Mary Jane Lawler, a native of Hattiesburg, is polishing her talent and packing her bags as she prepares for a trip down Atlantic City’s boardwalk and runway.
Lawler is the reigning Ms. Mississippi Senior America and will be competing in the national pageant next week alongside 49 others contestants from across the United States. She and husband, Steve, leave Saturday morning for a week’s worth of competition.
“Let’s get this show on the road,” has become her battle cry for what she knows is going to be a great experience.
Final preliminaries will be Thursday, Oct. 18, when the Top 10 is announced and the slate is wiped clean. A winner will be named at the end of that competition.
Lawler won the state crown during competition in Hattiesburg in July. This is the first year the state pageant has been held in the Hub City and it will return again next summer.
Lawler’s only other previous experience in this type event was in the Forrest County Junior Miss and Hattiesburg Miss Hospitality programs when she was in high school.
It was a former winner, Suzanne Shelley, Ms. Senior America 2006, who has been urging Lawler for the last several years to give the pageant some consideration once she was age eligible.
These days she and Steve have been married for 42 years and have two children and one grandchild. She had to meet an age requirement of 60 to compete.
“Each decade has brought me many opportunities and blessings,” she said. “At 60, I feel as though I am more active now than in my younger years. I embrace this next chapter in my life.”
During the pageant, she will be competing in interview, talent, evening gown and philosophy of life, which coincide. During the evening gown competition, Lawler will give her 35-second Philosophy of Life statement, which is something you’d like to say to audience members, especially of the younger generation.
“It’s your life experience, what you’ve gained and what would like to pass on to them about life,” Lawler said, before taking several deep breaths and launching into her statement which includes talk about “living in the present because the past is over and the future is uncertain, therefore all we have is today.”
She continues on about speaking kind works and not letting an opportunity pass you by to show love, which is contagious. “It is important to laugh and show happiness,” she said. “Joy brings us excitement and lets our inward beauty shine and makes each day fulfilling.”
For her talent, she will perform a vocal/dance performance to Tuxedo Junction, a jazzy tune released in the 1930s, which was re-released by Quincy Jones in 1959.
Lawler has been working with Hattiesburg choreographer Kelly Vuyovich, who also helped her with her dress and shoes for the talent performance. She practices every chance she gets to make sure she stays in her required time frame.
“My pageant director thought me singing a little and dancing a little would put me in a different category,” Lawler said. “Kelly has been my coach, mentor, helped me with walking, stage presentation and things you might not think you need to even practice on, or take for granted. He’s given me pointers and been so helpful. But he’s also a new friend. I’m glad our paths have crossed.”
Lawler currently works as a teacher at the Dubard School for Language Disorders on the University of Southern Mississippi campus.
Lawler says Steve has been very supportive of her as she prepares for competition, even offering to pack lighter, so she can carry more shoes and clothes she needs for the pageant.
“I'm very proud of Mary Jane in this new adventure of hers,” Steve said. “As usual, once she commits to something, she goes at it 110 percent, full bore.”
He said whether it was this, teaching at Dubard, or any of her other activities, it’s always 110 percent.
“I've watched her practice over and over again, not as a "coach" or a "yes dear" husband, but someone to critique her as any audience would do. We are both looking forward to Atlantic City.”
“He has been enduring me,” Lawler said.
The Cameo Club, made up of former queens and pageant contestants gave her a sendoff party a couple of weeks ago at which time they offered her words of advice.
“I’ve made new friends who have opened their arms and hearts to me,” she said.
She also had a trunk show to present her talent and show off her wardrobe.
During the luncheon Steve asked the husband of a former winner, “Now that she’s a queen, what am I supposed to do? Just carry the luggage and keep your mouth closed, he was told. “That’s not any difference in what I regularly do,” he told him.
Lawler has continued to practice her talent and philosophy statement and has tried to be a little more in the news, talking with people and being more present and aware of things.
She also had a couple of friends who have conducted mock interviews for her.
Other than that she’s trying to stay busy and keep on with her daily activities.
“I’ve tried to stay with my volunteering, being involved in my clubs and organizations, because to me that’s what it’s all about. That’s who I am.”
Lawler feels like she has an obligation to do her very best for everyone.
“I’m not just representing Mississippi, but the University, the Dubard School and others that I listed on my application and I don’t take any of that lightly,” she said.
Lawler is a lifetime member of the Hattiesburg Junior Auxiliary, member of Main Street United Methodist Church, where she sings in the choir, Alpha Beta Ladies Club and Tall Pines Garden Club. She also does volunteer work with a number of Pine Belt organizations.
And she’s ready for competition to begin.
“Just keep on keeping on,” she said.