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It's a small world for this pair
Former Miss USA, long-lost fan meet again
By Josh Stockinger | Daily Herald Staff

Former Miss USA Karen Morrison-Comstock of St. Charles looks at pictures with Armand Villarin at Geneva Care Center last week, while reliving memories of her 1974 trip to the Philippines. As a 13-year-old in the Philippines, Villarin took a shine to Miss USA. More than 30 years later, after he had moved to St. Charles, Villarin ended up caring for Morrison-Comstock's father while working as a nurse in Geneva.

 

Rick West | Staff Photographer

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Published: 12/2/2007 11:41 PM

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Thirty-three years and some 8,000 miles span this small-world story of a curious boy and a teenage beauty queen.

It begins on a crowded street in Manila, Philippines, and ends in Geneva, at the bedside of a dying man.

The main characters are Armand Villarin, a Filipino immigrant, and Karen Morrison-Comstock, a former Miss USA.

They giggle and smile in the final scene, in which worn photos are passed back and forth, and decades-old details rehashed.

"You were part of my childhood memories," Villarin tells Morrison-Comstock, softly patting her knee.

"Young, innocent and curious about foreigners" is how Villarin describes his 13-year-old self, who first caught a glimpse of Miss USA in Manila, near his native village, or barangay, in 1974.

Then 19, Morrison-Comstock, of St. Charles, was touring the Philippines as a contender in the Miss Universe pageant.

Villarin remembers feeling caught up in the fanfare. "My family watched it on the news. I was very interested, always reading about it in newspapers," he says. "Filipinos were very proud because Miss Universe was being held in the Philippines for the first time."

His family went to Manila, the country's bay city capital about 30 miles away from their home, one day to see the contestants in a parade.

Villarin was immediately taken aback by Morrison-Comstock's height. She was 5-foot-11 -- a stature not common among many Filipinos, Villarin said.

"All the ladies were just beautiful," he says. "But I remember thinking (of Morrison-Comstock), 'She's so tall.' "

He also remembers her one-piece red swimsuit, and a tiny crown charm pinned to her sash.

Photos were snapped, including one that showed Villarin standing near Morrison-Comstock. The picture later was destroyed in a flood, he said.

And that -- it seemed -- was that.

Hello again

Long removed from his boyhood encounter with Miss USA, Villarin, in 1993, decided to move to the United States to raise a family near his sister-in-law, who lived in the Chicago suburbs.

He settled on St. Charles as a destination and became a registered nurse, eventually getting a job at Provena's Geneva Care Center, an assisted-living home in Geneva.

Villarin says he didn't find out about Morrison-Comstock's Illinois roots, or that she still lived in St. Charles, for years.

Then, last May, he received paperwork about a patient transfer for a man named Rex Morrison. The man's daughter, Morrison-Comstock, arrived with him at Geneva Care Center.

Villarin couldn't believe the coincidence, he said: "I told everybody, 'I know her, I know her.' "

'Amazing'

"He was so cute," Morrison-Comstock says of getting reacquainted with Villarin, whom she didn't immediately recall from the Philippines. "I walked in (Geneva Care Center), and he goes, 'Hi, Karen.' "

Morrison-Comstock said Villarin described to her in detail the outfit she wore that day in Philippines, even recalling the crown charm, which wasn't worn by other contestants and had long been forgotten even by her.

"I knew he couldn't be lying because he remembered more than I did," she says. "It was really amazing."

For the next two weeks, Villarin was among nurses caring for Morrison-Comstock's father, a locally well-known restaurateur, in the final days of his life.

He parted ways with the family when Rex Morrison died June 13 after battling a heart condition and Alzheimer's disease, but since has met with Morrison-Comstock again to chat about memories of the Philippines.

"It's been kind of fun to just sit and talk with someone who remembers the same things," says Morrison-Comstock. "It made me feel good that someone remembers so much."

Friends

The parallels between Morrison-Comstock's and Villarin's lives these days consist of more than city limits.

Morrison-Comstock, now 53, and Villarin, now 47, both are married and have four children each.

As for the Miss Universe pageant, Morrison-Comstock never won the title.

But she has made a name for herself helping locally with pageants, such as the Miss Illinois contest now held each year here.

And she'll always be a story, if not the story, from Villarin's childhood -- the one he sums up with a smile and a shrug: "It's a small world, you know?"