By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times
Erma Bombeck had it right — life isn’t always a bowl of cherries. Bremen’s Dianne White can testify to that. For her, life dealt one blow after another, in relatively quick succession.
White moved from Cullman County when she was young. She thought at one time that she wouldn’t ever want to come back. Bright lights and the big city of Birmingham seemed exciting to her at one point. “But you know, there comes a time in your life when home pulls you back, and you know that you need to get back to God’s country,” said White.
As she stood on the stage of the Betty Leeth Haynes Center on Saturday night a week ago, she knew that, for many reasons, she had made the right decision.
White was crowned Ms. Senior Cullman County 2013, following years of preparation and days of intense rehearsals.
As she stood there amid the applause and flashing cameras, White was well aware of her blessings.
Just eight years earlier she lost her son, Ross Billings. Not long afterward her son, Kevin Billings, lost his arm in a motorcycle accident. In addition to all this, her daughter, Holli White Jackson, developed a dependency on drugs. Stepson Ken White had a bout with colon cancer, and her husband, Jim, had a severe and unusual type of heart attack. When it rains, it pours in this family.
After a long period of mourning for Ross, taking care of Kevin until he could manage on his own, supporting Holli emotionally as she began to shed the shackles of drug addiction, and sitting at Tim’s bedside until his health improved, Dianne fell apart.
“It wasn’t until they were all okay that the stress got to me,” she said candidly.
What saved her was Divine intervention in the form of a gift. That gift was unexpected and has changed her life.
“I was listening to my brother, Lester Armstrong, sing in church one day and I thought that if I tried hard enough I could probably learn that song,” White recalled. The song was “His Hand in Mine” and she did indeed learn to sing it. “Before that, they wouldn’t even let me sing in the choir,” she laughed. “Seriously, they wouldn’t.”
But she was determined, and she listened to the tape her brother gave her for hours on end. Then she started singing along with the artists. Later she would find a tape with just the instrumentals and sing along with that. Finally she got up enough courage to sing in front of the congregation at Ryan’s Creek Baptist Church, where her family attends.
“It took three months before I felt ready,” said White. “Before that you couldn’t have paid me to get up in front of people and talk or sing.”
Since then, she has been an unstoppable songbird, sharing her gift with many others at various community functions, nursing homes and churches around the county. “God gave me a singing voice late in my life. It’s really a gift from Him,” she says. “I couldn’t have done this without Him and a lot of prayer.”
She got lots of positive feedback from those personal appearances. In fact, it was while singing at Jack’s Truck Stop one night that she was approached by Millie Tucker and Jackie Porter about entering the Ms. Senior Cullman County pageant.
“They made it sound like fun, and it was,” she exclaimed. This was her fourth Ms. Senior Cullman pageant. In 2010, she was second alternate. In 2011, she was named first runner-up. In 2012, White tied for first runner-up and was named Ms. Congeniality. The fourth time was the charm — she won the title.
Wearing a winter-white tailored suit that fit her slender body like a glove, she sang “Broken Down In Tiny Pieces” for the talent portion of the competition. Turquoise accessories accented her ensemble, which included trendy calf-length cowgirl boots.
Later, decked out in diamonds and modeling a shimmering black evening gown accented by a sweetheart neckline, matching floor-length veil, and black heels, she wowed the judges with her elegance and poise.
She admits to being nervous. “I was just sort of blank while we were waiting for them to call out the winner,” she smiled. “Then when they called out my name I was thinking that I shouldn’t cry and mess up my makeup for the pictures.”
In addition to winning the title, she took home a crown, plaque, red roses and a cash prize.
In the coming year her duties as Ms. Senior Cullman County will include riding in parades, singing at churches, nursing homes and various events around the county, and entertaining by invitation.
“It’s a real honor to represent Cullman County’s senior women,” said White. “I certainly intend to do a good job.”
“This year, our contestants hold the award for being the most flexible and easy to work with group,” said Ms. Senior Cullman County Program Director, Jackie Porter-Cook. “They were so pleasant. Each of them remained happy throughout the rehearsal and competition. Even the judges said they were the sweetest group of ladies. I think our crew voted all of them as winners.”
“Dianne White will do fantastic at the state competition,” said Cook. “She is talented and lovely. In addition, she has a deep love for others and has shown that love in her support/work with the blind and also supporting the Lovelady Center in Birmingham. This work garnered her an award from Cullman Mayor Max Townsend.
“I will have the honor of taking her to the state as my last responsibility in the position of director,” Cook continued. “I am retiring after five years. A new director will be named soon. I want to invite all of our community to join us in support of Diane for the state competition.” Location and dates for this event will be published later.
“This has been a lot of fun. I love entertaining and that’s my main motivation for entering the pageant in the first place,” said White. “It’s a way to share my testimony as a Christian woman.
“As part of my outreach I support the Lovelady Center in Birmingham, a center for women who struggle with addictions,” said White. “My daughter, Holli, was once a resident there, but now she is a staff member who helps other women find jobs.”
In addition to the children mentioned above, the White’s have another son, Scott White.
Dianne’s grandparents, Clarence and Ethel Armstrong, and Bob and Dora Bentley, were from the Welti community. Her parents, Fred and Celeste Armstrong moved to Birmingham when Dianne was in the fourth grade.
She considers her talent a miracle. “All this is due to miracles and blessings,” she said gratefully. “That and a lot of prayer.”
“So many heartfelt thanks go to the loyal supporters without which this program would not be possible,” Cook said.
Cook would also like to extend a special thanks to Tina Jones, events coordinator for WSCC. “Tina works well with us. She is the best support person I have ever been associated with in my volunteer or professional career,” Cook noted. “I cannot say enough about her and the support she gives us during rehearsal, stage setting and setting up dressing rooms/interview rooms. It does take a lot of people.
“I must also say that Wayne Abbott adds his voice to all of our music and he is a star. I do not know how we have kept him in Cullman with his talent, but it is a dream to have him as part of our show,” praised Cook.
Erma Bombeck would be thrilled for Dianne White. Sometimes, people get that bowl full of cherries with whipped cream on top.