By Tricia Goecks


BELVIDERE – It is a rare opportunity for people to hear the inside story of the Miss America pageant outside of a 30 second well-rehearsed sound bite. When the Belvidere Area Chamber of Commerce celebrated its 100th anniversary dinner on March 11 at the Radisson Hotel in Rockford, approximately500 people got to hear Belvidere’s own Judi Ford Nash tell her Miss America story in her own words.

Nash’s life story would have taken a different journey if she had not accepted a request to be Miss Super Value in the 1966 Boone County Fair Queen Pageant. A tomboy and athlete, Nash never considered herself to be the pageant type. A member of the Kiwanis swim team, she took up the trampoline in an effort to improve her diving.

“When I was 16, I was approached by the manager of the Super Value and asked if I would like to be Miss Super Value at the Miss Boone County Fair Contest,” Nash said. “And I said ‘are you kidding me.’ But all of us at the pool thought it would be a lark. So I entered. And I won.”

Nash went on to compete at and win the Miss State Fair Pageant and also won the title of junior national trampoline champion.

As Nash was crowning her successor for Miss Boone County 1967, Fair Board President Les Carlson announced that he was appointing Nash to represent the county in the Miss Illinois pageant. “You can do your trampoline for your talent. We’ll just go from there,” Nash recalled Carlson as telling her.

That fall, Nash left to attend the University of Southwestern Louisiana where she was the lone female on the team and was coached by Jeff Hennessy. She was the first female to compete interscholastically for the university since the 1920s, and she was the first female to letter in a varsity sport.

The Miss Illinois pageant was almost an afterthought to Nash while she spent her freshman year in college away from home.  She had plans to work in Louisiana over the summer until her mother reminded her that she was supposed to compete in the Miss Illinois pageant.

After winning the Miss Illinois pageant, Nash travelled six weeks later to Atlantic City to compete in the Miss America contest on Sept. 7, 1968.

“When I went out there, no one thought I would win. Even the Miss Illinois pageant people said ‘well Judi, go out and have a good time. You don’t have a chance. Number one you are 18. You are too young. Number two, you are blonde. A blonde hasn’t won in 12 years. Number three….that athletic thing. .It could go either way. You know, Miss America is not supposed to sweat,’” Nash recalled. “In many ways I think it helped me because it took the pressure off. My goal when I went out there was to finish in the top ten.”

The reason why Nash wanted to finish in the top ten was so that the hometown fans who flew out from Belvidere would be able to enjoy her pageant experience for more than a few seconds on stage during the televised finals.

Nash was a shoe in for the top ten finalists having won the swimsuit and talent competitions during the pageant’s preliminary competitions.

As a top ten finalist, Nash competed in the talent portion of the competition. She was not allowed to warm up nor have a spotter. And she had a bee hive hairdo.

Nash performed her routine to Johan Strauss II’s “Blue Danube Waltz.” Her performance began as a tumbling routine before she moved to the trampoline. “Trampoline is a 10 bounce routine and I had to do it for 2 minutes and 40 seconds. I was thinking I don’t think I could do it that long,” Nash said. Of the thoughts that went through her head as she performed her routine and at least once bounced precariously close to the edge of the trampoline was “please do not let my knees buckle.”

As a top five finalist, Nash competed in the interview portion of the competition. Earlier in the week, Nash completed a pageant questionnaire. One of the questions asked what would be her greatest goal or accomplishment as Miss America should she win.

“World peace is probably taken,” Nash recalled thinking. “I would like people to learn to live together more peacefully and happily,” she scribbled on the paper.

When it was time during the pageant for the interview portion, the first four contestants received relatively easy questions. One contestant was asked why she became a music major. Another contestant was asked about the work she did at a pea factory.

Expecting to be asked about the trampoline, Nash was stunned when Bert Parks said “you said on your questionnaire your greatest accomplishment would be to make people live people live more peacefully and happily. What specifically would you do to accomplish this?”

“On the video there are 8 full seconds where people think I am formulating this great answer. But really I was sitting there thinking this is so unfair,” Ford quipped.

After getting over the injustice of the question, Ford replied “I think a person has to learn that he is not better than his neighbor and that all people are equal and should be given equal opportunity.”

As the top five finalists took the stage to await the pageant results, Nash thought “Wow gee, I could be in fifth place….wow gee, I could be in fourth place….wow gee, I could be in third place…oh my! There is an outside chance I could win this thing.”

When Catherine Monroe, Miss Massachusetts was announced as the first runner up and Nash was announced as Miss America, it took a full five seconds for the look of shock to disappear from Nash’s face and to react.

Belvidere celebrates

As Parks sang the iconic  “There she is Miss America” and Nash raced up and down the runway, the City of Belvidere erupted in celebration.

“I understand the biggest celebration was in Belvidere that night. They had parties,” Nash said. “Pianos in the street and everything.”

Over the course of the next year was a whirlwind tour. Nash appeared on the Johnny Carson show. She travelled 20,000 miles per month and 250,000 miles in the year. She attended President Richard Nixon’s inauguration.

On Halloween weekend, she returned to Belvidere for her homecoming parade. “One of biggest highlights was my homecoming. It was the most amazing thing. I could not tell you how overwhelmed I was. Bill Branham did a wonderful job organizing it,” Nash said. “There were floats depicting various things in my life. We had the governor and there was a dinner at the Community Center.”

“I was so excited to see familiar faces because I had been doing appearances for a couple of months and it was a sea of faces. To come home and see my people just meant the world to me. I don’t think any Miss America had as wonderful a homecoming as I did.”

During her year as Miss America, Nash travelled to Vietnam with six other contestants from the pageant to perform with the USO. “My parents were more worried about our safety than I was. I thought yes it is a war, but the USO will take care of us,” Nash stated. “There were times when an incoming round would come in and we had to go into the bunkers.”

Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t the incoming rounds that frightened Nash during her time at the bases and camps in Vietnam. “There were a lot of mosquitos and in the evening you would see lizards on the ceiling to eat the mosquitos,” Nash explained. “I tried to go to sleep and you had lizards on the ceiling which wasn’t half as bad as waking up in the morning and wondering where they went.”

While in Vietnam, Nash had the opportunity to connect with friends from home. “While I was there countless times I would be back stage they would say Miss Ford this guy out here says he knows you he is from your hometown,” Nash said. She was surprised to see friends or acquaintances from Belvidere that she did not know had stationed in Vietnam during the war.

“I started becoming a pen pal with every GI I knew over there because I knew how much it meant to me to have letters from home or contact from home so I made an effort to do that.”

A small act of kindness of Nash’s part became important lifeline to the soldiers. Since returning home and moving with her husband Jim to Geneseo, Ill., many of the Vietnam veterans have gotten in touch with Nash. One man told her husband “I wanted to tell you how much it meant to us to have your wife and the other girls bring a little bit of home to us.”

Since ending her reign as Miss America, Nash was appointed by President’s Nixon and Gerald Ford to the President’s Council on Fitness and Sports and eventually became a physical education teacher for grades kindergarten through fifth grade, coached the seventh grade basketball team and coached the girls’ golf team.

Nash and her husband have five children in their blended family and are the proud grandparents to 12 grandchildren.

“You never know when a decision that you make will change the course of your life. I look back and think what if I hadn’t decided to be Miss Super Value,” Nash concluded. “When I said yes I would be Miss Super Value, it changed the course of my life. I am grateful that it happened and everything that has happened since.”

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