Let me tell you my all-time favorite beauty pageant story. When I was starting out in radio, I emceed many pageants. It was good ad-lib experience. I always admired Bob Barker, who seemed to be able to handle anything, and he hosted a lot of these shows. I got to tell my jokes in front of a live audience. So for a while there, I said “yes” to pretty much every pageant I was offered. Some day, I’ll tell you about the one I emceed in a nearby county, with 220 contestants, ranging in age from “just born” to “long in the tooth.” But this is the time for my Marty Browning story.
It was April 1984, and Marty was already well known in Chattanooga. She was beautiful, and was one of the best majorettes I had ever seen. The East Ridge High grad could twirl a baton. While attending the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, she was indeed the Pride of the Southland. One more thing: Marty was born deaf. The nerves in her inner ear never fully developed. That didn’t stop Marty from twirling. She was able to hear a faint beat as the music played, and she was right in step. Many were surprised to learn of her hearing impairment. Over the years, her speech improved to the point where she could be understood, even with a slight Southern drawl.
When she competed in her first Miss Chattanooga pageant in 1982, her baton routine was flawless, and she looked fabulous in her evening gown and swimsuit. The interview portion was a little tricky, but she did her best. The audience and judges loved her, but she she didn’t quite make the cut. The next two years, she tried again. With all of that pageant experience under her belt, she was better prepared, and the 1984 Miss Chattanooga pageant became an unforgettable night for us all.
By now, she was 23, and her time was running out. The judges usually favored girls closer to 20. As always, Marty nailed her baton routine, and the crowd roared its approval.
She was beautiful in her swimsuit, and radiant in her evening gown. Those of us who were accustomed to her speech had no trouble understanding her during the interview portion, but the judges, hearing her for the first time, may have struggled a bit. One thing they knew for sure, however: the audience loved her. She received the loudest ovations in every category.
Now, the big moment: the announcement of the award winners, and our new Miss Chattanooga. First, I would announce the winners in preliminaries: scholarship, evening gown, and the rest. Then came “Miss Congeniality,” the prized award voted on by the contestants themselves. To no one’s surprise, I opened the envelope, and said “Miss Congeniality is…Marty Browning!” to a thunderous round of applause. I, and surely many others, thought to myself, “That’s nice. Marty has won something. Good for her.” Because we also thought, “As great as she is, she will not win Miss Chattanooga. The judges will choose a young lady to compete for Miss Tennessee who can hear, and speak clearly.” That’s what had happened, two years in a row, as Marty stood watching.
So as the crowd cheered, and Marty accepted her trophy, we moved on. Soon four young ladies had won runner-up prizes, and a dozen others stood by, hoping to hear their name called. I opened the envelope. I don’t know how long I paused, but I looked at it two or three times, to make sure I was seeing correctly. I was about to say something that would tear the roof off the Tivoli Theater. “Ladies and gentlemen, your Miss Chattanooga for 1984 is…..MARTY BROWNING!”
I had never heard such a reaction. Everyone, even those who were supporting other contestants rose to their feet and cheered. Most surprised of all was Marty Browning. Again, she could not hear my voice! All she knew was, every eye was on her, and those eyes were shedding tears of joy. She looked at me as if to say, “Did you say my name?” I looked back, shaking my head “YES!” profusely. I had seen many happy winners over the years, and would see many more. Yet that’s the only moment I remember with such clarity and joy.
A few months later, in January 1985, she competed against 57 young ladies to win Miss Tennessee USA, and soon represented our state in the Miss USA Pageant on CBS, hosted by yes, Bob Barker. She made us proud.
As Marty Browning Dunagan, she has devoted her life to teaching deaf children, first at the Speech and Hearing Center, and now at her own “Marty’s Center” at Brainerd United Methodist Church. Recently she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I’ve been following her Facebook posts. Here is an excerpt from a recent one: The only symptoms I have experienced from the chemo are a few episodes of being lightheaded and brief fatigue but they only last for a little bit. I count my blessings daily for this. My mother, my two daughters, and one of my best friends of 40 years met me on Saturday morning and we went wig shopping. I met a couple of breast cancer survivors at the Wig Palace and at a friend’s house on Saturday night. One of my neighbors even said she had breast cancer and we never knew that. These were people who I have known for a few years and never knew they had breast cancer. It is such a comfort to see these people who are living life to the fullest and they inspire me! I can’t thank you enough for all your love, support, and prayers. Please know that you are my inspiration and you push me to keep on going and fight this. Please pray for my wonderful staff as we deal with changes pending my daily situation. Thank you for your words of encouragement, cards, food, and HUGS during this time. Count your blessings daily. I love you all, Marty
We hear you loud and clear, Marty. You’re still our Miss Chattanooga, our Miss Tennessee, and our shining light.
For more information about Marty’s Center, click here.
You may contact Marty at email@example.com.
Used with permission from David Carroll’s ChattanoogaRadioTV.com
Marty Browning Dunagan with Silas Fincher, May 2014