They were beautiful, those tiaraed Indy 500 Festival princesses in black-and-white sashes, visiting a Lewisville elementary school in a small, rural Indiana farm community more than a decade ago. They inspired a mesmerized Katie Pfaff to dream of one day donning a crown herself.
Though the 21-year-old Butler University senior’s big dreams would take her 60 miles west of the farm where she grew up—more on that in a minute—she’s always had a soft spot for driving down a backroad with no destination in sight, or digging into a slice of the apple-crumb pie her grandma would make her each April 25 because she didn’t like birthday cake.
Small-town life was comforting. There were euchre games with dozens of cousins around the fire on Friday nights, tractor rides through the rustling corn under the fading pinks and purples of an August Indiana sunset. The breeze tickled her hair as she clutched her brother’s back, looking up at the stars in wide, open spaces with no skyscrapers to fill them.
Her graduating class had 60 people in it, in a town of 366.
When both grandparents died on the same day before Christmas one year, her family didn’t cook for a week—her neighbors kept ringing the doorbell with plates of chicken and spaghetti. Their driveway was cleared of snow by an unseen phantom, as though someone had poured hot lava on the white mass and left a sparkling drive.
But Pfaff wasn’t content to accept the charity of others—she was ready to repay it.
A Gathering Place
Pfaff, her parents, and her older twin brothers Tyler and Tom started their own business her sophomore year of high school; a Lewisville wedding and event venue known as The Gathering. They converted an old church into a place to celebrate marriages, birthdays, and Christmas—anything that would bring people together.
But when Pfaff went off to college at Butler, some in her hometown thought she’d never come back. She’d become a city girl, forsaking her farm roots. Her role in the family business would be toast.
At first, it looked like they were right.
The minute Pfaff stepped on the Butler campus, the senior Strategic Communication and Human Communication & Organizational Leadership double major was smitten with the big-city school’s small-town feel.
“I don’t know everyone on campus, but it takes no more than a five-second conversation while getting coffee for someone to not feel like a stranger anymore,” she says.
But all the opportunities could be overwhelming for someone who’d always wanted to do everything.
Her Ethics professor noticed her stress and offered to buy her coffee at the campus Starbucks last spring. But when she walked into class, setting her cup on the table, someone bumped into it, and her drink hit the deck.
“I was paralyzed,” she says. “But Professor Norris waited until everyone had left, bought me another cup of coffee, and sat down for an hour to talk about what I was feeling. He just wanted to know how he could make my day better.”
It was that conversation with Norris, she says, that inspired her to take on a leadership role with Butler’s BUBeWell initiative last spring, a program designed to keep stressed-out students sane while cultivating their mental, physical, and social wellbeing.
Going to Butler was a big adjustment for a small-town girl. She’d come across more people in a single day of walking across campus than she’d meet in an entire year in Lewisville. She missed her mom’s bacon-wrapped water chestnuts; Friday nights around the fire with her parents and brothers, biting into slices of ooey, gooey cheese pizza.
Then she realized: She needed structure.
She set a “golden rule” for herself: She’d be in bed by midnight every evening, no matter whether it was Tuesday or Saturday.
She joined a sorority and found friends like her roommate of two years, 21-year-old Butler pharmacy student Chloe Sandman, who also grew up in a small town and shares Pfaff’s love of ice cream and Hallmark movies.
Now that she was secure in herself, it was time to begin giving back. To the parents who invested in her. To the school that sculpted her.
To the town that raised her.
A Royal Coronation
But first, let’s talk about the 178-page paper she just finished writing. Not by herself, of course. The assignment was an eight-person group project for her senior communication capstone class. But 25 pages of that behemoth were hers.
It was that commitment to academics that propelled her to princesshood.
She was chosen as one of 33 Indianapolis 500 Festival princesses in spring 2018 out of a field of more than 2,000 women—just over 33 times the size of her high school graduating class.
Her days sometimes started as early as 3 AM and ended as late as 1 AM (sorry, “golden rule”). She could work as many as three events in a day.
“I spent countless hours doing community outreach in nursing homes and elementary schools,” she says.
But Pfaff’s internship advisor, Butler Communication professor Scott Bridge, says Pfaff has never been one to court recognition for her accomplishments.
“She doesn’t try to draw attention to herself,” he says. “But she does things so well that she can’t help it.”
Pfaff is still involved in The Gathering’s operations in her hometown, from running social media to answering calls between classes, and coming home on weekends and breaks to help out. She’s raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the college ambitions of children in her community through an internship with her hometown scholarship foundation.
And when Cindy Oler, a Lewisville dance instructor who taught Pfaff for 13 years, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, Pfaff choreographed a sign-language routine to the song “Blessings” by Laura Story and taught it to Oler’s dance troupe.
“The movements are simple, pure, and so beautiful,” Oler says. “We now teach it every year, invoking the name of the kind and loving heart that created the piece.”
But as soon as she got the call last February that she would be a 500 Festival princess, she knew there was one more thing she had to do.
The gleaming blue Chevy rolled up in front of the Lewisville school last May, dozens of eyeballs glued to the 2018 Indianapolis 500 pace car’s star-studded chrome wheels.
Pfaff and several other princesses brought the glitz and glamour of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” to Henry County, and Pfaff even got to wave the checkered flag at the end of the school’s tricycle race she’d pedaled in as a kid.
“It meant everything to me,” Pfaff says.
Being a princess comes with crazy hours—one 3 AM Mini Marathon wakeup call came after she’d stayed up past midnight the night before to finish a final paper—but she always keeps things in perspective.
“So many people would love to be where I am,” she says.
She’s one of Butler’s Top 100 students, a Chapman Champion Award recipient for her exemplary service to the University, and a soon-to-be intern with Indy Hub, an Indianapolis nonprofit designed to help the city attract and retain young professionals.
But most meaningful to her?
The smiles on those little Lewisville boys’ and girls’ faces.