Debbie Croft: Mariposan recalls days of beauty contest

March 15, 2013 

DEBBIE CROFT

"And the winner is ... "

Donna Schurr Marks will never forget July 20, 1955, when she was crowned Miss California at the Del Mar County Fair.

"Lying on my bed that night I read the names in my address book," said Marks, who now lives in Mariposa. "I tried to imagine the reactions of my friends, cousins, aunts and uncles when they would read their newspapers the next day."

The following year proved to be the most glamorous one of her life.

She had won trophies, clothing and trips in a dozen local beauty contests as a teen.

At the age of 14, Marks won her first title as Miss Garden Grove. Older contestants were not happy with her. But she didn't let that dampen her enthusiasm.

She and close to a dozen other teen girls from Orange County spent a week at the Greenbriar Hotel, representing their hometowns, and appearing at various service clubs as ambassadors of the Orange County Fair.

During the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon she spoke to the television cameras every hour urging Orange County viewers to send in their dollars. She kissed Mickey Rooney and appeared on "You Bet Your Life" with Groucho Marx.

Then in the summer of 1955, between her freshman and sophomore years of college, Marks entered the Miss Universe Pageant. She and 75 beautiful young ladies from around the world spent two thrilling weeks in Long Beach.

In their first public appearance, each contestant presented the mayor of Long Beach a special gift from her town.

"My gift was a wagon full of ripe oranges," Marks said. "I wore a white lace gown and mantilla, reflecting the early Spanish history of California."

During the pageant, the young women spent their time at rehearsals, beauty parlors, Universal Studios and shopping.

Cultured women from the area volunteered as chaperones, instructing the contestants in appropriate behavior and table manners.

"Flirting was forbidden," she said. "Each young lady was eager to make a good impression wherever we went. Our pictures and interviews filled the newspapers daily."

At the Coronation Ball, Navy airmen served as escorts.

Visiting over lunch with actress Maureen O'Hara was one of her most memorable experiences. Chatting with film star Tony Curtis was another highlight.

In beauty pageants, personality, poise, grooming and vocal diction are just as important as a beautiful figure and face.

With short brown wavy hair, a long torso and a figure of balanced proportions, the deciding factor was that her legs went together nicely, according to the judges.

But there's something about her smile ... In Marks' vast collection of news clippings and photographs, it's her beautiful smile that draws me.

Among her collection is the white bathing suit she wore for the Miss Universe pageant. Seed pearl beads and sparkling crystals adorn the halter ties in starburst patterns across its length. In blue letters the word California is imprinted on the sash, now yellowed with age.

"Meeting girls from other countries was my biggest thrill," Marks said.

Marks placed as fourth runner-up to Miss USA. Her heart raced as she realized how close she had come to competing for the Miss Universe title.

Once the glamour ended, Marks returned to the rebuilt garage where she and her widowed mother lived. Waiting on tables at Knott's Berry Farm provided tuition money while earning her elementary teaching degree at University of California at Fullerton.

Knott's Berry Farm was very proud to employ the prettiest girl in California.

She's grateful for the experiences and opportunities she enjoyed during those few short years, and the doors that were opened to her because of all she learned in the limelight. Today she wishes she could meet the girls she competed with, to find out how they've spent their lives.

Over the 30 years following the pageant, she taught first-, second- and third-graders. It was a creative and rewarding time in her life.

Today she cherishes countless memories from her glamour years and her teaching years. She and her husband, David, retired in Mariposa, where they operated a small herb farm.

"When we do what we love, it is more like playing than working," Marks said. "Sing, dance, laugh, pray and be grateful for your many blessings. In a life of struggle and heartache, when you treasure the gifts you receive, the trials diminish in size."

Debbie Croft writes about life in the foothill communities. She can be reached at composed@tds.net.

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