The Accidental Miss America

The 2015 Miss America Pageant is this month, and the contestants are in Atlantic City right now, participating in pageant festivities.

It might surprise you to know that Centenary College had its own Miss America! Her name was Bette Cooper, and she was Miss America in 1937. The story of her reign is an interesting one.

Bette Cooper in costume during a C.J.C. theatrical performance.

Bette Cooper in costume while performing at Centenary Junior College.

Life was uncomplicated for this girl from Hackettstown, New Jersey. She attended Centenary College when it was called Centenary Junior College1. She excelled in school, loved to play sports, and enjoyed participating in theater productions. In the summer of 1937, she went to Lake Hopatcong’s Bertrand Island Amusement Park with some friends. As a joke, the girls dared Cooper to enter the park’s beauty pageant. She entered for fun but got the shock of her life when she won! Winning this title also guaranteed her a place as a contestant at the Miss America Pageant.

Bette Cooper and three fellow students in a nativity scene at Centenary Junior College

Bette Cooper and three fellow students in a nativity scene at Centenary Junior College.

This is where the story starts to get complicated. Cooper had entered that first pageant on a lark. She didn’t expect to win, and she certainly didn’t want to compete for Miss America. Her family was humble and religious; they didn’t approve of beauty pageants. Although her family was reluctant to support something they considered distasteful, they chose to travel to Atlantic City for the pageant, expecting nothing more than a nice vacation.

Upon arrival, Bette Cooper met Louis Off, a young man who had signed up to be a bachelor escort. Each Miss America contestant had been paired with a gentleman who would accompany her to and from pageant festivities. When the contestants were given an afternoon off, Cooper and her escort took a drive. Cooper confided in Off, telling him that she hadn’t anticipated winning the first pageant, and didn’t want to compete for Miss America. Off, who had already seen the other contestants, accurately guessed that she stood a good chance of winning.


Bette Cooper with all the adornments of a proper Miss America.

Bette Cooper won Miss America that night. She sang a song (A Star-Ledger article states that she sang “So There”, but internet sources state that the song was called “When The Poppies Bloom Again”) while wearing an evening gown purchased for her by a female chaperone. The excitement of winning wore off very quickly, and by the next day Cooper and Off had disappeared, leading many to believe the two had run away and eloped.

Bette Cooper and Louis Off walk the boardwalk in a publicity shot. Cooper's fur coat was one of the prizes from the Miss America Pageant. She refused the coat and the other prizes when she decided to return to school

Bette Cooper and Louis Off on the boardwalk in a publicity shot. Cooper’s fur coat was one of the prizes from the Miss America Pageant. She refused the coat and the other prizes when she decided to return to school.

In truth, Bette Cooper was a 17-year-old high school student and panicked at the thought of leaving school to perform her Miss America duties. Photo shoots, public appearances, screen tests, and interviews held no appeal for her. Cooper called Off in the middle of the night distraught over winning, and he and a friend hid her on a boat until after pageant crowds scattered.  She slept while the gentlemen fished, and after returning to shore, the men drove Cooper back to Hackettstown.

Bette Cooper decided that to remain in school, and was able to strike a deal with red-faced pageant officials that entitled her to “all of the benefits, none of the negatives” of being Miss America, according to Louis Off. She kept her title and stayed in school, participating in only a fraction of the expected duties. Off escorted her to appearances and guarded her from the press. The events of the 1937 Miss America Pageant prompted officials to institute new rules: They created a hostess program and prohibited contestants from spending time alone with any man during pageant week. They also started requiring contestants to sign agreements acknowledging their understanding of the duties of Miss America.

After Bette Cooper’s reign ended, she distanced herself from the pageant and focused on her schooling. She graduated from Centenary Junior College’s Academy in 1938 and then from C.J.C. in 1940. She was a dedicated student, participating in several school activities.

From the 1940 Hack Yearbook:

Bette Cooper's senior year photo. [note: The Kin Klub is mentioned on a later page of the yearbook as the Kin Club. The club was comprised of members of the student body who were relatives of former students.]

Bette Cooper’s senior year photo. [note: The Kin Klub is mentioned on a later page of the yearbook as the Kin Club. The club was comprised of members of the student body who were relatives of former students.]

After graduation, she married and moved to Connecticut, where she still resides. In 1953, she attended Hackettstown’s Centennial Celebration to crown the Centennial Queen, but that may have been the closest she’ll ever get to acknowledging her involvement in beauty pageants. She does not publicly discuss her time as Miss America.


Bette Cooper at the Hackettstown Centennial Celebration

Bette Cooper at the Hackettstown Centennial Celebration in 1953.


1 At this time in Centenary’s history, the college educated two distinct student populations: the Academy, which was the equivalent of the latter years of high school, and the College, which provided more traditional college instruction. Both ‘schools’ were two-year programs. Freshmen and Sophomore classes attended the Academy and Juniors and Seniors attended the College. You’ll see two graduation dates for Bette Cooper, one for each school.

Braun, Jenifer. “The night Miss America ran away from the throne.”
Star-Ledger [Newark] Sept. 1997: 1+. Print.

“On Campus.” The Bulletin of Centenary Junior College Winter 1953: 5. Print.

Pageant Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Sept. 2014. <;.




Our fall semester will begin soon and we can’t wait for the students to come back! The first days of every semester are filled with excitement (and for new students, maybe a little apprehension).

Seniors welcoming arriving freshmen. Circa 1950s.

Seniors welcome arriving freshmen. circa 1950s.

This student is getting some help moving in her things.

This student gets some help moving in! circa 1950s.


Centenary College has always worked hard to make our incoming classes feel welcome. Every year freshmen participate in the “Community Plunge”, and this year they will also take part in a common book discussion. Community Plunge is a community service project that was introduced in 1990. First-years volunteer their time with different local organizations, introducing them to the area and their fellow freshmen while also giving back to their new community. The common book discussion allows students to engage each other in conversation over a common book. This year, freshmen read Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katharine Boo. They’ll spend the afternoon before classes begin in small group discussion, which will give them a glimpse of academic life here at Centenary. 

Students participating in the Community Plunge

Students participating in the Community Plunge 2014

The student newspaper (called Spilled Ink - what a great name!) from the mid 1900s is filled with articles about freshmen orientation. [At that time, the college was called Centenary Junior College and was a two-year school.]

Three excited freshmen

Three excited freshmen. circa 1940

One of the long-standing traditions of this era was the Big Sister-Little Sister program, where each senior girl (the Big Sister) was paired with a new freshmen girl (the Little Sister). One student wrote,


“We meet our own ‘lil sister and our roommates’, and through them their friends, and in turn they meet our friends. Why, before we were given little sisters, we passed in the halls without a word, or at most only a “hello” was exchanged…but now, we’ve managed to know one another and we’re just one big happy family!”


Every year, several seniors headed an orientation committee designed to introduce freshmen to every facet of college life.

Freshmen Picnic - September 20, 1964

One of many orientation events. Freshmen Picnic, 1964

Welcome Freshmen

Judith Field, class of 1966, holds a Welcome Freshmen cake at the President’s Reception Tea.


The orientation committee of 1964

Throughout the years, they enjoyed teas, picnics, dances, teacher introductions, tours of campus (not to mention outings to favorite local shops), and the highlight of every orientation: a variety show called the Ice-Breaker.

President Seay at the Ice-Breaker

President Seay joins the fun! From left to right: Susan Walker – 1965 senior class vice president, Mrs. Helen Seay, Dr. Edward W. Seay – President of Centenary College, and Susan Tannenbaum – 1965 senior class president.


Seniors staged skits, organized games, and presented freshmen with a tub of ice, to remind them that it’s up to them to ‘break the ice’. And so they did!

Break the Ice

Susan Tannenbaum ’65, Pamela Mitchell ’66, and Susan Walker ’65 breaking the ice.



After several days of reception, new students were regarded as members of the Centenary family. As the years passed, orientation events grew smaller. Although we don’t have an extended orientation period like we use to, we still can’t wait to meet the class of 2018 and welcome them to the Centenary family!




The faculty of CCI

 The faculty of CCI

This list of the faculty was taken from the first Centenary Collegiate Institute catalogue, issued for the 1874 – 1875 school year.

Interesting fact: A lady was always called a teacher. Only a gentlemen could be called a professor.

Another interesting fact: Those abbreviations after the female teacher’s names stands for Mistress of Liberal Arts (M.L.A.) and Mistress of English Literature (M.E.L.). At the time, women were just beginning to be considered ‘college material’, so ladies earned one of these two degrees.


Custard, Leila Roberta. Through Golden Years: 1867 -1943. New York: Lewis
Historical Publishing Company, Inc, 1947. Print.


Centenary Collegiate Institute. (April 28, 2014). 1874 – 1885 Catalogs.

Opening Day

Opening Day for Centenary Collegiate Institute was quite an event for Hackettstown. For five years, residents watched an impressive building rise into the sky, half-believing it would ever be filled with students or even finished. On September 9, 1874, however, the residents of the town and thousands more would celebrate the opening of the school, and over one hundred students would be admitted for the first year of classes.


An invitation to attend the Dedication of Centenary Collegiate Institute

Very early on that day, President Whitney sat in the new building composing his inaugural address. He had been so busy in the preceding weeks that he had not found time to finish writing his speech. As the morning continued, people arrived from all over to witness the dedication ceremony. There was so much anticipation over the event that the President of the Morris and Essex Railroad furnished special excursion tickets and extra coaches were added to the existing rail schedule. President Whitney estimated an audience of five thousand people.

Opening Day Program

The cover of the Opening Day Program

At 10 am, the ceremony commenced. The audience, seated under a giant circus tent on the school’s front lawn, listened to speeches by the Reverend Charles N. Sims and the Honorable Joel Parker, Governor of New Jersey. Newspapers wrote that the most distinguished body of people ever met in Warren County attended the ceremony. Afterwards, a great dinner was held, with the two rival bakers of Hackettstown each providing a cake. Nine hundred people were seated for dinner. Then an audience of seven hundred moved to the chapel to hear President Whitney’s address. Of the many points he mentioned, he stated that the school would be a place of sound learning, comprehensive education, and refinement. He suggested a motto for the new institute: “All done, and all well done”. To borrow a phrase from Leila Custard, “Centenary Collegiate Institute was off to an auspicious start.” (Custard, 51)


Custard, Leila Roberta. Through Golden Years: 1867 -1943. New York: Lewis
Historical Publishing Company, Inc, 1947. 11- 51. Print.


Centenary Collegiate Institute. (April 28, 2014). 1874 – 1885 Catalogs.




The May Fete

The May Fete was an annual pageant held at Centenary College for many years. It centered on a spring celebration, the crowning of a May Queen, and performances by students. These festivals were held every year from 1907 to about 1939.


The earliest mention of such celebrations at Centenary occurred in the 1907 Hack Yearbook, which introduces the idea of May Day exercises. The entire student body was invited to attend. A may pole was set up on the lawn with ribbons in the class colors and the seniors walked in a procession led by their queen and king. After the procession, decorated booths selling candies and other refreshments were opened. There were games and a special address by one of the professors.

Later the ceremonies were called May Fetes. Celebrating outside on the school’s front lawn, girls dressed in lavish costumes. Photographs we’ve found show the girls dressed as goddesses in Grecian gowns with bands of flowers in their hair, pixies, Robin Hood, and animals.  The number of visitors (alumni, parents, and siblings) reached over a thousand some years. After the pageantry, supper was served on the lawn.

Another part of May Fete at Centenary was the presentation of brass tablets which listed the school’s graduates by class and were then displayed for all to see.

A major highlight of the May Fete was the crowning of the May Queen and King. After the school became all girls, they crowned the May Queen, who in turn chose a court of 8 fellow students, 4 seniors and 4 freshmen. The 1943 May issue of the Spilled Ink (the student newspaper) explains the way the May Queen was chosen; the students voted for the most beautiful senior, and the winner was crowned at a small ceremony during May Fete.


As years went by the celebration changed. The formal May Fete was cancelled during WWII and we’ve found no records that indicate that it was ever brought back to its former glory. Class Day, an indoor program created by the senior class, seemed to have adopted some of the events of May Fete while other activities such as dance were apparently given their own program. One thing we notice often is how many events there were for the students. There were dances, musical and theatrical performances (given for the students as well as by them), writing competitions, sorority anniversary parties, etc., and many days set aside for the purpose of building relationships with each other. It was very important to the college that its students considered each other family.

The First Main Building

The year was 1869.

The architect for Centenary Collegiate Institute had been chosen (S.B. Hatch of New York City).

Local contractors Clawson and Haszen had been awarded the building contract.

The cornerstone was laid.

There was just one problem: not enough money.

The Board of Trustees had so far only been able to raise half of the projected building cost. When construction started, that cost quickly doubled due to alterations and additions. The Trustees realized their original efforts had brought in only a fourth of the amount they would need, and that raising the rest would require a lot of hard work.

The original plan of Centenary Collegiate Institute

Caption: “1869. The Original Plan of C.C.I. Thus it was built to top of 4th story – Then roof & tower & piazzas changed.”

The President and the Board of Trustees worked tirelessly to raise funds, solicit donations and loans, and personally contribute money to collect the amount needed. Construction was continually extended; building ceased when money ran out and started back up when enough funds were collected. The Board faced countless problems: costs kept going up in an effort to maintain the symmetry of the building, donors passed away before promised donations could be received, and the Depression of 1873 all prolonged the building’s completion (not familiar with the Depression of 1873? Learn about it here). Finally, in 1874, construction was finished and the school was ready to accept students. Although the Institute struggled with a mortgage that took eight years to settle, spirits were high on Centenary’s opening day.

The Original Centenary Collegiate Institute

The Original Centenary Collegiate Institute. This building burned down in 1899, only twenty-five years after the Institute opened.

Centenary Collegiate Institute opened on September 9, 1874, exactly five years after the cornerstone was laid. It had taken a lot of hard work, but Centenary Collegiate Institute was finally ready to become a functioning institution of education.



Custard, Leila Roberta. Through Golden Years: 1867 -1943. New York: Lewis
Historical Publishing Company, Inc, 1947. Print.


Centenary Collegiate Institute. (April 28, 2014). 1874 – 1885 Catalogs.


Building Centenary

This is the second in a series of posts about the history of Centenary College, using the book Through Golden Years as a guide. Words cannot express how grateful we are to have this book; we reference it constantly and learn new things about Centenary every time we open it. This information is so important, we wanted to share it with others. We are, first and foremost, a blog about Centenary’s history, and it only makes sense to dedicate our time and attention to a book that teaches us so much about it.

In 1865, two friends took a walk through Hackettstown. They stopped in a cornfield at the top of a hill and had a conversation about the future of the area. Reverend Crook S. Vancleve, a member of the Morristown District of the Newark Conference of the Methodist Church, said he imagined it as the spot where a new institute would be built, and that the man he was talking to would be the first president. Reverend George H. Whitney replied that he had no interest in the proposition. Little did he know just how accurate Reverend Vancleve’s words would be! Nine years later, Centenary Collegiate Institute, located in the exact spot they stopped and with Whitney as the first president, would have its opening day.

Long before the college opened, the name Centenary was chosen for it. The original name was quite long: “The Centenary Collegiate Institute of the Newark Conference, New Jersey.” Chosen by the Newark Conference in 1866, it honors the countless men and women who for a century “labored in the cause of righteousness” (Custard, 6). The next year the college received its charter. That’s why we consider the college to have opened in 1867, even though it’s first real opening day was in 1874.

The first Board of Trustees. Without them, there would be no Centenary College.

The first Board of Trustees. Without them, there would be no Centenary College.

Many sites were considered for the future home of the college, and a committee of newly appointed trustees considered Madison, Morristown, Flanders, Washington, Irvington, Orange, Plainfield and Newark before deciding on Hackettstown. In the spring of 1868, the exact location within the town was selected. The next year Reverend Whitney was appointed the ‘principal’ and given the task of raising money for a suitable building. A building and planning committee was also elected, and they chose an architect and a contractor. On September 9, 1869, the cornerstone of the new institute was laid in place. The event was heavily advertised and attended by many. They gathered in the fields that would soon become roads and lots for houses. According to Whitney’s unpublished autobiography, the town of Hackettstown “had not yet grown as far as the lot” (Custard, 10).  The cornfield of 1865 had grown into the construction site of 1869, but it would be five more years before it became the Centenary Collegiate Institute.


The view of North Hackettstown, taken from the location of the Institute.


Description from the back of the photograph. There’s no date, but it was definitely taken between 1869 and 1895. The building was started in 1869, and Whitney was the President until 1895.



Custard, Leila Roberta. Through Golden Years: 1867 -1943. New York: Lewis
Historical Publishing Company, Inc, 1947. Print.

Centenary Collegiate Institute. (April 28, 2014). 1874 – 1885 Catalogs.