By Eula Golding Walters © 2015
Online: February. 2015
"Dream on, dream on teen-age queen, prettiest girl we've ever seen...."
Johnny Cash, 1958.
The story I am about to tell you culminated on April 28, 1962. The events leading up to the worst, most miserable, humiliating day and night of my life up to that point is the rest of the story.
It is said that stretching oneself, trying something new, doing things that you don't know how to do, or the talent for doing, makes you a stronger person. They say that you will look back years later and realize that 'the stretch' was a good thing; that it helped you become the fine, outstanding person you are today.
Well, I'm not sure who 'they' were, who spouted such words of wisdom, but if the truth was known, they were probably just mouthing off, telling a whooper, or at the bottom of their jug of moonshine.
Any student who attended the smallest high school in the state of Virginia thru the 1950's and early 1960's had a fair chance of being called on to do some of that self-stretching.
In 1962, my senior year, 124 students from grades one through twelve made up the populace of Coal Creek School. It had the distinction of being the smallest school in the state of Virginia. I graduated in a class of five. It didn't take an extraordinary effort to become Salutatorian of the graduating class.
We may have been small, but the principal, Mr. Worth Cox, determined that we would be big in ways other than population. If he perceived that one of the students had any potential, he saw to it that it was realized. Whether the student wanted their potential realized wasn't the point. The point was that Mr. Cox wanted to put his little school on the map as being big in things other than numbers. Whether it was sports, academics, 4H skills, or even beauty contests, he was determined to see to it that Coal Creek produced the winner, and it often did.
I could tell you of many things that he pushed me toward, into, over, and around, but for this story, I'll concentrate on one.
Being a farm girl, wearing my brother's hand-me-down bib overalls & flannel shirts during grade school, and then my older sisters clothes they left behind when they graduated and moved on; who's only beauty product was Vaseline to make my eyelashes shine, and who at age 14 was still acting and looking more like a boy than a girl, you have to wonder where he got his ideas when Mr. Cox decided that I was going to be a beauty queen! He also decided that I was a public speaker, and launched me into 4-H contests to run my mouth. That had better results, but is another story.
In the beginning it was fun. Any extra activity was better than being home on the farm and milking cows. After all, dressing up and prancing around in circles sounded much more enjoyable than farm chores.
My first experience came when Coal Creek hosted a contest for the prettiest baby. I think the categories ranged from one year old to about five. I was 12 and my curly haired, dimpled, drop dead handsome, baby brother was three. I will always believe that someone paid the judges off, because Ernie didn't win, as he certainly should have. He did go on to win 4H King in fifth grade, which somewhat made up for our shaky beginning.
My role was to walk Ernie out on the stage, making sure he behaved himself. My most vivid memory of that night was of sitting on top of a school desk while we were waiting to go on stage where the contestants marched around in circles, waving, or blowing kisses...or sticking out their tongue at the judges, as Ernie did. As I sat there, swinging my feet, feeling all smug and grown up, I suddenly remembered that I was wearing my older sister's flats and that one of them had a huge hole in the sole for all to see! Perhaps this was an omen of things to come in my beauty pageant career.
When I was 14, Judy Sexton, a beauty long before her time, talked me into participating in the Miss Carroll County Beauty Contest with her. There really wasn't much to it back then. You just got on stage and walked in circles till one of the judges pointed his pencil at you, and you knew that you were eliminated. I think I got the pencil point in the first round, but that was OK by me as it was the first time I'd ever worn heels and my feet were killing me. I relaxed and watched as Judy stayed on stage for round after round. I'm surprised that she wasn't dizzy when she was finally eliminated in the final 10.
I had ridden to the contest at Hillsville High School on the school bus. I had hoped my dad would drive me to the bus stop, as I was dressed in my borrowed evening gown and, like I said, my first wearing of high heels. But when I got ready to go, I realized that Daddy was still at the barn feeding the cows. So I started walking out the dirt road to the bus stop a mile away.
Daddy must have seen me walking because he yelled that he would take me. But by then I was mad and too proud to acknowledge that I'd heard him. And he was too stubborn to accommodate his proud, stubborn daughter if she wasn't going to appreciate his offer. I sincerely doubt that I looked anything remotely like a beauty queen after that fifteen minute walk in the dusty road in my heels and gown!
The highlight of the evening was the ride home. Judy told me that her boyfriend was taking her home, and the boy driving wanted to be with me. Thus began an on/off almost four year relationship with Billy Wayne. I'll not mention the last name to protect the innocent. I'm not sure just what I fell for the hardest...his black, greased back Elvis duck tail hair style, the way he carried his pack of Camels in his turned up shirt sleeve, or the turquoise/cream colored 1955 Ford Crown Victoria that he drove. At any rate, the ride home more than made up for any disappointment I might have felt due to the pencil pointing part of the night.
My next beauty queen experience had much better results. My best friend, Karen Hawks, had been crowned Miss Coal Creek the year before in 1961. She encouraged me to participate since it was my last year of school. I really didn't want to do it, as I still didn't have anything of my own to wear. The biggest obstacle though was having to perform some sort of talent. Karen had played a hauntingly beautiful piece on the piano for her talent. Our school was filled with talented people. Several could play the piano; all could dance as well as those on the Dick Clark Show, and most had beautiful voices. As the old saying goes, I couldn't sing my way out of a bucket, so that option was out. Having no rhythm or musical ability whatsoever, my only chance at anything remotely resembling talent was to do a monologue. I portrayed a stressed out house wife and hillbilly mother, trying to get her kids off to school while at the same time competing with the neighbor to be the first to have her wash hanging on the line.
None of my family was there to see me win or lose. If it wasn't Daddy's idea to go, then no one went. I had several reasons for wanting to win this particular contest.
Number one, I could "show" my dad, who was always asking, "well, why didn't you win?" Number two, it was one of my "off" times with Billy Wayne, and I knew he would be there, so I wanted to make him sorry for doing me wrong. Number three, my best friend forever, Karen really wanted to put that crown on my head, and I was just as anxious for her to do it.
So with all that incentive, and a lot of encouragement from a couple of potential boy friends, standing in the shadows of the stage, I put my all into it. I have to admit that it was a proud moment when Karen placed that crown on my head, wrapped the banner across my shoulder that read, "Miss Coal Creek," and placed a dozen red roses in my arms. It would have been even more of a poignant moment if I had known that in just four short years, my sweet friend would be dead, lost forever to so many who loved her.
The next morning when I sat down at the table for breakfast, my dad, just as I knew he would, said, "well, where's your crown, and your banner, and your flowers?" I got up from the table, retrieved them from under the bed, and plopped them in his plate. "There they are," I said. I'm not sure if he was more impressed or embarrassed. One thing I do know, though, is that looking back on it, I am not one bit proud of that moment. I had had my glory, and had no right to humiliate my dad. While some things can't be taken back or forgotten, thankfully they can be forgiven.
As far as I was concerned, I had accomplished what I'd set out to do. I had won Miss Coal Creek 1962, on my own turf, and had no more desire to enter another beauty contest in my life time.
Enter Mr. Cox, the principal who pounced at any chance to make his school look good, no matter what it took to do it. As my senior year was coming to an end, he announced that he had entered both Karen and me in the Miss Carroll County Beauty Contest, preliminary of the Miss America Contest! Never mind that Karen was already out of school, and he had no control over her whatsoever and that I had zero desire to do it.
I did everything I could to get out of what I knew would be the most humiliating event of my young life. The contest would be held at Hillsville High School, and to compare this farm girl to the Hillsville town girls...well, there simply was no comparison.
I finally agreed to do it when Mr. Cox assured me that he would help me get into Radford Teaching College if I would do this for him. With that promise, I tried hard to put the fact that I was completely out of my league from my mind, and determined to do the best I could. But my resentment at him for putting me in such a situation was simmering.
I practiced my washer-woman act faithfully, while my older sister made me a very pretty sun dress to wear to the brunch that the Hillsville Women's Club would be hosting the day of the contest, so that the contestants could get to know each other.
As always, my brother, John Carroll, came to my rescue and drove me to Hillsville the day of the brunch. We were late because we couldn't find the right house, so I made quite an entrance in my, by now wrinkled dress, with white shoe polish on my legs, rubbed off from my freshly polished borrowed heels. I felt as though I was being led to the slaughter as the well dressed hostess ushered me upstairs to meet the other contestants, so that we could chat and get to know one another.
To say that I felt out of place is quite an understatement. There I sat in my homemade and borrowed clothes, surrounded by perfectly groomed ladies in their Jackie Kennedy suits, heels to match, their pill box hats perched on their heads, and their clutch purse in their gloved hands. OH....MY.....GOODNESS!!! What had I got myself into??? Right about now all I could think of was ways that I could torture Mr. Cox if I survived this day.
We girls chatted until we were called down for brunch. I managed to catch myself when I tripped coming down the stairs, so no harm done. I sat at the table, wondering how I was supposed to know what to do with three forks. And why on earth was what appeared to be a dish towel, rolled up to look like a rose, doing in the middle of my plate?? I took a deep breath and watched the others for my cue to begin eating my "to-mater" aspic.
After lunch, we went across the street to the high school to practice for the pageant. There I realized that we were expected to be the entertainment for the show, as well as the contestants. Keep in mind that I had never seen a Miss America contest on TV, so I had no clue what the protocol was.
I remember the theme was an ocean scene. We were to be holding a fish net, filled with shells, as the curtain came up....in our bathing suits!!!! No one had even mentioned that I would need a bathing suit, and that I would have to parade around the stage in said bathing suit!
But the worst was yet to come. Not only were we to be standing in our bathing suits, in high heels!....holding onto a fish net filled with shells, but we were to do a dance number, while singing some sort of silly song called, Down by the Sea. "Oh dear God, please just send a whale and let me be swallowed whole!"
Two of the most humiliating hours later, I had that song and dance routine down pat! NOT!! You need to believe me when I tell you that I couldn't even do a two-step, much less sing in tune. I had never been so happy to see my brother when he pulled up in his old Chevy to drive me home.
It wasn't until then that I realized my only source of comfort in this whole fiasco, my friend Karen who was also in the contest, had bailed and didn't show up. I never knew that I had that option, or believe me, I too would have been a no-show.
What would I have done with out my big sister, Janet? I went home crying in anger and shame and the fact that I didn't own a bathing suit. Janet had finished business college by now and was working in Bluefield, so she had acquired quite a nice wardrobe, including a very pretty bathing suit. And she was willing to let me borrow it. The biggest problem now was that the two of us had taken after different sides of the family, and where Janet was very well endowed, I was not so much. So after some extra padding in strategic places, a lot of walking in circles with a book on my head to improve my posture, wearing a bathing suit for the first time in my life, a pair of high heels, and carrying a pretty borrowed evening gown I was ready. My fill-in boyfriend picked me up and off we went to face the night.
I actually survived the ordeal. Not by much margin, but I did live thru it. I didn't fall on my face while doing the intro song and dance. I didn't trip while parading in my bathing suit, heels, and very red face. I actually had fun responding to the laughter and applause of the audience as I played the role of the harried mother and wash woman. I'm sure they had never seen entertainment such as this.
In those days, we wore crinolines, or starched net petticoats, the more the better, to make our skirt, or in this case, gowns stand out. I remember calling them "stand-out petticoats." The other contestants had long gowns, and therefore wore long crinolines under them, and they were perfect. Not me....I had the long gown, but didn't own any long petticoats. Someone had loaned me a couple and told me to pull one down far enough to make the bottom of the gown stand out. Two just didn't get it though. The only stand-out petticoat I owned was red and my gown was white. I figured I would use it as the middle one, so it wouldn't make a difference. In my nervous haste, I reversed and used the red one as the bottom one. I must have pulled it down too far because after the first round in the gown competition, some one came back and stage whispered in my ear that Mr. Cox said for me to pull up that red petticoat, that it was dragging the floor underneath my gown! "Oh, dear God, where is that whale when I need it so bad??!!"
I truly hope that you aren't disappointed when I tell you that I did not win Miss Carroll County that worst-night-of-my-life in April 1962. No, thank God, I did not win. I didn't come in second, nor third, nor fourth, nor anything else. I've never been so thankful to be a loser. Can you imagine me competing in the 1962 Miss Virginia contest?? No, I didn't think so.
But I did win the Miss Congeniality Award! Yes, you could have knocked me down with a feather also! I will never know how that came about. I do know that we contestants voted on the person we thought was the friendliest, with the best personality. Did the judges throw out those votes and give me the award because they felt so very sorry for me? I will never know, but the award, as well as the nice note and $10.00 I received a few days later were a nice consolation prize for having suffered thru the longest, most humiliating day of my life. I'll never know if Mrs. Carrington wrote it with tongue in cheek, or if the note was sincere, but I chose to believe the later. After all, she mentioned that I, "contributed beauty, charm and talent," to the contest. She also mentioned that she hoped to see me in the contest next year. I certainly hope she didn't hold her breath.
On a side note, I just recently read the Galax Gazette article on the event in their archives. For the first time I realized that I actually shared the Miss Congeniality award with another contestant. Thankfully, enough time has passed that this knowledge didn't put a damper on anything.
After all I went through to make Mr. Cox happy, only because I wanted so badly to go to Radford Women's College to become an elementary school teacher, he somehow forgot that promise he made, and there was no college for me. The red petticoat was most likely the determining factor.
I will agree though, that the experience certainly did stretch me. The best lesson I learned from it was to make my own decisions, based on what I knew I was capable of, and not worry about what others may think of me for the decisions I made. Please believe me when I tell you that I never once encouraged my three beautiful daughters to participate in a beauty contest. There are many other ways that one can be "stretched."
I am attaching pictures taken from the brochure of the event. I would love to hear from anyone who remembers this; anyone that might have been in the contest, or who's name was mentioned in some way.
"Dream on, dream on, teen-age queen. Prettiest girl I've ever seen. Now this story has some more. You'll hear it all at the candy store." Johnny Cash, 1958.