2009 Miss America returns to hometown to talk to girls, promote new book

Since being crowned in 2009, Seymour native Katie Stam Irk often asks people what they think it takes to be Miss America.

Wearing a crown and a pretty dress and having a fancy hairdo are common answers.

Irk said it’s so much more than that.

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“You don’t have to be Miss America to be like Miss America because really, being Miss America is about having a good heart, taking care of each other, being kind, having values of good education, making good decisions, getting involved in your community. That’s what it’s about,” she said.

While recently visiting Girls Inc. of Jackson County for the Seymour High School cheerleaders’ Princess for a Day event, she read the book “I Want to be Miss America.” She wrote it during her year of service while donning the crown.

Afterwards, she let the young girls hold and try on her crown. As she talked to one of the girls, Irk said, “You should feel like a princess even when you don’t have the crown on.”

It’s a message she continues to be passionate about.

“It’s fun to get together and have your hair done and makeup put on and wear fancy dresses, but I want all of these girls to know that when they woke up this morning and their hair was a mess and they had sleep in their eyes, that was when they were most beautiful,” Irk said.

She also shares that message with her own girls.

“I want them to know that their natural, god-given beauty is when they are the most beautiful,” she said. “We can apply makeup, we can do our hair, we can wear tiaras, we can wear fancy dresses, and that’s fun. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t want anyone, any young girl especially, to believe that they have to do that in order to be beautiful.”

Irk said she typically wears makeup once a week if she’s going to a special event. Most of the time, she said her hair is in a ponytail and she’s wearing a T-shirt, jeans, a ball cap and tennis shoes.

She said that’s how she was while growing up on a dairy farm in Jackson County, and she hasn’t let being Miss America change that.

“The world is going to tell you what their ideal beauty is, and unfortunately, it’s with everything that’s added on,” she said. “When I competed at Miss America, I didn’t have my nails done, I didn’t wear fake eyelashes, I didn’t have hair extensions in. I wanted to be Katie. Be who you are. Be natural. Be beautiful just the way you are. I want to share with people who I actually am. I hope it’s powerful. I hope it’s impactful.”

Irk has written 12 children’s books, but none of them made it to publication. She said she has wanted to be an author since sixth grade and has actively been pursuing it for the past nine years.

“When I say I have tried every avenue, I have tried every avenue,” she said of getting the books published. “It all met with, ‘No,’ ‘Not yet,’ ‘Maybe,’ and it can be a very defeating process when people don’t believe that your work is good enough to put on shelves.”

Last year, she began writing a devotional. She decided to go the self-publishing route with Esther Press Publishing, named after her great-grandmother.

A few weeks ago, she had her first published book, “Merely Moving Shadows: A 10-Week Devotional Guide to Living God’s Purpose Through His Plan,” in hand.

“I cried. I bawled like a baby because it has been a tough journey for the last nine years,” she said. “I finally just had to come to this place where I’m not going to allow others to place a value on me based on what I want to do. I’m not going to wait for someone else to make my dreams come true.”

She said it was time to invest in herself.

“It’s about saying, ‘I’m not going to let someone else impact my dreams,’” she said. “I believe that you can’t dream big enough. There’s no such thing as too big a dream.”

Irk said some people may not have thought a dairy farmer from southern Indiana would go on to be Miss America or the sixth-grader who wrote the first 32 pages of a novel — which she still has today — would go on to be a published author.

“Don’t let anybody tell you that you’re not worthy of your dreams, and don’t let anybody tell you that it’s impossible to live our your wildest dreams. Believe in the beauty of your dreams,” she said.

“You are worthy of your dreams, but it takes a plan to get there, and that’s getting a good education, getting involved with your community, making good decisions is a huge part of that and then having the confidence in yourself to say, ‘Yeah, I can do this. How do I need to do this in a way that is full of integrity and is honest and true?’”

The book is available online at merelymovingshadows.com. Irk will return to Seymour for a book signing from noon to 2 p.m. May 19 at the Jackson County Visitor Center, 100 N. Broadway St.

After that event, the visitor center will have some copies of her book available for purchase. She said she would like to have other local businesses sell her book.

Julie Rueger, the cheerleading coach at Seymour High School, said she was thrilled when Irk agreed to be the special guest at Princess for a Day.

After last year’s inaugural event, Rueger said she asked girls what would make the second event even better, and they said, “Real princesses.” Irk was the first person that came to Rueger’s mind.

“The Miss America Organization stands a lot for women empowerment and women to stand up in the community and do things to make our world better, and I think what better role model coming from Seymour, Indiana, for our girls to have that role model than Katie,” Rueger said.

Being a kindergarten teacher, Rueger said she likes Irk’s literacy platform, and it was a great opportunity for the young girls to listen to Irk read her book.

“I think that in itself is going to be a great motivator for these little gals to set goals and accomplish good things in the world,” Rueger said. “People from Seymour, Indiana, can do great things. We’re just as good as the rest of the world, and we just have to have the opportunities to make those opportunities happen, as well.”

Tiara Lopez, Aleigha Zike, Lariah Neal and Aly East, all 12 from Seymour, were among the nearly 70 girls who attended the event.

They all agreed Irk is an inspiration.

“It just inspires me because she’s so helpful, and she’s just so kind, and the things that she has done and the things that she has accomplished are just amazing,” Tiara said. “It’s just really cool because it’s someone from our hometown.”

Aleigha said she often hears about Irk in her father’s classroom at Seymour Middle School. Keith Stam is the choral director there.

“She has helped a lot of kids, and she inspires a lot of people,” Aleigha said. “Just seeing her, it was exciting.”

Lariah and Aly also liked meeting Irk.

“Knowing that someone from here that’s famous like that and I got to meet her, it’s like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Lariah said.

“It was just cool seeing her and letting the little kids see her. They also look up to her,” Aly said. “It just makes me think that even though you’re from a small town, you can do whatever and achieve anything.”

Twenty high school cheerleaders and 10 from the middle school squad helped at the event as a community service activity.

At the end of the event, Irk praised them for interacting with the younger girls and being a positive influence.

“There is so much influence that can happen in the power of a moment,” she said. “Especially for girls who are growing up in the community that I grew up in, you need somebody to believe in you, you need somebody to make you feel special because you can go on and do whatever it is you want to do. Whether it’s being Miss America or an astronaut or president of the United States, it doesn’t matter.”

Along with writing, Irk stays busy with her full-time job working in communications for a crop insurance company. The mother of three kids — ages 4, 3 and 1 — also is a real estate agent, owns two property management companies with her husband, Brian, and does speaking engagements.

“I wear a lot of hats, but I consider myself first and foremost a mom because that’s the best title I’ve ever held or ever will hold,” Irk said.

She said people constantly tell her to slow down. While she agrees she needs to in certain areas, she said she still has a lot of dreams.

“Miss America, that was one of my dreams. Being a published author, that was one of my dreams,” she said. “I’m not done dreaming, and I will continue to come up with dreams from here on out. I have been so blessed to be able to live some of my wildest dreams, but I’m not done yet.”

She said she was humbled to be a part of Princess for Day, and she looks forward to returning to her hometown next weekend and other times in the future.

“I know that I’m brought here to make others feel special, but honestly, I always leave feeling like I have gained more than I could give because it’s just very, very special,” she said.

“I love coming back to this community and investing in this community because the people here in Jackson County, they are the best people on the face of this planet,” she said. “I’m proud to be from this community, and I’m proud to continue to be a part of it.”

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What: Jackson County native and 2009 Miss America Katie Stam Irk signing copies of her first published book, “Merely Moving Shadows: A 10-Week Devotional Guide to Living God’s Purpose Through His Plan”

When: Noon to 2 p.m. May 19

Where: Jackson County Visitor Center, 100 N. Broadway St., Seymour

Details: The event is in conjunction with Seymour Main Street’s Downtown Shop Around. Light refreshments will be provided.

Information: The book also is available for purchase online at merelymovingshadows.com