The late 1960s were the best of times and the worst of times for Belvidere, which rose from a killer tornado to see one of its own become Miss America. Paul Anthony Arco visits the pageant queen 45 years later.
If you knew Judi Ford Nash growing up in Belvidere, Ill., you probably thought she’d one day become a swimmer or a gymnist or some other kind of athlete. But Miss America? Not a chance.
“I was a tomboy,” she says. “I didn’t wear high heels. I did play with dolls, but I was more into sports.”
But life can be so unpredictable. What began as a lark turned into something far bigger. She not only won the local county fair queen pageant, but two more pageants after that, and then did the unthinkable – won the 1969 Miss America title in the fall of 1968. This was no small feat and left an indelible mark on Nash and Belvidere forever.
“Everyone knows Judi,” says Fred Brereton, who served as Belvidere’s mayor for 16 years. “In all my travels as mayor, people knew three things about Belvidere: the Chrysler plant, the 1967 tornado and Miss America Judi Ford.”
With the title Miss America firmly stamped on her résumé, Nash experienced things most people only dream about. She spent 1969 traveling the world, meeting famous people and soaking up amazing sights. Then, in the decades that followed, she settled comfortably into the roles of wife, mother, teacher and coach.
These days, Nash is retired and living in Geneseo, Ill., with husband Jim Nash, a practicing attorney. And she says she couldn’t be any happier. “I’ve had a pretty good life,” she says. “Everything happens for a reason. You never know when a seemingly innocent experience can alter your life. There’s a plan for everyone, even when you don’t know what that plan is.”
Born in Iowa City, Iowa, Nash moved to Belvidere when she was 3, with her parents, Virgil and Marjorie, and older brother, Don. Virgil was personnel director and a labor relations executive for Sundstrand Corporation, and Marjorie taught English at Belvidere High School. The Ford family lived a quiet life, where Nash enjoyed riding her bike, playing with neighborhood friends and swimming at the city pool. “Belvidere was a great town to grow up in,” she says. “I have many fond memories.”
Nash spent most of her free time participating in sports. She joined the Belvidere city swim team at the age of 8, and later worked at the Belvidere pool as a lifeguard and swim instructor.
She also became quite good on the trampoline. Nash started taking lessons as a teenager at the YWCA in Rockford and perfected her skills, winning local and national titles. “It was a way to improve my diving mechanics,” she says. “Plus, it was something I could do year round.” In 1965, at the age of 15, she became a member of the U.S. trampoline team and traveled to Vienna, Austria, to take part in an international exhibition. In high school, Nash was a member of the cheer team, after being cut from her junior high school cheer squad. This was back when competitive sports were for boys only, before Title IX was enacted in 1972.
In 1966, at the urging of friends, Nash entered the Boone County Fair queen pageant – something she had never considered doing. “I grew up watching the queen contest, but it really wasn’t my thing,” she says. “Besides, I never thought I’d even have a chance to win.” But Nash did win, and became eligible for the Miss Illinois County Fair title, which she won in Springfield in January of 1967.
Nash was counting down the days until high school graduation, when a devastating tornado ripped through Belvidere as school was dismissed on April 21, 1967. The tornado killed 24 people, including 13 children, and injured hundreds more. Nash and some friends were sitting in a car in the school parking lot, at the time, and one of her friends had to return to the building to retrieve a book. “That probably saved us,” Nash says. “Our car was lifted and the windows were shattered, so we got down on the floor. When the tornado passed, we ran back into the school.” The Ford family was safe, but their home and two vehicles were severely damaged.
“For the next few days, all you heard were rumors about who was alive or not,” Nash recalls. “There were no cell phones. Parents were calling hospitals, trying to find out news about their children. It was all very sad.”
After high school, Nash spent the summer traveling around the state as the reigning Miss Illinois County Fair. In September, she left Belvidere to attend the University of Southwestern Louisiana, where she competed on the men’s trampoline team. “I went down there because they had a premier trampoline coach, Jeff Hennessy,” Nash says. “He was willing to accommodate a female on the men’s team.” Nash not only became the first woman to win a men’s varsity gymnastics letter, but the first woman to win any letter in any sport at the university.
Nash planned to stay at college that summer to work as a lifeguard, but Leslie Carlson, then president of the Boone County Fair Association, arranged for the organization to sponsor Nash in the 1968 Miss Illinois pageant. So she came home to work on her trampoline routine, instead.
Nash won Miss Illinois in July 1968, which meant she was on her way to the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, N.J. “I never thought I would get that far,” she says. State pageant officials seemed to agree. “They said I had three strikes against me: I was too young, too blonde and too athletic. Miss America isn’t supposed to sweat.”
Her goal was to go to Atlantic City and finish in the top 10. “I didn’t want a plane full of people from Belvidere coming out to watch me not make the finals,” she says. “I didn’t want them to waste their money.”
The Big Day
Nash breezed through the swimsuit and talent competitions. On Sept. 7, 1968, with her parents and brother in the audience, all Nash had to do was answer emcee Bert Parks’ question before moving on to the top five.
“I thought, ‘I’m golden. He’s going to ask me about the trampoline,’” she says. But Nash had forgotten to fill out a questionnaire earlier in the week and was now faced with a different question. “He asked me how I could help people to live more peacefully together,” she says. “I was standing there for like eight seconds. I said something like, ‘In order to make people live together more peacefully, I think that 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 in all things.’ It didn’t have anything to do with the question, but I was relieved to walk back to my seat, and they went to a commercial. I was sitting there and I thought, ‘This is great. The worst I can do is fifth place.’”
Back from the commercial, Parks announced the fourth runner-up, Miss Indiana, and then the third, Miss Oregon, and then the second, Miss Iowa. It was down to two, Nash and Catherine Monroe, Miss Massachusetts. I have a chance to win this thing, Nash thought at the time. That’s when Parks announced Monroe as first runner-up.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Nash. She made her way down the runway for the traditional victory walk, as Parks crooned ‘There She Is, Miss America.’
“I lost it. I cried, and I’m not a crier,” she says. “It was more relief than anything else.” Nash was only the second winner from Illinois, at the time.
Back home, a mighty storm swept through Belvidere during the broadcast, temporarily knocking power out in many homes. But the power returned just in time for Parks to announce the winner. Belvidere residents rushed out of their homes and headed to State Street to celebrate the good news: one of their own was Miss America.
Nash was whisked backstage, where she briefly greeted her family before being ushered into a post-event party, where she was paraded around to meet sponsors and dignitaries. The bar wasn’t open yet: officials didn’t want Miss America photographed near any alcoholic beverages. The bashful teenager from Belvidere, Ill., was shell-shocked. “There were so many people there and so many light bulbs flashing. People from all directions were shaking my hand and I started crying,” she says. “I thought, ‘What did I get myself into? I’m only 18.’”
The next day, with her parents on their way back to Belvidere, Nash traveled to New York, where her whirlwind officially started. She met with pageant officials, who mapped out plans for the next year. They discussed wardrobe, makeup, even how to do her hair. “They took me to dinner to teach me proper table manners,” she says. She filmed commercials for Oldsmobile and other pageant sponsors.
Like most everything else in 1968 America, the pageant wasn’t without some controversy, as members of the National Organization for Women protested the event on the Atlantic City boardwalk.
“I know pageants aren’t for everyone,” Nash says. “I had people tell me it was a cattle show, and that I was being exploited. But the goal of the Miss America pageant is to promote women and give them opportunities and scholarships that they might not get otherwise. Since 1988, the contestants have had platforms, and I’ve heard contestants speak on issues that were near and dear to their hearts, such as homelessness, diabetes awareness and literacy. My ‘unofficial platform’ was women’s athletics. For me, the Miss America experience was extremely beneficial.”
More than a month after winning the title, Nash returned to Belvidere on Oct. 30 and was treated to a celebration fit for a queen. Businesses in downtown Belvidere were decked out with signs, banners and photographs. Schools were closed for the day. The Belvidere High School choir greeted Nash with the song “Hello Judi” based on the tune “Hello Dolly.” State officials attended and floats rolled out, as more than 35,000 people turned out for a glimpse of Miss America. “It was a joyful atmosphere,” says former Mayor Brereton, who was then a high school senior and member of the choir. “It was the best homecoming parade ever. Instead of featuring the football team, we featured Miss America, who happened to be from our hometown. It was a memorable event.”
“It was unbelievable,” Nash says. “I just remember being on a float and looking up the hill at all the people lined up on both sides of State Street. I couldn’t believe they were there for me.”
The fun was just getting started. Over the next year, Nash traveled 20,000 miles a month, visiting small towns and large cities across the country. She made appearances for sponsors and visited tradeshows, county festivals and fashion shows. She appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon, the latter a pageant judge. She went to Vietnam as part of a USO Tour. The only time she could sleep in her own bed was when she came back to Chicago for appearances. The whirlwind was fun, but it became overwhelming. “I missed being with people my own age,” she says. “I was homesick for familiar faces.”
Once her reign was over, Nash transferred from University of Southwestern Louisiana to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she received her bachelor’s degree in physical education in 1973. She married and moved to Rockford, where she started her family. Her two sons, Brad and Brian, were born in 1975 and 1978. Nash became a national spokesperson for companies such as Libbey Glass, the Water Quality Association and the National Bowling Council.
She also spent eight years as a member of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, having been appointed by Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Nash divorced in 1987 and three years later moved to Geneseo, Ill., where she remarried, taught elementary school physical education, and coached high school girls’ golf and middle school basketball and track for nearly 20 years.
During that time, her students relished having a celebrity as a teacher and coach. “My golfers liked to tell their opponents, ‘You may have beaten us, but our coach was Miss America,’” she says, laughing.
Judi and Jim Nash have raised a blended family of five children. All are married with families of their own, and most live in the area. The couple has 11 grandchildren, with another due this fall. Nash spends her time substitute teaching, volunteering at a local hospital, playing golf, running three miles a day and watching after her grandchildren. “The first year I was retired, I felt lost,” she says. “Then we had more grandchildren. That keeps me plenty busy.”
She still keeps tabs on the Miss America pageant. She went to the 90th anniversary in Las Vegas in 2011, and returned last year to Atlantic City, site of her crowning achievement 45 years ago. “I enjoy going back and keeping in touch with everyone,” she says.
Nash occasionally visits relatives and a few close friends in Belvidere. Her hometown has honored her legacy with various celebrations through the years. Her parents have since passed away.
To this day, Nash gets an occasional invitation to speak to community groups and young students about her story. Her message is always the same. “Be aware of opportunities as they come,” she says. “Get out of your comfort zone and don’t be afraid to try new things. What if I hadn’t entered the Boone County Fair queen pageant? I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the experiences that I’ve had.
“I think being Miss America helped broaden my outlook in life,” she adds. “It definitely helped me to grow up. It helped me to become more self-confident. I met a lot of good friends who I’ve kept in touch with over the years. Going to Vietnam was a great experience. Recently, I’ve had GIs look me up just to tell me how grateful they are that we came to see them. That means a lot to me.”