All smiles, Susan Kaeppeler, fourth grade teacher at Kenosha’s St. Joseph Academy’s lower campus, was greeted with red carpet treatment when she arrived to class Monday after a whirlwind weekend where she saw her oldest daughter, Laura, crowned Miss America.
The 23-year-old brunette won the Miss America title at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, Jan. 14.
“Some of the parents decorated her classroom, and made some posters and put them up in the gym as the school day began,” Pauline McTernan, St. Joseph development director, told your Catholic Herald in a telephone interview. “We rolled out a red carpet, presented her with a crown, bouquet of flowers, and balloons and led her to the gym as the school day began. The teachers all wore T-shirts that said, ‘I teach with Miss America’s Mom.’ It was so exciting!”
Particularly touching to McTernan was Susan’s impromptu speech as she reminded students what her daughter had said to them when she visited the school a couple of months ago.
“She asked if the students remembered Laura’s message and no matter who she pointed to, the kids remembered what Laura had said to them,” she said. “I will never forget it either, as it knocked my socks off. She told the students to put God first, to believe in yourself, and to never give up. And the students got it; it just shows what type of girl Laura is. Her whole family is wonderful and has strong convictions and good character.”
For mom, win is ‘unbelievable’
Three days after the win, Susan, in a telephone interview with your Catholic Herald, said it hadn’t sunk in yet. Explaining that her daughter entered the pageant only hoping to make it to the top 10, she said, “I still don’t think it has really sunk in that she has won, even after a couple of days already. I wake up in the morning and say, ‘Boy, did that really happen?’ It was kind of a surreal moment and it still seems unbelievable.”
She and Laura were extremely nervous the day before the pageant, admitted Susan, but she said on Saturday a sense of calm came over them as they knew the result was in God’s hands.
“We just felt him taking over and had a sense of peace about it,” said Susan, a member of St. Therese Parish, Kenosha.
On the night of the contest, too, Susan said God’s presence was felt.
“Interestingly, before the five girls who were the last contestants went on stage, they gathered in a circle and prayed together,” said Susan. “They all agreed that whoever God thought should be continuing on this journey would be the one selected and they would all be so excited, love and support the winner. There was no sense of upset or anything when the others didn’t win; it was all very cohesive, and they were so supportive of Laura. It was a great experience.”
Following the crowning, a winner’s reception was held in a private suite with Miss America directors, pageant officials, friends and family. However, just an hour of private time was allowed after the pageant, and Laura was whisked to New York where she has been making the talk show circuit.
“She was on ‘Good Morning America’ and several other shows (Monday) and (Tuesday),” said Susan. “We have no idea where she will be off to and don’t have her schedule. But she will be traveling, that’s for sure. She will only be home two to three weeks out of the year.”
Weeks before official Wisconsin homecoming
An official Wisconsin homecoming will be scheduled within the next four to eight weeks, but other than that, most of Laura’s time will be spent traveling.
Susan is looking forward to her daughter’s year.
“It is an awesome opportunity for her,” said Susan, adding. “Laura’s sincerity, willingness and ability to reach out as positive mentor to young people will be powerful. She hopes to bring many things to the children whose platform she is supporting and it will be a great year of service as mentor to young people.”
She said her daughter is grounded and will not allow fame to change her personality.
“We are all very grounded in our faith, and, of course, she will change but that will be in her self-growth,” said Susan. “She will be able to experience things she has never experienced but will always stay true to herself. For Laura it has never been about the outward beauty, as she knows her talent and gifts are from God and this is a great opportunity from him. I don’t anticipate her as being anything but humble, sincere and true to herself.
Family, friends witness event
Susan and McTernan were among a contingent of at least 100 friends and family in Las Vegas to witness the special moment for Laura.
The Miss Wisconsin delegation hosted a standing room only party at one of the hotels for Kaeppeler’s supporters the evening before the pageant.
“It was incredible to see how many people were there for Laura,” said McTernan. “You just couldn’t help but feel the love for this beautiful young lady.”
Kaeppeler was crowned the new Miss America by a panel of seven judges during a live telecast on ABC. The event was a culmination of a week of preliminary competitions and months of preparations for the titleholders from 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
As Miss America, Kaeppeler will spend the next year touring the country to speak to a variety of groups and raising money for the Children’s Miracle Network, the Miss America Organization’s official charity. She won a $50,000 college scholarship and retains her title for one year. She also earned a $2,000 scholarship for her opera performance of “Il Bacio” in the talent portion of the competition.
She holds a bachelor of arts degree in music and vocal performance from Carthage College, Kenosha. She told pageant officials that she intends to use the scholarship money to pursue a law degree and become a family attorney who specializes in helping children of incarcerated adults.
According to McTernan, the pageant experience was surreal and it will be a while before the excitement wanes.
“There were so many who came to support her from Kenosha – long-time friends and family who knew her since she attended St. Therese Grade School. I was there with a group of 14 and watched the whole thing,” she said. “It was phenomenal to see this young girl that I knew as a youngster grow up to such maturity and grace.”
‘Generous, loving character’ evident
While the experience was dreamlike to McTernan, after hearing Kaeppeler sing, she remembers turning around and telling her (Kaeppeler’s) sisters, Sarah, a senior at St. Joseph Academy, and Rachel, a 2009 graduate of the school, now in college, that she was going to win.
“No one could sing better than Laura, and when I saw the finalists go from 15 to 10 to 5, I just shouted, ‘She is going to win!’”, said McTernan. “She couldn’t help winning the title; she is gorgeous, charismatic and an inspiration to young people.”
Just before the crowning, McTernan was moved to tears as she witnessed a joyful Kaeppeler crying, and with her mascara running, grasp the hands and speak a private message to the first runner up, Miss Oklahoma, Betty Thompson.
“She said, ‘No matter who wins, I am just thrilled that I got this far and I won’t feel anything but happiness for you.’ Then she said, ‘We are all winners,’” added McTernan. “To me this showed the genuine and loving character of Laura.”
Laura is remembered fondly by residents of Kenosha.
“She is a very sweet and lovely young lady,” said Linda Brown, St. Joseph Academy administrative assistant, where Kaeppeler graduated in 2006. “I know her and her family quite well. She is a very humble young woman.”
Fans in Milwaukee, too
Although she watched the pageant from her armchair, Carol Degan, principal of Blessed Sacrament School, Milwaukee, couldn’t help but reflect on the young woman who once graced her sixth grade classroom at St. Therese School in Kenosha.
“When I saw her win, I screamed,” she confessed. “It was so exciting! She deserved it, as she was always one of those kids who was pleasant, well liked, a good student, well rounded, involved, creative and always concerned about others. She is a product of her upbringing. Her family is a group of wonderful people; and her mom is a lot like her. They are caring, willing to help others and do for others. And they all have a very strong faith.”
Because Kaeppeler visited Blessed Sacrament School and spoke to students in October, students returned to school brimming with enthusiasm Monday morning.
“It was as if she were part of this school because she came here to visit,” said Degan. “When Father (Robert Turner) asked the children at Mass who had watched the pageant, most of the kids raised their hands. They felt a proud connection to her. Father was excited, too, although he had not gotten to meet her when she was here because he was gone that day. She will be a wonderful Miss America and will represent Wisconsin and Kenosha very well.”