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Miss America gown donated to museum

Tom Jackson • Oct 13, 2013 at 3:28 PM

Jackie Mayer went through a big transition on Sept. 8, 1962.

That’s the day she went from “Sandusky resident” to “national celebrity,” when she was crowned Miss America.

That change, and Mayer’s other dramatic life changes, is being marked in a new exhibit at the Ohio History Center in Columbus, the state’s main history museum and the headquarters of the Ohio Historical Society.

The new “Transformation!” exhibit is built around five objects: An old Egyptian mummy; a vaudeville makeup kit; pieces of the hanging rope used to execute Abraham Lincoln’s assassins; “Buttons,” one of the last passenger pigeons to be stuffed and mounted before the bird became extinct; and the white evening gown Mayer wore when she was crowned Miss America.

The “Transformation!” exhibit will continue through March. The evening gown is part of a large collection of dresses, papers and photos Mayer donated to the Ohio Historical Society several years ago.

“The Miss America pageant, when she competed in 1962, was a very big event,” said Lisa Wood, a museum curator. About 20 million households tuned in to watch it on TV.

When Mayer won, she immediately became famous — and that was one big transformation, Wood said.

Mayer went though another one when she crowned her successor for 1964, “going back to being herself a little bit,” Wood said.

Yet another transformation took place in 1970, when the 28-year-old Mayer suffered a near-fatal stroke. She had to relearn the ability to walk and speak, but she recovered and became a successful motivational speaker.    When Mayer won the pageant, TV viewers back in Sandusky celebrated.

A commenter on the Sandusky Register’s website, “wiredmama222,” recalled staying up late the night of the pageant.

“And when her name was called the entire neighborhood went outside, screaming and yelling, clanging pots and pans together. People were beeping car horns and yelling,” the commenter wrote.

Mayer, 71, recalls she already had gained a taste of fame even before she won the Miss America pageant. After being crowned Miss Vacationland at Cedar Point, facing off against just one other contestant, she won the Miss Ohio pageant.

Her hometown feted the new Miss Ohio by having a parade and building a stage near the Erie County Courthouse, Mayer said. She remembers standing up on the stage and looking out at the crowd filling a large area.

“It was a fantastic moment,” she said. “People in Sandusky knew I was Miss Ohio. People would turn their heads and you would see them point.”

Still, that could not really prepare her for becoming Miss America and transforming into a national celebrity after her photo appeared in every newspaper the day after the pageant. Mayer said it didn’t really hit her for a few weeks.

"It just took a while to know that, yes, I was Miss America,” she said. “You don’t really think about yourself as Miss America unless you are doing a performance, unless you are flying into a city and you look down from the plane, and there’s a big press conference.”

As for the dress? In 1962, when the Miss America pageant was a big TV event, the contestants were asked to wear white gowns so they would show up well on the era’s black-and-white TV screens, Mayer said.

Her gown was from designer Murray Hamburger, and it was actually a wedding gown. Mayer only wore it a few times, but they were important occasions. She wore it during the evening gown competition, again when she was crowned, and the next day when she met the press.

“I don’t think I wore it again,” she said. “I probably had it taken home back to Sandusky.”

So, when she donned the dress for the evening gown competition, did she expect to impress the judges?

“I thought I looked pretty terrific, but everybody did,” Mayer said. “The pageant is not a beauty contest. It is more of a scholarship program. I was very interested in getting a scholarship whether I won or was a runner up. I just know that I was not the most beautiful woman up on that stage.”

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