Fickling shared thoughts 25 years after being crowned Miss America

From The Telegraph’s ArchivesNovember 18, 2012 

Editor’s Note: The following column was written by Neva Langley Fickling for the 25th anniversary of her Miss America 1953 title. The column originally ran in The New York Times and later ran in the Jan. 10, 1978 edition of The Telegraph.

A few days ago I pulled up to the drive-in window of a bank to cash a check and was mildly astonished when the teller blurted out, “Oh, you’re Neva Jane, aren’t you?”

Oh gosh, I should have combed my hair better. Well, yes, I’m Neva Jane, but to my friends and family, I’m just Neva -- or Mom.

“What year was it you were Miss America?”

It was 1953, I replied.

There was an awkward pause.

“Do you miss it?”

What does one say to a well-intentioned bank teller? It was 25 years ago this year that I reigned as the nation’s beauty queen. Since then I have devoted 22 years to marriage and raising children, and still Miss America follows me as a familiar shadow.

Only last summer, when we were vacationing off the Georgia coast, my 19-year-old daughter met a boy who asked, “Have you heard about that Miss America that’s visiting down here?”

My daughter said she had.

“Do you know her?

“Yes, I know her.”

“Is she stuck up?”

“No, I don’t think that she’s all that stuck on herself.”

“Didn’t she marry some rich guy from Macon?”

“Well, not all that rich, but they get along.”

“Do you know her well?”

“She’s my mother.”

“Go-ll-ee -- why didn’t you tell me? Do you do this often?”

“Every chance I get.”

I am, of course, deeply interested in how my children feel about their mother having been Miss America. Prejudices notwithstanding, my daughters are very pretty, but one wonders whether furtive comparisons might be made.

And my sons? Well, the oldest paid me a marvelous compliment when he asked me recently for a picture (1952 vintage, of course) to put on his wall at college. Hard-pressed to find one which did not reveal the telltale skirt length, I gave him one. Later he said with pride that he loved to have the boys ask, “Who is that good-looking girl?”

The youngest son -- not yet in his teens -- often hears people say “he looks like his mother.” That, he says, means “he’s pretty.” Yet it is reassuring that he has posters of Farrah all over his bedroom walls and he’s dying to ask her to Macon for dinner. I suppose that 25 years ago, there were boys just like my son who had my picture on their wall.

I think I was Miss America when her image was peaking. Bert Parks did not appear upon the scene until later, and “There She Is -- Miss America” hadn’t even been written; but all over the country, Miss America was Miss America.

The pageant had not been challenged by competitors. Television had not spoiled the spontaneity of the contest. Talent was a major consideration. Atlantic City had not lost its tinsel glitter, and there was less the atmosphere of a national Jaycee convention, with each state delegation hawking its contestant.

Yes, I had a wonderful time that year. But when it was over I was happy to return to school, and, a couple of years later, get married.

But it has been 25 years, and I do not like to feel today that I still have to be on display.

I dislike going to the grocery store and have people whisper, “She was Miss America.” I dislike going to parties and being introduced as “a former Miss America” and the responses of “Oh, really, when?” and “I should have known.”

For a few days after the pageant each year, I go into virtual seclusion to escape such comments as, “I thought about you last night” or “I remember seeing you crowned.”

Sometimes I rebel, as when a repairman who came to fix the television asked, “I hear you were Miss America -- is that true?” My hair was in curlers, and I figured if he had to ask I didn’t look all that good. “Somebody must have been kidding you,” I replied.

Even in restaurants, the shadow follows. An older lady approached me in the ladies’ room and said, “Oh, my friends here want to see you.” If only she had phrased it differently! This taking a person for granted is the most bedeviling aspect of my fleeting fame. I have great empathy for Greta Garbo.

Occasionally, someone will ask, almost as an afterthought, “What was your talent?”

Well, I studied music. Once I wanted to be a concert pianist. I even performed with some symphony orchestras. But I got married at a time when a good Southern wife was told gently, but firmly, that she couldn’t combine a career with Mrs.

The trophies are in the attic now, because I don’t want visitors to feel they are in Miss America’s living room. The pictures and clippings are stashed away in a cabinet. Perhaps one day, when I am too old to play tennis and the piano, I will get around to organizing them into a scrapbook. After all, the grandchildren will want to see me!

Like any woman, I suppose, I enjoy dressing up and being told, “You are a lovely woman.” But I also like wearing jeans and no makeup.

After 25 years, I find I still have to be Miss America, and I do not like it.

Except sometimes.

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