Saturday, June 28, 2008

Catching up a former Miss Virginia and Miss America

The pride of Pipers Gap, this former Miss America is now a Mrs. in Canada.

Thirty years ago this September, Kylene Barker McNeill became the first Miss Virginia to become Miss America. She began her run to the crown by first winning the Miss Pulaski pageant.

The Roanoke Times | File 1979

Thirty years ago this September, Kylene Barker McNeill became the first Miss Virginia to become Miss America. She began her run to the crown by first winning the Miss Pulaski pageant.

Kylene Barker McNeill shares a laugh with her father, Kyle, on stage at the Rex Theater in Galax on June 20.

Courtesy Blue Ridge Music Center

Kylene Barker McNeill shares a laugh with her father, Kyle, on stage at the Rex Theater in Galax on June 20.

Kylene Barker McNeill sang

Courtesy Blue Ridge Music Center

Kylene Barker McNeill sang "God Bless America" at the Rex Theater in Galax recently. She was accompanied by Spencer Strickland (left) and Gerald Anderson.

Thirty years ago this summer, a young woman who had just graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in clothing and textiles came to the Hotel Roanoke in search of the perfect accessory -- a crown.

She won the Miss Virginia title and then, two months later on Sept. 9, 1978, became the first Virginian to become Miss America. After that, everybody knew Kylene Barker, the pride of Pipers Gap.

But it doesn't seem like it's been 30 years to her.

"My life has been in fast-forward mode since then," she said by telephone from her home in Muskoka, Ontario, where she lives on a lake with her third husband, Ian McNeill. These days, Barker is known as Kylene Barker McNeill by her friends.

She moved to Canada in the '90s with her second husband, Ralph Hibbard, who died of cancer in 2002.

Being a Miss America still carries a certain significance, even after 30 years. She is still asked to appear at charity functions and galas, even by her hometown folks in Galax and Hillsville, where she graduated from Carroll County High School in 1974. Both locales still like to claim her as their own.

"My dad still has those bumper stickers that said 'Carroll County-Galax, Home of Miss America,' " she said. "Being the big rivals that they were, Carroll County cut off the Galax name and Galax cut off the Carroll County."

She's sort of from both. Pipers Gap is a tiny Carroll County community just outside the Galax city limits. Her father, Kyle, still lives there. Her mother, Dolores, died in 2006. McNeill, who was a Tech cheerleader, was recently named to the Virginia Tech Alumni Association board, which means she'll be returning to Blacksburg for a football game this fall.

Two weeks ago, she sang before a bluegrass concert at the Rex Theater in Galax. Her father volunteers for the Blue Ridge Music Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway and the center's officials were more than happy to have a former Miss America perform and host the concert, which was moved indoors to the Rex because of thunderstorms.

Her backup musicians that night, Gerald Anderson and Spencer Strickland, learned "God Bless America" just minutes before the show.

She is still proud to have been the first Miss Virginia to win the Miss America title. Nicole Johnson became the second winner from the commonwealth 20 years later.

"When they announced the top 10" during the 1978 Atlantic City, N.J., pageant, she said, "I thought, 'Yes! I'm in the top 10!' "

Then, she won. She broke down in tears, accepted the crown and was asked by longtime host Bert Parks, "Where are you from?"

"Roanoke!" she said, giving credit to the place where she won her Miss Virginia title.

Today, she still meets women under 30 named Kylene. She has to ask, "Were you named for Miss America?"

The answer is often yes. Today, on, there is a club for Kylenes. Kylene Barker McNeill's picture is front and center.

Read on to find out a few more things about Miss America 1979.

Q: What's it like being a Miss America in Canada?

People think it's kind of cool and they ask questions time to time, but I don't go around wearing the crown. I didn't defect. My title up here because I'm an American is "landed immigrant." I traded the title of Miss America for the title of landed immigrant. I really love this part of the world. It's so beautiful. I love Toronto, I love Muskoka. It's a great place to live.

Q: Your path to Miss Virginia and then Miss America began with the title of Miss Pulaski County. Was that a tough competition?

I had won some minor pageants ... but nothing on a track for Miss America. I graduated from college and I wanted to see how far I could go. Either that, or I'd have to get a job! I remember calling my mother and telling her I was going to enter the Miss Pulaski pageant. I could feel the cold chills run down her spine. "Oh, Kylene..."

I had a strategy. I could have entered the Miss Virginia Tech pageant, but there was a girl who was a singer with the New Virginians [singing troupe] and I didn't think I could beat her. I called Roanoke for the Miss Virginia rules and was told I could enter the pageant closest to my hometown. That was Miss Pulaski. There were eight contestants. I said, "That's the one I'm entering!"

Q: The video of your crowning as Miss America is on YouTube.

I saw that! Some person named John put it on there. Who's John?

Q: Do you have a video of your crowning?

I still had it on VHS until a friend said, "Kylene, this is about to go." So I put it on DVD.

Q: On June 20, you returned to Galax and sang "God Bless America" at the Rex Theater prior to a concert. Did anybody know you were a singer?

Well, I'm not. Both sides of my family have musical talent ... I kind of rebelled and spent my life riding horses, climbing trees, twirling batons and turning cartwheels. Somewhere, I have a little of that talent.

Q: For years, you were the most famous person to ever come from Carroll County. Now, some guy named Frank Beamer might have stolen your crown, so to speak.

Oh, absolutely. What he's done for Virginia Tech has been amazing. I tell my Canadian friends that he grew up in Fancy Gap and I grew up in Pipers Gap, but we didn't know each other because of the age difference. [Beamer is nine years older.]

We've done some fundraisers together for the Carroll Wellness Center and for The First Tee [an initiative to promote golf among young people of all backgrounds]. I've done some fundraisers with Tom McKnight, the golfer from Galax. It's funny, because when he played in the Masters [as an amateur golfer in 1999] USA Today said that he was the most famous person from Galax since Miss America Kylene Barker.

Q: Your grandparents lived on a farm with livestock. Did you ever milk a cow?

I tried a few times. I didn't want to be too good at it because I didn't want to have to do it all the time. I have great memories of riding my horse Blaze through the fields and watching them baling hay. My grandparents grew everything they ate. My grandfather sold milk to Sealtest [dairy plant]. I tell everybody I grew up organic.

Q: Do you ever miss the Blue Ridge Mountains?

I'm very proud to come from the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was so nice to be back there.

When you're from a place, you tend to take it for granted. When you're from the beach you want to go to the mountains, when you're from the mountains you want to go to the beach.

My parents used to go to square dances on Saturday night and they'd ask me to go and I'd think, "I don't want to go to a square dance." I was into the Doobie Brothers and Three Dog Night. Now, I love that music and appreciate it. The mountains are where it was born.

Q: When are you coming back to sing?

Next year I want to sing "O Canada" at the Blue Ridge Music Center.

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