There she is ... Miss America, still

September 6, 2012 

The moment has been framed by a lifetime of happy memories.

It was the fairy tale ending every young girl dreams about. For six decades, it has been followed by the familiar refrains of “There She Is, Miss America” every time Neva Jane Langley Fickling has walked into a room.

Has it really been 60 years?

When she was 14, her family took a vacation from their home in Lakeland, Fla. They drove up the Eastern Seaboard and stopped in Atlantic City, N.J., the town with the famous boardwalk.

Neva stood in front of the auditorium where they held the annual Miss America Pageant. In the window, she saw a picture of Bess Myerson, who was crowned Miss America in 1945.

“In my mind, I painted a vignette,” Neva would later say.

The night of Sept. 6, 1952 -- which was marked by its 60th anniversary on Thursday -- changed her life forever.

Pageant officials draped a red velvet robe across her shoulders and placed a crown on her head. She walked down the runway, with hundreds of camera flashbulbs lighting her path.

It would be another two years before the pageant was televised. So millions of eyes were not fixed on the 19-year-old beauty queen.

Back in Macon, however, where she was a sophomore music student at the Wesleyan Conservatory, a crowd gathered at the Pinebrook Inn and “watched” her win on the radio.

She remains the only Miss Georgia to be crowned Miss America in the 91-year history of the pageant.

“And she’s still Miss America to everyone who knows her,” said longtime friend Edna Wellons.

Neva is four months shy of her 80th birthday. In April 2010, she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. For the past year, she has been limited in her social activities and public appearances. Her soft brown hair has turned white. Medically, she has good days and bad days.

But she still looks back with pride on that special night. She will never forget it. People will not let her.

“It has always been in my memories, and it always will be,” she said. “Of course, nothing could have prepared me for what would happen in my life after I won.”

At 19, she was one of the youngest winners in pageant history. She was the first to have a full-time chaperone. She rode in the Rose Bowl parade, appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and graced the cover of Ladies Home Journal. She met Marilyn Monroe and sat next to Richard Nixon at President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inauguration.

She grew up the youngest of three daughters to Roy and Rosie Langley. Her father was a citrus farmer and her mother encouraged her to take piano lessons. In high school, she played the piano for church services, weddings and funerals.

She was crowned Florida’s “Tangerine Queen” when she was 16. She was homecoming queen in high school and named “campus queen” her freshman year at Florida Southern College.

She transferred to Wesleyan College her sophomore year and studied piano under Doris Jelks, who suggested Neva and several of her classmates enter the Miss Macon pageant in the spring of 1952.

On the night of the pageant, she impressed the judges when she continued to play the piano after a storm knocked out all the lights at the City Auditorium.

Neva believed her toughest competition was at home. If she could win against those talented and beautiful Wesleyan girls, she would have an excellent chance of becoming Miss Georgia.

Not only did she go on to win the title of Miss Georgia, she swept the swimsuit, evening gown and talent competition at the Miss America pageant.

For her piano piece, she played Toccato in E-Flat Minor by Aram Khachaturian. One of the judges was Deems Taylor, a renowned composer and music critic with The New York Times.

When she returned to Macon, more than 15,000 people lined the sidewalks for a homecoming parade on Cherry Street. She walked across a path of rose petals for a ceremony on the steps of City Hall.

Her yearlong reign as Miss America was a whirlwind tour with some 325 appearances. Her senior year, she married William Fickling Jr., of a prominent Macon family. She settled into private life as a wife and mother of four children. (She now has nine grandchildren.)

Neva chose not to be on stage the rest of her life. She was proud of her accomplishment, but she never boasted about the title or rested on any laurels.

For years, she kept her trophies in the attic and her photographs and press clippings tucked away in a cabinet. Once, a TV repairman came to the house and asked if it was true she had been Miss America.

She thought for a moment. Her hair was in curlers. She told him somebody must have been kidding him.

Neva has been civic minded, volunteering in the community and serving with various organizations, foundations and charities. She continued as an accomplished classical pianist, giving recitals and performing with the symphony.

“She is an icon,” said Wellons. “She has been a mentor to so many others. She is so elegant. I have seen her walk into a room full of people and go from person to person, making each one of them feel special.”

There are times when Neva will allow herself to recapture the wonder of the title that would define her. She will reminisce by looking at old photographs in a scrapbook or stop to admire one of her evening gowns on display in her home.

She is humble. She is modest. But she is also proud.

“I look at some of those pictures and say, ‘Good gracious,’ ” she said. “I guess I was a pretty girl.”

Reach Gris at 744-4275 or gris@macon.com.

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