1964 – Ackerman, Mississippi: Seventeen-year-old Cheryl Prewitt told her father she was thinking about entering the Miss Choctaw County pageant. “No daughter of mine is going to parade herself around on stage in front of a bunch of strangers in a beauty contest. I will not support you, not now, not ever!” bellowed her father in a voice heard all over the house.
Cheryl was surprised and hurt by her father’s outburst, but she entered the event at her mother’s nudging anyway. Wearing an evening gown her mother made from flour sacks, she finished the first runner-up. Her daddy wasn’t there.
Cheryl grew up eight miles from tiny Ackerman, Mississippi, a map dot with a population of 1,500. Her daddy was a carpenter and her mother ran a small country store with two gas pumps out front. The family lived above the store. Cheryl’s jobs were to bag groceries and pump gas.
The Prewitts were a deeply religious family. By age 5, Cheryl played piano by ear and sang at church and in local revivals with her brother and sister. Later she sang and played the piano in the family gospel group, The Prewitts.
The local milkman told young Cheryl, “Someday little girl you are going to be Miss America.” When Cheryl asked, “Mama, can I really be Miss America?” her mother replied, “I don’t see why you can’t. Believe hard enough and a person can do most anything. That’s what the Bible says.”
At 11, Cheryl was involved in a serious car accident. She went through the windshield resulting in more than 100 stitches in her face. She also suffered a broken pelvis and a crushed left femur. The doctors weren’t sure she would ever walk normally. Cheryl’s left leg eventually healed but was two inches shorter than the right. She walked with a noticeable limp until age 17, when her leg miraculously grew two inches at a church healing service in Jackson, Mississippi.
In 1975, Cheryl finished high school and enrolled at Mississippi State University with a double major in piano and voice. During her freshman year she was injured again in a fall, breaking her two front teeth and splitting her lip and cheek. Cheryl’s teeth were bonded back together but they remained permanently crooked.
Despite the setback, Cheryl entered the Miss Mississippi State pageant. She finished as the second runner-up. She tried again her sophomore year but finished third runner-up and decided never to enter another beauty pageant. Instead, she focused on her education and performed as a concert pianist and soloist with the Jackson Mississippi Symphony.
Cheryl’s decision to give up beauty pageants didn’t last long. As a junior, she entered the Miss Mississippi State pageant for the third time, and this time she won. She went on to compete in the Miss Mississippi Pageant in Vicksburg. To Cheryl’s surprise, her father was there to watch her win the first runner-up. While on the way back to Starkville, he asked, “Are you coming back next year?” When Cheryl responded, “Oh Daddy, I don’t know,” he told her, “Well, I know so. I am glad I came.”
Encouraged by her father, Cheryl continued to chase her Miss America dream. As a senior, now too old to enter the Miss Mississippi State pageant, she won the Miss Starkville pageant. A month later, wearing a borrowed bathing suit and a homemade red evening gown – one on which her mother used Elmer’s Glue to attach the sequins – Cheryl was crowned Miss Mississippi.
Just six weeks later, on September 8, 1979, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, millions of Americans watched as master of ceremonies Bert Parks proclaimed, “There she is, Miss America 1980, 22-year-old Cheryl Prewitt.”
Today, Cheryl Prewitt Salem lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and works in the Salem Family Ministry. She is a singer, author and evangelist, having recorded numerous songs and co-authored 32 books with her husband, Harry.
“If God can take a little country hick girl from Choctaw County, Mississippi, with scars all over her face and make her Miss America, then he can do anything with anybody.” Cheryl Prewitt Salem