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Monroe News photo by TOM HAWLEY Kaye Lani Rafko Wilson, director of Gabby’s Ladder, a family grief center in Monroe, was crowned Miss America 30 years ago.
By Ray Kisonas
Monroe News staff reporter
Posted Sep 25, 2017 at 12:00 PM
“My work is here and Miss America made things a lot easier,” Kaye Lani said.
It’s a warm, late-summer Sunday afternoon and a group of people are gathering in downtown Monroe to participate in a vigil for suicide, a sensitive subject that for many is difficult to discuss, especially in public.
Kaye Lani is there. She stands to the side and quietly listens to the stories. The empathy is clearly visible on her face. Many in attendance are complete strangers yet she feels their pain as if they’re family members. Those close to her say there is nothing phony about it; she simply exudes compassion.
“I’m so happy that people think of me as someone who gives others the comfort they need,” she said recently. “They look at me as a person of compassion because I’m willing to hold their hand and care and even cry with them. That’s a great gift.“
Many wholeheartedly agree with that assessment. Thirty years ago this month Kaye Lani Rae Rafko Wilson was crowned Miss America 1988. The accomplishment not only changed her life, but the lives of countless others here in Monroe. That’s because Kaye Lani used the power of the crown to create organizations that offer comfort and support to those who need it most: the terminally ill and those who have lost loved ones.
Being Miss America opened the doors to opportunity, but instead of pursuing personal wealth and fame abroad, Kaye Lani used the crown to improve her community. She shrewdly raised money to help create the Hospice of Monroe in 1988 and Gabby’s Ladder in 2001, a family grief enter that soon will break ground on a new facility in Raisinville Township.
“Where would these people be without Gabby’s Ladder?” she said. “I’m glad I’m here for them. To me, that’s my reward.“
Those who know Kaye Lani describe her as a genuine, kind-hearted, person who cares deeply for others and will fight for what they need. When they speak of her, they mention beauty — both inside and out — grace, commitment and compassion. She may have been crowned Miss America 30 years ago, but to many she’s the queen of compassion.
“She is the most giving individual and she continues to give,” said Tracy Oberleiter, who was chairman of the homecoming celebration when she was crowned. “She has the ability to get people to listen to whatever message she is trying to deliver. People are just drawn to her.”
ROAD TO THE CROWN
Born Aug. 26, 1963, Kaye Lani was the oldest of four children born to a Jacqueline, a one-time Miss Dairy Queen Trenton, and Lonny, an auto parts shop owner from Monroe, who could be described as brusque on the outside but a teddy bear on the inside.
The family often tuned in to the annual Miss America pageant and when Kaye Lani was an infant, her grandmother, Mimi, told the family, “This one will be my Miss America.“
During her early years, the family lived in Detroit Beach and in a farmhouse on Stumpmier Rd., but most of Kaye Lani’s schoolgirl years were spent in Bedford Township, where she attended Jackman Road Elementary School. She was a self-described girlie-girl and she and her sister, Kimberly, would stroll up and down the hallway of the house pretending to be a newly crowned Miss America.
The family moved to Raisinville Township and Kaye Lani graduated from St. Mary Academy. Almost on a whim, and because she needed money for nursing school, she competed in her first Miss Monroe County pageant at 17 and won.
At first her father wasn’t especially pleased with his daughter being on stage in a pageant.
That began her lifelong affiliation with the pageant. She competed multiple times in her quest to reach Atlantic City and finally made it there in September, 1987. She was 24.
Kaye Lani had no official platform back then, but she interviewed well, stating the two biggest issues facing America at the time were the AIDS epidemic and nuclear disarmament.
She nailed the swimsuit contest and did well with the Tahitian dance, but a board member at the time scoffed at her chances, stating there was no way they would crown that “hula girl.“
The first runner-up was from Monroe, Louisiana, and when that was announced on Sept. 19, 1987, it meant the woman from small-town Michigan with the peculiar first name — which David Letterman awkwardly focused on during her lone appearance on “The Late Show” — was crowned, sending waves of cheers from southeast Michigan all the way to New Jersey.
“I felt the roar,” she said.
The year as Miss America was one of travel, appearances and speeches. She was warned that it could be tiresome, but Kaye Lani said that wasn’t the case.
She came home to a welcome befitting a queen. There was a rousing parade and parties. She was presented a key to the city and a street off W. Front St. was named after her.
It ignited a love affair with the community that remains strong to this day. In the 30 years since, she has continued a deep involvement with the Miss America pageant and is well known on the national circuit.
It was because she advocated for the nursing profession and for hospice programs, the Miss America program added individual platforms for contestants.
In Monroe, she has become perhaps the most beloved, most recognizable person in the area.
She serves on numerous boards, works closely with the Miss Monroe County Scholarship Pageant and is comfortable with her celebrity status. She uses that popularity not for personal gain, but to the advantage of organizations she supports.
“A lot of wonderful things were made possible because of Miss America and I’ve been able to give back to the community with the crown,” she said.
‘A WONDERFUL GIFT’
Much has occurred in the 30 years since her crowning achievement. She married Chuck Wilson and together they have raised three children: Nicholas, 25; Alana, 21, and Joseph, 17.
Kaye Lani also suffered heartbreaking loss. In addition to her father and brother, Nick, she lost a son, Gabriel, who lived only 46 minutes after birth.
The losses, she says, makes her a “wounded healer” because she understands personal grief. That, according to her, makes her more understanding when working with those who grieve.
“So much has happened,” she said. “I’m glad I’m here for this. To me, that’s my reward.“
The hospice is still active and she remains involved with many organizations, but her focus is on Gabby’s Ladder. Created in 2001, she finds fulfillment in helping those who grieve those they have lost.
The organization has grown to include anyone who is hurting. Counselors have assisted thousands over the years and Kaye Lani serves as executive director. A new structure to be built on S. Custer Rd. is in the works.
“I still can’t believe I’ve been able to accomplish so much,” she said. “I’m just a little girl from Monroe.“
She still enjoys representing the crown she earned 30 years ago and is thrilled the community still reaps the benefits.
After her reign, Kaye Lani decided to stay in her hometown instead of moving to a faster city. With that, numerous organizations that serve the Monroe population became the recipients of funding because she made it happen.
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