July 2019 Roll ‘Bama Roll
Heather Whitestone was born in Dothan in 1973. As a toddler, at just 18-months old, she developed an ear infection as happens to many young children. However, the infection turned serious, and Heather lost her hearing before she had even mastered speech. The rest of her life would be steered by that deafness: from idolising Hellen Keller’s can-do spirit, to her education, to her later-life career, Whitestone became an activist for the deaf. And it is that drive that sets her apart.
As a child, falling behind on her schoolwork, she asked to attend a special school for the deaf in St. Louis, and eventually got to grade-level with her peers. She later attended the Alabama School for Fine Arts in ballet and Hoover high. All the while, Heather was taking college prep classes and becoming active in the Birmingham-area pageant circuit.
She later entered school at Jacksonsville State, and at the same time entered the national Miss America Pageant circuit. She was wildly successful, winning the Ms. Jax State crown in her first year. That vaulted Whitestone into the Miss Alabama competition in 1994. And, again, she won.
Then, in 1995, in her Miss America debut, Heather Whitestone would bring down the house with her ballet performance in the talent portion of the contest.
Her performance in the talent portion was special, no doubt. But what made the crown a fait accompli was Whitestone’s work in college founding the STARS program, a national self-empowerment organisation. An hour later, the talented, driven Heather Whitestone would walk into the pages of history as the first deaf Miss America.
Whitestone’s hard work was not over, not by a long shot. Her crown was merely an opportunity to let the truly hard work and advocacy begin. Over the next two decades, Ms. Whitestone would author three books, serve on the President’s Committee on Employment of People Disabilities, be Senate-confirmed for a position on the National Council on Disability, be appointed to the National Institutes of Health Advisory Council, become a long-standing Board member on the Hellen Keller Foundation for Research and Education, film numerous PSAs (for the hearing impaired and service animals.)
Between all this work, she also managed to finish college, have a family, move into the orbit of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and in the process become an outspoken cause celebre in conservative political circles. Ms. Whitestone is just 45-years-old, and you get the feeling that Heather’s work is not done. Whether it is in continued advocacy, politics, or even being the hardest-working mom on St. Simons Island, don’t expect Whitestone to ever get tired — or to ever fully fade from the public eye.
There is a crappy coda to this story, alas. Whitestone had a cochlear implant to restore partial hearing in her right ear — in order to be able to safely hear the cries of her infant children. A few advocates for the deaf highly criticised her decision. But, as is her wont, Whitestone unapologetically charted her own course and did so without regrets. And though some hearing has been restored in one ear, Whitestone has always been a tireless advocate for the hearing-impaired, and her name will always be synonymous with the accomplishments of the deaf.