Dottie Slaughter's life has played out in triumph and tragedy since she won the first Miss Kingsport title. (Credit: David Grace)
Sixty years after the pageant, people still recognize her as the first Miss Kingsport. The rest of her life unfolded in tragedy and triumph — in a 60-year love story that led her to Belgium and Africa and carried her through the loss of her twin sons.
“She is quite an interesting, strong, resilient and youthful woman among women, and is and has been an incredibly positive role model for hundreds of Kingsport’s youth,” said her son John Slaughter.
Dorothy “Dottie” C. Slaughter’s life began with a failed abortion. Her mother was very sick when she was pregnant in 1935, and was told she would die if she gave birth to a fourth child. After her parents reluctantly agreed to an abortion, the procedure failed twice, and Dottie was born — and may be the first girl delivered in Holston Valley Medical Center.
Dottie’s faith and confidence throughout her life have made her a model of perseverance and success.
While in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for three years with her husband, three sons and their pet monkey, and with no background in elementary education, she taught first and second grade. In the afternoons, she taught women’s Bible studies and sewing lessons. She had never sewn, but recalled her mother sewing and used these memories as a guide.
When she was 5 years old, she began taking piano lessons after playing from her sister’s books in an attempt to teach herself.
In a school activity when she was 10 years old, she wrote an autobiography, which she found amusingly brief. She wrote that when she grew up, she wanted to go to college and be a piano teacher. She has been teaching for 60 years and said she looks forward to 60 more.
After graduating from Dobyns-Bennett in 1953, she majored in piano at Stetson University in Florida. On a visit home, Joe Fuller asked her to participate in the first ever Miss Kingsport Scholarship Pageant. She said beauty pageants were not for her, but gained interest when she learned it was an all-American pageant with a $250 scholarship for the winner.
When she found out that her friends were in it and that she would get to keep the bathing suit, she signed up.
She checked out a book on poise at the library and practiced walking with her boyfriend Skip Slaughter. After strutting down the pageant’s rickety ramp of tables, playing classical piano to the delight of the judges and sporting the coveted Catalina bathing suit, she was crowned Miss Kingsport 1954 and ventured to Jackson, Tenn., for the state competition.
She finished college, married Skip at age 21 and they had twins a year later.
He attended Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va., while she taught piano at Saint Catherine’s School for Girls.
Then they lived in Brussels, Belgium, for a year learning French to prepare to be evangelistic missionaries in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They crammed four years of French lessons into one year.
Then, their third son John was born. She said that, although he was 8 months old at the time of departure, she had to buy him pairs of shoes to fit when he would be 4 years old. In total, they bought 95 pairs of socks, 28 pairs of shoes and everything they would need for four years because there were no stores in the Congo. This included birthday gifts, S.O.S. pads, hygiene products, linens, office supplies, clothing and much more — all itemized in English and French. The 27-year-olds and their boys left with 14 50-gallon drums, four trunks and a number of suitcases.
In the Congo, Skip preached in local villages, and she worked with children and Congolese women.
They were commissioned to be missionaries for life, but returned in 1966 after only three years because Dottie needed a spinal fusion.
At age 30, she was in a body cast for three and a half months. Although she was born a healthy baby, she has suffered congenital vertebral maladies.
She had multiple spinal fusions in her life but said she is blessed with excellent health.
“I heard Skip tell someone one time, ‘I wish I could get a used car as good as Dottie, you take out a part and she just keeps going,’” she said, laughing. “He thought he got a good deal. God has been very, very good to me.”
They imagined everything panning out wonderfully, despite their unforeseen return to Kingsport.
Dottie said that when they returned, social changes had begun, and traditional American values were no longer the norm. They were not prepared for the effects that America’s involvement in Vietnam, the introduction of the birth control pill and illegal drugs would have on American culture. She believes that these social changes contributed to the deaths of their twin boys, Don and Bill.
Dottie said that even through these inconceivable tragedies, she and Skip hung on to their faith in God and to each other. She and Skip were very proud of their son, John, who despite losing his two older brothers, went on to become a doctor of pharmacy. “Without her influence, egregious patience and love I’d be but a lout,” he said of his mother.
John is married to Elizabeth “Liz” Slaughter and has two children, Mallory and Will. Mallory is married and will present Dottie with her first great-grandchild in September.
When she found out that she would be a great-grandmother, she jokingly told her granddaughter, “I thought I had always been a great grandmother.”
Skip and Dottie were married for 51 years, but they were sweethearts for 60.
“I spotted him on the steps of the junior high school, and that was the end of that,” she said laughing. “He was doomed and didn’t know it. You know when we decide, they don’t have much of a chance.”
They started going steady on April 4, 1948, in the seventh grade at Kingsport Junior High School.
“And I have that in my diary,” she said. “It says, ‘Skippy Slaughter: my first real crush. Through the years, I’ll probably forget , but now I remember every detail.’”
She grinned reminiscently saying the only details that she can think of must have been him smiling in the hall at her or speaking to her at her locker because they were 12.
“We know that it was God who brought a 12-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl together ... and we could see his hand in every step of our life together,” she said.
In a poem she wrote for him on their last New Year’s together, she began and ended with the line “Love too deep to be spoken, bonds too strong to be broken.”
He died five months after finding out he had cancer.
Once at Mac’s Medicine Mart, a woman was being fitted for pantyhose and walked away from the tailor to speak with Dottie. Though they had never met, the woman had known Skip and told her sincerely, “He filled his place in life so beautifully.”
Dottie said that her words were the most touching thing anyone had said to her after he died.
“Everything Skip and I did, when we look back ... from age 12 to age 72, because he died over five years ago, we had had a life that had gone as high as it could go and as low as it could go. We had traveled it together, and that is such a gift,” she said softly.
Now 78 years old and celebrating her 60th Dobyns-Bennett reunion, she teaches piano, participates in community and church groups, and maintains her yard.
She said that by working in her yard, she does not mean a little gardening. She means weed-eating, trimming, limb lopping and whatever else needs to be done.
“I think the secret is to be active and interested,” she said after standing up and touching her toes.
She recently became an usher at the Barter Theater and a volunteer advocate for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Kids.
She is very active at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church and in the Kingsport Music Club. She has been playing in Sunday school since she was 10 years old and is currently the president of Appalachian Music Teachers Association.
May 19, 2013, marked her 60th piano recital. On the back of the brochures, she printed an excerpt from W. Heartsill Wilson’s “A Prayer for Today.”
She put parentheses around a portion that reads, “God has given me this day to use as I will. I can waste it ... or use it for good, but what I do today is important, because I am exchanging a day of my life for it!”
She shares this with her high school students when they need guidance.
Continuing in her own words, she said, “Instead of saying, ‘I want world peace and a cure for all ills,’ think about what you do each day because at the end of the day, you’ve exchanged a day of life for it.”