Childhood dream comes true for Katie Stam
From the age of 3, Katie Stam had a dream. Some would have called it an impossible dream. But, of course, anything is possible at an age when imagination is limitless, when pageant sashes can be fashioned from Christmas ribbon, and coveted tiaras can be created from empty cereal boxes and glitter.
Like millions of little girls, Katie Stam wanted to be Miss America. “She was the ultimate icon for me,” Katie said last month. “She was my role model. Miss America was my ‘American Idol.’”
During playtime, Katie and her cousin, Janelle, a year older than Katie, staged make-believe pageants in the basement of her family’s home in rural Seymour. As the only contestants, both had their turns at becoming pageant royalty … even if only pretending.
Nineteen years after donning a cardboard crown and a ribbon sash hand-lettered with the misspelled “Mis America,” Katie’s dream came true. On Jan. 24, the University of Indianapolis communications major was crowned Miss America 2009 — the first Hoosier ever to win the title in the 88-year history of the scholarship pageant. Along with the crown and sash she’d always dreamed of, she received a $50,000 scholarship and instant celebrity status.
Katie’s achievement — in her first year of competing in the Miss America Scholarship Program, no less — proves that fairy tales can come true, that hard work pays off, that small town girls’ big dreams can become a reality, and that great things do happen to good people.
Back home again
Life for a Miss America involves over 20,000 miles of travel a month to a different city every other day, endless personal appearances, a full schedule of interviews and hardly any downtime. And from her life-changing evening that Saturday in Las Vegas, Katie was on the go, traveling from one coast of the country to the other, one hotel to another, making numerous television appearances and conducting hundreds of interviews.
But Katie had yet to come home — that is, until March 1. For over a week last month, proud well-wishers came out to see her in various locations statewide during a whirlwind homecoming celebration that included appearances at her alma mater, Seymour High School; a hometown parade in downtown Seymour; a stop at the nearby Brownstown courthouse to thank those in Jackson County for their support; and a visit to the Indiana Statehouse where she received the state’s highest honor, a Sagamore of the Wabash award from Gov. Mitch Daniels. She signed thousands of autographs throughout Indiana; made an appearance at the National Maple Syrup Festival in Medora; and was the shining star of a special “Evening with Miss America” celebration in Zionsville, home of the Miss Indiana pageant.
There, at Zionsville Community High School, on the same stage where she was crowned Miss Indiana a little over eight months earlier, Katie officially passed her state title on to a new Miss Indiana, Auburn native Megan Meadors. She will hold the title until the 2009 Miss Indiana is crowned in June.
When Katie spoke to the Zionsville audience, dressed in the same white lace evening gown she wore on the Miss America stage, she stressed there really is no place like home. “The best part of my job is coming home and being a representative of this state,” Katie told a cheering crowd.
And then, she repeated a message she’s shared with thousands during the less than two months since she became Miss America: “Dreams do come true through hard work and dedication.”
Finally, in a nod to her fellow Hoosiers, she proclaimed, “I dedicate this year to all of you!”
Hard work pays off
“She worked on (winning Miss America) a long time,” said her father, Keith Stam, a Seymour High School vocal music teacher. Katie laid the foundation for her goals while she was still a child, years before she ever competed in a pageant.
The youngest of four children, Katie made her stage debut as part of the Stam Family Singers, a locally-known singing group consisting of her father, her older sisters Heather and Heidi, and her brother, Eric. The group, Keith said, disbanded over a decade ago when Eric, who is three years older than Katie, got involved in sports in the sixth grade.
The Stam kids, who were active in the Jackson County 4-H program through the years, showcased their award-winning talents in 4-H creative dramatics competitions (similar to the 4-H Share the Fun programs) each summer.
Katie honed her speaking skills early on. “We always knew she could talk,” Keith recalled while sitting at the kitchen table in the family’s 100-year-old farmhouse. “From here to [Katie’s] kindergarten is about a 15 minute trip. From the time she would get in the car, she would talk. And when her grandmother would pick her up, she would talk all the way back. So she’s always had the gift of conversation.”
From the time she was little, Katie was focused on getting good grades in school. “She was a straight ‘A’ student because she knew she had to have good grades to pursue this [the Miss America crown],” Keith said. “She developed her leadership skills because she knew she had to do that.”
Though the Miss America crown was, as Katie said, “something I was dreaming of and pursuing my entire life,” her mother, Tracy Stam, encouraged Katie to wait until she was a teenager before participating in pageants. At age 15, Katie won her first pageant, the 2001 Teen Jackson County Pageant, a preliminary for the Kentuckiana Teen Pageant.
From there, Katie was unstoppable. In June 2002, she won the Kentuckiana Teen title. As Kentuckiana Teen, Katie advanced to the America’s Southern Teen Pageant the following month, where she claimed the Southern Teen crown. While America’s Southern Teen, Katie traveled to seven different states averaging 1,000 miles each month.
Two years later, in August 2004, the doe-eyed beauty captured the Jackson County Junior Miss title. At the Indiana Junior Miss Pageant six months later, the then-high school senior won awards for interview, talent, fitness, gown … and the state crown. That summer, at the America’s Junior Miss Pageant held in Mobile, Ala., Katie not only won awards for talent, fitness, gown and for best recipe, she was named second runner-up. Katie’s quest for the title was also documented in a “Dateline NBC” broadcast following the pageant.
One of the Junior Miss judges, New York City-based actor David Weincek, took Katie aside after the pageant and privately told her she would one day become Miss America. “I never knew about it,” Keith said of that conversation. “She kept it to herself.”
“That very same judge came to Las Vegas [to the Miss America Pageant],” Tracy said. “He showed up that last preliminary night.”
After the Junior Miss in Alabama, it would be another three years before Katie would compete in a pageant again … and the long wait was as she said, “the best decision I’ve ever made.” Katie knew before she could finally reach for her ultimate goal — she had to be truly ready for it.
“I knew that when something means so much to you and you are so passionate about something, you want to be able to dedicate yourself 100 percent to it,” she explained. “I just didn’t feel like I was in the right place in my life to dedicate myself to this program the way I wanted to. I wanted to have almost all of my education finished. I wanted to feel comfortable in my abilities and talents as far as my future career path goes. I wanted to make sure I knew who I was and what I had to offer before I could be chosen as the example for others.”
Katie was a college junior and a multi-award-winning student broadcast journalist when she competed in her first Miss America local pageant, the Miss Central Indiana Pageant, in the fall of 2007. She was named first runner-up. Shortly after, in November 2007, she entered the Miss Duneland Pageant in Michigan City and swept the talent, swimsuit and interview preliminaries on her way to the Miss Duneland title and a spot in the 2008 Miss Indiana competition.
At the highly competitive Miss Indiana Pageant, held in June 2008, Katie won one of two interview awards before reaching the second stage of her lifelong goal: the Miss Indiana title. She was crowned by Nicole Rash, whose own very successful year as Miss Indiana culminated in a second place finish at the 2008 Miss America Pageant.
“The night I won Miss Indiana, all the contestants came back to my hotel room,” Katie recalled. “One of the girls looked at me and said, ‘OK, Katie, now we’re not going to put any pressure on you … you don’t have to win [Miss America] … you just have to do better than Nicole Rash!’
“They were totally joking around,” Katie added. “I didn’t feel that extra pressure. What I felt was tons of support and tons of love, and so much confidence because I knew that so many people supported me.”
One shot at the crown
It is not uncommon in the Miss America Program for contestants to compete many times at the local and state levels before winning a title. But once a contestant wins a state pageant, which is essentially her ticket to the Miss America Pageant, she can’t win that state title again. There’s no return engagement on the Miss America stage.
Though Katie paved her way to the Miss America pageant throughout her childhood, she was just a first-year contestant in the program when she traveled to Las Vegas to actually begin her quest for the ultimate pageant title. “I was very surprised that this happened so quickly,” Katie admitted. “I think a lot of people felt the same way.”
In Katie’s case, that amazement in her accomplishment was not only because she was a pageant rookie or because she was from Indiana — a state which had previously never produced a Miss America winner. But during one of the most important weeks of her life, she contracted a throat infection and laryngitis and on the Sunday of pageant week. According to Keith, she literally had no voice.
Keith and Tracy, who were in Las Vegas rooting for their daughter, delivered medicine, herbal teas, a vaporizer and throat lozenges to her, anything to help her recover. From Sunday night throughout the week Katie talked only when necessary and sang only during her Wednesday night preliminary talent competition.
“We kept praying she’d heal before the final night,” said Tracy, a fifth grade teacher at Immanuel Lutheran School in Seymour. Katie, herself, was confident whatever happened was in God’s hands and so, instead of being depressed about being sick at the worst possible time, she was at peace. “I was ready for anything because it was God’s will.”
As pageant week drew to a close, the Stams’ prayers were answered. The night before the televised final evening of the pageant, Katie got her voice back. A hundred or so family and friends who were in the audience at pageant venue Planet Hollywood to cheer her on never lost their hope, or their enthusiasm. “Their positive energy kept me going,” Katie said.
Katie’s Las Vegas support team believed she had a good chance of advancing far in the competition. On Tuesday of pageant week, she’d won a preliminary swimsuit award. “Going into the final night, I felt this could be the night,” Miss Indiana Co-Executive Director Frank Ricketts remembered.
Over 3.5 million television viewers — most of whom had no idea Miss Indiana had been ill — watched Katie breeze through each phase of the final night of competition, until finally being announced by pageant host Mario Lopez as the new Miss America.
Though Katie described those fairy-tale-come-true first moments as Miss America as “surreal,” she also truly believes it was meant to be. “I believe going into Miss America — even going into Miss Indiana — it’s like God has a plan for everybody and it doesn’t matter what you do or what you say, how you present yourself,” Katie explained.
“It’s really out of your hands,” she continued. “It’s really out of the judges’ hands, too, because God uses them. He works through them in order to pick the right girl.”
Small town girl
Katie is proud of her rural Indiana roots. “The Jackson County community made me everything I am,” she said. “Who you are before your success is why you have the success.”
A farm girl at heart, Katie helped take care of her family’s four dairy cows (one of them was recently re-dubbed “Miss America”) and as a child she enjoyed sitting on her dad’s lap when he drove the tractor.
A 10-year member of 4-H, “I know what it’s like to get my hands dirty,” she said. Since the Jackson County 4-H Fair is a huge part of the Stams’ life, they spend quite a bit of time around the dairy barn. Keith laughs that some friends have been commenting “last year, we were scrubbing a cow next to Miss America!”
Though as Miss America, Katie’s can’t return to her farmhouse or spend as much time with her family as she’d like, Keith and Tracy are supporting her from the sidelines every step of the way. Their pride is undeniable as they watch their youngest shine in the national spotlight. “We get to stand back and watch, and she can tell us about it,” Keith said. “It’s like watching your son play basketball and him making the winning shot in the state championship. Everyone is lifting her up.”
Since Katie will travel from one hotel room to the next until her reign is over, and no one, including her family can know exactly where she is staying for security reasons, congratulatory cards and messages have poured into the Stams’ home. “I bought a huge tub just for the cards she’s been getting because people are just thrilled,” Tracy said. “The first three days after we got home [from Las Vegas], we were snowed in and the phones were ringing constantly. We were so glad we were snowed in so we didn’t miss that.”
Making a difference
As Miss America, Katie’s mission is to make a difference in others’ lives. “Your number one priority is to be able to connect with people because if you can’t connect with them, you can’t reach them.”
During the next year, Katie will serve as the National Goodwill Ambassador for Children’s Miracle Network. Keith believes Katie is perfect for that role. “Little kids cling to her, and she to them.”
Katie is also as the official spokesperson for Zerosmoke, a smoking cessation program. Her personal platform, “Passion for Service: Promoting Community Service and Involvement,” is another focus.
As our new Miss America, Katie hopes she will be a role model to others. “My goal is to truly have left a legacy with the organization so people will look back and if they say ‘I have a favorite Miss America’ I would hope they would say me … say that I gave a lot of positive direction to the organization. I hope they can look back and say that I left a great legacy.”
By achieving her life’s goal at age 22, she realizes, “Now I need to dream even bigger! Right now my plans are unlimited because you just never know what kind of opportunities will lie at the end of your year as Miss America.”
Her first goal, though, is to finish her final semester at the University of Indianapolis and obtain her bachelor’s degree, then begin her career as a broadcast journalist. Though the world is definitely her oyster, Katie knows exactly where she wants to be when her year as Miss America comes to a close next January.
“I’m a Hoosier at heart, and I will always be a Hoosier, so hopefully I can come back to Indiana to live,” she said. “Indiana’s a great, great place to live, and it’s a great place to raise a family.”
And Katie Stam, small town girl who’s living her big time dreams, will undoubtedly continue to impact those around her … even without the tiara.
You can read more about Katie Stam in our January 2014 issue by clicking here.
Photo gallery of Katie’s homecoming to Indiana in early March.
|Young and old gathered along the streets and around City Hall to capture a photo of the hometown Miss America.|
|The parade ended at Seymour’s City Hall where Katie was presented the key to the city and shown a new highway marker that will bear her name.|