Centenary Junior College

THE ACCIDENTAL MISS AMERICA (REPOST)

[Originally posted in September 2015]

It might surprise you to know that Centenary University 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

Bette Cooper in costume while performing at Centenary Junior College.

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.

Life was uncomplicated for this girl from Hackettstown, New Jersey. She attended Centenary University 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.

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.

BETTE COOPER 3

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

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 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 only 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 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 lived until her death in 2017. In 1953, she attended Hackettstown’s Centennial Celebration to crown the Centennial Queen, but that was the closest she ever got to acknowledging her involvement in beauty pageants. She never publicly discussed her time as Miss America.

The story of Bette Cooper’s reign as Miss America was recently featured in a segment of the Travel Channel show Mysteries at the Museum. We were so excited to have the crew come film, and we think they did a great job telling her story.

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. <http://pageantcenter.com/pageant%20results/Miss_America_Pageant/1937_miss_america_pageant.html#.VA3v9YKJ3E8&gt;.

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ALL-COLLEGE WEEKEND

Centenary’s students have already finished their semester, but in years past the students were gearing up for (or winding down from) All-College Weekend.

All College Weekend 6

The Country Trio perform at the Hootenanny.

The All-College Weekend was a popular event for students back when the school was all-girls. Dancing was the main event – there were two (a semiformal and an informal)! There was also musical entertainment. Performers included singing groups or men’s university choral groups.

 

All College Weekend 2

The Princeton Nassoons.

Centenary held several All-College events throughout the year where students from every class could join in on the fun. Normally, dances were held by individual classes (for example, before the Winter All-College Weekend was created, there was a Senior-hosted dance in December and a Freshman-hosted dance in January), so All-College events were a time where all students could socialize together. There was also Dad’s Day, where students and their dads teamed up to win relay races, egg tosses, and other fun carnival-type games. Other All-College events were the song contest and the trophy contest – where sororities competed against one another for best song and best essay, respectively.

The December All-College Weekend wasn’t about competition, though. It was purely a winter themed weekend of fun and flirting. Buses of young men from area colleges and universities all swarmed the campus for the weekend. They had a separate dormitory reserved for them or rooms in private homes or hotels.

From the 1964 Hack Yearbook:

All College Weekend 5All-college weekend, a yuletide affair
Contained music, dancing and entertainment to spare.
A movie was shown “An Affair to Remember,”
Which warmed students’ hearts in the cold of December.
There was a casual dance and a semiformal one,
Which afforded the students and faculty fun.
For added amusement was a hootenanny show
With entertainment that was raring to go.
Snowed Inn, the theme, was played to the hilt;
Even in Reeves a ski lodge was built :
A fantasy erected before students’ eyes
Beheld a weekend memory never to disguise.

 

THE DRESS CODE

Everyone has had to follow the rules of a dress code at one time or another – maybe you’ve dressed up for a religious service, worn athletic gear for gym class, or gone to a school where students wore uniforms. Centenary Collegiate Institute was no different. Some of the rules of attire were for practical reasons, but many rules were in place so that students would look presentable, respectful, and appropriate. Here are examples how students dressed throughout the years:

Centenary Collegiate Institute Catalog, 1894-1895:

June 14 1899

June 14, 1899: Students in their simple and neat clothes.

“All articles of wearing must be distinctly marked in a conspicuous place with the owner’s full name. Ladies attire should be simple and neat, not elegant and expensive.”

[It is interesting to note that no attention was given to gentlemen’s attire. In later years, the latter line was changed to “An expensive or extensive wardrobe is unnecessary.”]

 

“The Ways and Customs of C.C.I.”, 1917:

“Care should be taken that you always appear clean and neat…On all school days, wear simple, plain dresses/wash dresses/plain waists and skirts. When cold weather comes, a one piece or sailor suit of serge should be worn. Simple white dresses without colored trimmings are required for dinner and the evening. For cold days, a Liberty cape of light color will be found useful. Wear sensible shoes with sensible heels. High heels required from Thanksgiving to Easter. Slippers or pumps may be worn in the evening only. On Sundays, wear a suit and nice waist or a separate dress and coat. White is not required on Sundays. For athletics, wear plain white middy, dark blue bloomers, black stockings and black sneakers. No bare knees.”

1913 girls in white middies

1913: A group of students in their required athletic gear.

“Handbook of the Student Government Association”, Centenary Junior College (some time from 1939 – 1956, likely the 1940s):

“…Include in your wardrobe such basic things as a good tailor suit, several skirts…for dinner, simple dress will do the trick (white sports dresses and white blouses and a skirt). Bring anklets, blouses, several date dresses for informal week-ends, an evening dress that will be at home at any occasion, a strictly formal dream dress for…special occasions, an odd jacket or two, and slacks to study in.

10-1-008.jpg

1940s: These girls seem to be holding their own going bicycling in skirts!

“…Don’t forget that we wear white dresses to dinner from Monday thru Thursday, and for appearance sake we wear heels and street dresses for Sunday dinner and Vespers. We are allowed to wear slacks downtown only in bad weather. [Slacks are] only allowed at the breakfast and noon meals on Saturday…No raincoats in the dining room…P.J.’s may never, never be worn to meals. Bathrobes are worn only in the dorms, but trench coasts with P.J.’s rolled up are O.K. in the grill and library.”

Student Handbook of Centenary College for Women, 1957-8

Moving the books

1954: Students wearing campus clothes as they move books to the new library with President Seay’s young son.

“Centenary girls dress simply. Use as much as possible of your present wardrobe…Remember that good taste, cleanliness, neatness, and simplicity are the foundation of that well-dressed look.”

Students were encouraged to bring items for specific purposes:

In Class: Socks – knee high or anklet, Loafers or some type of campus flat, Cottons – simple dresses, skirts, and blouses, Woolens – skirts and sweaters

On Campus: Bermuda shorts, Dungarees, Slacks, Casual coat and jacket

Dating: Hose, Dress shoes, Evening slippers, Woolen dress, Dressy dress, Suit, 1 or 2 formals, Dressy coat, Accessories – hat, gloves, etc.

Dinner: A simple dress or a skirt and sweater or blouse will do the trick.

For Special Occasions: A white dress or a white skirt and sweater or blouse

At that time, the college felt that the students were representing the school as much as they were representing themselves when they were off campus, and they were always expected to look respectable. Suggestions and/or requirements on what to bring were for their benefit and the benefit of the school.

The 2018 Student Handbook does not include wardrobe restrictions or requirements, and students have the freedom to dress how it suits them (pun absolutely intended). Of course, some aspects of a dress code remain in place, as our sports teams still have their uniforms, students bring business attire for important academic events, and there will always be dances to get dressed up for!

WINTER AT CENTENARY UNIVERSITY [updated repost]

Trying to think of something to do in the short time before the next semester begins? Here are some activities students at Centenary enjoyed throughout the years.

SLEIGH RIDES:

A 1923 student included in Leila Custard’s history Through Golden Years writes:

One of my pleasant recollections is a sleigh ride we went on – horses, bells and all. It was beautiful. The country was glistening with snow and made a lovely sight.

ICE SKATING, SLEDDING, TOBOGGANING:

There was plenty for students to do on campus and off. During the Winter Carnival of days past, students would go ice skating, sledding, and tobogganing. The school would also host ski trips to nearby resorts.

 

ICE SCULPTURES:

Forget about snowmen, follow in the footsteps of Centenary students and personalize your artwork. One of the highlights of the Winter Carnival was the Ice Sculpture Contest, where dorms would create something unique out of snow.

Make the most of your time before the semester begins! We’ll see you soon!

 

THE ATHLETICS

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the charter of Centenary University! To celebrate, the blog will be highlighting past posts about Centenary’s history.

Original gymA very important aspect of student life at Centenary has always been athletics, but when Centenary Collegiate Institute opened in 1874, there was no gymnasium. To keep active, students created sporting clubs until gyms could be built. Men and women had ‘physical advancement’ classes in separate gymnasiums. In the 1890s athletics became a notable feature of C.C.I. life. The school laid out several athletic fields and hired an athletic director.

DenmanIn 1903, George E. Denman became C.C.I.’s Director of Athletics. Denman was also a Latin professor and the House Master of the Boys’ Dormitory. He revolutionized the athletics program – every sport excelled under his instruction. Professor Denman was also instrumental in the creation of a school annual called The Hack, Centenary’s first yearbook. Denman was the head of Athletics from 1903 to 1910.

WAAAfter 1910, the school became a women’s college and formed a new Athletic Association, eventually called the Women’s Athletic Association (W.A.A.). C.C.I. became Centenary Junior College, with Senior and Freshmen classes competing in intramural games. The W.A.A., whose goal was to promote an interest in all recreational activities, sponsored clubs and events to encourage physical education.

CycloneIn 1989, the school became coed again and men’s sports were welcomed back. Another addition to athletics was a mascot! Centenary’s athletics currently offers eight sports for men and seven for women.

THE REPORTING

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the charter of Centenary University! To celebrate, the blog will be highlighting past posts about Centenary’s history.

the scrollCentenary has had several student newspapers since the school’s inception, starting with The Scroll in 1874. The first issue was published in December, 1874, and included articles about school activities, literary pieces, and the President’s Inaugural Address. The Scroll lasted less than a year but was swiftly followed by a series of student writings. spilled ink

In the 1930s, the Spilled Ink began running. Most issues covered upcoming school activities and events, student and faculty achievements, and local advertising. There were also creative writing contributions.

prismIn 1968, a group of students created The Prism, a yearly magazine dedicated to creative writing and poetry. Now the school had two student publications: The Prism, (the literary magazine) and Spilled Ink (the newspaper).

the quillSpilled Ink was disbanded in the 1980s and a new student newspaper, The Quill, took its place. The Quill continues to deliver the news on and around campus, and The Prism is still printed annually. Both are written and illustrated by students.

 

SO THIS IS CENTENARY

The archives staff has been working on digitizing many projects, including Ellen P. Kratz’s booklet “So This is Centenary”. Ellen P. Kratz, more often known as Pat, was a freshman at Centenary in the Fall of 1959. She was very involved in Centenary activities; she played on the freshman softball team and became the art editor for the student newspaper Spilled Ink.

In a rare collaboration between Spilled Ink and the Hack (Centenary’s yearbook), Pat put her art skills to use when she created her cartoon flip book “So This is Centenary”. Pat’s booklet was created in order to help raise funds for Centenary’s next improvement project, a new swimming pool.

Ellen Kratz

Pat Kratz (left) and two others with President Seay.

Ellen Kratz.2

Students showing President Seay their collaboration.

The book was well received by President Dr. Seay, who stated that “If you like to laugh, read ‘So this is Centenary.’ ”  1000 copies were ordered, each being sold for $1.50. The following September, plans were made to build an additional wing onto the Reeves Student Union.

Plans to start renovation on the Denman gym and swimming pool were set to begin in November of 1962 and were not completed until February of 1964.

New Pool.1

The new wing cost $475,000 with an additional $125,000 in construction.

Kratz ended up getting married the next year and left Centenary to start her new life. The library is very lucky to have this small piece of history left behind by Ellen P. Kratz.