Hundreds of eyes stared as the unusually confident eighth-grader stood before the entire high school student body and delivered a speech to run for a position in student government. No one, not even she, would guess she would be delivering another life-changing speech years later on live TV as the 1985 newly crowned Miss America.
Being crowned Miss America was not the first or last of Sharlene Wells Hawkes’ accomplishments. Born in Paraguay and raised in various South American countries, she is bilingual and plays the harp. She is the daughter of an LDS general authority, was a BYU Homecoming queen and, later, an ESPN sports reporter.
Now, at age 51, Hawkes is still finding ways to impact the world for good. She is the mother of five and currently works to honor military servicemen and women as president of Remember My Service Military Productions Division, which honors veterans through the creation of digital eBooks and hard-copy books full of memoirs, interviews and photos. She has one piece of advice for anyone with an idea or goal: dream big.
Elayne Harmer, Hawkes’ sister, recalls childhood memories of her older sibling. “She had calm confidence already at that age,” Harmer said. “If you want to achieve great things you have to aim really high. You may fall short, but at least it’s higher than what you would have achieved. When Sharlene says to dream big, she has really done that all her life.”
Hawkes admits that being in beauty pageants was never something she imagined herself doing. However, she was recruited during her senior year of high school to be in the Utah Junior Miss pageant. She won that contest, along with $15,000 in scholarship money. As a freshman in college, she tried out for Miss Salt Lake Valley with encouragement from her mother. Aside from the pageants, she was also crowned BYU Homecoming Queen in 1983.
From there, she went on to become Miss America with help from her family and friends. Hawkes won the talent division for the Junior Miss pageant and said,”My mom thought I should try for Miss America because it was 50 percent talent.”
Harmer remembers what it was like for her when her sister was crowned Miss America. “I was there in Atlantic City when she won,” Harmer said. “It was surreal in a lot of ways because I was back there as a correspondent from the Deseret News. I was there as a sister as well as a reporter.”
At the time, Hawkes was the first foreign-born, bilingual Miss America and one of only two Latter-day Saints to have been crowned.
“In hindsight, I realize what a huge responsibility it was to represent the church as Miss America,” Hawkes said. “I was a minority growing up, and I really didn’t realize how much the spotlight was on me until much later. If I had known at the time it could have been overwhelming.”
Her accomplishments didn’t stop at being crowned Miss America. She graduated from BYU with a bachelor’s degree in communications, pursued her master’s degree at the University of Utah, then became a sports reporter for ESPN.
Despite her career accomplishments, Hawkes chose to settle down with her young family for a time. “I decided I needed to leave ESPN because I couldn’t keep up that schedule with the kids,” she said. “I took a break for about 10 years, and when my youngest was in first grade, that’s when I decided I wanted to get into all-day work.”
Hawkes was hired as the chief executive officer for StoryRock, a digital scrapbooking company. After some time there, she became the president of Remember My Service, where she currently works.
She considers working with the military a great honor and says it’s the most enjoyable professional pursuit she has been a part of. She presides over an organization that consists of six team leaders who work diligently to collect and publish treasured war stories.
Even with her re-entrance into the workplace, Hawkes remains continually mindful of her priorities with her family. “You have to know what is really important to you,” she said. “People don’t know what success is to them, and it makes it a lot easier to know when hard decisions have to be made.”
When asked about her personal definition of success, Hawkes said it is, “family and being around people that love you and care about you. I’ve seen how a lot of people don’t have that, and I cherish it even more.”
Hawkes’ life is full of career obligations and family responsibilities. Her children range in age from 17 to 25, with her oldest child getting married soon. “My two favorite words were just, ‘hold on,’ Hawkes said, laughing. “You go, ‘I’m in over my head,’ and you just say, ‘It will probably pass in a week.'”
Flexibility in the workplace has been especially important to Hawkes and has helped her keep her family at the forefront. Hawkes emphasized that flexibility is key and that it is important not to be rigid in anything, with the exception of family.
“Understand that family comes first and foremost. Accomplish what you want, but put your priorities in place,” Hawkes said. She loves this season of her life and feels that she has reached an ideal pace.
“I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing that women can’t dream big or they can’t have a family and dream big,” she said. “What they fail to understand is that there are seasons. When your kids are really little you do put things on hold, but they get big and go to school. Once the kids get in school they grow up and leave your house, and then what? It doesn’t mean you can’t dream big.”