Lee Benson
Sharlene Wells Hawkes, who reigned as Miss America in 1985, works for a Salt Lake company that produces commemorative books for military veterans.
I’ve always been in awe of the military; I see them, I stand straighter. This is the most satisfying thing I’ve done and the most fun I’ve ever had professionally. —Sharlene Wells Hawkes

SALT LAKE CITY — She had a birthday this month, one of the milestone variety, and Sharlene Wells Hawkes, no stranger to public scrutiny, was ready.

“Thanks for the birthday wishes,” she said when the press came a calling. “I am celebrating the one-year anniversary of my 49th birthday!”

And to make sure no one thought she made that up, she quickly added, “That’s a Nancy Reagan-ism.”

Believe it or don’t believe it, it’s already been a half-century since Sharlene Wells entered the world, and almost 30 years since she was crowned Miss America, only the second Miss Utah ever to be accorded the title.

But other than acknowledging that it happened, Sharlene expresses scant interest in the past. It’s the present that has her full attention. That and the future.

Take this week, for example. On Wednesday and Thursday she’ll be in Washington, D.C., serving as a tour guide for a group of “people of influence” she will show around the capital as part of an annual event she organizes to lobby support for military veterans — her chosen cause.

She’ll show her group of dignitaries the Pentagon and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, introduce them to top military officers and visit the Easter Seals Dixon Center for Veterans and Military Service, the nonprofit vet-help organization that Sharlene is affiliated with as a member of its board of directors.

The tour group will also meet the current Miss America, Nina Davuluri of New York, who will be there because, well, someone has connections.

Thanks to the military, Sharlene, aka Miss America 1985, has experienced a personal revival with the Miss America Pageant.

After taking a decades-long break from all things beauty pageant — during which time she married, raised four kids (the youngest is now 16), worked as a sportscaster for ESPN (before raising the kids), wrote two books, recorded two albums and became a motivational speaker — seven years ago she found a connection between being a veterans advocate and a former Miss America.

After seeing the heartbreak caused when soldiers go off to war and don’t return, she started an event called Project Gratitude.

Its purpose is to bring wives and daughters of fallen heroes — men who have been killed in combat — to the Miss America Pageant every year and treat these women like royalty, all expenses paid. They’re pampered at the spa, put up in a fine hotel, given VIP seats to the pageant — pretty much everything the contestants go through except having to wear a swimsuit and answer questions about world peace onstage. All as a way to say thank you.

“We host about 20 of these women every year,” Sharlene says. “I didn’t go (to the pageant) for years till I started this program. Now I’m going every year.”

Her patriotism dovetails nicely with her day job at StoryRock, a Utah-founded electronic publishing company that specializes in digital scrapbooking. Sharlene heads up Remember My Service, the StoryRock division that produces commemorative books and ebooks — yearbooks, essentially — for members of the military. Some 500,000 of these have been published to date and, with millions and millions of returned and returning vets, the potential for Remember My Service is essentially unlimited.

“I’ve always been in awe of the military; I see them, I stand straighter,” says Sharlene. “This is the most satisfying thing I’ve done and the most fun I’ve ever had professionally.”

Way easier, by the way, than when she wore the tiara.

“Miss America, that was hard work,” she says. “You’re a PR person 24 hours a day, and you’re not allowed to have an off day. Ever.”

As for this latest milestone, turning 50 — piece of cake.

“I like being half-a-century,” she says, flashing a Miss America smile. “Now I don’t care what people think about me. I know I’ve said that before, but I probably didn’t mean it. But now I do because now I really don’t.”

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: [email protected]