Neva Jane Langley Fickling, born January 25, 1933, died at her home on November 18, 2012. Neva grew up in a typical small American town, Lakeland, Florida. A few years earlier her parents had left the impoverished southern Georgia wiregrass area in a Model T Ford – driving over sandy dirt roads – to seek a better life in the "Florida Boom". Although the boom was short lived, her father Roy Langley became successful in trucking Florida citrus to market and later investing in and managing his own citrus groves.
Neva received piano lessons from the neighborhood teacher (at 7 years old). Neva developed a keen musical interest and begged her parents to acquire their own piano. Her ability increased rapidly, and she began playing for her church services (the Baptist church had no organ) as well as weddings and funerals. She also attended a summer piano gospel music course in nearby Tampa.
However, it was classical music that enchanted her. She enrolled as a music student freshman at Florida Southern College in her hometown of Lakeland. Other activities included the Alpha Delta Pi Sorority, campus queen, cheerleader, and sweetheart of Tau Epsilon Pi fraternity. Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, offered a wide variety of musical studies at that time, and as a sophomore she transferred to the Wesleyan Conservatory as a piano major, studying with Doris Jelks.
That same year, 1952, the sponsors of the Miss Macon contest asked Wesleyan to offer some nominees for the pageant and Neva, along with several of her classmates, were asked to participate. Thus, at age 19 she became Miss Macon, Miss Georgia, and Miss America with piano performance as her talent.
She was crowned Miss America of 1953 and is yet the only Miss America to win all three of the preliminary contests (and the only Miss Georgia to become Miss America). She won the Miss America talent award with her rendition of Toccata by Khatchaturian. One of the judges was the famous New York Times music critic Deems Taylor who admired her "strong left-hand".
Neva left college for a year touring the country with many public appearances, occasionally performing short music programs. After crowning her successor she returned to Wesleyan to continue her studies. She received her degree from Wesleyan in 1955. She continued to perform in public, including events with the Macon-Wesleyan Symphony Orchestra and the Atlanta Pops Orchestra.
During her senior year she married William A. Fickling, Jr. whom she had met two years earlier. After a two-year tour of duty with the U.S. Air Force, the couple settled in Macon and began raising their four children as well as participating in community affairs. Passionate about her God, her husband and family, music and nature and beautiful things, she was a woman of action. Notable among her various activities through the years include Board member and Trustee, Mulberry Street United Methodist Church, Board of Wesleyan College, Board of Georgia Women of Achievement (of which she was a founding board member), Board of The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, Board of The Gina Bachauer Piano Competition, Board of Keep America Beautiful Commission, Chairman, Georgia State Clean Community Commission, Board of Advisors of the State Botanical Garden of Georgia (where an annual "Botanic Musicale" concert is held in her honor), Board of the Macon Symphony Orchestra, Board of the Community Foundation of Central Georgia, Board of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Board of The Georgia Council for the Arts, Council of the Deer Valley (Utah) Music Festival, President, Morning Music Club, President, House and Garden Club, Board of the Macon Museum of Arts and Science, and Board of The Junior League of Macon. And she has been an active supporter of the music programs at both Wesleyan College and Mercer University (where the main performance hall in the McCorkle Music Building bears her name).
Neva has been awarded an honorary Doctorate Degree in Fine Arts by her alma mater, Wesleyan College, and an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities by Mercer University. She is a recipient of the Lady Bird Johnson Award and Woman of the Year Award by Keep America Beautiful.
When the Grand Opera House building was threatened by demolition, she was asked to head a fundraising event (the Grand Topper) which is credited with saving the building, beginning its renovation, and preserving it for posterity. The Grand Opera House is now home of the Macon Symphony Orchestra and hosts a number of events throughout the year managed by Mercer University. The main dressing room is named for her.
While raising her children, Neva neglected the piano. But she returned to her beloved music and began studying with her friend and mentor, Edward Eikner. The well-known teacher at Brigham Young University, Paul Pollei, and the famous performer, Walter Hautzig, also coached her.
Beginning in 1989, she began performing in public again with a series of recitals in Georgia, North Carolina, Utah, Florida and Italy. She has performed as guest soloist with the Macon, Utah, and Benevento, Italy Symphony Orchestras.
Neva has been acclaimed as perhaps America's best example of a piano performer who gave up her music for many years and then returned to match – even to exceed – her prior achievements.
Neva will be missed in many ways by many people as she was committed to her family, church, music, and civic activities, and to her home and garden. She was a nurturing wife, mother and grandmother - "Honey" to her nine grandchildren.
Neva is survived by her beloved husband of 58 years, William A. Fickling, Jr., her children, William A. Fickling III (Kerri), Jane Dru Fickling (Dan) Skinner, Julia Fickling (Bryan) Tiller, Roy H. Fickling (Teresa) and her grandchildren Laurie Langley Fickling, Virginia Dru Fickling, William A. Fickling IV, Andrew Fickling Skinner, Glenn Hampton Tiller, Samuel Eli Tiller, Langley Patrick Fickling, William Bryan Tiller and William Hampton Fickling.
Visitation will be Monday, November 19, from 5:00-7:00pm at home, 6300 Rivoli Drive. There will be a service in celebration of Neva's life at 2:00pm on Tuesday, November 20, at Mulberry Street United Methodist Church. Burial will be private. The family suggests donations in Neva's memory to Mulberry Street United Methodist Church, Mercer University Robert McDuffie Center for Strings, Wesleyan College, or a charity of the donor's choice.