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Here's a former Miss America who prays on TV with viewers

By CAROL GUENSBURG / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- On the major network morning shows, the hosts mix friendly banter with earnest takes on Iraq and Monicagate, social trends and celebrities. Terry Meeuwsen does that, too. But, up to five times a week, before a million viewers, she does something else at once more bold and intimate.

She prays.

"God is waiting patiently for our knock," gently urges the co-host of "The 700 Club," a weekday TV news magazine with a Christian ministry. "He gives us the power and the peace and the presence of the Holy Spirit.... Would you like to give God a chance to meet you wherever your need is? Bow your head and pray with me now..."

Her ability to connect with people -- often while testifying to her religious faith -- was buoyed in a singing career, a year as Miss America, her talk shows in Milwaukee and, since 1993, a co-host role with televangelist Pat Robertson on his Christian Broadcasting Network's flagship program.

"I consider it my responsibility to take the platforms God has given me and share my heart," Meeuwsen says simply.

Recently, she used "The 700 Club" to amplify her prayers to end the death penalty and, specifically, to spare the life of Karla Faye Tucker. Nonetheless, the pick-ax murderer who converted to Christianity in prison was executed by lethal injection Feb. 3. The day after, Robertson invited Meeuwsen to share her opinions with viewers.

The rarely critical co-host took direct aim at Texas Gov. George W. Bush and the parole board that refused to commute Tucker's death sentence to life in prison.

"I think that parole board is set up to protect him (Bush)," she says. "He appoints those people. So to hide behind that and say, ÔI couldn't do anything' -- I don't buy that.... I am so tired of politicians who put their careers ahead of principle and, in my opinion, ahead of mercy."

A native of De Pere, Wis., she went from St. Norbert's College to the New Christy Minstrels, touring internationally with the folk group. She became Miss Wisconsin 1972 and Miss America after that. She co-hosted "A New Day," a talk show on from 1978 to 1980.

CBN first brought her to Virginia Beach to co-host a nationally syndicated talk show. When that fizzled, Meeuwsen returned to Milwaukee as director of special projects for her old TV station and host of radio programs for WTMJ-AM. CBN sought her out again as a guest co-host on "The 700 Club" after Meeuwsen quit full-time work in 1986 to concentrate on her growing family. (She and husband, Andy Friedrich, a former WTMJ advertising salesman, by then had produced two children and later adopted two more.)

But Meeuwsen has endured trials, too. A rape at age 21. A first marriage that ended in divorce. Financial difficulties that forced Meeuwsen and Friedrich to sell the house they built in Mequon, Wis.

Challenges "are inevitable," Meeuwsen says. "You can succumb to them or fly above them."

The rape pushed her toward a deeper faith. The divorce brought "very dark days, but God proved Himself sustaining." And the money problems led Meeuwsen to accept CBN executives' fourth overture for "The 700 Club" job.

Meeuwsen, Friedrich and their kids -- Drew, 14; Tory, 12; J.P., 10; and Tyler, 8 -- have settled comfortably into a five-bedroom brick house that backs up to woods. They've found a parochial school that the children attend and where Friedrich serves full time as director of development plus basketball coach. They've all built up rosters of friends and activities. But, Meeuwsen admits, "home to me is still Milwaukee."

"It's where we married and started our family. But after you've been gone five years -- sometimes I think it's true that you can't go back."

A nimbus of honey-colored hair frames Meeuwsen's face, which at times looks uncannily like Jane Pauley's. She's probably a size or two bigger than in her pageant days. But Meeuwsen, who turned 49 on March 2, also has a fuller life now. "I've got four kids going four separate directions," she says, sinking into an armchair on the set between taping sessions. "I'm trying to slow us down. I wish I was more laid back than this."

If anything, her pace has been accelerating. In February, she spent a weekend each in Dallas and Anaheim, Calif., speaking and singing at Aspiring Women inspirational conferences. She's working on her third book, a collection of stories about Christian friendship. A second, "Near to the Heart of God: God's Words of Encouragement," is due out any day from Thomas Nelson Publishers of Nashville.

Meeuwsen's first book, "Christian Memories," drew on the experiences of some 30 women, including singer Naomi Judd and evangelist Billy Graham's daughter, Anne Graham.

In 1995, Meeuwsen came out with her own CD of contemporary Christian music, "Eyes of My Heart," and she's gearing up to make a gospel recording with other former Miss Americas.

That's on top of the daily drill.

Meeuwsen rolls out of bed by 6:15 and into the CBN parking lot by 7:30 a.m. By 8:45, she's on the set to greet and pray with the studio audience, then tape the hour-long "700 Club." Back at her office, she works straight through to 2:30 p.m., then shifts gears to Chauffeur Mom, shuttling kids to ballet and karate lessons.

By 11, the kids have bunked down and she's at her desk with a cup of green tea, reviewing notes for the next day's show or writing manuscripts on a yellow legal pad.

Usually. "Last night at 11:30, my 14-year-old handed me his basketball jersey and said he needed it washed for tonight's game." She did it, albeit wearily. As she says days later after a "700 Club" segment on working mothers, "the family has to come first. You have to constantly re-evaluate."

Back in Meeuwsen's CBN office, over iced tea and turkey sandwiches, the conversation ricochets among family, the impact of being Miss America, her ensuing broadcast career and God's calling. That last topic brings Karla Faye Tucker back into focus.

"She had become everything we say we want to have people become when they are incarcerated," Meeuwsen says, still quietly grieving after the execution. A repentant and reformed Tucker "had so much she could have offered (if) released into the general prison population. The system became more important than the individual."

Would Meeuwsen, who joined "The 700 Club," the pope and others in petitioning for a commuted sentence, advocate for a convict who was not pretty, white, female and Christian?

"You mean, what if it was a man and he became Buddhist or Muslim? I say YES! You HAVE to consider the individual...

"I'm so tired of people making decisions based on what's politically expedient for their careers. If there's a righteous leader, please let him come out from behind a bush," she says, impassioned. A moment passes before she realizes this could be misconstrued as another blast at the Texas governor. Her face reddens and she begins to laugh.

"That's with a small 'b.' "

Meeuwsen herself once supported capital punishment. Then her close friends Linda and Dallas Strom, a Wisconsin couple who run a prison ministry, took her into correctional facilities in Wisconsin and Texas.

"I saw faces and learned the names attached to them. That changed things."

Meeuwsen met Tucker through Linda Strom, who was designated the inmate's spiritual adviser on Death Row. "I thought that was so amusing.... because I gained so much wisdom from her," Strom says. About Meeuwsen, she adds, "I really feel she did a great job of conveying Karla's heart."

Meeuwsen remains on the prison ministry board and returns to speak and sing at the Stroms' conferences.

"She truly has compassion for people," Dallas Strom says. "She shares both the positives and the challenges that she's had to face if she feels it's going to help someone else. She's a genuine person."

With a genuine sense of fun.

A prime example takes place each September during the Miss America broadcast.

"My daughter and I have a pageant party," Meeuwsen says. "We set up chairs like a theater, and our women friends and their daughters come in jeans and sweats. We pop popcorn and eat M&Ms. We've got a voting system and we see who gets the closest. I'm always wrong."

Daughter Tory and other girls provide the live entertainment. "They go upstairs and put on my old competition gowns. Pretty soon we'll hear giggling and they'll come walking through. We take out the crown and they put it on for pictures."

Mock pageantry is all Meeuwsen would allow for a child, she says, touching on the JonBenet Ramsey case.

"I have a real thing about kids' pageants. I would never let my kids participate in that.... Childhood is difficult enough to get all your values strengthened."

Meeuwsen was 23 when she became Miss America, a role she describes as both "very intense" and "a great vehicle. I wouldn't trade it for anything."

It was during the pageant that Meeuwsen first proclaimed for Christ on a national stage, singing "He Touched Me" to cinch the title. Going public with her faith hasn't always been so well-received.

"Terry was with the Christy Minstrels when she began the walk. When she first wrote me about it, I thought she'd gotten into heavy drugs. I was sobbing my eyes out," recalls her younger sister, Judie Harvey, of Charlotte, N.C., who has since come to "share the same Christian values."

"There are people who are turned off by public prayer," allows Meeuwsen, who was raised Catholic but now worships in a charismatic Presbyterian church. "I think I would scare most people, because what I do here is so overt."

She believes her outspokenness narrowed her options professionally. WTMJ "was never bothered by it," Meeuwsen says, though the station did require the talk show co-host to present opposing views on politically sensitive topics such as abortion. "That was a challenge. It's one of the great things about working here. I don't have to be neutral on things I feel really strongly about.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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