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Former Miss America Vandeweghe left legacy of family, faith

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Colleen Kay Hutchins Vandeweghe used to tell her four athletic children before games that they weren't competing alone — Heavenly Father was right there beside them.

This is one of Heather Vandeweghe Shannon's favorite memories of her mother, the 1947 BYU homecoming queen and University of Utah graduate who became Miss America in 1952 and attracted so much attention for her LDS faith that some have called her the first American Mormon media superstar.

Vandeweghe, 83, died March 24 at her home in Newport Beach, Calif., after battling intestinal issues on and off for 17 years.

"She was incredibly devoted to her children and her husband," Shannon said. "She would do anything for us."

Shannon remembers her mother coming to her tennis practices and sitting up in the stands just watching her. Other parents would come with a book in hand, but not her mom. After watching, her mother would tell her, "You looked very beautiful out there today."

Tauna Vandeweghe, the second oldest in the family, was a member of the U.S. swimming team in the 1976 Olympic Games and earned a silver medal with the U.S. volleyball team at the 1984 Olympics. She remembers her mother going to all of her meets and games, her brother Bruk's volleyball games and oldest brother Kiki's basketball games.

Bruk Vandeweghe won a medal in the 1994 Goodwill Games, and Kiki Vandeweghe averaged 19.7 points per game during his 13-year NBA career and now is the general manager and interim head coach of the New Jersey Nets.

"The only reason why we were successful was because of her," said Tauna Vandeweghe, whose 18-year-old daughter, CoCo, is a professional tennis player. "She pushed us in a way that I can't figure out how she did it. I never felt pushed like I had to do it. She would tell us that God gave us gifts, and the only way we weren't faithful to God was by not using our gifts. She wanted us to make sure we did the best we could with them."

Colleen Vandeweghe didn't even tell her children that she was a former Miss America. Tauna Vandeweghe and Shannon stumbled upon that tidbit when Shannon was 8 years old and the two daughters found a scrapbook and the trophy hidden in a closet.

"We were flabbergasted," Shannon said. Later, Shannon found out that her mother was the oldest (25) and tallest (5-foot-11) Miss America at the time. ("I don't know how it happened," she told reporters after she won. "I thought I was too darned tall.")

The family watched the Miss America pageant every year, but Shannon never knew why until the girls' discovery. But even watching it, her mother didn't really talk about winning, Shannon said. "She didn't want us to think that defined who she was or that that was important in life. She wanted us to know that it's not the trophies that you come home with that's important; it's how you love."

Before her debut as Miss America, Vandeweghe was BYU's homecoming queen as a sophomore and the 1951 Miss Utah. Alma Whiting, 83, went to BYU with Vandeweghe and said she lit up the classroom when she walked in and always was kind and generous to everyone.

After attending BYU for a couple years, Vandeweghe, who was born in Salt Lake City but raised in California, transferred to the U. for its drama program.

LoRene Hutchins was Vandeweghe's roommate for a time there and remembers Vandeweghe being crowned Miss Utah. Hutchins later became Vandeweghe's sister-in-law when she married Vandeweghe's brother, Mel Hutchins, a BYU basketball star and the 1952 NBA Rookie of the Year who Vandeweghe called her "twin."

LoRene Hutchins went to the Miss America pageant with Vandeweghe. She said they thought Miss Carolina had won because the press took a lot of pictures of her, but Miss Utah took home the crown. Vandeweghe was the first Miss Utah to be crowned Miss America. Sharlene Wells Hawkes, Miss America in 1985, is the only other Miss Utah to earn the national honor.

Vandeweghe appeared on the cover of the June 1952 Improvement Era, a magazine published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Inside the issue, the director of the Miss America Pageant was quoted saying that Vandeweghe was the "busiest and most popular of all Miss Americas."

The article also said as a member of the LDS Church, Vandeweghe enjoyed standing up for her beliefs. Many news reports referred to her Mormon faith, leading the authors of the Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History to describe her as "perhaps the first Latter-day Saint media 'superstar.' "

Vandeweghe remained an active Mormon and attended church services when physically able, one of her daughters said.

She met her husband, Ernie Vandeweghe, while he was a player for the New York Knicks. Three days before her death, he was baptized a member of the LDS Church. He had decided to join the church in December and wanted his wife to be at the baptism, but he postponed it to wait until all of his children could be there.

When it didn't appear they could all gather until the middle of April, it looked like he would have to pick between being baptized in front of his wife or his children.

But the Sunday before Vandeweghe died, son Kiki Vandeweghe called to say he was on his way, and everything else fell into place. Ernie Vandeweghe and the couple's 8-year-old grandson were baptized the same day.

"Heavenly Father created a miracle," Shannon said. "Our little miracle."

Sara Lenz reported on this story from Provo, Utah