Mrs. Kansas has academic mission on campus, in community

10:48:36 AM CDT - Tuesday, July 18, 2006

By Shannon Littlejohn

Kim McDowell is leaving for Las Vegas, but not for vacation. She'll be competing in the Mrs. United States 2006 competition July 26-27, after days of choreographed rehearsals, appearances, interviews and other pageantry fanfare.

McDowell, an assistant professor in the College of Education, was named Mrs. Kansas United States in April in Joplin, Mo., the home of a regional competition that covers Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Kimberly McDowell
Kim McDowell
Since being crowned Mrs. Kansas, the 34-year-old mother of six has carried her message on early childhood development to countless venues in both Missouri and Kansas.

As a teacher in curriculum and instruction for WSU, McDowell's expertise in elementary and early childhood education, and communication sciences and disorders, led to her platform for the pageant competition: early intervention for academic risk due to communication impairment or poverty.

Reaching new audiences with her message is the biggest benefit of pageant participation, said McDowell, whose platform officially reads "early intervention for academic risk due to communication impairment or poverty."

But her other motivations were simpler, she said: fitness and fun. She had completed her doctor of communication sciences and disorders at Florida State University, during which time she had a baby, and had returned to WSU for a full-time teaching position.

In fact, four of the six children, ages 1- to 12-years-old, are her natural children in her blended family with husband, Troy.
"After having the last child," said McDowell, "I needed a goal to get back in the gym and back in shape."

Competing has been "purely for fun and a little bit of mommy time," she said. Still, she couldn't have done it without help from the entire family.

"It's a family accomplishment," said McDowell, both of earning her doctoral degree and winning the Kansas crown. "The crown is huge; the babies call it ‘Mommy's hat.'"

McDowell didn't decide to compete for the Mrs. Kansas United States title until last February.

"I had about two-and-a-half months to work at the gym, think about clothes and arrange child care for the weekend in Joplin," she said.

She is definitely fit now and maintaining a busy schedule of exercise and beauty, mixed in with squiring the children around town for their summer activities.

In fact, McDowell, a native Kansan, is more than just toned. She is Kansas beautiful: thin but strong, feet firmly planted; blonde but smart, focused on goals; with compassion and a face as open as a prairie sunflower turned to light.

But contestants in the regional competition weren't judged on appearance alone. The same three areas, in which candidates amass points, will be featured in the national contest: interview, swimsuit and evening gown. McDowell won the regional contest hands-down in the interview portion, based on her intellect and the presentation skills she has built through her career in education.

No Mrs. Kansas United States has ever taken the national title, McDowell said. Her goal is to get in the top 10, at least.

"I do think she has a chance," said Sharon Cullison, Kansas director for the Mrs. United States contest. "As hard as she is working and preparing herself, I think she has a good chance. Her intelligence will be a definite factor."

Community involvement makes a difference, too, Cullison said, and McDowell has jumped at every opportunity to make appearances around the region.

"Kim is just gangbusters," said Cullison. "She has set herself a schedule, and I am scheduling things for her. She is being extremely involved and working very hard. She's wonderful, and I'm just very pleased at her level of involvement."

This summer, McDowell has been back to Joplin for Boomtown Days, and has stayed involved with Joplin's Lafayette House, a shelter for abused women that was adopted by the regional contest as its local charity. She participated in a ladies golf tournament and Ark City's Prairiefest where she hit the park for children's art day and worked with the kids all day.

Breast cancer is also an issue for McDowell, whose grandmother, mother and aunt all struggled with the disease. So she was on hand for the Susan G. Komen annual press conference to talk about breast health. She also worked a July golf tournament in Hutchinson for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

McDowell's winnings from the regional contest include the crown, sash and evening gown for the Mrs. United States competition, plus the all-expense paid trip to Las Vegas and a weekend getaway at a lakeside chateau afterward for herself and her husband, who won't get to be her roommate in Las Vegas.

That's just part of pageantry, McDowell said. As a teen, she competed in Miss America Coed and Modern Miss Teen (in which she was third runner-up), so she knows some of the drill. Pageant officials like to pair contestants; McDowell will room with Mrs. Oklahoma.

"The pageants are really fun; most participants are great," she said. "In fact, I got so close to Miss Oregon I asked her to be the bridesmaid at my first wedding."

She is both excited and relieved where her state costume, a requirement for introduction, is concerned. Although Project Runway designer Jonathan Kayne is focusing on a sunflower theme, there will be no petals sticking up from her head, she promises. (In a photo from the Mrs. United States Web site, one 2005 contestant appears to be wearing a three-foot-tall fern on top.) Her costume will be abstract and elegant, McDowell said.

Contestants don't get to keep the state costumes, however; the director keeps them and pageant officials rotate the costumes every other year or so.

The national title carries the same expectations as a state title. The winner will be a spokesperson for the nation's married women, not just her own state's.

Pageant directors encourage community involvement but don't mandate it. So the work of the winners is largely self-directed, McDowell said.

"For me, it's wanting to get out there and interact with kids," she said.

It's also important to McDowell that another one of her messages is heard clearly by adolescent girls: You can be intelligent and beautiful and find a balance. Too many young women think that being too smart won't get them dates, she said.

That same balance goes both ways, apparently. McDowell was nervous about telling her academic colleagues about her pageant involvement.

"I didn't want to hurt my credibility," she said. But her colleagues have been nothing but supportive and her academic credibility is solid with research, presentations and community outreach in education.

"The nicest thing is that my platform is directly related to my research, so some appearances will be more research-based," she said.

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