Jo-Carroll Dennison, oldest surviving winner of Miss America, former Miss Tyler dies at age 97

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TYLER, Texas (KETK)- Jo-Carroll Dennison was born in 1926 in Arizona. She spent the majority of her childhood traveling the country with her family in their medicine show. Her education eventually led her to East Texas, where she was approached about an opportunity to compete in a local pageant.

“A banker approached her looking to recruit young girls to be in the local Miss Tyler competition, and she had no interest whatsoever,” said Evan Mills, a close family friend of Dennison. 

He tells the story of when Dennison was promised she could keep the swimsuit she wore during the contest, and with that, she entered and won. From there she went on to win Miss East Texas and other Miss Texas titles. The journey led her to the national stage at the age of 18, where she was crowned Miss America in 1942.

World War II had broken out just months before claiming her title. She was described as a shining light in a dark place, who helped comfort our country during such uncertain times.

“There’s a wonderful photo where she is in a giant room that’s like out of a movie, and it’s full of service people. And, she’s in her cowboy hat and her Texas clothes and she’s singing Deep in the Heart of Texas,” Mills explains.

Dennison contributed heavily to boosting the morale for service members during the war, and she spent her time getting to know them and their stories.

Adding to her list of achievements, she spent nearly five decades working on an autobiography “Finding my Little Red Hat” which highlights her path from carnival act to Hollywood starlet. 

“The red hat is a hat, a red hat with a red feather that she would wear every time they would change schools on her, which was every 2 weeks. She lost that courage in the middle of life, when all these adversities were around her. So, she wanted to find her red hat again,” said Mills, who also authored the foreword for the memoir. 

Dennison was an activist on many fronts, from fighting in the “Me Too” movement to confronting sexism head-on in the organization.

“She put down her foot, she said no… and then it happened a couple of other times too during the year. And each time, she would refuse and to my understanding she is the first Miss America to do that,” Mills remembered.

Dennison was able to participate in the Miss America’s 100th Anniversary Gala earlier this year, where she recalled her accounts with testing societal norms and commended the organization for removing the swimsuit portion of the competition in 2018.

In her speech over video she said, “I never thought I had won because of my looks, but rather because of the way I felt about myself. With this in mind, I flat out refused to wear my swimsuit on stage after the pageant, beginning with my very first stop at the Fay Theatre in Philadelphia. I’m so delighted that the Miss America organization has embraced this principle and now focuses on the totality of each candidate.”

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