by Bobbi Dumas
Anytime a “Miss Something or Other” is mentioned, the inevitable conclusion is that it must be a beauty contest. The Miss Oregon title signified much more.
Miss Oregon, a now defunct event that selected a young woman from the village to act as a representative of Oregon’s Chamber of Commerce, was once a centerpiece of the community calendar. For many of the participants, as well as the women and men who worked tirelessly to put the pageant together, its loss remains huge.
There was at least one contest that predated the Miss Oregon pageant, a popularity event held during the Depression that had the community cast votes for young women who signed up, and ultimately crowned the winner the Oregon Queen. However, the more modern pageant started in 1966, and Pat Anderson (now Wilkening) was crowned the first-ever Miss Oregon.
“It was a big event,” Pat Wilkening remembers, “and it was generated as part of the 125th birthday celebration of Oregon. That year, Oregon also hosted the Alice in Dairyland contest, a big Wisconsin tradition. I remember that the Chamber liked the idea of having someone represent the village across the state, and we were the first small town to do that. The pageant was started, basically, to promote and celebrate Oregon.”
The experience for the girls that year was fairly straightforward. “We each had interviews with judges beforehand, and then we had to do a talent during the pageant. No bathing suits. The Chamber encouraged women between age 16 and 21 to participate, and about 18 of us signed up, with 10 finalists making it to the pageant night.” Pat was crowned on April 22, 1966, by Miss Madison.
April 22, 1966: The recently crowned Miss Oregon Pat Anderson, Miss Madison Pat Giese, and Miss Oregon runner-up/alternate Annetta Koepe, represent the Chamber of Commerce, sponsors of this big event.
An excerpt from Pat Anderson (Wilkenson)’s winning speech.
Wilkening’s experience as Miss Oregon was unique. For one thing, she was the only Miss Oregon to attend the Miss Wisconsin contest. After that year, likely due to the cost of entry, Miss Oregon stayed in Oregon – at least from a contest perspective, anyway. “Of course Miss Oregon’s job was to represent Oregon, so I attended community events in Oregon and surrounding areas, taking part in parades and celebrations. Since it was our 125th anniversary celebration, I took Oregon booster buttons to then-Governor, Warren Knowles. Because of that, I was asked, along with Miss Octoberfest, to do a Wisconsin State ‘We Like It Here’ promotion, where we flew with the governor across the state into different communities. It was a lovely experience.”
Governer Knowles helped publicize Oregon’s 125th anniversary celebration. From left: Dr. M. J. Wischhoff, Oregon Chamber of Commerce director and general chairman of the anniversary event, Governor Warren Knowles, Jim Cannon, Chamber secretary and chairman of the recent Miss Oregon pageant, Pat Anderson, Miss Oregon, Norm Champion, Oregon Chamber of Commerce President.
Pat considers her year as Miss Oregon a life-changing experience. “It was wonderful. I can’t express how much it did for me, in terms of building my self-confidence and other skills, like public speaking and being comfortable in front of a crowd. But it was so much more than a beauty contest,” Wilkening notes. “There were area musicians who played for the pageant, and Ginny O’Brien helped organize them and make it into more of a show. My year, Buzz Hanson (an active Chamber member and community ambassador) wrote a song that the girls sang as part of the pageant evening. Everyone came and a number of people from Oregon participated. It was a real community event.”
Indeed, ask any person involved in the Miss Oregon pageant history from its beginnings, down to the last couple years, and you’ll hear the same note of affection and wistfulness toward the pageant-era. Most will credit Ginny O’Brien, now 88 and still active in Oregon, as being the principal contributor to the pageant in its first decade.
Pauline McMannes, who pretty much ran the show later, remains amazed at what Oregon pulled together in those first few years. “Ginny didn’t run a pageant, she ran a show. At the time, the pageant was held in the high school auditorium. Ginny was involved with the Madison-area theater guild and had a lot of connections with area artists and musicians. Each year, she would pick a theme, and then would basically write a musical around it. The talent in this town, and the way it came together on the night of the Miss Oregon pageant, was truly something to behold. And it was something everyone in the community got behind. The school, the chamber, businesses and families. It was a sell-out crowd every year. She wrote something every year, produced, choreographed, and found talent in the community to take part. Oregon really stepped up to the plate the night of the pageant, and the whole community just shone.”
If you ask Ginny, she’ll acknowledge that it was hard work, but she modestly attributes the success of the event to “all the people who just put their shoulders to the wheel. Really, it was everyone, not me,” she claims. “The school encouraged the girls to take part, and the people in the community rallied around it. The newspaper wrote about the event and the girls, and everyone turned out. It was a lot of work, but when you’re having fun, you don’t notice. It was truly one of the best things I ever did, and working with the people here who were so committed to making it great, for the girls, and for the community, was an honor.”
1978 Miss Oregon Tracie Halverson rides the Summer Fest float with contestants Kay Ferguson, Julie Brindley, and Laura Cower.
Jim Bossingham, owner of B.J.’s Hair Salon, was one of the area residents who was involved from the beginning with Ginny O’Brien’s mini-musicals. He took part by singing in the pageants, helped with the planning later, when Pauline McManus was the major force behind the event, and in 1990 saw his daughter, Deb, crowned as a Miss Oregon. From every angle, Jim feels the event was a great asset to the community, and he would love to see it come back.
“For my daughter, it made a big impact. It helped her sort of grow into her skin, so to speak. It was a very positive experience. But it wasn’t just about my daughter, it was about all the young women who took part. It was never a popularity contest. It was about being able to talk to people, to be polite and social, and a good spokesperson for your community. It was different from the other places they spent time and experiences they might have had. And on the night of the actual pageant, especially in the days when Ginny put together such a fabulous show, but later, too, when the young women had to stand up and give a speech in front of a packed room, it was just such a wonderful experience for all of Oregon. Honestly, everyone was so proud. There was this wonderful feeling of accomplishment in what our small town could put together. The joy was palpable.”
1989 Miss Oregon Erin Farrar awards the blue ribbon at the Madison Horse Show. "
Pauline McMannes, perhaps the person most responsible for the event for the longest time, adjusted the Miss Oregon pageant from the musical show into a quieter, less entertainment-focused evening, in part because she knew she wouldn’t be able to replicate Ginny’s accomplishments. “The full production aspect of it rolled back a little, and it became more about the young women and how they would represent Oregon.” Around the time Pauline took over, the event moved from the high school to various supper clubs on the north side of the village (same building, different management/owners through the years) and the talent segment was dropped.
Pauline invested hundreds of hours in the pageant each year and wound up planning it twenty-seven times. “All the young women who participated got a lot out of it, not just the winners. I spent a lot of time with them, helping them feel comfortable speaking in front of a crowd, learning how to give a speech, coaching them so they’d feel comfortable when it came time to sit down with judges for their interviews. The girls tended to bond over the experience, too. It was a special thing.”
Pauline’s Miss Oregon calendar started in January, when paperwork was gathered and the participating young women and a parent were invited to a meeting at Pauline’s home where they would discuss the rules, the schedule and the criteria. Each contestant was required to have an area business or business owner sponsor her. The week-end before the crowning, the women would experience the first segment of the Miss Oregon contest when they each met with four judges, two men and two women from other communities across Wisconsin. The participants were told to dress appropriately for a business interview, and would spend ten minutes with each judge. Pauline organized the judges, a broad spectrum of professionals that ranged over the years from bankers to (legal) judges to business owners, and everywhere in between.
The judges were looking for a number of things, mostly having to do with social skills and the ability to be at ease in conversation with a wide variety of topics and people from every walk of life. Once the interviews were tallied, the same judges would attend the pageant event, a week later. On that evening, the contestants stood in front of the usually standing-room only crowd and gave a speech. The topic was determined at the original organizational meeting, when each participant put a topic into a hat and then picked them randomly. They had from then until the pageant night to write and prepare a speech.
“We worked with them for months,” says Pauline. “I would help them any way I could. This wasn’t planned so that the girls who had the parents most willing to coach them would win. I would coach them if they needed it. I helped a lot of girls. I’d go over their speeches with them and give them suggestions. My goal was to make sure they all felt as comfortable as possible going into the competition. And you know? I believe almost any girl who signed up could have been a Miss Oregon. They were all great. But if they wanted help, I’d give it to them. I spent a lot of time with the girls, and they spent time together. If you ask most of them, they’ll tell you it was a fun time. A lot of them developed some special friendships from participating in Miss Oregon.”
The pageant crowning event was a dinner/dance, where the contestants wore formals. The judges would listen to the speeches, and would watch the young women during the dinner. “They were looking for other things than just how they gave their speeches,” Pauline adds. “How did they treat other guests? How did they interact in the crowd? Were they polite? Did they mingle, or just talk to one or two other people? Once, one of the girls sat in a corner all evening and read a book. Well, she was a nice girl, but you didn’t really want her to represent Oregon at social and community functions.”
After all the speeches were finished, the judges tallied the scores, and Miss Oregon was crowned, usually in the early spring. “The newly crowned Miss Oregon would dance with her father for a few minutes alone on the dance floor, and then all the other young women would join them with their fathers.”
Becky Bomkamp was crowned Miss Oregon in 1982.
“I know a lot of people think pageants are silly, and there were naysayers even in Oregon, when the pageant was a highlight event. But I honestly believe we provided a great experience for the young women of Oregon, and we helped them develop skills that would help them throughout their lives. We tried hard to make this event about being poised, friendly, articulate young women, comfortable in who they were and how they presented themselves to the world. We tried to separate it from beauty or popularity.”
Speaking to women crowned as Miss Oregon, you get the sense that they agree with that assessment.
Ginger Neath (now Zimmerman), Miss Oregon 1972, was a longtime dance studio owner in Oregon, and remembers the pageant as completely removed from her high school experience. “I wasn’t popular in school. In fact, I was already studying dance seriously, with the intention of becoming a professional. The Miss Oregon pageant was a pivotal point in my life, and was a wonderful experience, but I’m sure, for me, winning had more to do with my outside interests and passions, and being able to talk about them, than it did any school popularity.” (And in Ginger’s case, doing them, since her experience included a talent – and she chose Hawaiian dance, which she was studying with intensity.)
Becky Bomkamp (now Groenier), Miss Oregon 1982, also feels grateful to the experience. “It impacted me, certainly, though I can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. It was a great year, and I met a lot of interesting people. It certainly added to the layers of who I am and what I’ve done. And since it wasn’t a ‘popularity’ contest, it seemed more real to me. You had the sense that the most popular girl at the school wouldn’t win just because she was the most popular girl at the school. It was about more than that.”
Oregon Observer, Thursday, March 18, 1982: 'Cooning' lions Last Sunday the Oregon Lions Club sponsored a Coon dog trial at the Oregon Sportsman's Club north of the village. Many entries from surrounding areas participated in the event. Raffle tickets were sold and Kenneth Loomes was the first-place winner of a shotgun. Joining in the festivities was Miss Oregon, Becky Bomkamp. Shown: Miss Oregon Becky Bomkamp draws the winning ticket, with Oliver Culles (left), head of concession and food, and Joe Byrne, (right), chairman of the raffle, in the white hat.
Deb Bossingham agrees. “It was a great program. There was scholarship money and a stipend for clothes. The duties of Miss Oregon included attending lots of area functions and community events, but I also welcomed new businesses into the village, and acted as an ambassador for the Chamber both within Oregon and outside of it. My dad was a Shriner, so we traveled to places all over Wisconsin, and it was fun to be in the parades and represent my hometown.”
The Miss Oregon contest saw a lot of change over its nearly three decades of existence. Alice Seeliger, former Oregon Chamber of Commerce President, notes that there were a few reasons for the event’s eventual demise. “While I do think there was a change in the attitude toward beauty pageants in general (and we did have our share of opponents to the program), we purposefully made a sincere effort to promote the program as less of a beauty pageant and more of an opportunity to earn scholarship money by becoming a very visible representative of the Chamber and the business community. And, appropriately, we promoted gender equity by renaming the program ‘Oregon Ambassador’ to allow young men to participate in the program. At least one young man did take advantage of that opportunity.
“I think once Pauline stepped down, the people who took over didn’t understand how much work she’d put into it to make it as special as it was, volunteer organizers were reluctant to take over the task, contestant applications dwindled, the Chamber needed to reallocate its resources and, eventually, the program was discontinued. It’s a shame, really.”
That’s a sentiment shared by almost everyone who had anything to do with the pageant. The Miss Oregons and Oregon Ambassadors, the planners, the supporters – all of them feel that the program was so much more than what people think of when they hear the phrase “Miss Oregon.” And in its passing, Oregon lost a wonderful community event and a great resource for its young women and men, not to mention visibility for Oregon in other communities.
“I’d love to see it come back,” Pauline McMannes comments, her voice soft and wistful. “I’d be willing to consider doing it myself again, if it meant the Miss Oregon pageant came back.”
“Miss Oregon” Chamber Representatives, 1966-1992
- 1966 Pat Anderson
- 1967 Betty Hoffland
- 1968 Marcia McAllister
- 1969 Nancy Stoneman
- 1970 Laurie Kennan
- 1971 Barb Miller
- 1972 Ginger Neath
- 1973 Gail Bentley
- 1974 Lynn Okey
- 1975 Terri Winch
- 1976 Pam Jensen
- 1977 Debbie Abrams
- 1978 Tracie Halverson
- 1979 Kelly Champagne
- 1980 Penny Swinehart
- 1981 JoLynne Jensen
- 1982 Becky Bomkamp
- 1983 Andrea Lukonic
- 1984 Carla Christensen
- 1985 Jill Guerink
- 1986 Jackie Garvoille
- 1987 DeAnne Anderson
- 1988 Renee Frank
- 1989 Erin Farrar
- 1990 Deb Bossingham
- 1991 Jeanne Horstmann
- 1992 Tina Gefke