Don't know if you remember that summer night in August of 1971 -- the year of hot pants and water beds, the Pentagon papers, Alan Shepard stroking the first lunar golf shot --when Bert Parks sang to Phyllis George, Miss Texas, as she walked down the runway in Atlantic City.
Naturally, Phyllis remembers, even though she was chagrined, owing to honest-to-goodness exuberance and the humility of the moment, when her crown fell off and she had to pick it up and shrug her shoulders to an adoring audience in attendance and on national television. She likes to tell that story since there is a message: you should never take yourself too seriously.
"There she is, Miss America," Bert sang, as he always did, the most overwhelming moment in her life. "Nothing," she says, "could ever top that." Not even when she became the first female network sportscaster of note and subsequently a fixture on CBS's Morning Show.
She became the First Lady of Kentucky, married to John Y. Brown, also the one-time kingpin of Kentucky Fried Chicken. That was a heady time in her life, too, although there are, shall we say, some bittersweet memories. The highlight of those years came when she gave birth to her children, Lincoln and Pamela, the latter a news anchor in Washington, D.C., following in her mother's footsteps.
While time changes us all, and we must deal with the aging process, I have to say that Phyllis George is as pretty as ever. Spend time with her and you become aware why CBS was moved to reorganize and restructure The NFL Today. A network doesn't foolishly gamble on a program, showcasing the first woman to excel in what was prior to 1975 the exclusive domain of mostly good old boys. Jocks who had played the game.
What the hell is a woman doing in the locker room? She doesn't know anything about sports. She never played the game. That is what they all said, but Bob Wussler, CBS's then president, had a sense that the timing was right. The ratings confirmed his clairvoyance.
Where is Phyllis George today? Living in a comfortable Athens neighborhood with her longtime friend Marianne Rogers. Phyllis, divorced with grown children, still has boundless energy and can't sit around with little to do. A motivational speaker, she is considering book opportunities and a return to television. She's ready to work again.
Maybe I am an aging softie, but that generous smile of hers will melt you away. I'd hire her, but not only because of stunning good looks-although that certainly is an enhancement-there's substance, too.
Early on in her pioneer sportscasting career, she was sent to interview the towering center for the Boston Celtics, Dave Cowens, who had a penchant for making interviewers uncomfortable. He opened up with Phyllis, and viewers were taken aback. One week she is interviewing bachelor Joe Namath, something of a sex symbol at the time, and the next she is engaged in an on-air session with Roger Staubach, who blurted out, "I like sex as much as Joe Namath, I just prefer it with one person (his wife, Marianne)." Phyllis still blushes when she recalls that interview.
The point is that the first big time female network sportscaster not only had an overwhelming smile and personality, but also an intellectual depth that moved her upward. It wasn't long before the CBS switchboard was lighting up. "Hey, she's OK. She knows her stuff," they were saying.
After our lengthy conversation for a sports radio show, she said without prompting, "I just love Athens. The people are so wonderful. The community reminds me of my hometown of Denton, Texas. Now, that Five and Ten Restaurant in Five Points! Well, it is as good as what you would find in New York."
What greater endorsement could you have than for Miss America to brag on your community?
Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.