Mr. Smith: I dug this pin out of a box of old stuff my dad had. Was the Miss Universe contest really held in Ottumwa, Iowa, or is this some sort of a joke?
(west of here)
Dear Sally: No, I’m afraid the glitz and glamour of snoozy Ottumwa hasn’t ever attracted much attention from the organizers of the Miss Universe pageant.
But would you believe that if you went to school at Ottumwa High anytime between 1952 and ’54 that you just might have sat next to the most beautiful woman in the entire world?
It’s no joke. The young lady pictured on your pin is Carol Morris, who grew up at 107 S. Moore St. and was crowned Miss Universe in 1956.
Carol’s father LaVerne was the pastor at the Davis Street Christian Church, and he and his wife were actually friends of my grandmother’s cousin, Arvella Pottorff. So let me give you the inside skinny.
As a little girl, Carol loved peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Is that unbelievable? In the summer, she volunteered as a camp counselor for the Girl Scouts, was a lifeguard and gave swimming lessons at the municipal pool.
During high school, she played the violin in the orchestra, sang in the church choir, taught Sunday school and was a member of the Sharks swim team. She also entered her first beauty contest representing the South Ottumwa Boosters and attained the coveted title of Miss Ottumwa. After high school, she attended Drake University, where she was a decorated swim team member.
She entered and won the title of Miss Iowa in June 1956, and a few weeks later she became the only Iowan to ever win the Miss USA pageant. And on July 20, she was awarded ethereal recognition as Miss Universe, winning the contest in a dress she picked off the rack at Madden’s, a little women’s apparel store in Ottumwa. Here I should point out that I’ve added an asterisk after her name. As beautiful as she was, she never really competed against any of the women from other planets.
The judges of the pageant included makeup mogul Max Factor, photographer Tom Kelley (renowned for his naughty nude photographs of Marilyn Monroe, which were featured in the first issue of Playboy magazine, and pinup artist Alberto Vargas. Vargas commented that Miss Morris’ eyes were like sparkling opals and that the judges’ decision in her favor was unanimous. Little did he know that she had tipped the scales that evening by concealing a lucky penny in her shoe.
Winning the title came with a six-month movie studio contract with Universal International Pictures at 250 smackers a week. She played leading roles in a couple of films and appeared in numerous television shows. In fact, her appearance on TV’s “What’s My Line” can be viewed on www.youtube.com, where her natural beauty and hometown charm will leave you wondering if God has ever made a sweeter girl.
Her tour of duty included entertaining the U.S. troops in Alaska with Bob Hope and meeting former presidents Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover.
These days, Carol lives in Texas with her husband and, in my opinion, she could still win the Miss Universe title in her age group.
However, I think the crown is a bit presumptuous and lofty. It’s not something I’d wish on anyone. Can you imagine living up to everybody’s preconceived vision of the world’s most perfect woman day after day, month after month, pimple after bad-hair-day? You just couldn’t leave the house at less than 100 percent of your peak beauty potential, and need I mention the expectations of any future female progeny? God forbid a daughter be born knock-kneed or homely.
By the way, the pin was made by the P.J. Friday Advertising Co. in Ottumwa. I’m guessing they were good sellers to the thousands who lined the streets at her homecoming parade in August of ’56. Though the pins are by no means common, when they do turn up, they usually can be purchased for less than $20.