Neva Fickling misses the stars. Not the Hollywood celebrities she met while reigning as the 1953 Miss America, but the celestial canopy that had covered her world.
“I loved the skies until so much development came around here,” Fickling said as the afternoon sun recently filtered through the tall palladium windows in her sunny yellow bedroom. “Now we have light pollution and I’m very sad.”
When she and her husband Bill first built their Oaklea estate in north Bibb County in 1996, a myriad of winter stars shone through the towering pecan limbs in the orchard that became their home.
The Florida native who grew up with two sisters in the citrus groves is quite content to live in the country.
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“I’ve always been a nature-lover and said I could live in a tree house,” said Fickling who as a child climbed trees with her dolls and played for hours nestled in the branches. “Lakeland was a paradise and we didn’t even know it.”
The then-town of 40,000 closed the streets for any big occasion, and 19-year-old Neva Jane Langley winning the Miss America title was certainly one of the biggest. It earned her a sterling silver key to the city of Lakeland.
A few years earlier, she had caught the eye of newspaper photographer who often called upon her to model. He encouraged Neva to enroll in the Miss Tangerine contest and at age 16 a beauty queen was born.
While majoring in piano at Wesleyan College, the Jaycees asked the dean of the conservatory to suggest four or five girls for the Miss Macon Pageant, Fickling said.
She wowed the judges by completing her piano masterpiece even after the lights went out in the middle of the performance. Her Miss Macon crown took her to Columbus where she captured the state title and was favored to win the national competition.
Her parents, Roy and Rosie Langley, weren’t too keen on the swimsuit competition though, she said, and that was decades before the bikini competition.
Neva, who always seems to have folks tacking on her middle name even though she prefers her first name alone, was comfortable in front of a crowd after several years of playing piano in church and on stage.
From a very young age, music became a passion that occupied at least four hours of practice per day when she was performing. She mastered many genres.
“I like it all but rock,” said Fickling who retired from performing last year. “Gospel, hymns, classical, ballads, pop and I play a good bit ‘by ear,’ but I never cared much for that expression – how can your ear play?”
She also picked up the steel guitar as a child and was one of the first persons she knew to try her hand at the new-fangled electric guitars. During World War II, she was asked to play a USO tour, but she was too young.
Her repertoire included all the “war songs” and themes for each branch of the service.
When she was about 10 years old, her mother sewed her a cropped “Eisenhower jacket” in pink wool. During a tour of the Eisenhower Presidential Library a few years ago, the sight of the general’s own jacket brought tears to her eyes.
“I think you’re dead or either you’re a communist or a socialist if you don’t yearn for the camaraderie of the patriotism we had,” she said.
This child of the depression had become a beautiful Christian role model for a victorious nation just seven years after the end of the war.
“It was a wonderful time to be Miss America,” said Fickling who maintains the charm, beauty and poise of her youth more than 55 years after her coronation.
She was crowned with a 5-inch tall rhinestone tiara to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance.” The traditional Bert Parks’ Miss America theme was still years away.
Just two months after winning the title in Atlantic City, N.J., she would cast her first presidential ballot in the 1952 election. A few months later, she was a guest at Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inauguration and was seated next to Vice President Richard Nixon.
She attended one of the inaugural balls with a former Olympic swimming champion who was serving as an Air Force colonel and working as a nuclear physicist. A snapshot of the couple ran in the newspaper with a “Beauty and the Brass” caption.
While wearing the Miss America crown, Fickling traveled across the nation and savored the sights and sounds of each region.
“The whole year was a wonderful experience because it was before the states became so homogenized,” she said. “Every place had its own culture.”
The schedule was hectic and at times grueling.
“I did get very tired. I was physically worn out,” Fickling remembered.
After riding in her strapless evening gown on the “America the Beautiful” float in the Rose Bowl Parade, she was stricken with pneumonia. She spent her 20th birthday in Winona, Minn. recovering while she cancelled her appearances for two weeks, she said. The illness spurred the pageant to set guidelines to limit personal appearances. Fickling was also the first Miss America to have a chaperone.
“It was a challenge to have someone with me all the time,” she said.
Her Miss America prizes included a “soft aqua” Nash Ambassador automobile with white leather interior that she chose herself, a silver tea service and eight place settings of fine china and sterling.
She was particularly proud of the $5,000 college scholarship as it meant she didn’t have to ask daddy for tuition money. With the money she made from that year’s appearances, she bought a citrus grove upon the advice of her father, who was a citrus grower and distributor himself.
One of the biggest perks of being voted Miss America was to have the top names in fashion design a wardrobe tailored to her every curve.
Many of the gowns and memorabilia are on display at the Museum of Arts & Sciences in Macon through April 27th. The “Miss America 1953: Neva Langley Fickling” exhibit also features a “Tea with Neva: Memories of Miss America” on Friday, Apr. 11 at 2 p.m.
She regrets shortening some of the gowns when the ballerina length became popular, but she’s not sorry she allowed her grandchildren to play dress-up with tissues stuffed in the bosom of the dresses.
“In the 1940s and ’50s evening attire was worn much more often. Every occasion required a gown,” said Alexandra Klingelhoffer, curator of art and collections at the museum.
Fickling traveled to New York for fittings. The same designers who were dressing Hollywood’s biggest stars - Deborah Kerr, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, created her elegant wardrobe.
“The designers show off the woman and the woman shows off the designers,” Klingelhoffer said of the glamorous collection of haute couture by Ceil Chapman, Philip Hulitar, Carolyn Schnurer and Mms. Kiviette.
Fickling ended her reign with more than a dozen gowns in her closet and a handsome suitor waiting back in Macon.
She returned to complete her junior year at Wesleyan.
“It was rather special and everybody was very nice,” she said wearing the diamond pinky ring she was given as a homecoming present from a local jeweler when she returned to Macon. “It was a big adjustment coming back to school after being Miss America, but I wanted to get my degrees.”
She married Bill Fickling Jr. in the middle of her senior year. The two met at a Fourth of July party on St. Simons Island the summer before she went to Atlantic City.
“I thought he was pretty cute. He was playing (basketball) for Auburn University,” she said.
They have four children – two girls and two boys, and nine grandchildren.
While they are both retired, they lead very busy lives. She enjoys playing with the grandchildren, puttering around in the garden and going hunting with her husband.
One of her favorite photographs hanging in the kitchen captures the couple out hunting. The beauty queen is walking in the foreground with a rifle perched over her shoulder and her husband is standing with his back to the camera in the opposite corner of the frame. His rifle is at his side as he watches off into the distance.
“He is a wonderful retired husband,” she says. “He has a lovely camellia garden and has most recently become an enthusiast for wild flowers.”
A sampling of his camellia blooms festooned the house in small vases, while her pet project has become the herb garden outside the kitchen windows.
Bill Fickling had her old 78 recordings of piano performances digitally remastered as a special gift, she said.
Although she is no longer playing professionally, music remains a big part of her life. On nights when she can’t sleep, she puts on headphones and listens to her bedside iPod.
She’s not always glued to the television when the Miss America Pageant is on television. Fickling notes the many changes in the competition over the past five and a half decades. The competition has turned from community-sponsored events to pageant corporations which she feels loses some of the hometown feel of her era.
While bleached hair was frowned upon in her day, medical alterations are common for today’s contestants.
But what she misses most is the sense of unity she felt while touring the country. Fickling believes the nation is as divided now as it was during Lincoln’s day, she said.
“It’s hard to carry out a calm conversation on whom you support without getting belligerent on both sides,” Fickling said. “I think somehow in the past 15 to 20 years we take for granted the liberty we have in this country, the freedom and the advantages.”
She remembers playing in the yard when planes attacked Pearl Harbor and sitting in the grammar school auditorium when Roosevelt declared war.
Today’s debate should not be about why we went to war in Iraq, but the conversation should focus on achieving victory, she believes.
But through all the societal evolution, she still feels future Miss Americas can make a difference.
“For all the changes that happened, I think the Miss America title still means something in most parts of the country,” she said. “I would like to see it return to the part Miss America can play in uniting the country and young people.”
This article was originally published in Belle Magazine in 2008.