Before there was a television show to idolize singers or a program to see who thinks they can dance, there was Miss America: a showcase for talented young women. And before social networking meant interacting through a website, there was Miss America: a pageant that brought together women from every state to share their hopes for our great country. Over the last 90 years, Americans have been mesmerized by the magic of Miss America. I personally have been enchanted for more years than I dare put in writing, and it started way before I married a Miss Mississippi or became Chairman of the Board of the Miss America Organization.
Growing up in my hometown of Amory, Mississippi, I always loved a good show: on TV, on the school stage, or in my community. A good show connects the audience, and I loved how a beauty pageant made ordinary girls into American princesses. I attended the Miss Mississippi Pageant for the first time when I was fifteen because my good friend Frank Page's sister, Sara, was Miss Amory. My mother drove me and my buddy Mike Burgess to Vicksburg to hang out with Frank and cheer Sara on. By the time I was a high school senior, I had called the pageant's producer, Don Barnes, and talked my way into the Miss Mississippi chorus; I would sing backup in the pageant production over the next several summers.
I gave up singing for directing, and took the helm of the Miss University of Mississippi Pageant at Ole Miss for three years while I was a student there. It was a tough job, but someone had to go to all the fraternities and sororities and dormitories and get them to put up beautiful and talented girls to compete. I became the Bert Parks of the Ole Miss campus! During my final year of directing the Ole Miss Pageant, I was determined that Miss University had to win Miss Mississippi.
I'd been dating a freshman from Beaumont, Texas named Mary Donnelly, a stunning young woman who'd pledged Chi Omega sorority. After our first date, I called my mother and said, "I've met the girl I'm going to marry."
With my dream of helping Miss Mississippi earn the crown, I told Mary, "I'm going to be completely buried in this the entire month of January and most of February." Then, just thinking aloud, I said, "You oughta enter." Mary was beautiful and had a great voice. I figured she'd get to the top ten and it would help make her freshman year memorable.
To my great surprise, and beating all odds, Mary Donnelly won the title of Miss University of Mississippi 1977. Then she won Miss Mississippi and headed to the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City. To our dismay, Miss Ohio won the Miss America title that year (I'm still not over it!) but I believe I won the ultimate prize -- Mary and I were married in 1982.
As you can see, the Miss America program has a truly special place in my heart. But I know that she has a special place in the hearts and minds of all Americans. It shows that through hard work, perseverance -- and pluck! -- you can accomplish anything. The Miss America Organization is the largest women's scholarship program, with up to $45 million in scholarships awarded each year. Even during these difficult economic times, we are not cutting back. I've watched lives change because of the scholarships from the pageant program.
Communities have been changed, too. This year, more than 13,000 young women made their way through the state and local pageants. Every contestant is required to actively promote a platform that serves her community. When crowned, Miss America supports our national service partner, the Children's Miracle Network, which helps over 170 children's hospitals around the United States.
The next Miss America is among the 53 young women currently in Las Vegas rehearsing for Saturday night's pageant. She is smart and talented -- she is America at its best. And now we can all be a part of history and vote for who we think should be in the top 15 finalists. Over 100,000 people have voted already on Facebook, YouTube and MissAmerica.org. I urge you to get to know these amazing young women and cast your own vote. Then tune in on January 15, 2011, on ABC to see if your favorite wins. I'll be watching -- after all, I've always loved a good show!
Sam Haskell is the former chief of Worldwide Television at the William Morris Agency, current Chairman of the Board of the Miss America Organization, and author of the national best-selling memoir, Promises I Made My Mother.
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