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Jo-Carroll Dennison, the oldest living Miss America, dead at 97

Miss America 1942 Jo-Carroll Dennison has died. She was 97.

The pageant queen, who was the oldest living Miss America, passed away at her home in Idyllwild, California on Oct. 19, her son confirmed to Deadline.com on Sunday. A cause of death was not revealed.

The Miss America Organization also took to social media and shared the news.

“The Miss America Organization is saddened to hear of the passing of Miss America 1942, Jo-Carroll Dennison,” they wrote on Instagram. “We thank her for her year of service and will miss her dearly.”

 

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Dennison was born in an Arizona men’s prison in 1923, The New York Times reported. Her mother went into labor while Dennison’s parents were traveling to California at the time. The couple was forced to make a stop in Arizona and the only doctor they could find worked at a local prison, the outlet shared.

Dennison grew up performing in her parents’ traveling medicine show. After her father died, she and her mother moved to Texas, Deadline.com shared. She was later discovered while working at a bank and was offered to enter a beauty contest. After a string of small pageant victories, she won the Miss America crown at age 18. The major win came shortly after the U.S. entered World War II.

Back in 1942, the pageant was mostly about looks,” said Dennison in honor of the pageant’s 100th anniversary last month. “Yet I never thought I had won because of the way I looked, but rather because of the way I felt about myself. With this in mind, I flat-out refused to wear my bathing suit on stage after the pageant, beginning at with the very first tour stop.

Deadline shared that after winning the competition, Dennison spent the year entertaining the troops. She then went to Hollywood and appeared in the war propaganda film “Winged Victory” (1944) and “The Jolson Story” (1946), a biopic on singer Al Jolson. She also made her mark in television, appearing alongside Frank Sinatra and Ed Sullivan. She went on to appear in a few episodes of the “Dick Tracy” series in 1950.

Dennison was married twice – first to comedian Phil Silvers from 1945 until 1950, and then to producer Russell Stoneham from 1954 until 1981. They shared two children.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Dennison served as a hospice worker.

I had a fantastic life and met so many interesting, talented people,” Dennison told The Press-Enterprise in 2011. “I thought I should do something to give back, so I worked at Hemet Hospice for 11 years.

I feel it was truly the most purposeful rewarding work I ever did,” she continued. “When I was Miss America, the boys were so terrific, but it was the symbol they were applauding. Working for hospice I thought I deserved the applause I got.

Dennison is survived by her sons, Peter and John Stoneham, as well as her three grandchildren.

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