Services for Neva Fickling, former Miss America, set for Tuesday

pramati@macon.comNovember 18, 2012 

There was one word you always associated with Neva Jane Langley Fickling.

Beauty.

As the only Miss Macon -- and Miss Georgia -- ever to win the Miss America crown, back in 1952, it would be easy to sum up her accomplishments based only on her physical beauty.

But there was a lot more to Fickling, who died of cancer at her home early Sunday at age 79.

Fickling, who moved to Macon at age 19 when she transferred to Wesleyan College, was a gifted pianist, and she dedicated much of her life to making sure her adopted city was known internationally for its beauty.

“Neva was the epitome of beauty and grace,” Deen Day Sanders said of her longtime friend. “Over our 60 years of friendship, she remained the same. She was a gracious lady who leaves a legacy of love and caring.”

A memorial service for Fickling will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Mulberry Street United Methodist Church, followed by a private burial.

Fickling was honored more than once by the Keep America Beautiful commission as Woman of the Year in different categories. In 1979, she was awarded that title while serving as chairwoman of the Governor’s Board of Georgia Clean and Beautiful, the first statewide clean community program in the country. She was appointed to that position by then-Gov. George Busbee, who put the program into effect.

Under her leadership, 39 counties -- making up more than 50 percent of the state’s population -- developed Clean Community Commissions. Busbee also presented Fickling the award for outstanding volunteer in the 8th Congressional District in 1980.

In 1981, Fickling was part of a Macon delegation that traveled to London to meet the late Queen Mother at an awards ceremony at St. James Palace as part of her birthday celebration. The Queen Mother presented a special award to Keep America Beautiful for its work with her country’s own Keep Britain Tidy organization. Before the ceremony, Fickling got to meet the Queen Mother privately.

A year later, Fickling won the Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson Award, the highest honor that Keep America Beautiful gives an individual, for her work with Georgia Clean and Beautiful.

Fickling also spread beauty to others through her love of the piano. Her performance of “Toccata” by Khachaturian helped her win the talent portion of the Miss America contest. (She also won the bathing suit and evening wear portions during the preliminaries).

Fickling began learning piano at age 7. Later, after a year of college at Florida Southern College in her native Lakeland, she transferred to Wesleyan to study piano with Doris Jelks.

During that time Fickling and some of her Wesleyan classmates were encouraged to enter the Miss Macon pageant. Having been crowned Tangerine Queen at age 16 in Florida and campus queen at Florida Southern, Fickling had experience in the pageant world and won the Miss Macon title, which led to her being crowned Miss Georgia and, later, Miss America 1953.

Fickling was one of the city’s biggest celebrities after winning the Miss America crown. Often, headlines in The Telegraph and The Macon News referred to her simply as “Neva.” Between 15,000 and 20,000 people turned out for a parade in her honor, when she was given the key to the city by then-Mayor Lewis B. Wilson.

In September 1952, she was the mystery guest on the TV game show “What’s My Line?,” and on Jan. 1, 1953, she rode atop the grand prize float, aptly titled “America the Beautiful,” as part of the famed Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, Calif.

‘A great lady has left us’

Fickling stopped performing regularly because of her volunteer work and to rear her children, but she began giving recitals again in 1989 thanks to the gift of a new piano from her husband, Bill Fickling Jr.

“My husband had given me a new piano and I just thought I couldn’t let other people play this better than me, so I began playing again,” she said during a 1992 interview. “It was such a beautiful instrument, and that’s what I did.”

In 1992, she performed a two-piano show with Edward Eikner as part of MidSummer Macon, which included music by Bach, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven and Brahms. Eikner, the Comer Professor of Fine Arts at Wesleyan, said the duo released two CDs and not only played across the country, but also in Italy.

“She was unbelievably hard working,” Eikner said. “She put a lot of time into any project she worked with. ... She was Miss America long after she stopped being Miss America. She had all the charm and graciousness you’d expect.”

Eikner said Fickling was diagnosed with cancer in March 2011. Even during her treatment, she took time out to make dinner for Eikner after his father died.

“It’s a great loss for the whole community,” he said. “A great lady has left us.”

World-renowned violinist Robert McDuffie said Fickling played an important part in the development of his career, sponsoring several of his concerts across the country.

“Everybody knew she was the closest thing to royalty Macon ever had,” said McDuffie, who will perform “Meditation from Thais” at Fickling’s memorial service. “She always thought of herself as a musician first. She did a lot of work behind the scenes not only for Macon but for my career personally. She was an exceedingly decent lady.”

Fickling also served on the Georgia Council of the Arts and on the board of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. She served as a trustee of the Gina Bachauer Piano Foundation and of Wesleyan College as well.

Wesleyan and Mercer University both honored Fickling for her music accomplishments.

Her alma mater awarded her an honorary doctorate in fine arts. Mercer awarded her an honorary doctorate in the humanities and named its main performance hall for her in the McCorkle Music Building.

“It’s a sad day for all of us at Wesleyan,” school President Ruth Knox said. “She was a generous supporter who performed for us a lot. She did a benefit concert for us in Atlanta. ... She was just beautiful and elegant and so talented. She was such an amazing woman. It’s hard to put into words what she meant to us.”

Knox noted that Fickling came up with the idea for Georgia Women of Achievement, for which she was a founding board member.

Fickling told The Telegraph in 1997 that she flirted briefly with the idea of going to Hollywood after she won the Miss America title.

“I thought having a public career would be so exciting,” she said. “But being Miss America gave me the ability to see what it was like to live in a fish bowl. ... I found out that I didn’t want a career that would not allow me any private time.”

Fickling also gave journalism a try, working as a contributing editor for the Atlanta-based Southern Accents magazine in 1979. As the writer of that story in The Telegraph noted, “It doesn’t seem fair that a person should be so good-looking and multitalented at the same time. But that’s Macon’s Neva Jane Langley Fickling. ...”

Fickling never developed a haughty attitude after being crowned Miss America at the tender age of 19, and she remained remarkably grounded about the whole experience. She wrote a column for The Telegraph in 1978 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of her crown, joking about her experiences of meeting strangers who would recognize her.

“This taking a person for granted is the most bedeviling aspect of my fleeting fame,” she wrote. “I have great empathy for Greta Garbo. ... After 25 years, I find I still have to be Miss America, and I do not like it. Except sometimes.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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