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November 6, 2003

Former Miss America inspires at Clarke School

From: Hampshire Gazette, MA - Nov 6, 2003


Thursday, November 06, 2003 -- ( NORTHAMPTON ) When Heather Whitestone-McCallum was crowned Miss America in 1995, she couldn't hear host Regis Philbin announce her name.

Regis was looking at the TV camera, so I couldn't read his lips, Whitestone-McCallum, the only deaf woman to win the pageant, told an enthusiastic group of students at Clarke School for the Deaf Friday. ''(The runner-up) had to point to me and say 'You won! You won!'''

Whitestone-McCallum was visiting the area to participate in Clarke School's mainstream conference in Springfield. She held two sessions with students at the school to talk about overcoming her hearing impairment, winning the pageant, and her experiences at a similar school for the deaf in St. Louis. ''I wasn't doing well in school, so I went to a school for the deaf, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me,'' she said. Learning to speak and read lips was difficult, and she said that at times she wanted to give up, but her parents wouldn't let her. ''My mother never gave up. So I kept trying, and that's why I'm successful. That's why I have this crown,'' she said, holding up her Miss America tiara.

After winning the title at age 22, Whitestone-McCallum said she traveled 20,000 miles a month making appearances and giving speeches. She was also made a member of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, where she met Bill Clinton, Bob Dole and other politicians. ''Before Miss America, my only job experience was baby-sitting!'' she said.

Most of the students at the school are too young to remember the 1995 pageant, but 13-year-old Maggie Mannix said she heard about Whitestone-McCallum's win when she got older. ''I thought it was cool that a deaf woman was Miss America,'' she said. ''Finally!'' Mannix said she had dreamed of becoming the first deaf Miss America until she learned that title was taken. ''So I guess I'll have to be the second deaf Miss America,'' she said. The students had lots of questions for her, including what her talent at the pageant was (ballet), whether she wanted to try to become Mrs. America now that she is married (no, thank you) and why she could visit only 47 of the 50 states during her reign (Alaska, North Dakota, and Wyoming just couldn't be squeezed in).

Many of the students wanted to know about her cochlear implant, an electronic device that allows some deaf people to hear. Whitestone-McCallum, who used traditional hearing aids for most of her life, said she decided to get the implant in 2002 after the birth of her two sons, both of whom have normal hearing. She said watching her young children ask questions about the world ''taught me there are many more sounds than I thought.'' Eight-year-old Dario Odierna told Whitestone-McCallum that his father had seen her win the Miss America title shortly after he was born and that it was an inspiration for him. ''I just came back from the hospital in Boston and the doctors said I would never speak,'' Dario said. ''My father saw you on TV, and you said, I'm deaf and I can talk. So my father said, my son is deaf and I want him to be able to talk, too.'' ''I'm going to tell my mother your story. She'll be so happy,'' Whitestone-McCallum replied. ''Your dad is a great man.'' After her talk, she signed autographs for all the students, including 10-year-old Emily Hewlings, who tried on the tiara and brought along her copy of a biography about Whitestone-McCallum titled ''Yes You Can, Heather!'' ''I haven't read it yet, but I like to look at the pictures,'' Emily said. Ryan Davis can be reached at

© 2003 Daily Hampshire Gazette