“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make …” – The Beatles
That last line from the last song the Beatles recorded as a group came to mind after I spent a half hour on the phone last week with 1988 Miss America Kaye Lani Rafko-Wilson.
Rafko-Wilson will be here on campus on Wednesday to speak at our annual Endowed Scholarship Luncheon at the Kohl Center. The event presents an opportunity for our scholarship student-athletes to mingle with, and thank, donors who have generously endowed athletic scholarships. Which is fine, but what does Miss America have to do with it?
Well, Rafko-Wilson is not just “any” Miss America. She has a unique tie to Badger football and she’s relishing the chance she’s going to have to tell her family’s story and express her gratitude on Wednesday.
Rafko-Wilson’s brother, Nick, was a high school football standout in the family’s hometown of Monroe, Mich., during the late 1980s. When Nick received a scholarship offer to play football for Coach Don Morton’s Badgers starting in 1989, it eased the Rafkos’ concerns about how their son would pay for college.
Kaye Lani, who had developed an interest in nursing and health care after doing about 300 community service hours at a local hospital while in high school, ended up attending St. Vincent Medical Center’s School of Nursing in Toledo, Ohio, where she earned her RN diploma in 1985. She had also entered the Miss Monroe (Mich.) County pageant and won $750, the same amount of money her first semester of college cost. She eventually won the Miss America crown in 1987, with her year of service starting in September of that year.
Nineteen ninety-three was a good year for both Nick and Kaye Lani. He was a well-liked senior with the Badger football team that won the Big Ten title and Rose Bowl. She was named one of Ten Outstanding Young Americans by the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce. But the family was jolted with tragic news in June of 1994 when Nick was killed in a car accident. Badger football had meant a great deal to the Rafkos (they had attended numerous games in Madison and followed the team on the road when they could), but just how much it meant was revealed after Nick’s death.
Kaye Lani clearly remembers the large contingent of Nick’s teammates who showed up at his funeral. “It was so comforting to us,” Kaye Lani said. “All these football players stepped off that bus and seeing all of them walk into that funeral home was so moving. We didn’t even really know they were coming. We had heard that some were coming, but you’re just in this fog … It was really moving seeing these grown men fall to their knees and weep.”
A scholarship fund was developed in Nick’s name and for years after his death his former teammates would come to a golf outing to raise money. “They’d all come from Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, stay in my parents’ basement,” said Kaye Lani, whose own 16-year old son Nick plays high school football and proudly wears his late uncle’s No. 44. “Badger football was such a big part of Nick’s life. We just have so many great memories.”
Kaye Lani’s life has largely been about giving and making a difference in the lives of others. The first registered nurse ever crowned Miss America, she is the co-director of Gabby’s Ladder, a children’s bereavement program that offers grief support, counseling, recovery workshops and ongoing monthly support groups at no cost. She has participated in fundraising activities for nursing scholarships sponsored by the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association and hospice groups.
Something I noticed on her resume was that she has traveled to 49 of 50 states and six different countries to address nurses, hospice and AIDS groups. When I asked her which state she has yet to visit she replied, “Alaska, but it’s not because I didn’t have the chance.”
Kaye Lani and her husband, Chuck (with whom she has three children), were once offered a trip to Alaska to the fishing lodge of someone she had been working with who also owned and operated some hospitals in the U.S. But Kaye Lani’s father was losing his eyesight and she decided to offer the trip to him and her brothers, Nick and Paul. The man who had made the offer was so moved by her gesture that he footed the bill himself and brought them back the following year, too.
Some people use their celebrity to get what they can for themselves. And some, like Kay Lani Rafko-Wilson, live that famous line from the Beatles, knowing that the more you give, the more you’ll receive.
“I hope I say the right things to the donors and let them know how much it meant to us and how much it means to the kids today, to the student-athletes they are able to help,” Rafko-Wilson said. “And I also want to tell the athletes to take advantage of this opportunity. Be smart about it. Make the right choices and really utilize this gift as a wonderful blessing to help you grow into a contributing adult later. Wisconsin has given us so much to be thankful for and I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to be able to say thank you.”
She has no reason to worry about the message she’s going to deliver. It’ll be a home run.