Miss America 1964 Donna Axum Whitworth started entering pageants while a freshman at the University of Arkansas.
But those early competitions didn't quite prepare her for what it would feel like to win the coveted title.
"It's incredible," Whitworth said. "This grand burst of joy."
Then the weight of the title sets in.
"You start thinking I have just taken on a responsibility for the country and my fellow contestants to represent them well," she said.
She recalled traveling across the country and in places like Murray, Ky., that even included a police motorcycle escort.
Upon her arrival at her motel there, they even played a recording of "There She Is."
"Definitely, we're an American icon," she said.
Her time as Miss America was also linked to a time of national tragedy. She was in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, about to attend a luncheon the day President John F. Kennedy was shot.
"I don't think the country was the same after that," Whitworth said.
At the time, the contestants didn't have platforms, though she has long worked on behalf of arts education, a message she continues to spread today.
After serving as Miss America, she completed her bachelor's and master's degrees in fine arts and served as a college professor, a television hostess on several programs in Texas and as a professional public speaker.
Whitworth, now 71, is an active member of the Miss America board and serves on more than a half-dozen other organizations' boards with a focus on arts education.
She has also judged 45 state pageants and three Miss America pageants.
Whitworth credits her time as Miss America with sending her on an adventure, a lifetime of new possibilities.
"It changes your life forever and it gives you a platform for good," she said.