In 1938, Marion entered the record books, becoming the first and only town in the United States—a record still true to this day—to boast both a U.S. President and a Miss America. While the story of Warren G. Harding is familiar to most in the Marion area, Marilyn Meseke’s rise to the pinnacle of beauty pageant fame is less so.
Meseke, a successful pageant queen from Marion, entered and won the Miss Ohio state competition twice during her well-to-do pageant career. Her first title was won in 1931 at the age of 14, but she was not permitted to compete in the national pageant due to her young age. Her second reign was in 1938 and qualified her to represent Ohio at the national Miss America pageant—which she won.
Born in Lima in 1917, she was named Mary Ellen Spurrier. While still an infant, she was adopted by her maternal grandparents, Charlie and Clara Meseke, who renamed her Marilyn and raised in the family home on South Prospect Street. It was her grandmother who encouraged her talent, enrolling her in dance and music classes.
Meseke, who demonstrated a natural talent for tap dance, began taking lessons at the tender age of four, later picking up voice, piano, and baton lessons. Following high school graduation, Meseke opened her own dance studio out of the living room of her family’s home.
In 1938, she competed in the Miss America pageant—the first year contestants were required to perform in the talent category as a scored event. This was serendipitous, as Meseke had been performing dance her whole life.
During the pageant’s live radio broadcast, Meseke was crowned Miss America on September 10, 1938. This event also marked the first time movie audiences were able to see a Miss America be crowned through newsreel footage, which was released the following week and watched by 112 million moviegoers.
On September 29, 1938, Meseke returned home to Marion to celebrate her victory and new title. The celebration included a night time parade attended by a crowd of 30,000 supporters and fans from Marion and surrounding communities.
Those that knew her described Meseke in glowing terms—lovely, gentle, kind, giving, charitable—and one who never let her fame go to her head. She is one of six Miss Ohio’s to win the Miss America title in the history of the pageant, including Mary Katherine Campbell of Columbus, who won the title twice, back-to-back, in 1922 and 1923. Meseke continued her involvement with the Miss America program for many years and participated in the organization’s 75th anniversary ceremonies in 1995.
After many years in the local spotlight, Meseke and her husband, Stanley Hume, whom she married in 1944, moved to Florida and had a son. Widowed some years later, she married pilot Ben Rogers. In her later years, she taught piano and collected antiques. She died Sept. 12, 2001, at the age of 84.
The Marion County Historical Society, 169 E. Church St., has a display dedicated to Meseke featuring photographs and her trophy from the Miss America pageant. Her robe is also housed at the society, but is no longer displayed because of its fragile condition.
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