Jo-Carroll Dennison, Oldest Living Miss America, Dies at 97: 'A Model for Young Women — and Men'

Following her big win during WWII, Jo-Carroll Dennison refused to wear a swimsuit onstage again

Jo-Carroll Dennison, Miss America 1942, Head and Shoulders Publicity Portrait, 20th Century-Fox, mid-1940's
Jo-Carroll Dennison. Photo: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty

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

Dennison, who was the oldest living Miss America and had refused to wear a swimsuit onstage again after being crowned, died at home in California on Oct. 18, her son said, according to Deadline. Her cause of death has not yet been revealed.

"We thank her for her year of service and will miss her dearly," the Miss America Organization wrote in a statement shared on social media last week.

Friend Evan Mills — who edited her 2021 autobiography Finding My Little Red Hat, which was released in September — told CNN that Dennison is a "model for young women — and men — in a world where many are tempted to bend to social expectations rather than trusting and following their own moral compass."

Dennison, who grew up performing in her parents' traveling medicine show, was born in an Arizona men's prison in 1923, according to The New York Times.

By the time her mother went into labor, the couple — who were traveling to California at the time — had to make a stop in Arizona, and the only doctor they could find to help worked at a local prison, per the newspaper.

Eventual Winner Jo-Carroll Dennison, right, and Other Miss America Pageant Semi-finalists, September 12, 1942 VARIOUS
Glasshouse Images/Shutterstock

In her autobiography, Dennison recalled the she had "sworn never to perform in public" after her days in the medicine show, per CNN. However, while she planned on becoming a secretary, everything changed when she was discovered in Tyler, Texas.

Following a string of smaller pageant victories, she won the Miss America crown at the age of 18, shortly after the U.S. entered World War II.

Jo-Carroll Dennison, (Miss America 1942), December 1944
Jo-Carroll Dennison. Everett Collection

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In honor of the 100th Anniversary of Miss America last month, Dennison reflected on how far the organization has come — and how fortunate she felt to have been part of it.

"Now in my 98th year, the eight decades that have passed since I won the pageant have been filled with wondrously fascinating experiences," she said in a pre-recorded message. "But whenever I'm introduced to a stranger, whomever they may be, nobody talks about the many adventures I have had. Invariably they say, 'She is a former Miss America, you know.' "

"Back in 1942, the pageant was mostly about looks. 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 onstage after the pageant, beginning at with very first tour stop," she continued.

Miss America of 1942 Mrs. Russell Stoneham, formerly Jo-Carroll Dennison. Mrs. Russell Stoneham, California, USA
Jo-Carroll Dennison. Allan Grant/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Dennison went on to share how "delighted" she was when the organization announced in 2018 that they were scrapping the swimsuit portion of the competition.

"I am glad to have lived long enough to see how the women's fight against inequality, sexual harassment and abuse has finally come to the floor and I hope that future Miss Americas can help further the progress of healing the divisions in our country among racial lines, fight voter suppression and motivate us all to respond to the specter of climate change," she continued. "As in the 1940s, Miss America has an opportunity to represent values that unite and heal. So I left my glass to the future Miss Americas may they continue to be a force for good."

Decades after winning the crown, Dennison also began giving back to the community in another way: as a hospice worker.

"I had a fantastic life and met so many interesting, talented people. I thought I should do something to give back, so I worked at Hemet Hospice for 11 years," Dennison, who worked there in the '80s and '90s, told California paper The Press-Enterprise in 2011.

"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."

She is survived by sons Peter and John Stoneham as well as three grandchildren, according to The New York Times.

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