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Dr. Debbye Turner Bell’s New Book Explores ‘Courageous Faith’

Debbye Turner was the first Miss Missouri to be crowned Miss America — and even though that was 32 years ago, she remains the only winner from the Show-Me State. In the 1989 competition, she wowed the audience with her rendition of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” on marimba.

In Dr. Debbye Turner Bell's new memoir, she reveals personal details from her life, "from wearing the iconic crown to miscarriages, brushes with celebrities, and death threats."
In Dr. Debbye Turner Bell's new memoir, she reveals personal details from her life, "from wearing the iconic crown to miscarriages, brushes with celebrities, and death threats."

(Watch the performance here.)

Now Dr. Debbye Turner Bell, the pageant queen-turned-TV journalist explained on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air that she chose the marimba despite a friend’s advice to pick a different talent.

“She said, ‘First of all, half the people in the world don't know what a marimba is, and the other half won't know what to think when they see you playing it,’” Turner Bell recalled. “But I stuck to my mother's advice of sticking to what I was good at, and I felt like being unique would be an advantage. There was always going to be 1,000 singers or gymnasts or dancers, but there probably weren't going to be that many marimba players — and that proved to be true.”

Another adviser told Turner Bell to "tone down the Jesus stuff,” she writes in her new memoir, "Courageous Faith: A Lifelong Pursuit of Faith Over Fear." She didn't listen, and she's still not listening.

“I know who God is to me, and I know what he's done in my life, and so I just make no bones about that. I don't apologize for the grace of God in my life,” Turner Bell said.

In her book, from Christian publisher Our Daily Bread Publishing, Turner Bell writes about her decision to compete as Miss Missouri after losing Miss Arkansas three times before (twice as first runner-up).

“It took me seven years [and] 11 tries in two different states to win a state pageant and go on to the Miss America Pageant,” she recalled during the on-air discussion. “All along the way, I was told by any number of people [that] it couldn't happen. I couldn't do it. I didn't have the right look, the right talent. I talked about ‘that Jesus stuff’ too much. But I had a sense of purpose in this, and so I decided, ‘I'm going to keep trying,’ and by the grace of God, it worked out.

“That's the message that I want to send,” she added. “If you'll have the courage to dust yourself off and keep going, learn and try again, I believe that you will achieve your goal.”

In the book, Turner Bell also addresses the controversy that followed a question she was asked by journalists within a few hours of being crowned. The question was: “How did you feel being a role model for little Black girls around the country?” She responded: “I am a born-again Christian, a veterinary student, a musician and an animal lover. There are many facets to my identity. Being Black is just one of them.”

“I made that statement flippantly,” Turner Bell said, reflecting on that moment. “Representation matters, and what I didn't appreciate that night was [that] my brown face was representation for others who looked like me. And so it placed a mantle, or responsibility, on me to represent well. … It is important, I believe, for those of us who are given a forum [or] given a platform to represent well.”

In the years since she was crowned, Turner Bell became a veterinarian, founded Debbye Turner Bell Consulting, and served as an anchor for KSDK, staff correspondent for CBS News and the lead U.S. news anchor for Arise News. She speaks regularly as a corporate trainer and motivational speaker, serves as a faculty member of the Institute for Management Studies and regularly contributes to the show “DOGS 101” on Animal Planet.

She also manages to sneak in some marimba playing here and there.

“We have a room in our home that has our piano and my marimba, so we call it the music room, and I go and lovingly dust it very often,” she said. “It's become a party trick at dinner parties when we have people over, because people will come in and be like, ‘Oh, what is that? Take it off, take off the cover’ to prove that I can still play it.”

Related Event
What: Debbye Turner Bell in conversation with KSDK anchor Kelly Jackson
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Left Bank Books' Facebook Live Page or YouTube channel

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.