A Salute to NATO: Celebrating Fifty Years of Norfolk’s International Azalea Festival

Cover art - A Salute to NATO: Celebrating Fifty Years of Norfolk's International Azalea Festival by Amy Waters Yarsinske

Today, it is hard to imagine Norfolk without its spring rite of passage, but since the publication of A Salute to NATO in 2002, the festival is no more and has, indeed, become one for the history books. Ask someone in 1954, the festival’s first year (though it had a couple of years of run-up before the official launch), if they thought the event would still be going strong 50 years later, optimism might not have reigned as enthusiastically as the event’s first queen. Not until the 1957 festival did leading Norfolk citizens, members of the sponsoring Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, decide the event was “here to stay.” That decision was firmly reached after the fourth annual festival, when the Chamber studied the value of it, endorsed its international character, and determined that the resulting publicity, by then found readily in national and international publications, was a bonus to the city’s overall image.

A decade after its inception, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the International Azalea Festival, the city’s annual salute to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), was a great success. In A Salute to NATO, author Amy Waters Yarsinske captured a festival that evolved from a fete of frivolity, endless parties and appearances to something that tipped the party politic, one in which getting picking a nation and a princess was strategic and sometimes controversial. Norfolk’s spring right of passage was about far more than a soiree in the name of a flower and NATO, whose Atlantic command remains headquartered in the city. Like the organization it was intended to honor, the festival underwent significant changes in organization, composition and priorities while also reflecting the tenor of world affairs in the process.

The world of 2003 was not the world of 1953, when the Norfolk Chamber first envisioned Queen Azalea I and her court of international beauties who would reign for one glorious week in April the following year. The world and the festival eventually grew together, apart and back again, enduring unpredictable Mother Nature, the rancor of peace protestors and the resignation of queens, only to return every April [until 2009, the festival’s fifty-sixth year, when it was reconstituted as the Norfolk NATO Festival and without a queen] when the azaleas are in full bloom. The message from the city of Norfolk and the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce to the world, first shared in 1954, is one that celebrates the rich tradition of friendship, unity and cultural diversity embodied by what was the International Azalea Festival, now the Norfolk NATO Festival.