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Miss Columbus Pageant celebrates its 50th anniversary

The current franchise of the Miss Columbus Pageant is marking its 50th anniversary this month. The pageant is a preliminary competition for the Miss. Georgia Pageant which celebrated its 66th anniversary in June.

Margaret Wilson Thornton won the title of Miss. Columbus in 1959. She became the first runner-up to Miss Georgia later that year. The current franchise has held a pageant each year except 1983 and 2002. Several pageants took place in Columbus prior to 1959, but those pageants were held under a different franchise.

Two Miss Columbus winners went on to national stages. Samantha Mohr Matthews, 1985, went on to become Miss Georgia. She is now a meteorologist with the Weather Channel. She will be the emcee of this year’s pageant.

Kathy Kennedy Ferguson, 1987, worked at CNN for 15 years. She left in 2007 to stay at home with her kids.

Two former winners — Mary Jo Werp Anderson, 1974, and Yvonne Spinks Baker, 1982 — have died.

We caught up with some former Miss Columbus winners and the current Miss Columbus, Lauren Edmonds.

MARGARET WILSON THORNTON

Miss Columbus 1959

Thornton was 18 and attending Columbus College (now Columbus State University) when she won the title of Miss Columbus.

She was surprised that she won.

“I was asked by a friend in the Optimist Club to participate, so I did, but I had no expectations of being the winner,” she said.

Thornton taught music for a number of years, but is now retired and living in Calhoun. The past two years, she’s been an interventionist in a Calhoun elementary school.

“I still have family in the Columbus area — my son and his family, and my sister, and several good friends, so I’m down there quite often. Two adorable great-grandkids, Lilly and Jackson, are a big draw these days.”

What did winning the pageant do for you?

It paid my college costs for the first two years, which was very helpful. Being in the spotlight occasionally was also a confidence-builder. It was easier to be a public speaker, which I later had to be in my work.

What was your talent? Do you still do it?

I played the piano, and yes, I still do. My music is a ministry in my church, and a nice hobby. I have made two recordings (for family and friends), and hope to do another. This one will be duets with a fabulous pianist friend … we have lots of fun working on our own arrangements.

What is your lasting memory of being Miss Columbus?

Working like crazy to prepare for Miss Georgia. I had only a month and during that month, I needed to trim down, buy my wardrobe and prepare my talent, plus attend school and take care of school work.

What’s the thing you’re most anxious about the upcoming pageant?

Nothing! I’m the great-grandmom of the bunch, so there’s no pressure on me. At age 69, I don’t have to prove anything.

What is your fondest memory of being Miss Columbus?

Probably interacting with kids … I guess they thought being Miss Columbus made me a star of some kind (I wasn’t). One of my neighbors, Jeanne, age 12, was so excited that she worked very hard making me a scrapbook with newspaper clippings and pictures. I still treasure her gift and the letter she wrote.

LAUREN EDMUNDS

Miss Columbus 2010

Edmunds just finished competing in the Miss Georgia 2010 Pageant in June.

She is a 20-year-old senior at the University of Georgia and will graduate in May, 2011, with a degree in furnishings and interiors.

She hopes to find a job in the field of sustainable residential design.

“I believe I will be furthering my education in design at some point down the road as well. For now, I do know that I would like to continue in my efforts to become Miss Georgia. My senior year should be full of exciting opportunities.”

What did winning the pageant do for you?

Becoming Miss Columbus was a huge help in my efforts to spread breast cancer awareness, since this has been my personal platform for six years. As Miss Columbus 2010, I was able to volunteer throughout the year, offering my help to others. I have recently revamped my platform to be called “Breast Cancer: Fighting the Fear” because of my experience in dealing with that fear when my mother and grandmother both had breast cancer.

What is your lasting memory of being Miss Columbus?

The city of Columbus has hosted the Miss Georgia Pageant for many, many years. We actually hold the record for longest-running host city of a state level pageant in the entire Miss America organization. It was such a fun experience to be Miss Columbus and welcome the other 39 contestants and 36 teen contestants to “my city.”

What was your talent? Do you still do it?

My talent is dance, which I most certainly still do. I am currently a ballet instructor at Studio Dance Academy in Athens. Dance is a joy in my life and I will always enjoy sharing that with an audience. This year when I competed in Miss Georgia as Miss Columbus, I presented a jazz dance to “Feelin’ Good” by Michael Buble. Here is a cool fact for you: Miss Columbus 1997 Brea Vaughan Colagross actually choreographed my talent dance for me. She was a fabulous competitor when she was in the Miss Georgia competition, and as a current professional choreographer, she was able to give back to the Miss Columbus family by working with me.

What’s the thing you’re most anxious about the upcoming pageant?

I’m most anxious to give my farewell speech. I have so many wonderful people to thank that I don’t want to forget anyone. I’m making my list and checking it twice, but to be 100 percent sure, I would like to take this time to thank every single person who has helped me this year. The whole city of Columbus has welcomed me with open arms, and I am forever grateful for that.

Would you do anything differently?

I choose not to live with regret of any sort. My competitions at Miss Georgia this summer went just as we had planned, and I’m very proud of my performance. I went into this year telling my board that I wanted to leave Miss Georgia knowing that I had done my best to present the true Lauren. I feel that my mission was accomplished. I hope that I am remembered as the titleholder who thought of others first.

JEWETT WYNNE MUKENGE

Miss Columbus 1995

Mukenge was the first black Miss Columbus.

“To me and other young ladies, it meant that there are opportunities available for all young women who plan, prepare, polish and dare to be different. Scholarship pageants were not promoted much in the black community because blacks had few examples, much less a local representative in the community that they could relate to personally. I filled that gap during my year of service.

“Fortunately, I was blessed with a great Mom and Dad, who, even though they experienced the segregated south on many levels, they raised me to see the importance of being comfortable in my own chocolaty skin while at the same time respecting others.

“My brown face was a change from the usual. Of course, there may have been skeptics, however, I was surrounded by such an open-minded, loving board that I paid no mind to nay-sayers. That was a skill Mom and Dad taught me.

“I have been treated as another sister in the Miss Columbus Family — right down to the tanning salon membership! And I graciously accepted it and went.”

She was a 22-year-old senior nursing student at the Medical College of Georgia when she won the title.

What was it like when you won the title?

My family and I were thrilled. I had become a part of my hometown’s history. It was very memorable.

What did winning the title do for you?

Winning helped me to graduate debt-free. I was also able to work with some of the most nurturing and fun-loving folks as I prepared for Miss Georgia and the numerous local appearances.

What are your long-range goals? Or are you doing it now?

I’m doing what I set out to do so far — I’m an advanced practice nurse, a wife to a terrific guy and the mom to two great boys. To add icing on top, I’ll complete my doctorate after the boys are a bit older.

What was your talent?

Vocal, and yes, I still sing.

JANIE CARTWRIGHT ROSS

Miss Columbus 1984

Ross and her husband, Robbie, and their three children live in Columbus. They have been married 24 years and hope to retire here.

Robbie is the medical director of the Hughston Foundation and she owns a computer consulting business, Flexible Solutions, with her sister, Jo Liscar.

Ross was a 21-year-old student attending Columbus College (now Columbus State University) studying computer science when she won the crown.

Do you encourage your daughters to compete in pageants?

I have two beautiful daughters, Maryn, 14, and Marissa, 9. They have both competed in other pageants as well as the Little Miss Columbus pageants and won several times. Marissa is currently the Elementary Miss Columbus. Maryn is planning on competing in the teen pageant, possibly next year, and she has helped me backstage at the Miss Columbus and Miss Southern Rivers pageants for the past few years. I definitely encourage my girls to compete because I know that participating in pageants, whether winning or losing, will teach them confidence, poise and how to interact socially and intellectually with others.

Do you keep in touch with any of the women you competed against, either in the Miss Columbus or Miss Georgia pageants?

Occasionally, I see some of the girls around town or at some of the pageants, but unfortunately, I haven’t been able to keep in touch with them.

What are your long-range goals? Or are you doing it now?

During my interview in 1984, I said I wanted to have my own business one day. So, now that that I own a computer consulting firm, I feel I am living the goals of that young woman. Of course, in 1984, I didn’t realize that my largest endeavor would be to raise three wonderful kids. My husband and I are so proud of our 14-year-old twins, Maryn and Jared, who are entering Columbus High School as freshmen this year. And Marissa, our 9-year-old daughter, who will be entering fourth grade at Reese Road Leadership Academy.

What is your fondest memory of being Miss Columbus?

After competing in the Miss Columbus USA Pageant and winning, I remember arriving at the airport in Columbus, Ohio, and having very little time to catch my connecting flight returning to Atlanta. I was proudly wearing my crown and banner and literally running through the airport in my high heeled shoes. Everyone kept looking and calling out and waving to me, obviously thinking I must be some kind of celebrity. It was flattering and funny at the same time. I can’t imagine drawing that kind of attention all the time, though, and it makes me wonder how celebrities endure it all of the time.

Would you do anything differently?

During my interview so many years ago, I was asked what was the best and worst parts of the pageant. I said the best was meeting all the girls and getting to know them and the worst was that I was having a bad hair day. Of course, the judges all laughed and I hope they saw my outlook on life. You have to be happy with yourself and be able to laugh at yourself or life will pass you by and you’ll be miserable.

AMY SWANSON GANT

Miss Columbus 1998

Gant is a Realtor in Metro Atlanta, and lives in Tyrone. She has a son, Grayson, 4 1/2, and a daughter, Kellen, 2.

She was 23 when she won the title, and a student at Columbus College.

What did winning the pageant do for you?

Well, I’m convinced it got me my husband, but I can’t prove it. Though he denies it, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t officially referred to as his girlfriend until after I won the title. I guess it doesn’t matter who is right. I married him a few years later.

Since I wasn’t from Columbus originally, it gave me the opportunity to get involved and establish roots in Columbus. I’ve established some of my best relationships in Columbus. Regardless of where I end up, I will always hold Columbus in high regards.

Do you remember any goofy incident either during the pageant or your year-long reign?

Where do I start? I had a cracked foot so I’m pretty sure I limped across the stage when I won. Later that year, my car was broken into and my crown was stolen along with the official crown box that was passed down from year to year.

What’s the thing you’re most anxious about the upcoming pageant?

I think there’s a stigma that we’re supposed to look the way we did when we were crowned. For heaven’s sake, I’ve had two kids and have not stepped foot in a gym in years. Honestly, I’m looking forward to seeing some board members and Miss Columbus sisters that I haven’t seen in several years. I’m excited about that.

What is your fondest memory of being Miss Columbus?

I got a job at WXTX Fox 54 shortly after winning and an elementary school student from Fox Elementary wanted to know if I knew Martin (Lawrence). When I replied, “No, I don’t know him personally.” He replied, “Well, you ought to ... he lives at your station.” I guess it was a pretty popular TV show at the time.

At this same school, I told the kids they could ask me anything. Well, after they learned the diamonds in the crown were not real, they moved on to more important things like, “Miss Columbus, do you french kiss?” I just smiled and calmly said, “I’m an American, so why on earth would I french kiss?” I quickly moved on to the next question.

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