LAURENS, SC — This story was updated at 10 a.m. Jan. 10 to correct the spelling of Rut Jacks’ name.
Ali Rogers still doesn’t know who she should thank for paying to ship an electric keyboard to Las Vegas so she could practice her talent routine for the Miss America pageant.
A pianist’s nimble fingers are a reward for repetition, but the pageant, which began Tuesday at Planet Hollywood on the Vegas strip, only provides access to a piano when a competitor is on stage. If she didn’t have her own, Miss South Carolina 2012 would’ve gone 10 days without playing.
“All the singers get to sing wherever they want to,” Ali said, her voice carrying a temeritous pitch. “The dancers can practice wherever.”
She dropped off the keyboard and three suitcases at AIM Mail Center, a shipping store on the back end of a shopping plaza on East Main Street. When her father, Alex Rogers, returned the next day to settle up, he was told the $486 bill had been paid 30 minutes earlier by someone who preferred to remain anonymous.
“We have no clue,” Rogers’ mother, Adair Rogers, said. “We don’t even know who knew we had gone to ship the stuff.”
From painting their toenails Smurf blue as sign of unity to casting online votes in the pageant’s “America’s Choice” contest to unsolicited donations, it seems like everyone in this small Upstate community of about 10,000 residents wants to have a hand — or foot — in helping Ali win the Miss America crown Saturday night.
Almost 300 people from Laurens traveled to Las Vegas to support Ali, including the unknown benefactor. Pam Albers, who with her husband, Stacey, owns AIM Mail Center, politely refused to reveal the shipper’s identity.
“She asked us to maintain her privacy,” Albers said. “And if the family asked, she told us to say she was an angel from the past.”
Many of Ali’s Vegas supporters are wearing white rubber bracelets with the slogan Make a Difference stenciled in black letters, a nod to her platform of making a difference for children with disabilities. Albers’ 12-year-old son, Justin, who suffers from microcephaly, a brain malformation, is one of the children Ali has spent time with. Justin, a superhero fanatic, also has an inoperable tumor in his cervical vertebrae.
“Ali is a good girl,” Albers said. “She’s got a good heart and she’s very special to us, personally.”
‘Wonderful example of state support’
There’s a picture on Facebook of Phillip Dean, Ali’s uncle and the principal of Laurens Elementary School, getting a pedicure with his wife, Tara. The Facebook group “Vegas or Bust — We’re All In for Ali!!!” is riddled with photos of men, women and children — and even a dog — with blue toenails.
In a group post, Adair Rogers explained the significance: “When Ali won Miss SC, the directors told her (lovingly) that she would have to get rid of the blue toes! They would prefer a more refined, elegant color (so would I!), but Ali refused and declares that her toenails will be blue on the Miss America stage too! We’ll see who wins!!!,” she wrote.
Laurens Elementary will be without Dean and six teachers for a few days this week, said Dean, whose three sons also made the trip to Vegas.
“If it was Spokane, Wash., we probably wouldn’t have as big a group that wanted to go,” Dean admitted. “But it’s something we were certainly willing to do because Ali is special.”
Adair Rogers, the minister of music at First Baptist Church, said Rickey Letson, the church’s senior pastor, has even threatened to cancel church Sunday morning. Adair Rogers estimated that almost a third of the 500 weekly parishioners won’t be at the service.
“He’s been teasing everybody wondering where they’re going to have church Sunday morning out in Las Vegas,” she said.
When Ali visited the Miss America Organization’s Linwood, N.J., office in August, just weeks after being crowned Miss S.C., pageant officials opened a file cabinet and showed her the ticket request folder. South Carolina had the thickest; most states didn’t have any requests.
“The South Carolina contingency is a wonderful example of state support,” Sharon Pearce, MAO’s vice president, said. At the time of the interview, Pearce couldn’t confirm if the state had the most requests, but added, “their support this year is remarkable.”
Rut Jacks and his wife, Ginger, drove their beige and brown RV to Vegas, stopping in New Orleans and San Antonio along the way. Ali’s father is Jacks’ first cousin.
“So Ali is like my niece. We’re a really close family,” Jacks said. “This is an excuse to have a lot of fun.”
Jacks did some shipping for Ali, too. Rather, he hauled.
“The most precious thing to a pageant contestant, and I’ve got it,” Jacks said, when reached en route. “And I feel honored and privileged on behalf of my state to carry her dress rack.”
‘The scars to prove it’
Ali, wearing aviator sunglasses, cruised Main Street toward the town square pointing out businesses — a wholesale grocer, a tire distributor, a car dealership, among others — that sponsored her as Miss Laurens County. She sold the most $300 ad pages in the Miss S.C. program.
“I was the top seller because I had all this hometown support,” said the 21-year-old, who was Miss S.C. Teen in 2009.
In late December, she took a visitor to the softball field behind Laurens District 55 High School. She and teammates painted the diamond “L’s” on the dugout.
“Even as Miss South Carolina teen, softball was still kind of my life,” said Rogers, who was also her school’s top golfer.
The conversation paused as the former third baseman looked at the field as if she wished she was still playing on it.
“If there’s one person, not a family member, who is my hero, it’s my softball coach,” she said, referring to Butch Clark. “He was my biggest cheerleader and my biggest supporter. He was not easy on me. I have the scars to prove it.
“I gained a lot from playing sports and coach Clark, specifically.”
“Lord, the definition of hero has dropped a lot,” Clark humorously said when told of Rogers’ comment. “She was always so willing to work hard at it. Great, coachable kid. I wish I could say something negative about Ali.”
Well, there was an afternoon during the 2010 region championship season when Ali kept booting balls Clark hit to her during one-on-one infield practice.
Displeased with her effort, Clark told her she was done.
“ ‘Dammit, hit me some more balls,’ ” Clark recalled Ali snarling. “That’s the kind of kid she was. She never quit.”
“She always says it’s his fault she doesn’t have the swimsuit legs she’d like to have because she has so many softball scars,” Adair Rogers, who was sitting in the back seat, said.
The scars didn’t stop Ali from snagging a swimsuit preliminary Tuesday night.
When Ali went to First Baptist to use a keyboard for a Skype piano lesson, her mother was charged with showing a visitor the stretch of road named after Ali’s great-grandfather, Alexander Bell Jacks, a former dairy farmer. Dozens of relatives live within a quarter mile of each other on AB Jacks Road.
“This is a cousin,” Adair Rogers repeatedly said as she passed houses ringed by collard and turnip fields and forestry.
There’s Jacks’ house — and the garage he built for his RV.
“His barn is bigger than his house,” she said. “We’ll have a lot of family get-togethers in that barn.”
More than 50 show up for holiday dinners, and the family plays an annual softball game after Easter dinner.
The Rogers’ cedar-siding house, shrouded from the road by trees, was built on a wooded hill Alex Rogers, Ali’s father and AB Jacks’ grandson, played on as a child. Alex Rogers sister lives next door and his 93-year-old mother, who is part of the Las Vegas crew, lives across the road.
The Rogers’ dining room table was covered with suitcases, and clothes hung from the room’s crown molding as if they were a partition. The Internet service at the church was down, so Ali came home for her lesson. Somehow she managed to load a keyboard and stand into the back seat of her SUV by herself. Now she needed help getting it out.
“How did you do this?” Adair Rogers asked.
“Mama, go get the door,” she said before motioning a visitor to go around the vehicle and lift the other end. “You didn’t know you’d be put to work, did you?”
Everyone here is willing to lend her a helping hand.
Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.