BY LEXI CHURCHILL CONTRIBUTING WRITER
PHOTOS PROVIDED BY MCKENSIE GARBER,
DAVID PICKERING AND MATT BOYD
She entered her hometown for the first time in weeks with a new title to her name.
Leaving her crown and sash behind, she picked up a selfie stick instead. Circled by half her town decked out in Cardinal red, newly crowned Miss Missouri McKensie Garber filmed a minute-long testimony as to why her hometown of Hale made her the perfect candidate for the Miss America title.
Half the town surrounded and supported her that day in 2015. Within the 200-person parade cheering her on were some of her greatest high school and junior high mentors, who had helped devel- op the confidence Garber spoke of on tape. Although each one held a special place in her heart, it was her father, one of Garber’s greatest influences, who instilled in her an important word, a value that has stuck with her for 21 years. Character.
As educators, her parents impressed this trait upon Garber from the beginning. She grew with it, she grew into it. It became her platform.
Roots. Morals. Principles. Sometimes you aren’t quite aware of the impact those traits have until an experience reminds you. For Garber, that event came in seventh grade.
During a leadership conference in Washington D.C, Garber’s curriculum included character as it tied into the foundation of the country’s democracy. After traveling to the battlefields of Gettysburg and Jamestown she returned to her own town of Hale, Missouri, where she questioned the absence of character classes in school.
Although the classes were not added to the curriculum, her ex- ploration of the topic deepened
and so did her promotion of it. The following year Garber competed in the Patriot’s Pen Essay writing contest that posed the question, “What does citizenship mean to you?” She placed eighth in the nation. To no one’s surprise, she wrote about character.
Her message transitioned from the pen to the podium early in high school, when Garber’s passion for public speaking led her to a national stage at the Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) conference. There she gave a speech on, you guessed it, character. Her speech placed second in the country.
“Anytime I could speak or write about something, all I wanted to write about or talk about was character,” Garber says. “Then as I grew up I started competing in public speaking through FBLA, and found that speaking was something I was really good at and passionate about, but it all started from that leadership conference. Being a good speaker means you’re passionate, and what I was passionate about was character.”
In high school Garber deepened her involvement in a big way, past her pageants and public speaking. By senior year she was student council president, cheer and dance captain, state vice president for FBLA, national teen spokesperson for both CHARACTERplus and the Megan Meyer foundation, all while finishing her freshman year of college online and holding the Miss Outstanding Teen 2011 title, the little-sister title to the Miss Missouri pageant.
When the time came to select her college, her heart was set on Mizzou. It always had been. Garber envisioned herself in the kick lines of the Golden Girls and studying in the Fish Bowl [residence hall] in journalism school — the perfect package.
She hadn’t heard of Oral Roberts University before meeting her boyfriend, who was planning to attend there the coming year. Without thinking much of it, Garber applied and interviewed for the Whole Person scholarship at the university, a full tuition award. When she didn’t make the cut for the Golden Girls and didn’t receive much scholarship money from Mizzou, winning the full ride from ORU was the final tie-breaker in her decision to go there instead.
With her college plans complete, Garber received her diploma and handed in her sash, and had just one overarching decision yet to make. With a crown missing from her head, her friends and family questioned if she’d compete for another one. After being so busy all during the past year, she decided to put the next pageant on the back burner.
“I really understood how much work it was to be a good state title holder, and after that exhausting year I didn’t know if I wanted to do that on the Miss [Missouri] level,” Garber says. “If you win a Miss title it becomes a full-time job and I knew how competitive it would be. I knew how much work it took, and I’m a perfectionist, so I didn’t know if I wanted to put myself through that.”
Although Garber went into college telling her friends and family she was unsure if she’d ever compete, in the back of her mind Miss Missouri was her after-college goal. She had an abundance of opportunities to experience before then.
However, those prospects were not immediate, and the transition from a high school graduating class of 14 to a school of 3,000 in another state was a difficult one, especially when dealing with her parents’ recently finalized divorce.
With only Jennifer White—a former Miss Missouri—as a support system, Garber struggled to ground herself in Oklahoma. As a social butterfly without a roommate who was dealing with her parents’ divorce alone, Garber fell into a state of depression. She was ready to quit. She was ready to give up everything she’d started at ORU and transfer to Mizzou. Then she shared her dilemma with her father.
“My dad told me, ‘You’re living the dream and you don’t even realize it,’ ” Garber says. “I stopped and thought about that for a moment and realized all of these seeds were being planted in my life at ORU, and if I was willing to persevere and weather through that season in my life then it was potentially going to blossom into something beautiful.”
And it did. Garber remained at ORU and soon those opportuni- ties came to life. She adapted to the strict honor code, weekly chapel services and overall high standards that the school set for its stu- dents, and thrived within it. The word character had stuck with her.
While pursuing a degree in convergence journalism, Garber worked as the managing editor of the school newspaper, led chapel twice a week and served as a Golden Eagle Ambassador to welcome high-profile guests. Because ORU is a liberal arts school, she also had the opportunity to enroll in dance classes, further developing her pointe skills. It was everything she needed from her college experience; everything she hadn’t known she wanted.
When her third and final year rolled around, she decided to take on one more feat. After going back and forth, Garber turned in a last-minute application to compete in the Miss Gateway pageant, a precursor necessary to enter the Miss Missouri pageant.
Once she claimed the crown, it was training time. Garber found herself juggling once again. Besides keeping up with current events and working out consistently, she took on a new diet: no sugar, no carbs.
When searching for dance ideas, she finally decided on a jazz pointe routine. One day she stumbled across the perfect song while walking past a hip-hop class dancing to Michael Jackson’s “PYT.” With jazz, MJ and pointe, the performance became a culmination of everything she loved.
She trained her entire senior year, but her most demanding chal- lenge came in May. After graduating at the top of her department and class, Garber had five weeks before the pageant to make sure she was in the best position possible. If she was going to do it, she wouldn’t put anything less than her best foot forward.
After months of anticipation, the week finally arrived, and the first few days of rehearsals were a piece of cake. It really began for Garber in the middle of the week.
“I was either going to win it or lose it on Wednesday because I had my interview and my talent presentation, which are the two biggest phases of competition in your score,” Garber says. “You really win the pageant in your interview, because that’s when they get to know you and see your heart. That’s where you win it. If I could get through Wednesday I could get through anything.”
She did. She got through Wednesday. She got through Thursday. She got through Friday. She got through preliminaries not with first in talent, but first in swimsuit — a huge confidence booster. Then came Saturday.
Preliminaries were over and the Top Ten began—live. Garber did everything except her interview all over again, back to back to back.
Before she knew it, Garber was standing with six other girls, contestants she could also see in the Top Five, but only one more could be. Hanging on every last word of the announcer, Garber was shaking. And then she heard it.
She moved to a row with the other Top Four ladies, including her biggest competition and her best friend on the stage, Miss Springfield, Kelsey Dacus, awaiting their question. When Garber’s turn arrived, the announcer asked, “When should America go to war?”
It was a tailor-made question. She could’ve answered any, but this one lit a fire in her stomach. She stood, nerves calmed, and answered with ease and passion.
“I think war should be a last resort for America. I love that America is so passionate about creating harmony across the world. However, I think war is one of the most, if not the most, devastating things known to humanity, and it should always be the last resort after we use diplo- macy and communication with other countries.”
Once the microphone was removed from her lips, there was noth- ing more she could do. She stood in what she describes as a Hunger Games level of anticipation, but there were only five names in the bowl. She pleaded in her mind, “not me, not me, not me.” It wasn’t. That is, until she stood hand-in-hand with Dacus. Then all she wanted to hear was her name. From the moment she did, it was all a blur.
“It’s a very surreal, kind of out-of-body experience,” Garber says. “I don’t remember much of it. People show me pictures of us after I won, and I have no memory of taking those pictures. It does not sink in. I would say it doesn’t sink in for the first couple of weeks.”
However, she didn’t have a couple of weeks to absorb the new title. She had exactly three months to train for her next one. With Miss America in sight, Garber went through perhaps the most grueling period of her life. To her deep disappointment, she didn’t receive the payoff for which she was hoping. After the 15th contestant was called and Garber remained in her assigned spot, the defeat began sinking in.
“I was devastated at Miss America on the night of the telecast when I didn’t make the top 15 because I was very confident that I had done everything I could. But it’s a pageant—it’s not fair, it’s subjec- tive,” Garber says. “It’s very disappointing when you work that hard for something and you don’t get the results you want.”
On one commercial break her tears streamed when the announcer asked all the parents of contestants to stand. There in the audience was her father. There on his chest was a button with her face big and bright. And there she was, crying from his long-time support and his own character that established her platform, the character that got her this far.
Garber pushed through those two televised hours with grace and poise, as many friends and family members told her afterward. And after that pageant, her life slowed down a little. For the first time in years, she had only one thing on her plate: fulfilling her term as Miss Missouri.
“I’ve realized that this is exactly where I’m supposed to be in my life; it’s my dream post-college job to be Miss Missouri,” Garber says.
“This is my fourth hypothetical year of school that I just get to be in Missouri, be with my family and serve other people. It’s one thing for me to focus on.”
Once Garber’s year as Miss Missouri is over, she will focus on the next step: her lifelong dream
of becoming an actress. She hopes to utilize her scholarship money to further her education through a drama program at Oxford, then eventually move to Los Angeles to pursue a career in writing and acting.
Without her character foundation, she may not be where she is today. Without the struggles of depression and defeat, as well as her parents’ divorce, she wouldn’t know her ultimate message.
“We’re always going to have things happen in life that aren’t fun or don’t make sense, like my parents’ divorce or not getting the outcome I wanted at Miss America, but I think it’s all about what we make of the circumstances we’re given in life,” Garber says. “I want that to be my message as Miss Missouri — for people to believe in themselves, believe in the beauty of their dreams, have a kind heart and leave situ- ations better than they found them.”
Although her royalty will be passed down and her title will fade as the years go by, if she stays on the platform she has always known, Garber will remain crowned in character. •