By Meg Jones, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –
MILWAUKEE — Laura Kaeppeler didn’t know she would cry.
Otherwise, she would have used waterproof mascara.
When the 23-year-old Kenosha, Wis., native was crowned Miss America Saturday night — becoming only the second Miss Wisconsin to win in the pageant’s 91-year history — tears flowed and so did her mascara.
“Of course I realized I didn’t wear waterproof mascara until after the fact. But it made that moment very real …,” Kaeppeler said in a phone interview Monday.
Kaeppeler is much more than makeup, or evening gowns or swimsuits, though the Miss America pageant is certainly all those things, too. She is a poised, smart Carthage College graduate who won a preliminary talent portion of the competition by singing an Italian art song.
She’s a Packers fan who jokingly told Aaron Rodgers on TV to call her.
And her platform, the issue that she made a part of her pageant campaign, was to be an advocate for children of incarcerated parents. It’s a painful issue that’s close to her because Kaeppeler’s father was convicted of mail fraud and sentenced to federal prison while she was a teenager.
She plans to use the $50,000 in scholarship money to earn a law degree. But law school will have to wait a year. Meanwhile, she’s got a full calendar.
“It’s been a lot of craziness,” said Kaeppeler, as she reeled off a lengthy list that included numerous media interviews and a flight to New York. “Life has just been instantly changed.”
Perhaps the only Wisconsinite who knows what’s in store for Kaeppeler is the only other Miss America to hail from the Badger State. Terry Meeuwsen won the title in 1973 and remembers her younger brothers telling her about all of the cars driving by their De Pere home honking their horns the night she won.
De Pere put up a huge sign at the city limits heralding the community as the home of Miss America and when Meeuwsen brought her future husband home to meet her family, “we were about 10 miles out and I said, ‘I need to tell you about something that’s coming up on the right.’”
Meeuwsen is surprised it took almost four decades for another Miss Wisconsin to win Miss America.
“For me, that was one of the big highlights of winning — at last, it was Wisconsin’s turn,” said Meeuwsen, co-host of the Christian Broadcasting Network’s 700 Club.
Of course, just as De Pere was thrilled in 1973, now it’s Kenosha’s turn. Kaeppeler’s victory was the talk of the town on Monday.
At The Spot Drive-In, customers talked about the former carhop who made good. Kaeppeler worked at the popular drive-in, which is open year-round, for six years during high school and college. Her favorite meal at The Spot: cheeseburger, breaded mushrooms and root beer.
“Should we call that the Miss America special now?” said her former boss, Chuck DuBois, whose father opened the hamburger stand six decades ago. “She’s a nice girl and she’s very deserving of the honor. I’m sure she’ll do Kenosha and Wisconsin very proud.”
Carthage College, where Kaeppeler earned a degree in music in 2010, trumpeted the famous alum on its website. She was remembered by her music professors as a humble student who worked hard to capitalize on her talent and become an accomplished soprano.
Dan Ermel, 23, who sang the lead tenor part alongside Kaeppeler in an opera workshop of “The Magic Flute” at Carthage College, had never watched the Miss America pageant until Saturday. He was shocked to see his former classmate and fellow member of the Carthage Choir and Lincoln Chamber Singers win.
“It was crazy. It was almost surreal,” said Ermel. “I boasted a little to my friends. My mom is making a bigger deal to her friends than I am. It’s definitely something I would never expect to be able to say.”
Greg Berg, an associate professor of music at Carthage who accompanied Kaeppeler as a pianist at her junior and senior recitals, remembered she had beautiful voice. By the time she graduated, he said, “she could shoot off high notes like fireworks.”
Last fall, Kaeppeler told Berg her goal was to finish in the top 10 at the Miss America pageant so she’d have a chance to sing live on TV, performing a condensed version of “Il Bacio” (The Kiss), which ends with a high D.
“I wondered when Laura got to warm up. You just don’t roll out of bed and sing a high D,” said Berg, who directed Kaeppeler in “The Magic Flute.” When “she was reaching the end, I was nervous about the last note. She managed to hit it and I was really proud of her.”
Kaeppeler said she was apprehensive during the preliminary competitions earlier in the week but by Saturday night her nerves went away.
“I remember being backstage before the opening number, we knew we were live on ABC, and all the girls around me were saying ‘Gosh, I’m so nervous.’ But I just had this sense of peace, this calm all around me,” said Kaeppeler, who has performed the national anthem at Brewers and Packers games.
Kaeppeler performed in children’s plays when she was in elementary school, took voice lessons and sang in musicals at St. Joseph High School in Kenosha. While she was in high school, her father, Jeff Kaeppeler, was indicted in 2006 for mail fraud. She decided to live at home and go to Carthage College.
While working for a company that rehabilitated and sold residential and commercial property from 1999 to 2002, Jeff Kaeppeler stole $122,000 that customers intended to invest in funds, depositing checks in his own checking account and mailing a statement to one investor indicating that the money had been invested with the company, according to court records. Jeff Kaeppeler was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison and ordered to pay restitution.
When it came time for Laura Kaeppeler to choose a topic for her platform at the Miss Wisconsin contest, she knew she wanted something she felt passionate about and decided to focus on helping children of incarcerated parents. Noting that there are at least 2 million such children, she founded Circles of Support-Mentoring Children of Incarcerated Parents.
“Everything I experienced is similar to other children who have parents in prison,” she said. “I felt alone, I felt like no one else could understand what I was going through,” said Kaeppeler, who has two younger sisters.
But before she decided to tackle such a difficult subject, she first talked to her parents.
“I had to sit down and have many long conversations with my father and say, ‘Are you OK with this because it will rehash a lot of wounds.’ My dad is such a wonderful person and so proud of me, he was immediately on board with it. We both know how often this happens in our country, how many children there are whose parents are incarcerated,” said Kaeppeler.
Kaeppeler will spend part of the year working on behalf of the Children’s Miracle Network, the Miss America pageant’s main charity. She found time in her busy schedule to watch Green Bay lose to the Giants while flying to New York Sunday afternoon.
She gave a shout out to the Packers during a televised segment where each Miss America contestant introduced themselves, asking the team’s bachelor quarterback to call her.
If he did, Kaeppeler would be hard-pressed to find enough time for a date.
And the irony is that while Rodgers and the rest of the Packers will be home during the Super Bowl, Kaeppeler will be in Indianapolis for the big game.
“It was a sad, sad loss, especially because I’ll be going to the Super Bowl. I was hoping to represent Wisconsin,” she said.