A recent donation to the Pratt County Historical Society will take museum visitors back nearly six decades. The year was 1955, and the Pratt Jaycees hosted the Miss Kansas Pageant for the first time in Pratt. Fourteen young women competed in the one-night event, and at the end, Gail White was crowned Miss Kansas.
She's keeping the memories, but has given some of the memorabilia to the museum. The swimsuit, photos and other items are not yet on display in the Miss Kansas exhibit upstairs, but curator Marsha Brown expects that they will be soon.
The suit is a very modest affair, off-white trimmed with a bit of gold braid, that covered the entire torso from a little below the neck to the thigh. There's also a ribbon from the Miss America Pageant, autographed on the back by singer Eddie Fisher, some photographs from the state pageant and a reserved seating admission ticket that cost the holder $2.
In 2013, reserved seating for each of two preliminary performances cost $10 and a three-night package was available for $40. And, of course, today's swimsuit is different, but it hasn't been for that long. In 1996, the Miss America Organization conducted a phone-in poll about whether that portion of competition should be retained, and 87 percent of callers favored keeping the swimsuit. In 1997, contestants were allowed to choose a two-piece suit, for the first time.
Gail White Stark reminisced about other changes from Pratt's inaugural pageant.
There wasn't a preliminary Miss Arkansas City pageant — the faculty at what is now Cowley County Community College nominated several young women, and students voted for their favorite.
Coming to Pratt was a thrilling experience, Stark recalled, and she supposes she knew about as much about the event as those putting it on. They may have lacked technical expertise, but she said they were wonderful hosts.
They also lacked funds. Stark's scholarship award was $100, and she was allowed three gowns for the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, N.J. She saved the Jaycees on travel expenses, because her father was a switchman for the Santa Fe Railroad. He was able to get passes for Stark, her mother and a sponsor.
The sponsor was a family friend and owner of a dress shop, who helped them make connections with a formal maker in Dallas, Texas, where dresses were designed especially for her, at a good price.
1955 was the first year for television coverage of the Miss America Pageant, Stark said, and her father, sister and friends were able to watch the pageant from their home in Arkansas City.
Jack Stark, whom she was dating at the time, was in officer school for the U.S. Navy, and was "bouncing around the Pacific." He got to see the parade in Atlantic City before the ship lost television contact.
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"We took mental notes and saw how other states operated," she said. "Some of them were quite sophisticated."
When they came back to Kansas, they considered it their obligation to share what they had learned. And while Miss Kansas had no official year of service, as she does now, Stark spoke at the state Jaycee convention and others and met with Pepsi Cola in Wichita to try to develop a sponsorship. Kansas became the first corporate sponsorship for the company, guaranteeing its success for the future, according to a history that was published in program books for many years.
"I felt we helped in many ways to help Pratt get a handle on what was going on," Stark said. "It was our pleasure to do it."
The Starks have moved 11 times during their marriage, following his career with the National Park Service. She taught first grade for a portion of a year on a Blackfeet reservation in Montana, but was mostly a stay-at-home mother to their two children and an active volunteer. After the children were in college, she worked as a secretary to a high school principal in Wyoming.
She said they lived "all over the map" but always considered Kansas home, and four years ago they moved to Wichita.
Her reign "doesn't seem so long ago, in many ways," she said. "It was a special time, and a tremendous opportunity."