The first Miss Alaska in state history welcomed her birthday with a flurry of celebrations, but they weren’t all for her.
Stuart Sliter, née Johnson, turned 80 on Sunday, but celebrated Saturday to make room for other milestones.
“My actual birthday, Sunday, was graduation, and my youngest grandson, Tyler, graduated, and you can’t do both,” Sliter said. “What a wonderful blessing on your 80th birthday to have your youngest grandson graduate. My oldest grandson is graduating from Marine Corps boot camp next week, and we’re all going, and I kept saying, ‘That’s all I want is to go to Cody’s graduation.’”
However, Sliter said her daughter, Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon, had other ideas.
“She hosted a party at my church — the Douglas Methodist Church — and with a busy, busy weekend there were over 50 people there,” Sliter said. “It was a grand day.”
That whirlwind of activity sounds daunting, but Sliter’s experiences back in 1958 and 1959 might be even more frantic.
Sliter recalled being crowned Miss Alaska on Aug. 22, 1958 at age 19, after entering the pageant held in Juneau on a whim. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Alaska Statehood Act on July 4, 1958, and Alaska was admitted into the union Jan. 3, 1959.
“Alaska was so in the news, that everybody wanted to learn about it,” Sliter said.
So, the young woman from Douglas found herself on multiple nationally televised shows representing the 49th state before competing in Atlantic City for the Miss America crown.
“This publicity agent got it into his head, and he found a sponsor for me — Alaska Oil and Mineral — and I got to go to New York for three weeks before the competition,” Sliter said. “Life magazine followed me around for one day, and I was on the ‘Jack Paar Show,’ I was on the Dave Garroway ‘Today Show,’ I was on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show,’ I was on Dick Clark’s ‘American Bandstand.’”
Sliter could not single out one as a favorite and remembers her first trip to the East Coast fondly.
“I think just the whole experience, plus the fact I had wonderful sponsors, they just kind of took me under their wing,” Sliter said. “It was a family more or less. They would go everywhere with me, and at the time New York’s drinking age was 19, so I could go to all these famous places, like the Copacabana. Part of it was publicity for them, but also so many people were interested in Alaska at the time.”
Ultimately, Miss Mississippi was crowned Miss America. Sliter partially blames the outcome on the decision to play “Alaska’s Flag” on the piano based on a comment she heard from one of the contest’s judges.
“I truly believe I would have at least finished in the top 10,” Sliter said. “Something more classic I think.”
After the competition, Sliter, who had already completed a year at University of Washington, attended Mills College in Oakland, California where she studied to become a teacher.
“I probably should have taken a year off school and truly exploited being Miss Alaska,” Sliter said. “Not for money or anything but just for the experience. The whole experience.”
She decided not to defend her Miss Alaska title.
“I was too involved then with college, and I worked summers and Christmas vacations,” Sliter said. “My goal, my focus was on college.”
She taught for three years at Mount Jumbo School and substitute taught for seven more and ultimately was a stay-at-home mother for her three children Beth, Rob and Jill.
Sliter’s teaching stint is directly related to the formation of her family. During her time teaching, Sliter met her husband of 57 years and counting, Bob.
“He was a first-year teacher, and I was a first-year teacher in the same school in side-by-side classrooms,” Sliter said.
The Sliters said Bob was well aware he was getting involved with a former Miss Alaska when they met.
“I’ve been involved a long time, 89 years or something like that,” Bob Sliter joked.
Stuart Sliter said in hindsight, her time as Miss Alaska nearly 61 years ago, seems like something out of a fairytale.
“It’s a true Cinderella story,” she said.
• Contact arts and culture reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.