Life’s Rich Pageant
Jane Jayroe, Miss America and beyond
Photos by Charlie Neuenschwander
The year 1967 was one of change in America. Young people were speaking their minds, tuning in, turning on and dropping out. It was a time of beatniks, Mamas and Papas and Mrs. Robinson. Everywhere you looked, there were flowers in your hair, go-go boots and shifting morals. And a war was raging.
The times they were a-changing, but in Oklahoma, things were still relatively quiet. Up near the panhandle, a young girl named Jane Jayroe left her rural home in Laverne, headed for college in the big city. Almost overnight, she was thrust into the national spotlight when she became Miss America 1967.
Now, 50 years later, the charming and gracious contestant who won that title sits down for a look back at her life in the 1960s and beyond.
Those who grew up in or who have studied the 1960s know it was a decade of change. Before you entered the national consciousness, what was life like for you growing up in rural Oklahoma?
“Memory probably blurs things a little, but I believe my time growing up in rural, small-town Oklahoma with a loving family was about as good as it gets. Laverne was a close community that was supportive of school activities; people who attended church and tried to live those values. It was an encouraging place to live and learn. We were fairly insulated from beatniks.”
What were your thoughts at the time – leaving your parents, your friends and your hometown – when you headed out for Oklahoma City University?
“At the time, it was a huge leap for me – a shy girl who was very bonded to her mother and unsure about survival in the ‘big city.’ I didn’t know a person at Oklahoma City University when my mother left me in the dorm to begin my freshman year. But I felt a strong sense of destiny about attending OCU. Thanks to the sacrifice of my school-teaching parents, I was able to see that dream come true. It was a critical step in setting the direction for the rest of my life.”
It seems everything was evolving in the 1960s; not only clothes and hairstyles, but music as well. Who were some of your favorite singers or groups?
“This is my favorite question, and one I’ve never been asked! Music has always been a favorite part of my life – enhancing every situation, good or bad. It touches me in a way that nothing else does.
Music theater has always been my first love. As Miss America, I was blessed to have New York City as my home base. I went to Broadway shows at every opportunity. I saw the original casts in shows like Fiddler on the Roof, Mame and Man of La Mancha.
The Supremes were my favorite women’s vocal group. I got to see them in a concert in Portland, Oregon. It was magic. I also loved the 5th Dimension and their original album, which I still have, ‘Up, Up, and Away.’ One reason it was a favorite was my close friendship with their composer Jimmy Webb. Jimmy and I went to high school together in Laverne. He was such a dreamer and an amazing talent. He played and I sang at every event in Harper County where we were invited. When I was home for Christmas the year before Miss America, Jimmy called from California and said he was playing for some vocal group. Then, ‘Up, Up and Away’ happened, and ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix.’ Jimmy is my favorite composer, obviously.
I loved Dionne Warwick, Johnny Mathis, The Temptations and so many others. My sister was a big Elvis fan. Me, not so much. I liked the Beatles music, but wasn’t a big Beatles fan.”
Do you still have your old records?
Every year I try to get rid of the old records. Your question prompted me to go through them again. The ones I hold on to are Jimmy Webb’s, the original Supremes and my Broadway cast albums.
What are some of your memories of that night in 1967 when you were named Miss America?
“I remember being not only surprised but aghast that I had won, and then absolutely crazy afraid. What were the judges thinking? Obviously, they didn’t know what a small-town simpleton I was. I’d never been on an airplane; I could hardly put two sentences together in front of people. How was I going to be so far away from my family and friends? And how was I going to live up to the title of Miss America?
The first 24 hours were not joyful. Fortunately, God found a way to give me the courage to trust Him with my insecurities. Within 48 hours, He put encouraging people in my path and I came to accept that it wasn’t about perfection but faithfulness. I just tried to do the job – some days were better than others.
I was so thrilled for Oklahoma, Oklahoma City University, my friends and family. It was a time in our history when Oklahoma didn’t win many national contests. Miss America was one of the most watched television shows of the year, which means a lot of Oklahomans saw the pageant on TV. Our shared history of that time is still one of the most precious things in my life.”
What was your talent, and whatever happened to the gown you wore?
“My pageant director, Toni Spencer, came up with the idea of conducting the live orchestra along with singing the popular song ‘1,2,3.’ I had studied conducting and together with my sister, a music teacher, we figured out a way to make it a unique and very fun talent.
I’ve given the evening gown to the Oklahoma History Center. Most all of my memorabilia will go there, because my life has always been grounded in this state. I have a picture of my grandmother as a teenager in her Sunday school class in Illinois. On the back, in her handwriting, is written ‘Going to Oklahoma.’ Her family homesteaded in Beaver County.”
One moment you are young Jane Jayroe from Laverne, Oklahoma, and the next you’re a worldwide phenomenon. How did you handle the instant fame?
“I didn’t handle it very well, but grew into it. The press was kind to me and didn’t try to embarrass me by thinking a 19-year-old should have the answer to world peace. They did ask me about Vietnam all the time, which was a blessing. I didn’t have a political opinion about the war, but I wanted to entertain our troops there. As a result of that question being in newspapers all the time, I got to go.”
The war in Vietnam was escalating in 1967. What was the reaction of the troops when they saw Miss America in their midst?
“The response to six young women from America performing for our troops in Vietnam was beyond words. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of America’s finest would come hours in advance of our shows – climb trees, sit in the sun or the rain, do whatever they could to get a glimpse of home. It was the most worthwhile opportunity I’ve experienced. We sang and danced in good weather and bad. We visited hospitals and slept in tents while the sound of bombs went off nearby. We flew in choppers skimming the tops of trees; we landed on aircraft carriers and were catapulted off. The memories are so meaningful, yet I always have trouble describing them. I get very emotional about the whole experience. It makes patriotism grow deep when you see the sacrifice up close.
As a result of those two weeks, I was summoned to the White House for a private meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson. Afterwards, I sat with veterans for the signing of a VA bill. It was a proud moment.”
Back home, 1967 was also the year of the “Summer of Love.” Young people were headed for San Francisco, putting flowers in their hair and embracing a totally different lifestyle. What was that like for you as Miss America, always dressed impeccably, to see so many kids your age becoming flower children?
“Yes, Miss America was dressed beautifully. I always traveled in a dress or suit, with gloves and a hat. Hard to believe now, isn’t it? I often yearned to be in jeans with no shoes. But the image I represented was more important than my ‘druthers.’ When you face hundreds of young girls weekly who look up at you as a special role model, it’s an easy sacrifice for that privilege of influence.
Change was everywhere. I remember being in a parade in New Jersey with special escorts because of racial tension. At the Miss America pageant, a small group of women burned their bras on the boardwalk in front of the convention hall where the pageant was going on. Later, I lived the women’s liberation movement, when I became a single mom making my way in the professional world. I found myself the ‘first’ woman in many arenas. My professional success all started with an education paid for by the Miss America organization. It was a great gift to young women in 1967 and continues to be today.
I wasn’t a prude about things, but life was always more about my core values – even though I wouldn’t have used that language at the time. Hard work, discipline, family, patriotism, faith—those were more important in shaping my life than what was the trend at the time.
When I think of San Francisco, I think of the song, ‘This Land is Your Land,’ because that’s what the Miss America entertainers sang as we caught sight of the west coast of America on our return trip from Vietnam. We landed at Travis Air Force Base near San Francisco. We were on an airplane with hundreds of returning soldiers. No cheers or welcome home greeted them. No appreciation for their service. It was heartbreaking. I didn’t identify with ‘flowers in your hair.’”
As the years rolled by, many of us remember your work as a nightly news anchor. Was broadcast journalism something you aspired to?
“If I’d ever thought about being a broadcast journalist growing up, that’s what I would have wanted to be. In Laverne, women did one of two things: taught school or worked as a nurse. Almost every person in my family was in education, so that’s the route I took, partnered with my great passion for music. Thanks to the Miss America journey, I had an opportunity to develop the skills that led to an audition for KOCO as a news anchor. I had spent years speaking under pressure and a lifetime obsessively reading and writing. I loved the storytelling aspect of journalism. I learned the profession on the job in front of the camera. Oklahoma audiences were very forgiving as I fumbled along for a while, learning as fast as I could and working hard. I was so blessed to have found this career. I loved the job both in OKC and in Dallas/Ft. Worth.”
What is life like now for Miss America 1967?
“So blessed! I find purpose and joy by putting together, for many years now, a luncheon speaker’s series called Esther Women. I loved being involved at Oklahoma City University, where I often have a chance to share in the lives of some of our students. I sit on several community boards and have always loved to volunteer; I learned that from my mother. Writing is still a passion, so I’m working on another devotional book.
I married my husband, Jerry, almost 23 years ago and we live in Oklahoma City. We have very similar backgrounds: small town, played sports and music, grew up in the Methodist church and have degrees from OCU.
I have one son, Tyler Jayroe, who works in New York City and lives in New Jersey with his wife and two children. Tyler went to Vanderbilt University after graduating from Heritage Hall in Oklahoma City, and he has an MBA from the University of Virginia. I have so much love and admiration for my son. It was not easy for him to grow up without a dad around, and a mother who received so much attention. He wrote about it in a paper for school once that talked a little about that challenge and said his mom ‘was a celebrity in a city that had few.’
I worked nights on television most of his life. Tyler is just an outstanding young man who is very successful not just in his career, but more importantly, in his relationships with his family. And he’s a great father. I was always just crazy about him, like mothers of only children are! Now I’m so proud of the person he has become. It has little to do with me; a lot to do with how my parents loved him, and most of all it’s just Tyler. I’m so grateful I got to raise him.
Age gives you an opportunity to fully appreciate the gifts life brings – like laughing and/or crying in the comfort of strong friendships, colorful sunsets, rolling thunder, basketball victories, a favorite hymn, the smell of rain, holding your husband’s hand, worshiping, kissing grandchildren, a faithful pet, the way music goes inside and leaves nothing empty, experiencing love. Honest, beautiful things are around every day, but for most of us, it takes the realization that time is limited before we take good notice and hold them close.”
It has been 50 years since you wore that crown and sash. Where has the time gone?
I wish I knew!