In celebrating Alaska's 50th anniversary of statehood this Independence Day, the Douglas Fourth of July Committee chose a lifelong Douglas resident - and the first Miss Alaska - as its Grand Marshal.
"Stuart is just an awesome lady," said committee member Annamarg Rear. "We just thought, since we were doing the centennial, it would be an honor to have her as our Grand Marshal for Douglas."
Stuart Sliter, 70, served at the Douglas Senior Center for almost a decade and has worked various positions for regional and state offices of the Division of Elections since 1984. She has been chairman of the Douglas Precinct for the last 12 years and helped train poll workers for Region 1 in the last three elections.
In addition, Sliter was precinct chair at the Juneau Senior Center for several years and has been on a state review board for about 20 years. She also is on the Region 1 Absentee Review Board.
"They call me the queen," Sliter said jokingly of her service. "But I think it's a great honor to be Douglas' Grand Marshal, especially since I've lived all my life in Douglas."
But there's a lot more to her story.
Sliter was chosen by the Alaska Visitor's Association in August 1958 to represent the fledgling 49th state in the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, N.J.
"I was truly an ambassador for Alaska," Sliter said of the experience.
Back home from finishing her first year of college at the University of Washington, Sliter - then 19-year-old Stuart "Stu" Fraser Johnson - was working that summer at the Alaska Department of Education.
"Bea Albertson wandered through all the offices of the State Office Building and just picked girls out," Sliter said. "I had to borrow a swimming suit and a pair of high heels and went down to her store, and there were five judges who judged us according to the rules of the pageant."
Sliter was named Miss Alaska on Aug. 21, 1958, and the next day, she went into training. She dieted away five pounds, trimmed an inch from her hips and two inches from her waist.
An Atlantic City newspaper described Sliter then: 5-foot-7-inches tall, 135 pounds and a perfect 36-26-36 with "lovely blue eyes and blonde hair" and "a complexion that alone is a challenge to all other entries."
Sliter said found out she was a contestant on a Friday, and two days later, she left for New York.
"I walked in the door and said to my brother, 'I'm leaving on Monday as Miss Alaska for the Miss America Pageant,'" she said. "And he said, 'You've got to be kidding.'"
A CINDERELLA STORY
As a small-town girl from Douglas, Sliter describes her experience as a Cinderella story. She was honored to represent her state in the Miss America Pageant and enjoyed New York - not to mention her 15 minutes of fame.
"Alaska was so much in the news at the time," Sliter said. "The interest in Alaska was just there, and I happened to be a small part of it."
In fact, a slew of television shows and publications picked up her story, making her a national face for Alaska's statehood. The Seattle Times followed suit and printed a story in August 1958 headlined "Statehood far ahead in vote" that ran with a "Meet Miss Alaska" photo of Sliter.
"I was on the Dave Garroway 'Today Show,' Jack Paar 'Tonight Show,' Dick Clark's 'American Bandstand.' Life Magazine followed me around for a day," Sliter said. "It was amazing, just incredible. It was the mystique of Alaska; they were totally intrigued by it."
Aside from knowing Sliter's background, most media representatives wanted it known she was there because Alaska was becoming a state.
"Usually it wasn't about questions, it was more my being trained to insert all this information as we talked - information about Alaska, about myself and about being the first Miss Alaska to the Miss America Pageant," she said.
Aside from Walter Winchell's and Hugh O'Brian's radio shows, Sliter appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and traveled with the writer and editor of Life Magazine to Yankee Stadium, where Yankees Casey Stengel, Mickey Mantle and Bob Turley signed a 2-foot totem pole for her.
"Yogi Bear was also supposed to sign it, but we were about 10 minutes late," Sliter said. "Because we were late, he wouldn't sign it."
Sliter also visited the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center and the Bronx Museum, which featured Native American cultures.
"Life even told me I was going to be on the cover, and then Brigitte Bardot got a new boyfriend, and she got the cover," Sliter said.
In all, Sliter was in New York for about 10 days before the pageant just to please the media.
"Most of the girls did not get that kind of opportunity," Sliter said. "And even at the pageant, I was followed around so much by news people and photographers."
Sliter was even on either the Dave Garroway or Jack Paar show when she heard that the vote on Alaska's statehood had passed.
"It was just an amazing, fantastic experience," she said.
Stuart Sliter never imagined she'd be Miss Alaska, let alone a contestant in the Miss America Pageant. To her, pageantry was harder work than most people think.
"It was long days, from 5 in the morning until midnight," Sliter said. "You would have breakfast in the morning with the judges, and they would give you thought-provoking questions, like what do you think about disciplining children and things like that. And then, in the afternoon, you rehearsed and the pageant was at night. Your day was full from morning until night, for three days."
Theodore Zappa, president of Alaska Oil and Mineral Co., sponsored Sliter in the Miss America Pageant, and judges were singer and actress Kitty Carlisle, publisher Bennett Cerf, playwright and director Moss Hart and record producer and musician Mitch Miller.
Pageant categories were gown, swim suit and talent. For her talent, Sliter played the piano and was asked to play the Alaska Flag Song.
Afterward, Silter stayed an extra day to sunbathe with other sponsored girls on an Atlantic City beach and Bennett Cerf approached her.
"He said, 'Who told you to play the Alaska Flag Song?'" she said. "And I said, 'Well, you know, I was sort of an ambassador for Alaska, and that's what they asked me to play.' And he said, 'Too bad.' So I feel I possibly might have placed if I had played something that showed off my piano talents."
If Sliter could have picked her own song, she would have played a piece by Antonin Dvorak, a favorite of her father's.
What really impressed Sliter most about the pageant were the girls.
"I was a little apprehensive," Sliter said. "Here I am, a small-town girl, ordinary looking and I thought 'Oh, I'm going to get there and these girls are going to be incredibly beautiful.' But I got there and I truly did not feel out of place. They were just all-American girls like myself, many from small towns."
And because she was chosen at the last minute, Sliter was the only girl of the 52 contestants to have to rent her wardrobe.
"I got to keep one dress," Sliter said. "It's strapless with lots of fluff."
In the end, Mary Ann Mobley, of Mississippi, took the crown.
"She had been in the Mississippi pageant for three years, trying to get to the Miss America Pageant," Sliter said. "I think it's become more like that, where these people have geared their lives around it and use it as a stepping stone for a more professional (career)."
Today, Sliter still watches an occasional pageant.
JUST A DOUGLAS GIRL
Other than a year in Bethel and two years in Kodiak, Stuart Sliter has spent her entire life in Juneau and Douglas. Her grandmother, Jessie Fraser, was the last post mistress in Treadwell and the last telephone operator in Douglas.
Both Sliter's maternal and paternal grandparents came to Juneau specifically to work in the mine. Her grandfather on her mother's side was a moulder from Scotland.
"That was quite a craftsmanship in those days," Sliter said. "So, it was unusual."
Sliter's parents, Roberta and Leonard Johnson, owned Douglas Trucking from 1947 to 1955. After her father died in 1955, Sliter's mother went to work as the administrative assistant for the Department of Law.
"She became known as Mother Law," Sliter said of her mother.
After the Miss America Pageant, Sliter studied elementary education at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., an all-girls school.
"In hindsight, I wish I would have taken the year off from school and pursued it more as an ambassador of Alaska," Sliter said, "not monetarily, because I got no money from anything except the scholarships from Pepsi Cola. But I had so many invitations, and then, going to school in the San Francisco Bay Area, I did lots of cameo appearances there."
Sliter taught for three years full time and substituted for about seven years. In 1961, she married Bob Sliter, a school teacher at the time. He became a full-time commercial fisherman in 1969, when she became a stay-at-home mom.
She had three children, Beth Weldon, a division chief with Capital City Fire Rescue, Rob Sliter, a fisherman, and Jyll Sliter, who died in 1998. She also has two grandchildren, Cody, 10, and Tyler, 8.
Looking back, Sliter feels extremely fortunate to have grown up in Douglas and been a part of Alaska's statehood.
"A small-town girl like myself, the audience at the Miss America Pageant itself had more people than was in Juneau or Douglas at the time," she said.
• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at 523-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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