The daughter of Debbie Williams and the late Doug Williams, she had her sights set on the field of political science. She actually planned to study politics, but her direction changed. Now 15 years later, Kesley is married, has two children and teaches school.
Kesley said it never occurred to her “not to do the Junior Miss Program.” and since she planned to “go straight to college,” any scholarship awards would fill in the money gap.
The teenager was not a stranger to the stage. She began entering pageants at age 5. Inspired and encouraged by her mother, she grew up doing pageants — but it was her choice, she assured.
She “did well” in a Cinderella beauty pageant the first time, but her next-door neighbor won.
“It was just fun,” she said, when she was young, but as she grew older, “it gets more serious and takes a lot of work.”
But there was more to the Junior Miss Scholarship Program (now the Distinguished Young Women’s Scholarship Program). Preparation had to be done and her first step was to enter a fitness program and work on a tough routine. The Cleveland High School rising senior was one of 11 girls in the 1996 competition.
And she won. She also took first-place in talent and interview and received $1,000 and a savings bond to apply to her college expenses.
Remembering the night of the program, Kesley described herself when she won the title: “The ribbon fell out of my hair and I slipped and fell.”
Instead of looking to politics, Kesley attended the University of Memphis on an academic scholarship and went on to receive her degree in biology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
She chose to go away for the college experience, she said, although she loved Cleveland.
Kesley met Mark, “the love of my life,” on a mission trip when she was only 17. They both went to First Baptist Church and knew each other since high school, but didn’t begin dating until she was 20. They married eight months later. They are now celebrating 11 years of marriage and have two children” son Dan, 5 1/2, and daughter Kate, 3 1/2, her little redhead.
After graduating from college, Kesley began her teaching career at Bradley Central High School, where, for seven years, she taught biology and physical science. She said, “I love teaching — It’s fun for me.”
A year after they married, the young couple moved to Orlando, Fla., where they lived 14 months, for her husband to complete an assignment. Kesley said they considered staying, but felt Cleveland was a better choice for them. And since the children came along, “we don’t have a thought of moving. After all, the grandparents are here,” she added.
“Cleveland has everything to raise family. (You) can’t do things in a big city like in a small city ... (we) love going to the mountains and being on the river.”
Her husband works as IT coordinator for Rhea Medical Center in Dayton, but what he really enjoys is his hobby — photography. That partners with Kesley’s scrapbooking. She said she loves to be on the water, also, and “I love to read and shop.”
Even though her priorities have modified somewhat in the last 15 years, Kesley said she hasn’t changed much since her reign as Cleveland’s Junior Miss.
“We like football and go to as many games as we can,” Kesley said. Recently, she continued, they introduced their son to the “club.” They took him to his first game when he was 3, went to two games last year and “we had a great time,” she said.
Her little redhead, she said, is already exploring her world, and Kesley can be heard to cry, “Mark, get the camera.” Little Kate has been swimming since age 2. “We can’t take her on the boat because she wants to dive into the river,” Kesley said.
And, she added, “she has her dad wrapped around her finger. She’ll probably live with us until she’s 50.” But the young mother said she tries not to be as protective.
Kesley said she is proud to get the opportunity to introduce young women to this area.
She said Chattanooga is a great city — was born there — but she wants the DYW contestants to experience the unity of a small-town community. That gives added dimension to local sponsors, too, she said.
Kesley’s mother was with the Cleveland Pilot Club, which worked with the Junior Miss Program in Cleveland, seven years. She joined the club the year after Kesley captured the Junior Miss 1997 title.
When the Kesleys moved back to Cleveland from Florida, she joined the club, also. That led to her involvement in the scholarship program as a volunteer. This is her second year to serve on the state committee for the Distinguished Young Women’s Scholarship Program.
The year as Cleveland’s Junior Miss was a busy year for the then-17-year-old, but she said she enjoyed it and she would be honored if her own daughter someday was in the Distinguished Young Women’s Scholarship Program.
“It’s a wonderful program whether or not you win. You walk away with so much more confidence.”
The DYW program provides a springboard, she added. “You realize ‘I can do it.’”