In 1988, Stephanie Klett, 21, of Beloit, Wis., and her mother, Joanne, happened to get a seat at the Miss America parade next to Billie Jane and Lew Maul, a couple of pageant fans from Margate.

The families got to talking and became friendly, so naturally when the Kletts came back to Atlantic City in 1992 - with Stephanie as Miss Wisconsin - they got together with the Mauls again.

She didn't win her pageant - Leanza Cornett did - but Stephanie credits her Miss America experience with getting her started in a career that has now made her Wisconsin's Secretary of Tourism, a cabinet-level position.

And she's such a fan of the pageant that she and her mom kept coming back to Atlantic City every chance they got - even though her job for 20 years was hosting a tourism-promoting TV show, "Discover Wisconsin," in which Stephanie logged more than a million miles of travel. Sure, they got together with the Mauls on every visit.

This week, the Kletts came back to Atlantic City, again - with chauffeur services from Billie Jane Maul. Stephanie says she and her mom also followed Miss America to Las Vegas several times, but it just wasn't the same.

She's such an Atlantic City fan that if she didn't already have a job, Stephanie could moonlight as travel-and-tourism secretary for Miss America's old/new hometown.

"Thank God the pageant is back in Atlantic City," she said, figuring she came back to town for more than 10 pageants just as a spectator. "I had a 20th (Miss America) reunion this year, and we were all sad to have it in Las Vegas. Everyone in my group was just thrilled" when the pageant went back to its beachfront roots.

Maul actually broke that news to the Kletts.

"When I heard the pageant was coming back, I wrote to them even before they knew it," she said, adding she's in regular email contact with Joanne Klett. "I told them, 'You have to come back.'"

The Kletts were happy to follow that order.

Looking at Atlantic City with professional eyes, the tourism secretary - who counts 42 states she's visited - likes what she sees.

"First of all, it has the natural assets," Stephanie said. "You look at the ocean and the billion-dollar casinos and all the ... incredible shopping and really incredible service. ... So many places around the country have great attractions, but they don't really train their people."

She knows this breaks some stereotypes, but she finds "a real warmth around Atlantic City. And I love New Jersey, too."

Then again, she admits maybe her opinion is colored by a local friend - and by her early visits here.

Stephanie is the ninth of 10 children in her family, and the only girl. Her cheering section when she was Miss Wisconsin included all her brothers - who wore numbered shirts around town, and challenged groups from other states to beach-volleyball games.

"To this day, my brothers say that was the greatest vacation we ever had," Stephanie says. "That really was the time of our lives."

Contact Martin DeAngelis:

609-272-7237