“It was the thing,” said Ted Hughes, who was involved with the Miss Johnson City Pageant in the 1960s and early ’70s.
Audiences of 500 to 1,000 people have dwindled since then, and Hughes attributes the decline to “a change of attitude in young people.” They’re more interested in their cell phones and other electronic gadgets than in an event like the pageant, he believes.
Donna Stephens Wilkinson, Miss Johnson City of 1977, is now a counselor at Liberty Bell Middle School. She remembered that a dorm counselor at East Tennessee State University told her, “You ought to enter.”
“It was a huge thing,” she said of the pageant. “It was a huge surprise when I won. I had thought, ‘I don’t have a chance.’ But the whole night I was having so much fun.”
The pageant then was held at Science Hill High School, and she remembers the auditorium being “packed.”
“My year was the first where there was no car,” she said. “I could have used it, but I had my bicycle.”
Donna clogged in the talent competition, and after she won the title she was asked to conduct morning clogging classes at Cherokee Elementary, which she enjoyed. “It was a really good experience,” she said, “and the scholarship money was very helpful.”
And there was another $300 for clothes. She was also named Miss Congeniality at the Miss Tennessee Pageant and netted more college money.
Donna values the experience because of “all the different things I got to do.”
For example, she got to clog with the Mountain Home bluegrass band because they knew of the talent she displayed at the pageant. “Once people know you can clog they want you to clog,” she said.
“The money that came with it, that was so nice,” she said, and the experiences. “It makes you step out of your comfort zone.” Asked why the crowds were so much larger then, she said, “Maybe there wasn’t as much for people to do.”
Myra Artrip Schill was 16 when she won in 1976 and may have been the youngest Miss Johnson City. She got a wedding gown from Masengill’s, which she used five years later.
“I looked vastly older than I was,” she said. “I was nowhere near ready for all that.”
Science Hill Principal Paul Slonaker noticed Myra and called her mother to suggest that the girl enter the pageant. “The teachers paid my fee to get in,” she said. Her talent was singing. She remembers the selection was “God Gave the Song.”
Though she values the experience, it came with a bit of stress. “It was difficult,” she said.
Because of her age she had to have a chaperone to make some of the appearances during her reigning year. She remembers the car she got to drive, a light blue Chevette.
In Jackson, she got to meet Elvis, who was dating the reigning Miss Tennessee and came to the dressing room. “And the girls in the Miss Tennessee Pageant were very sweet to me,” she said. “Some of them were 10 years older than I was.”
She modeled for Nettie Lee after becoming Miss Johnson City, and though she couldn’t be paid because of her age, she got a discount on clothes.
Though there was stress for the 16-yearold, there were many good things, she said. “I enjoyed the $500 and I loved the car,” she said.
“I still have my crown and my trophy and my pageant dress. Those are memories.”
Sheila Bolding Cox remembers it was “standing room only” when she won the 1964 pageant in ETSU’s Memorial Gymnasium. She remembers practicing for a month with the other contestants and for her own performance in acrobatic dancing.
“I was the first one to get a car to drive for a year,” she said.
Other rewards were a silver tea service she still displays and some “lifelong skills” acquired while making ceremonial appearances as Miss Johnson City. She even threw out several “first balls” at baseball games.
“We were busy,” she said of the reigning winners of that period. “Johnson City really used you as an ambassador.”
She said Miss Johnson City winners in the ’60s had “fans” who would go in a caravan to Jackson to support them in the Miss Tennessee Pageant. In her scrapbook she has dozens of well-wishing telegrams sent to her in Jackson. In the Miss Tennessee Pageant she earned a scholarship for finishing in the Top 10 and $2,000 in the talent competition.
She thinks there were several reasons why the local pageant was so vibrant then. “It was mostly local girls,” she said. Now it might be ETSU students from elsewhere. “Also, the Jaycees really worked it. And there was so much publicity.”
“Everybody bought into it,” she said.
Ed Trotman, who now lives near Charlotte, N.C., was chairman of the pageant for six years in the ’70s. He later served as a judge and said the pageant continued to be a vibrant event. “They continued to have 12 contestants,” he said.
He said the stores and companies who were sponsors were important to the event’s success. “We asked each girl to find a sponsor,” he said.
He remembers audiences of 300-400, including contestants’ family and friends, and a “core” of people who went on to Jackson.
Larry Reaves was the producer of several pageants in the ’70s, perhaps the “heyday” of the event, he said.
It was held in Brooks Gym at ETSU and later in the D.P. University Culp Center. “It was a three-night affair,” he said.
He remembers crowds of as many as 3,500 a night. “I remember walking around in the back and looking at the crowd, and it was unbelievable. It was quite a production.”
Why was it such thriving event back then? “The culture was different,” he said. “Young people then had more of a civic commitment. The town is more diversified now.”
There was great deal of preparation time involved, he said. “Schedules are different for everyone. Most ladies that age now have a job.”
He remembers when the pageant franchise was sold and the Jaycees were no longer involved. He wonders if today’s contestants are as taken with the mystique of the pageant as the young ladies of his day.
“It was a different era then,” he said.