On September 7, 1968, Judith Anne Ford of Belvidere became the second-ever woman from Illinois to win the Miss America pageant. Feminist criticism of the contest was in the air, but so was Ford: she wowed the talent competition audience with an acrobatic trampoline exhibition, perhaps the most novel performance by a winner since Vonda Kay Van Dyke laid down a ventriloquism duet in 1964.
Ford had trained in trampoline and attended the University of Southwestern Louisiana to work with coach Jeff Hennessy. In the process she became the first woman to earn a varsity letter in school history. Winning the pageant with such an unusual talent surprised her, too. “I was a tomboy,” she said years later, “and back then sports and femininity did not go hand in hand as they do now. I didn’t think of myself as a pageant-type person at all.
After winning the Miss America title, Ford spent a year on duty, appearing in USO shows in Vietnam and traveling thousands and thousands of miles making appearances. She gave over the crown the next September and transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Taking a bachelor’s in physical education, Ford married and worked in public relations, became a spokeswoman for various companies, and taught phys ed. She also sat on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness in Sports, contributing to so many of us having to inadequately perform the shuttle run in sixth grade.