The Miss America Pageant is still five months away, but Bebe Shopp Waring is already getting excited.
She’s looking forward to returning to Atlantic City, meeting up once again with friends who did not follow the pageant out to Las Vegas.
Waring is Miss America 1948. She’s not the oldest living Miss America. That honor belongs to 93-year-old Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937.
But while Cooper famously hid out immediately after her crowning and has avoided most associations with her pageant past, Waring has always been an enthusiastic Miss America.
And that enthusiasm hasn’t dimmed over the decades. Waring still attends every Miss America Pageant she can, and a few years ago dropped everything so she could travel with a group of Miss Americas who went to Afghanistan to meet with American troops.
“Bebe is one former Miss America who is always there for us,” said Art McMaster, former president and CEO Miss America Organization. “She is at the show every year, but not just for the show. She is there early. She is there to talk to the contestants. She coaches them. She gives them pep talks.”
“She is just a Miss America we know ... we can depend on. She is the first person that we know will volunteer and help this organization,” he said.
Waring, 82, brushes off such praise with a laugh and a healthy dose of self-deprecation.
“I’m one of those pennies that never seem to go away,” she said. “I’m the one who comes back. There were a couple of others before me who would still come back, but I’m the one who is alive and kicking.”
Not that Waring doesn’t have other things to do. Married and with four daughters, nine grandchildren and two great grandchildren, she now lives in Rockport, Mass., and is involved in the Gloucester Stage Company. The small, 200-seat summer theater “keeps me busy all year long,” Waring said. If she has free time, Waring spends it performing in a singing group or playing piano. She’s also a lay minister in the Episcopal Church.
But after 65 years, Waring is still willing to make time for the pageant. For her, a trip to the annual contest is more like attending a reunion — a reunion she wouldn’t want to miss.
“I go back because of friendships. It’s a family. It’s nice to be with them and talk to them and be part of a new era — which is what happens when a new girl walks down the runway,” she said.
Waring says her lifetime of Miss America memories are mostly good ones. She credits her optimism and enthusiasm to a conversation she had with her father shortly after winning the crown.
Back then, she was an 18-year-old trying to continue her education while also fulfilling her Miss America duties. It was a tough task.
“My dad said to me ‘How much time do you have left?’ and I said ‘Nine months.’ He said ‘What’s nine months when you are going to live to be 80?’” Waring recalled. “I think about that all the time. I decided I was going to be the best Miss America I could be — and I did it,” Waring said.
And she continued doing it after she gave up her crown. Waring said she was the first former Miss America to serve as host at a state pageant, doing those gigs in the 1980s before moving on to judging duties.
When Miss America 1981 Susan Powell announced in 2009 she was putting together a trip to Afghanistan, Waring immediately wrote back to say she was interested.
“Guess who was the first person to volunteer,” McMaster said. “We were a little surprised. She is getting up in age, we were a little worried about the flight over there, flying halfway around the world and the stress. But once again, Bebe was a trooper.”
“I said ‘Just don’t treat me like a grandmother,’” Waring recalled.
The trip included Waring, Powell, Miss America 1985 Sharlene Wells, Miss America 1995 Heather Whitestone, Miss America 1999 Nicole Johnson, Miss America 2004 Ericka Dunlap and Sam Haskell, chairman of the Board for the Miss America organization.
In three days the group visited six bases. They traveled by Blackhawk helicopter, a sobering experience when Waring notice the team of machine gunners each chopper carried.
“That really makes you realize you are in a war zone,” she said. “The trip was quite an experience. The troops really responded to us. We ate with them, we sat with them. It was very moving.”
During the trip, the proud grandmother told of one grandson at West Point and another that graduated the Coast Guard Academy.
Her pageant traveling still isn’t done. She, Miss America 1977 Dorothy Benham and Miss America 1989 Gretchen Carlson are planning a trip back to their home state of Minnesota.
And Waring is eager to return to Atlantic City in September for the pageant’s return to Boardwalk Hall after its seven-year stay in Las Vegas.
“I’m thrilled,” Waring said. “It’s wonderful that it’s coming back. It’s like coming home.”
Although Waring loves the pageant, and has a lifetime of good memories associated with it, she says she’s also happy to see how the Miss America program has changed in the years since its start in 1921 as a bathing beauty contest on the beaches of Atlantic City.
“It’s wonderful to see it grow and change, because it has to change,” she said. “There were people who were upset when it tried to change, but the pageant has to keep up with the women of this world. We’ve changed, so the pageant has to change — and it has.”
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