Crowning Achievement

The footfalls of a stranger in a distant hallway cause Marilyn Van Derbur, Miss America 1958, to spring from a cozy chair in her living room like a cat shot with a rubber band.

"I'm just so uncomfortable having anyone I can't see walk through the house," she says, rushing toward the noise. "I just can't help it. It's old stuff. Old, old stuff, but it's still with me."

Van Derbur knows her fear is not rational. She knows the footsteps are those of a photographer, scouting the house with her permission for the best early-afternoon light. She knows she is safe. But she feels afraid, because the deep-down part of Van Derbur that is raw feeling, that still hurts, bleeds and dreads, does not hear the footsteps of a benevolent stranger, but the ghost of her father, padding toward her in felt slippers.

Her father was a rich and powerful man. His name was Francis S. Van Derbur, but his friends -- and he had many -- just called him "Van." He owned mortuaries and made himself a millionaire. He was a socialite, a philanthropist, a renaissance man who recited poetry from memory -- and a rapist of children who violated his own daughter hundreds of times.

"Terror was my nightly blanket," Van Derbur writes in her award-winning autobiography, Miss America By Day, which was published last year. "Many times he wouldn't come to my room until close to midnight. Sometimes he wouldn't come at all. The waiting, however, was every night. My father always wore a white terrycloth robe and gray felt slippers. I would listen so hard, I could actually feel my ears listening -- like megaphones reaching out to catch the slightest sound. Many times I wouldn't hear his felt slippers on the linoleum steps leading to my room but I would always hear the slow turning of the knob on my bedroom door and then the scuff, scuff to my bed.

"The second I felt his hands on me I would tighten every muscle as tightly as I could, like a starfish does if you turn it over and touch it with a stick. I would shut my eyes; squish them closed until they hurt from squeezing them so hard. I wouldn't open them again until he left. He usually stayed at least an hour. He pried me open night after night. Like a delicate piece of crystal smashed into concrete, my father took my belief system, my sense of self, my very soul, and shattered it into shards."

Now 67 years old, Van Derbur is still picking up the pieces. She still has trouble sleeping, or feeling safe. She has automatic, descending steel security shutters installed to fit all the windows of her home, so that with a click of a button, she can transform her elegant Hilltop ranch into a modern fortress. She knows the footsteps belong to the photographer, but she has to see for herself. She tracks him down, and he poses her for the photo shoot in the entry hallway, near a framed front page of the February 15, 1964, edition of the Rocky Mountain News.

The top headline reads, "Cyprus Is Facing New War Danger." Below the fold is this headline: "Marilyn Married in Mountain Retreat." The story begins, "Miss America of 1958, Marilyn Van Derbur -- now Mrs. Lawrence Atler -- and her smiling bridegroom pose before a picture window framing a Colorado winter wonderland after a snowy Valentine's Day wedding in the Indian Hills summer home of the bride's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Francis S. Van Derbur. The wedding was scheduled in the Van Derbur's mountain lodge at Black Lake, Colorado, but a snowstorm forced a change in plans."

A photo shows 26-year-old Marilyn Van Derbur standing with her new husband. She is smiling. But she is not simply smiling; she is turning on the Marilyn Van Derbur all-American beam. She is radiating absolute innocence and wholesomeness. She is the girl next door, and she is perfect and happy.

Van Derbur still has that smile, and when she turns it on, the air smells of fresh-baked pastries, and all is right and good in the world for a moment -- until she turns off the smile with unsettling ease.

When Van Derbur talks about child molestation, her demeanor is fierce, and her turquoise eyes burn with a natural-born warrior's zeal for battle. She rattles off shocking statistics like this: "One in six boys and one in four girls are sexually violated before the age of eighteen in this country; fourteen-year-olds comprise the greatest number of sex offenders of any age group. If those statistics don't frighten you, you are in total denial." Or sums up the feelings of victims of child molestation like this: "We stay shamed by acting ashamed, when we have nothing to be ashamed of. Together we must say to every violator, ŒThe child may be mute today, but someday the child will speak her name and your name. The children will speak every single name!'" And as she says these words, her eyes shine and her face hardens. But the second the camera is pointed her way, she turns on The Smile, and angels sing while the shutter clicks.

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse