Written by K. A. Davidson, CNN
Former Miss America Jo-Carroll Dennison, best known for introducing the documentary series “American Experience” during World War II, has died at the age of 97.
“America has lost one of the true giants of modern time: Jo-Carroll Dennison,” said its executive producer, Robert Redford. “Her soulful contributions to PBS, the nation and the world are immeasurable.”
Dennison grew up in rural Maine, the daughter of an alcoholic father who squandered her parents’ savings and her mother, an animal breeder and loving provider.
Because of her broken home, Dennison was offered a scholarship to enter high school, where she became a straight-A student and was named Miss Lexington.
In 1939, she moved with her mother to New York, and won the Miss New York beauty contest, from which she was eliminated.
Despite her success as a beauty queen, it was not until 1942, when she won a contest to become Miss Kentucky, that she turned her focus to her lifelong goal of becoming Miss America.
She then went on to become Miss America, as they were then known, in 1943, filling the traditionally elite role that she would have again as 2018’s pageant began on Sunday, but without the demure beauty queen who became an international icon.
Born as Jo-Carol Carroll Dennison in 1909 in Louisville, Kentucky, she attended schools including Oberlin College and Pratt Institute before settling in New York City, where she studied at Mount Holyoke College and the Williams Institute.
Dennison later became a research associate at the Institute, where she was one of the first to research black women’s experiences at Howard University.
In 1945, she served as Miss America’s commissioner of health and physical education, where she would work to lower the recruitment age for the United States Army to 18 and to create scholarships to help provide health care.
After the war, Dennison established a foundation to make sure racial equality remained at the forefront of national priorities.
She later founded a congressional organization, the First Nations Women’s Caucus.
“In 1946, she was still engaged in the struggle against racial exclusion,” said a statement issued by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “Four years later, she founded the First Nations Women’s Caucus to support women from every tribal country in the United States. She was ahead of her time in many ways, and we honor her work.”
Dennison went on to teach English and history at Columbia University, giving classes that were often tinged with her personal experiences and observations.
“The thing I couldn’t help but do was teach and inspire students to become strong, independent, civic-minded women,” she said in a 2009 interview.