In the Spring of 1968, USL freshman trampolinist Judi Ford was annoyed to find out that she would have to forego her Summer job in Lafayette in order to compete in the Miss Illinois pageant. To her surprise (and even dismay) she won the pageant, and then on September 7th of that year, she was crowned Miss America. ultoday.com caught up with her recently, and discovered that she not only remembers UL fondly, but that she is also one very funny lady.

What do you remember of Lafayette?

I remember Don's Seafood House where I had crawfish etoufée for the first time. I loved it.

I had never had grits before. I had never had beignets before and the first time I tried them I thought, 'Whoa, I'm liking these.'

I didn't get off the campus a whole lot. One of my friends lived around campus, and if you were going to spend the night somewhere, you had to get written permission from the hostess.  It was like jumping through a million hoops.

What do you remember of UL?

I remember the campus being very pretty. And I remember Cypress Lake.

I remember that I couldn't understand one of my roommates [laughs].

I can remember asking, "What's 'chère'?" and they said, "You know."

And I said, "No."

Then they asked me, "Would you stop calling us 'you guys'? We're not guys."

It took me a while to figure out the Cajun spelling of things. I called one guy 'Heebert'. One of my friends asked me who my professor was, I said a guy named 'Melonkan'. She said "Melançon?"

I said, "Oh."

I just loved crawfish. I still do. I loved it down there.

I was the only woman on the trampoline team, and I was also the first woman to letter in a varsity sport at the University. At the letterman's banquet that year they had everybody stand up. When I stood up, the AD recognized me as the prettiest letter-winner. I was really flattered.

Then I realized, 'Hey, the rest of them are all guys!'

What was the biggest surprise at UL?

How friendly everybody was. I lived in Agnes Edwards, and there were like six of us in the suite.  We all got along really well. You never know how that will work out, particularly with a Yankee going down there.

In high school, I had been down to Lafayette for trampoline meets. My coach Jeff Hennessy and his wife took me under their wing to make sure I was taken care of. So there weren't really a lot of surprises.

What was the biggest challenge?

Not to gain the freshman 15.

The freshman 15?

Kids go to college, they gain 15 pounds.

Also, when you're in an athletic season and you're traveling to all these meets, it's a little bit of a challenge to keep up with the school work.

You grew up in Belvidere, Illinois, went to college in Cajun country, served as Miss America, attended the University of Illinois, and now you live in Geneseo, Illinois. Talk about those transitions.

After my freshman year at USL, I was actually going to stay in Lafayette for the Summer. I had a job lined up.  By that time, I was saying "ya'll" all the time.

Then my mom reminded me I was in the Miss Illinois pageant, so I had to come home for that. I won it, and there were only 6 weeks from Miss Illinois to Miss America. The Miss Illinois title also came with a sizeable scholarship to a state school, and a lot of obligations around the state. That was going to make it hard to go back to USL.

Then I thought, 'Oh, man.' I left my typewriter down there, and a bunch of stuff that I thought I would come back to.

I was never a pageant person, I was a tomboy. The only way I got into it is when I was 16 some of my girlfriends and I entered the Boone County Queen contest on a lark.  When I won that, I automatically went on to the State Fair pageant, and I won that. In those days the Miss America Pageant was held at the local, state and national level.  If you didn't have a local pageant the first year you could just appoint someone.  So in August of 1967 I was back in Belvidere crowning the new Miss Boone County Fair Queen, and the local fair board president announced that he had appointed me as Miss Boone County for the Miss Illinois pageant.  I thought, "Are you crazy?

After the national pageant, I took a year off from college to serve as Miss America. At that time I thought I would continue competing in trampoline, so I thought I would try out at UI and went there to finish my undergrad degree.  I lived in Champaign a couple of years.

Then I got married and moved to Rockford. We had two boys and I continued to make appearances for sponsors, and traveled some.

In 1987 I got divorced. My brother is a doctor in Geneseo, and my husband Jim was getting divorced about the same time. So my brother said, "There's this guy you should meet here." But he had three kids, I had two, and I thought I had enough to do.

But we got married in 1990. We had a 6th grader, two 7th graders, a 9th grader and and one in the 10th. There were two years when we had all five of them in college.

It must have been a pretty big shock to win Miss America.

Yeah, it really was. My title was for 1969, but the pageant was held in 1968.  Back then we were postdated, sort of like the cars that come out in the Fall, dated for the next model year.

When I went out to Atlantic City, the Miss Illinois pageant staff pretty much said I didn't have a chance of winning.   They said, one, you're only 18.  Two, you're blonde and a blonde hasn't won in 12 years.  And three, your talent is trampoline.  In those days an athlete was not thought to be terribly feminine. Women weren't supposed to sweat.

But the talent portion back then was worth 50%. If the judges liked your talent, you'd do better. If they thought it was too masculine, it wouldn't work out.

So I had no pressure. My goal was to make the top 10 so I could be on TV Saturday. That, and there was a planeful of people coming out from Belvidere on Friday, so I wanted to see them get their money's worth. But that was it.

In those days, they divided you into 3 groups for each round.  One night you'd have talent, one night swimsuit. one night interview & evening gown. They added the scores, and the top 10 got in the finals.

They named the preliminary winners each night, and I won both swimsuit & evening gown. So I was hopeful I'd make it to the finals, and I did.

After they named the top 10, you started over.  But they didn't want to look like they were playing favorites, so I couldn't practice my routine Friday.  When I went on stage Saturday night I hadn't worked out since Thursday, and I didn't get to warm up. They also didn't let me have spotters. So I toned down my routine so it wouldn't be too difficult. And I was tired at the end of the week, I was afraid my knees might buckle. I was thinking, 'Please let me get through this and not fall off.'

After I finished my trampoline routine and didn't fall off, I was pretty happy.

Then they named me in the top five, and they asked me The Big Question.  The others all went first. One girl was studying music, and they asked her about music. Another one was a bacteriologist, they asked her about that. So I'm thinking, 'I'm golden. They're going to ask me about trampoline.'

But I had forgotten to fill out this form about myself, so on the bus over I was quickly completing it. There was one question, "If you were chosen as Miss America, what would be your main goal, what would you like to accomplish?"  And I slammed down, "To help people to live together more peacefully and happily."

Sure enough, when it comes my turn Burt Parks chats with me about the trampoline. He asked me how high I got, and I said 20-25 feet. Ed McMahon was one of the judges, and Burt said "Ed gets higher than that."

But then he asks me, "On your questionnaire, you said if you were chosen as Miss America, you would work 'To help people to live together more peacefully and happily.' 

"In what specific ways would you do this?"

I stood there for eight seconds. People back home were sitting in front of the TV saying, 'Talk! Talk!'

And I'm standing there thinking, 'This is so unfair.'

Finally I said, "In order to live together more peacefully and happily, a person has to realize that he is no better than his neighbor, and that all people are equal and should be given equal opportunities." If you think about it, I didn't really answer the question. But it got me off stage.

And then I relaxed. They went to commercial and I was thinking, 'Well, the worst I could do is 5th place.'

When they went back to the broadcast, they named the 4th runner up. I thought, 'Wow, this is so great. The worst I could do is 4th!'

They named the third runner up, and I'm thinking 'Wow, the worst I could do is 3rd place!'

Then they got to the last two of us. And I'm thinking, 'There's an outside chance I could win this...'

What was it like serving as Miss America?

I was pretty much overwhelmed. I had never really planned on winning this thing. At the time of the pageant it was new student week at UI, and I was trying to get everything ready. The pageant was Saturday, and classes stared Monday.

I was totally unprepared for this. The day after the pageant, everyone I knew in the world went back to Illinois, and I went to New York with a bunch of strangers.

I started asking them, "Just what does Miss America do?"  I thought that I would have a retinue of people with me. For instance, I didn't do my own hair for the pageants, and back then we wore those beehives. I asked them, "Who's going to do my hair?" So I had to learn how to do that.

In New York, the first two weeks were getting the wardrobe together, and they tried to make sure I knew some table manners. They took me to an upscale restaurant in New York with multiple courses. When they brought out the sorbet, I thought 'What, dessert already?'

At the end of the meal they brought me a bowl of hot water with a slice of lemon in it and asked me, "Do you know what that is?"

"Well," I said, "I'm out of spoons, so I assume it's not soup."

After that, it was a very hectic scheduled. I traveled 20,000 miles per month, over 200,000 miles over the year. If I slept in the same bed two nights in a row, I would say "Wow."

I kept a diary.  It's amazing how little sleep I got, and how much I ate. We would come back at night and eat a roast beef sandwich right before bed. I even enjoyed airplane food. So about halfway through I thought, 'Uh-oh, there's the freshman 15.'

You are one of a very few people who can go to a Chicago Bears game wearing Saints gear.

I've been a Saints fan since they started. I was there back in the "Who dat?" days. When my friends up here hear me say that they say, "Wha...?"

Now that I live here, I'm pretty much torn. I figure I can't lose though, my son is an avid Bears fans so if either team wins, I'm OK.  But people still ask me why I'm a Saints fan after all these years.

It's because I love Louisiana.


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