By Gia Myers
Most beauty pageant contestants don’t enter their first competition at age 66, but JoAnn Bechtel of Reading did just that in 2013, coming in second runner-up in Ms. Pennsylvania Senior America, a beauty pageant for women aged 60 and older.
Bechtel saw an advertisement for the pageant while reading the Senior Living section of the Sunday Reading Eagle newspaper, and she applied on a whim.
A year later, she again entered the same pageant, and was crowned Ms. Pennsylvania Senior America of 2014. Now at age 76, she’s entered a total of 5 pageants, and was most recently crowned Ms. Super Senior Universe 2022-2023. “I believe that you’re never too old to try something new,” she said.
She’s also tried parasailing, zip lining, and scuba diving – all since she’s been retired from her 36-year career with the U.S. Postal Service. She even graduated from Alvernia University in 2005 at age 58 with a degree in Behavioral Health and three minors – Criminal Justice, Psychology, and Theology.
Bechtel had this same broad-minded outlook when it came to her will. She was one of the first people to log on to the FreeWill website for the Allentown Diocese to update her existing will.
Bechtel says she found the website “very easy to use. They walk you through the whole process” and “you don’t have to pay attorney fees” to create or update an existing will. She says she wants to ensure that her wishes are clear and apparent to her loved ones after her passing.
Her will includes her parish of 44 years, St. Catharine of Siena in Reading, where she has devoted many hours of service in parish ministries throughout her adult life, including R.C.I.A., choir, visiting parishioners in the hospital, and helping to build a grotto on church grounds.
“Faith has always been a part of my life,” she said.
Bechtel grew up with her Polish-born mother and grandparents in a Reading rowhouse in St. Mary’s parish. Though Bechtel’s father left the family when she was young, her mother and grandparents created a loving home. Her grandmother taught Bechtel how to speak Polish.
“My Mom raised me alone,” she said. “It deepened my faith. I know that God will never leave me alone.” Bechtel attended public school and CCD for grades 1-5. Bechtel says she loved attending CCD classes, and after much beseeching, her mother agreed to transfer Bechtel to St. Mary’s School for grades 6-8. Bechtel graduated from Central Catholic High School in 1964.
She says a memorable experience from her childhood was when she was crowed May Queen in 1960 as an eighth-grade student at St. Mary’s School. “I can’t wait to go home and tell Mom was my first thought,” she said.
She also remembers “falling in love with St. Mary’s pipe organ” when she was only four years old. Despite her petitions to play the organ, Bechtel’s mother said there was no room in a rowhouse for an organ. “She sent me to dance lessons instead,” said Bechtel.
It was Bechtel’s first husband, Earl Fetterman, an announcer for the Reading Phillies, who bought Bechtel an organ in 1976.
“My goal was to play the organ in church,” she said. She achieved that goal in the early 2000s when she played one song, “The Old Rugged Cross Made the Difference,” at an Easter Mass at St. Catharine’s parish.
“[That song is] going to be played at my own funeral,” she said. “I’m going to be playing it myself on a recording” along with five other songs on a CD that Bechtel has recorded.
Bechtel’s will also states that she wants to be buried with her pageant crown and sashes. Bechtel also wrote her own obituary. She said her family “only needs to fill in the date and time” of her passing. All of these details are outlined in Bechtel’s will that she updated on the Make-A-Will website.
After the passing of Bechtel’s first husband, she met Robert Bechtel in 1997, and they were married in 2001. Though Bechtel previously had no children, she became stepmother to three adult children. She says she’s especially close to stepdaughter Kristina, who encouraged Bechtel to “write down everything she wants” for Bechtel’s funeral “because I’m going to be a basket case,” Kristina told Bechtel.
A breast cancer survivor, Bechtel had surgery a year ago, and her last treatment is this month, “the day after my mother’s birthday,” she said. This led Bechtel to become a spokesperson for Voices of Hope, a volunteer organization sponsored by the American Cancer Society. Through this organization, she shares her personal story of her cancer journey to inspire others. Not only is Bechtel a cancer survivor herself, but she also lost her mother, grandmother, and both husbands to cancer.
“Life is precious,” she said. “Don’t waste it.”
Bechtel currently enjoys time spent playing bingo and swimming and living with her dog “Happie” who she adopted in 2016. She continues to enjoy life, try new things, and she has peace of mind knowing that her final wishes are captured in her will for herself and her loved ones. This August is National Make-A-Will Month. It takes only 20 minutes to create or update your legally‑binding will.
You can go to this website to get started: FreeWill.