a response.
Those letters have taken on an even more sentimental and historical meaning with Queen Elizabeth’s death Thursday at age 96. She ruled for 70 years, seeing vast changes in her nation and around the world during her lifetime.
A BRITISH SUBJECT
The Rezacs weren’t the only area residents following Queen Elizabeth’s reign and death.
For Gary Palmer, Elizabeth II truly reigned as his queen.
As a dual American-British citizen, the Yankton man has technically remained a subject even though he has lived in Yankton since 1993 and hasn’t visited England since 2015.
“She has been the only queen I have known,” she said. “I was 2 years old when Elizabeth became queen in 1952, so I was too young to remember anything of the royalty before her.”
Queen Elizabeth took the throne shortly after World War II and provided the United Kingdom (UK) with seven decades of stability, Palmer said.
“It’s intriguing in looking back on the relationships and events that happened during her lifetime. When she took the throne, there were all sorts of concerns going on in the UK,” he said. “And then you had all the changes in the world with all these upheavals. She was the first royal to have her coronation televised.”
Queen Elizabeth’s coronation wasn’t held until a year after she ascended to the throne, Palmer said. He was unsure of the reason, but he noted it could have included the desire for a summer ceremony. In addition, extended time was needed for arranging such a historic event and for bringing together heads of state from around the world.
“The stars had to align for as many people as possible to attend a coronation,” he said.
While the ceremony was delayed a year, Elizabeth assumed her duties immediately following the death of her father, King George VI, in February 1952.
“She came back from Africa after her father died. She went on television and made a vow that she would rule for the rest of her life, whether it was a long time or a short time,” Palmer said.
“She upheld that vow in a very graceful but firm manner. She had the storms within her family, but she never broke protocol. She may have lost her temper with her corgis, but I respect that she followed the rule in her family: Never complain, never explain. She was able to stick to it, and that’s how they kept the mystique of the royal family.”
The British Empire was dissolving in the 1950s, just as Queen Elizabeth was ascending the throne, Palmer said.
“India was considered the crown jewel of the empire, and it was already gone by then (becoming an independent nation),” he said. “The queen was deeply involved in moving things along, as well.”
While Queen Elizabeth was prohibited from taking political stands, she did hold official duties, Palmer said. The queen met 13 of the 14 U.S. presidents during her reign. She also met five popes, including the current Pope Francis.
She was the most traveled monarch as she covered more than one million miles and visited 117 different countries during her reign.
Each day, she received the “red briefcase,” containing documents requiring her inspection and signature, Palmer said. In addition to her secular duties, she served as supreme governor of the Church of England.
Palmer remains intrigued by American interest in the monarchy.
“I’m amazed at Americans’ fascination with the royal family,” he said. “This nation fought for its independence and freedom from the King of England, but we still have this fascination with the monarchy.”
AN AMERICAN VIEW
University of South Dakota professor Tim Schorn teaches about the monarchy as part of his courses in international affairs.
Queen Elizabeth played a special role even though she was a figurehead and didn’t wield political power, Schorn said.
“The British monarch exists to lend stability to and exercise a unifying effect for the country,” he said. “No one epitomized this more than Queen Elizabeth II, who reigned for 70 years, while at the same time the United Kingdom had 15 different prime ministers.”
She also served as a bridge between an older style of monarch and a much more modern one, Schorn said.
“When she assumed the throne after the death of her father, King George VI, the monarchy was a much more popular and respected institution,” he said. “As the forms and approaches of the media have changed, along with the expectations of the British people, the monarch and the royal family are much more familiar to the people.”
In turn, it has transformed the royal family and the public’s perception of it, Schorn said.
“When secrets become more difficult to keep and family affairs play out in public, the shine dims a bit,” he said. “This has especially been the case over the last 40 years. Marriages, divorces, affairs, off-hand or controversial remarks, family feuds — all have dented the prestige of the monarchy,” he said.
“Along with this, more people in the UK are questioning the role of the monarchy, especially since its constitutional powers are essentially non-existent and any crises play out in public.”
Palmer agreed with the impact of greater visibility for the royal family. He noted two major factors at play.
First, the British wanted to see the royal family rather than have them secluded in Buckingham Palace and other sites.
“By the 1970s, the public wanted the royal family shown having picnics, grilling and doing other things,” he said. “The monarchy was forced, against their will, to start publicizing things like that.”
Second, the internet and social media totally transformed the royal family’s ability to keep any secrets from the public, he said.
“And members of the royal family were giving interviews with the press,” he said. “When you do that, you become more of a celebrity.”
THE ROYAL FUTURE?
The wealth of the royal family has become much more controversial over the last couple of decades, and it unsettles many British taxpayers, Schorn said.
“But no one can contest the personal popularity and the ability of Queen Elizabeth II to remain above the fray, and to be viewed as nearly beyond personal reproach,” he said.
“She, too, helped to lead the monarchy into more modern times with a more modern role. Her son and successor, King Charles III, is going to have a much more difficult path ahead. His personal popularity has always been tenuous.
“The failed relationship with then Princess Diana, his ability to occasionally speak out somewhat controversially on political matters, and just his personality, stack the deck against him.”
Queen Elizabeth’s death will bring back affectionate memories of the late Princess Diana, who was popular with the people, Palmer said. The British will remember Diana’s divorce from Charles and her tragic death at a young age, he added.
“The people are thinking and saying what could have been had things turned out differently,” Palmer said. “Diana would become the Queen Consort rather than (second wife) Camilla.”
Those memories may taint King Charles’ reign, Palmer said.
“Charles is 73 years old. Some think he is too old or too old-fashioned,” he said. “You have to remember, Elizabeth was in her 20s when she became queen.”
While she was nearly a century old, Queen Elizabeth’s death remained stunning because, Palmer noted, she was shown meeting two days earlier with new British Prime Minister Liz Truss.
Palmer was receiving British friends as guests this week, assuming they learned of the queen’s death while in flight to or across the United States.
“The whole country had known she had questionable health and was having mobility problems,” he said. “We had known for some time she was coming to the end of her life, but it was still a very sudden decline.”
Palmer noted the many long traditions and plans for Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral. On Friday, King Charles addressed the nation on his mother’s death, and a prayer service was held for her in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
The planning will include transporting her body from Scotland to England, Palmer said. She may lie in state in Scotland, and there may be some sort of ceremonies across England in addition to her lying in state and a funeral at London, he said.
The queen’s funeral will be attended by dignitaries and heads of state from around the globe, Palmer said.
He added that, while King Charles III has assumed the throne, his coronation might not be scheduled until next summer.
Queen Elizabeth will be remembered for her love of horses, her corgis and her enjoyment of Balmoral Castle in Scotland, which providing a fitting place for her passing, Palmer said.
“She was a classy lady and it’s hard to think of her now gone because she had been around for so long,” he said.
Schorn agreed that Elizabeth II will hold a special place in history.
“It goes without saying that there will not be another monarch like Queen Elizabeth II,” he said. “Not just because of her longevity and personal popularity, but also because her death is likely to result in a much-changed attitude toward the monarchy and its future role.”
For Barb Rezac, the queen’s passing reminds her of royalty who took time to acknowledge a South Dakota girl’s letter and include leaflets about the monarch.
“The Queen wishes for me to write and thank you for your letter,” the message said. “Her Majesty was pleased to hear from you, and, although unable to do as you ask, because of the overwhelming number of similar requests received every day, The Queen much appreciated your kind message of support.”
“I am to thank you again for writing as you did,” the lady-in-waiting concluded.
Barb noted one unexpected connection between Elizabeth II and her daughter.
“Kristen was crowned homecoming queen while in high school, so I guess it was one queen to another,” Barb said jokingly.
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