by Carey Kinsolving
ATLANTIC CITY – Debbye Turner was crowned Miss America 1990 Saturday night in front of an estimated 60 million television viewers, the first contestant to bring that coveted title to Missouri.
The 23-year-old veterinary student at the University of Missouri-Columbia won $42,500 in scholarships. Turner, the third black woman to win the Miss America crown, will earn another $200,000 in speaking and appearance fees during her reign.
During a press conference following the pageant, Turner was composed but spoke with a quiver in her voice. The first thing that went through her mind, she said, was, “Oh no, I haven’t made my car payment yet and I’m not going to get home to do it.”
She compared it to the Olympics “where somebody trains for so many years and dedicates their life to one thing and that moment is finally there.”
Turner credited her talent playing her marimba – which she calls “Miriam” – as a big reason for her victory.
Friends who watched the show in Columbia thought she would come out with the big prize.
“We just thought she was the best in all the categories. I kept telling my wife she was the best,” said an excited Robert F. Kahrs, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine. “She’s a beautiful lady. She’s so special.”
But don’t think Turner is overwhelmed by all the glamour and glitz associated with the title. She has her eyes focused on an eternal crown. Turner is an outspoken Christian.
Turner gives credit for her win to the grace of God. She sees a greater purpose in her win than merely enjoying the celebrity status that the Miss America title brings. “The real purpose is to witness and share Jesus Christ,” Turner said.
As a child of 8, Turner’s mother asked her if she was ready to trust the Lord Jesus Christ as her savior. “I said, ‘yes,’ and right then I received God’s gift of eternal salvation,” Turner said.
Turner’s attitude about winning the Miss America crown and God’s plan for her life were reflected in an Aug. 27 interview with the Columbia Missourian. She said then, “My position is, if it is God’s will for my life, Lord, then I want it. And if it’s not, then I don’t really want it because there must be something different or something better.”
For Turner, the pageant is also another step on her way to become a veterinarian.
Her love for animals began as a child. “When I was growing up we were sort of the neighborhood feline humane society,” Turner said. Her house became known as a haven for cats. “We had as many as 26 at one time. Only two or three were indoor cats.
“My mom had a soft heart for animals that were suffering. Cats followed our cats home and decided they liked it. I guess it got around that the turners were running a cat motel. Cats would just show up.”
Although she is scheduled to graduate next May from M.U.’s veterinary program, she will postpone graduation for a year – to complete her reign.
She has always been a good student. Her undergraduate transcript shows a 3.9 grade point average on a scale of 4.0.
The road to Atlantic City started when Turner entered a high school pageant in her hometown, Jonesboro, Ark. She didn’t win, but someone suggested she compete in the Miss Jonesboro contest.
“I found out about the scholarship money and knew that I wanted to go to veterinary school and needed extra money,” Turner said. “I thought, ‘Why not?’”
Turner finished third in that contest, but realized that most of her competitors were six to eight years older. She was determined to try again in a couple of years.
As an M.U. student, Turner traveled to Arkansas to compete in the Miss Arkansas contest. After twice finishing as first runner-up, she decided to enter the contest in Missouri.
Rigorous preparation has been the key to enjoying the competition in Atlantic City, Turner said.
“My intensity was this summer,” she said. “Making sure that song (the one she played on the marimbas for the talent competition) was the best it could be. Making sure that I knew current events so that I had an articulate opinion on all issues. I’ve had a good time competing in Atlantic City. It would have been my own fault if I didn’t enjoy it.
“There are thousands of other women that would like to be here, but just can’t.”
Turner said her Miss America win will allow her to influence young people. “I will have the chance to motivate young girls to be the best they can be,” Turner said.
Dad credits character
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – As far as Debbye Turner’s family is concerned, she’s been on top for a long time.
She doesn’t have anything to prove to them. The Turner family has a history of setting goals and achieving them. Her father, Fred Turner, is a retired Army lieutenant colonel. Her mother, Gussie Turner, works as a guidance counselor at Arkansas State University.
If Debbye Turner has an advantage over other contestants, her father thinks it is his daughter’s ability to express herself.
“Her ability to demonstrate her depth of character gives her the edge,” Fred Turner said.
But that didn’t happen by accident.
“Debbye knows who she is in God, and therefore, doesn’t have to be stressed out,” said Debbye Turner’s older sister, Suzette Turner. “Under pressure, she knows God is always protecting her and taking care of her. He is right there by her side. When you know who you are in Christ Jesus, you don’t have to worry.”
Suzette Turner works for the Army Corps of Engineers in the hazardous waste department. Suzette believes her sister fits the “more brain than beauty” image that the Miss America Pageant is trying to project.
Gussie Turner, Debbye’s mother, has been overwhelmed by the support her daughter has received this week from friends and family, both in Arkansas and Missouri. Debbye has gotten as much attention in some Arkansas newspapers as Miss Arkansas, Marci Lew Allen.
“People in Arkansas have known Debbye for a long time,” Gussie Turner said.
Almost 100 relatives and friends from both states have made the trip to Atlantic City.
Although Debbye grew up in Arkansas and twice finished first runner-up in the Miss Arkansas pageant, Gussie Turner has strong ties and feelings for Missouri. She was born in Missouri and grew up in Kennett, Mo. She said the people of Missouri have “shown me.” She said the Missouri Pageant Association has been fabulous.
“They have been everything any girl would ever want in a pageant association as far as support, guidance and even protection,” she said.