Kellye Cash Sheppard raises family in Milan
The rhinestone tiaras from 1986 are in a box somewhere under her middle child’s bed. If it weren’t for her grandmother, the trophies would be gathering dust somewhere behind the growing mountain of wood and metal her three kids bring home from softball, basketball, soccer and whatever else is in their lives.
“If Frances Blanton had her way, the crowns would be on a silk pillow in the middle of the grand piano, and as long as she’s alive and coming to visit, the trophies will be out and visible,” Kellye Cash Sheppard said with a laugh at her grandmother’s love, and the defining moments of her life.
That, and the reality that being Miss America – even when it was 20 years ago – is something she can’t put away in a closet or under a bed.
“It changes a person. It’s changed me,” said the Milan resident, who is still the only Miss Tennessee to capture the biggest prize in pageantdom. (The late Barbara Walker Hummel went to Atlantic City and won the 1947 Miss America title as Miss Memphis. She was the last Miss America to represent a city, not a state).
The memories hit Kellye again on Friday in Nashville, as she helped her former agent with a new client, a young singer just starting out.
“She was frightened, unsure of herself, but I went into autopilot. Somehow I knew what to say to move things forward and settle her down,” Kellye said. “That’s Miss America. Until I went through it, I was never outgoing. I was never able to get up in front of a group and sing, or speak or (as laughter builds) make a fool of myself.”
The pageant thing started when Kellye, a Navy brat who migrated from California for college, agreed to play piano for a friend competing in the Miss Memphis State pageant.
Husband Todd Sheppard picks up the narrative:
“A frat then convinced her to compete the next year. She was runner-up, and Janie Evans with the Miss Milan pageant convinced her to enter her competition,” Todd said. “Three months later, she wins Miss Tennessee, and …”
And you thought her great-uncle Johnny Cash had cornered the family market on grabbing lightning in a bottle.
Kellye said the Miss Tennessee victory in Jackson hit home hardest.
“You think, ‘I won! I’m going to the Miss America Pageant!’ first of all,” she said. “But I think the fact that the crowd is right there in that building (Carl Perkins Civic Center), and everything’s up close – you felt it and knew it right away.
“You know, to this day I can’t tell you the date I won that title; I was so excited.”
By contrast, two months later in Atlantic City “felt like TV Land.”
By the time the late Bert Parks did his thing, Kellye said, “I was on auto pilot for days. My Dad was at sea (with the Navy), so I knew I wanted to mouth, ‘I love you Dad’ for the camera and did. I had promised the kids I’d visited at St. Jude (Children’s Research Hospital) that if I won I’d give them the ‘screw a lightbulb in’ kind of corkscrew wave, and I did.
“But … I didn’t cry right away. That didn’t happen for two or three days, until I sat on a hotel bed and it finally all hit me.”
The magnitude of the job hit her after an appearance in Arkansas, where she joked in a press conference that one of the biggest things she’d found out in her reign was that “there are actually people living in North and South Dakota and Nebraska … and it made the AP wire.”
Open mouth, insert foot, season to taste.
She still has the letter from the governor of North Dakota saying he hoped she’d be in the job long enough to “find out there are people in the Dakotas, and that the sun sets in the West.”
“I go up there and I still get teased,” she said, enjoying the joke now.
After her year holding down the title, she went back to California, married Todd Sheppard and they moved to Memphis.
“That’s where we first thought God wanted us to be,” said Todd, who, like his wife, is very grounded in faith. Funny thing, the Man Upstairs used a pageant to re-route their lives one more time.
“Kellye was asked to host the Miss Milan pageant. She conned me into agreeing to be a judge, which I never do, and held me to it,” said Todd, who had spent a year as basketball coach at Millington High School. “The Milan superintendent was in the audience, was without a basketball coach and he came up and said I should apply …”
The Sheppards have been in Milan ever since, raising their three children. Mainly on ballfields – but son Brady, 14, played Sky Masterson in a school production of “Guys and Dolls” this year. He and sisters Cassidy, 12, and Tatum, 7, will be in a local production of “Beauty and the Beast” this summer.
Miss America will be the one playing Mom with the applause. Most days she’s Mom with the lunch or the van, though Todd says “she goes to a skating party and somebody points and says, ‘There’s Miss America!'”
She goes public on her terms. She’s made a handful of Christian music CDs, done some TV, supported her share of causes and candidates, and once commuted from Milan to Branson, Mo., for nine months doing a one-woman Patsy Cline show that she’ll still dust off from time to time.
“She’d dash from a Sunday matinee back home to spend Monday with the kids and dash back for Tuesday evening,” Todd said. “That was a long nine months.”
But usually “tiara lady” comes out only a few weeks this time of year. Two weeks ago she emceed the state pageant in New Mexico. This week, she’ll be doing the same thing in Oshkosh, Wis.
Last year, she was at the mike through the preliminaries of the first Miss America Pageant in Las Vegas “until that actor from ‘Desperate Housewives’ (James Denton) took over for TV purposes,” she said, laughing again.
Beauty queen or not, Kellye is also not immune to those “life passage” moments, though hers are sometimes a bit more unique.
One came two years ago, when Kellye was emcee at the “Miss America’s Outstanding Teen” pageant, a Miss America offshoot in Orlando.
“I looked at the group of girls,” said Kellye, now 41, “and said, ‘Well this is it … it’s the first time I’m old enough to be everyone’s mother.”
Or the day Tatum came home from school after a visit by the reigning Miss Tennessee, Tara Burns.
“She was so excited that Miss Tennessee came to her school, and that she got an autograph,” Kellye said, “but Tatum walked up to her and blurted out, ‘My mom is Kellye Cash!’ and was taken aback when Tara just said, ‘Yeah, I know her.’ “
Or this past week when she dropped Cassidy off at basketball camp, and discovered her daughter wearing a long-forgotten T-shirt that says “Milan loves Miss America.”
“I said, ‘You’re not going to wear THAT!'” Kellye said, “and she told me, ‘Mom, I want girls to know I’m proud of you.’
“I had to say to myself, ‘It’s OK … It’s O-K …”
The kid could’ve hauled the rhinestones out from under her bed.
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