We are having a "bless their hearts" moment in Tennessee.
Let me explain.
We have two Miss Tennessees. Well, technically, one "Miss Tennessee" and one "Miss Tennessee Volunteer."
Complicating matters is the fact that Miss Tennessee Volunteer was crowned in Jackson, Tennessee, this summer and Miss Tennessee was crowned in Knoxville — not the other way around, as you might expect.
Miss Tennessee Volunteer represents the Jackson-based event that for seven decades funneled contestants to Miss America. The event in Knoxville represents the new pathway to Miss America, a contest which has been reframed to emphasize a slightly different set of virtues.
According to news reports in Jackson, the event there lost its tie-in with Miss America stemming from a disagreement over changes to the format of the national competition. Beginning this year, the contestants in the Miss America competition will "no longer be judged on outward physical appearance," according to the Miss America website.
People on either side of this philosophical divide will be happy to bend your ear about the politics and policies behind this change.
Meanwhile, sort of caught in the middle are the two delightful young women who wear these crowns who, interestingly, both have ties to Chattanooga.
This is where I'd like to express my earnest personal thoughts on this whole matter: Bless both their hearts.
In pursuit of fairness, the Times Free Press will introduce readers to both winners.
Today, meet Miss Tennessee Volunteer, Kerri Arnold, who punched her ticket to Jackson by winning the Miss Scenic City event. Sunday in the Life section of the newspaper, Miss Tennessee, Brianna Mason, of Nashville, will be profiled. Mason's grandparents live in Chattanooga.
Arnold, a 21-year-old student at the University of Tennessee at Martin, is from a tiny unincorporated town in Benton County called Holladay, which has no stop lights but does have a few stop signs and a post office.
"We have a festival called the Old Time Blue Grass and Fiddler's Jamboree. That's our claim to fame," Arnold said in an interview.
She is unruffled about the whole two-crown deal.
"I know Brianna is going to have the best year in all her endeavors," Arnold said. "I've met her. She's very kind and sweet, and I wish her the best of luck at Miss America."
Meanwhile, Arnold will be busy traveling the state as Gov. Bill Lee's official ambassador for character education. A news release predicts she will speak to 70,000 schoolchildren this year.
She also will be talking about her platform, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a nonprofit that arranges trips for sick children.
Arnold, who had epilepsy as a child, said she can relate to children with health problems. She had her first grand mal seizure when she was 5 years old, she said. The seizures continued off and on until she was 18, when she outgrew her particular type of epilepsy.
Through the Make-A-Wish Foundation Arnold hopes to make a difference for Tennessee children.
"I've always wanted to have an impact on a child's life," she said. "Growing up I went to doctors appointments. Whether it was a nurse or a teacher, some adult could always change how I was feeling. I want to be that person."
Arnold says the $25,000 college scholarship she won for being crowned Miss Tennessee Volunteer will help her finish school.
"It takes a financial burden off my parents and myself," she said. "It's wonderful because college is expensive. It makes everything simpler."
Interestingly, the Jackson Miss Tennessee Volunteer event raised more scholarship money than ever, she said, even though it lost its Miss America tie-in.
Arnold said growing up in a small town, where her parents ran multiple businesses, opened her mind to the many career choices open to modern women.
"My parents are in real estate, insurance, auctions and bail bonds," she said. "They also do parenting classes and a driving school."
Let's stipulate this. Kerri Arnold is a kind young woman with small-town roots and a heart for children, who also happens to be beautiful.
No matter your view on pageant (oops, contest) politics, she is a worthy representative of the great state of Tennessee.
Whether she appears at Miss America, or not, is really beside the point.
Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645.