A Queen with a Servant’s Heart
Writer // Janelle Morrison Photography // Submitted
Zionsville resident Olivia Johnson may have been recently named the 2019 Indianapolis 500 Queen Scholar in recognition of her academic achievements, eloquence and community volunteerism, but those are also innate qualities of Johnson’s that have made and continue to make an impact on her hometown and state.
Johnson is a 2016 graduate of Zionsville Community High School and the daughter of Ed and Joyce Johnson. She just completed her junior year at Purdue University and has been an active volunteer over the years at local Zionsville institutions, such as the Hussey-Mayfield Memorial Public Library where she first interned as a youth for the library’s summer reading program.
Johnson recently facilitated a special program, “Communicating with Orangutans,” at the library in Zionsville on Friday, June 7. She has been working at the Indianapolis Zoo as a Global Conservation Interpretive Guide and has spent two-and-a-half years working closely with the 11 orangutans that are housed at the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center at the Indianapolis Zoo.
“A large part of my job is to talk with people about the orangutans who are native to Southeast Asia,” Johnson said. “I talk about how they can help save this critically endangered species right here in Indiana. They
are very smart animals—they all recognize me. I am like a family to them. It’s just a really cool experience, and I wanted to share with the people who come to the library [program] why this is a species worth saving and how we can help. I brought some conservation kits and read a story about orangutans. I also shared my personal stories about how impactful orangutans have been in my life these past two and a half years.”
Johnson’s volunteerism played a large role in her being selected as this year’s 500 Festival Queen Scholar. The 500 Festival Princess Program celebrates 33 of Indiana’s civic-minded, academically driven, college-aged women.
“This is the 60th year of the 500 Festival Princess Program, and it has evolved a lot since its inception,” Johnson shared. “We’re very proud of the history and traditions of the program, but it is very much not a ‘pageant.’ We’re 33 women who care a lot about the city of Indianapolis, the state of Indiana, and who put volunteerism as a priority. It is a very competitive process—there are hundreds of women that apply.”
Johnson explained that the princesses begin their inbound and outbound outreach work as early as February, leading up to the Indianapolis 500.
“From February until now, I’ve done over 50 outreach programs in Indianapolis and throughout Indiana,” she said. “The outreaches are really a chance to bring the community together and a chance to do public speaking and education throughout the state of Indiana. We are required to do a minimum of four outreaches. The princesses create our own outreach and pick places that were influential in our lives growing up or involve something we are very passionate. We set up the entire event and ask the community to join us.”
Johnson selected the Hussey-Mayfield Memorial Public Library and her orangutan program as her outreach project.
The princesses attend several mandatory events leading up to the Indianapolis 500, including the 500 Festival Mini Marathon.
“I ran it [the mini marathon] with some of the other princesses, and a lot of the princesses helped pass out water at the pit station,” Johnson shared. “We attended many other events—many of which are free—for people to come and celebrate the history and traditions of the 500 Festival and the Indianapolis 500.”
Out of all the moments that Johnson experienced throughout the 500 Festival Princess Program, there were two that Johnson will never forget: when she was announced as the 2019 500 Festival Queen Scholar and her moment with the 2019 Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud, in Victory Circle.
“It [being named Queen Scholar] was surreal and incredible,” Johnson said. “You actually apply to be the Queen Scholar. You write a 500-word essay on what your favorite outreach [program] was and how you believe that the value of the 500 Festival and what you learned from the outreach will continue to impact you in your career. It took me a long time to decide whether I wanted to apply or not. I asked myself if being ‘Queen Scholar’ was the best way for me to represent the [princess] program and continue to make an impact. After reflecting on that, I decided that I could continue to make a stronger impact in the role that I am currently in.”
As expected, the entire week leading up to and the day of the Indianapolis 500 was a “blur” for Johnson.
“I really enjoyed the 500 Festival Off the Grid event the night before the [Indianapolis 500],” Johnson expressed. “I enjoyed being able to greet people and thank them for supporting the 500 Festival. That was a lot of fun. The moment that I was able to share with Simon Pagenaud in Victory Circle, to be right there celebrating his win and congratulating him in that moment, is just indescribable.”