50 years ago, Mary Alice Fox of Wisconsin nearly became Miss America

Fifty years ago tonight, Mary Alice Fox stood before 18,000 people at Convention Hall in Atlantic City and waited for her life to change forever.

In Sheboygan, young and old sat in the light of their flickering black-and-white television sets, fixed on channels 2 or 6. Across the nation, tens of millions more watched. They edged closer.

It was about 11 p.m. in Wisconsin, on Sept. 12, 1959. The deeply bronzed Fox had won the swimsuit competition earlier and prepared for iconic emcee Bert Parks to announce the final cut. Would the 1957 Sheboygan Central High School graduate become Miss America?

“I just wanted to make the top 10, but then it got to the point where I thought, ‘I could win this,’ “ Fox said in a recent interview.

Dressed in a ball gown, Fox held hands with her only remaining challenger, Lynda Lee Mead of Mississippi, as the suspense heightened.

“I tried to talk with Lynda Lee on stage — as I always do, I talked a lot — but she wouldn’t say a thing, she was so nervous,” Fox said. “She was the sweetest thing in the entire world.”

Parks announced Fox’s name next, as first runner-up, to conclude her heart-pounding ascent and one of the most riveting stories in Sheboygan history.

“I was the first from Wisconsin to make the top 10,” she said. “So it was a big deal at the time.”

Fox said she played it cool in the final moments.

“I’m always very comfortable in front of people,” she said. “And it was kind of dark after how many rows, and then you have a huge orchestra in front of you and a runway that goes out 40 rows. And you were familiar with it because we had already competed for three nights — evening gown, talent and swimsuit.”

Mary Alice Fox and her husband, Alton Schmitt, are pictured shortly after the Miss America Pageant, held in Atlantic City, N.J., in September 1959. The Miss Wisconsin, a Sheboygan native, finished second in the national pageant.
Mary Alice Fox and her husband, Alton Schmitt, are pictured shortly after the Miss America Pageant, held in Atlantic City, N.J., in September 1959. The Miss Wisconsin, a Sheboygan native, finished second in the national pageant.

Fox is now Mary Alice Schmitt and lives with her husband, 1954 Sheboygan North graduate Alton Schmitt, in Woodland Hills, Calif.

Although she was athletic, poised and striking, Schmitt’s ticket to Atlantic City was partly accidental. She had just completed her sophomore year at Valparaiso University and was recruited to enter the 1959 state pageant in Kenosha because Miss Sheboygan had gotten married.

“I wasn’t even Miss Sheboygan; I (had been) Sheboygan’s Bratwurst Queen of 1957,” She said.

The winner of that 1957 contest received a trip to Chicago, and there, at dinner in the Loop, a famous musician approached Schmitt and her friend Patty Zenk. Thus began her life in the public eye.

“He came over and said, ‘My, who are you?’ I said, ‘I’m the Bratwurst Queen of Sheboygan,’ ” Schmitt remembered. “Then he said, ‘Where did you girls get those beautiful tans?’ It was Elvis Presley who came over to meet the Bratwurst Queen. How about that?”

Schmitt was the one making the moves two years later at the Miss America Pageant. She muted her bright smile with black wax, wore baggy clothes and a floppy hat and threw her petite body across the stage in “a very clever, eccentric dance,” as an Atlantic City Press reporter described it. Her three-minute skit, set to Dixieland music, won over the talent judges and the crowd and put the crown within reach.

“It was a sorority act I had put together for a pledge meeting in college,” said Schmitt, who had had eight years of dance training with Helen Finst in Sheboygan. “Every piece I used, except for my shoes, was a personal moment. The old pants were those of my mother’s great-grandfather, who came over on the boat from Switzerland.”

She collected her first runner-up prize of $3,000 and embarked on a whirlwind year. Five hundred people welcomed her at Manitowoc Municipal Airport, after which she rode in a red convertible with Sheboygan Mayor John Bolgert and her business manager, Bob Richter, and waved her gloved right hand at thousands of fans along Eighth Street.

She was “stunning in a white V-backed sheath — prettier, if possible, than when she left,” The Sheboygan Press gushed, and she carried a spray of orchids in her left arm.

“I wasn’t aware of the parade or any of this until I landed in Manitowoc,” Schmitt said. “And then to have a reception at the Foeste Hotel. It was absolutely delightful.”

She then made a blur of appearances arranged by Richter, married Alton Schmitt the next summer and moved to California, where her husband worked as a nuclear engineer. She took acting classes at UCLA.

“I was in a couple episodes of ‘Green Acres’ as Eddie Albert’s secretary,” she said. “I did guest appearances on ‘Truth or Consequences’ in the 1960s. Most of all, I did (hundreds of) commercials because it gave me freedom to be here at home with the boys (sons Altie and Brad).”

Mary Alice Schmitt cuddles with Badger, a female Alaskan Malamute, in the family's yard in Woodland Hills, Calif.
Mary Alice Schmitt cuddles with Badger, a female Alaskan Malamute, in the family’s yard in Woodland Hills, Calif., in 2009.

Schmitt retired in November 2006 and celebrated her 70th birthday with Alton, Jim and Pat Schreiber and other longtime friends last month at the Paddock Club in Elkhart Lake. She also visited Richter in Sheboygan, and the pair looked at 50-year-old photos and discussed them as though little time had elapsed.

“I’ve never thought of myself as a celebrity,” she said. “The Miss America contest was just a fun time for me and for Sheboygan.”

(Published in The Sheboygan Press, Sept. 12, 2009)

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Midwest surf book: Get on board for a wild ride

Lee and Larry Williams of Sheboygan, Wis., were instrumental in starting the Dairyland Surf Classic, which led to the Lake Michigan beach being called the
Lee (left) and Larry Williams of Sheboygan, Wis., were instrumental in starting the Dairyland Surf Classic, which led to their Lake Michigan beach being dubbed the “Malibu of the Midwest” and known worldwide.

The story of the Williams brothers, oft-told in the national media and touched on in the films “Step Into Liquid” and “Unsalted”, has largely been reported in sanitized, press-release fashion.

They first hopped on their surfboards in 1966 in the unlikely setting of Sheboygan, founded the Dairyland Surf Classic in 1988 and continue to embrace their favorite water sport today at age 56. End of story.

But hold on for a wild ride in “Some Like It Cold: A Sheboygan Surfin’ Safari.” The 198-page paperback, published by Clerisy Press of Cincinnati, Ohio, and written by Mequon native Bill Povletich, takes readers through the decidedly unsanitized lives of Larry “Longboard” Williams and his fraternal twin, Lee “Waterflea”.

As expected, Povletich borrows nuts and bolts from stories run in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, along with nuggets from articles published in Wisconsin newspapers.

We read that Sheboygan has become the No. 1 freshwater surfing site in the world, what with 22 breaks on its five-mile coast, a central location on Lake Michigan and the shoreline’s good fortune of jutting five miles into the lake, bringing waves from four directions.

Author Bill Povletich
Author Bill Povletich wrote the stirring “Some Like It Cold: A Sheboygan Surfin’ Safari,” which chronicles the rise of surfing in the Midwest, and the joys and hardships experienced by the Williams brothers.

Povletich (rhymes with ‘prosthetic’) expands on the seemingly innocent story of two Wisconsinites and their boarding buddies surfing year-round in the icy, frigid waters of Lake Michigan. What develops is a very adult story about love and loss — and the quest for renewal, through surfing.

“At first, you think you’re reading a lighthearted story about two teenagers who are looking for a rebellious outlet in the 1960s,” Povletich writes in an email from Los Angeles, where he is a television producer and author. “But as they grow up, you find their lives becoming more complicated with the realities of adulthood forcing them to rely on each other and their lifelong passion of surfing.”

While this is an affectionate take on the Williamses’ story, the author does not sugarcoat his portrayal. All of the surfers’ twists and turns, on the water and off, are covered in great detail, as Povletich obviously gained the brothers’ trust from the first day the author met them and scribbled his interview notes on a bar napkin.

Carousing, hopping railroad cars, blowing up toilets, skirting convention and the law, and clashing with an older, rival surf club also weigh heavily in this coming-of-age tale. The daredevil brothers, who grew up only three blocks from the lake, at 1415 S. 9th St., repeatedly escape great harm on the water, risking hypothermia or worse.

Povletich, for his part, gives equal time to their passions, demons and unimaginable despair.

In one of the book’s more poignant scenes, Larry hits an emotional low point shortly after the accidental death of his 14-year-old son, Tanner, who fell off the trunk of a moving car in 1994.

“I can’t make the pain stop,” Larry tells his brother through tears.

IMG_0097But Larry drags himself up from this alcohol-fueled crisis point at Brat Days and begins the next day channeling his energy into surfing with a greater fervor than ever.

A similar, emotional checkpoint is played out seven years later, when Lee loses his wife, Michele, to cancer at age 48. Eventually, each surfer fights through the pain and gains a measure of renewal through his passion for riding Lake Michigan’s waves.

As Larry says at the end of the book, “Through the years, our surfboards have carried us over the tallest waves and kept us afloat in the roughest waters.”

To which Lee replies, “It’s definitely been the ride of a lifetime.”

Only two years after Michele’s death, the brothers appeared in “Step Into Liquid,” which won Best Documentary at the 2003 Maui Film Festival and was called the best surfing documentary ever by Rolling Stone magazine. The 15-minute segment in which Sheboygan’s lakefront and the Williams brothers are featured made the twins instant celebrities.

“It’s amazing how the international surfing has gravitated toward Lee and Larry Williams. They never sought out attention for their unique lifestyle. The surfing world found them,” Povletich said. “Now they’re global superstars in the surfing community. Whenever they travel, they’re recognized by the biggest names in surfing at airports, restaurants and hotel lobbies.

“Think about it. Here are two guys who chose to stay and surf on their hometown beach instead of moving to Hawaii, Australia or San Diego in pursuit of bigger waves. That’s what makes their story so special,” Povletich continued. “Especially when you realize how prominent Sheboygan has become on the international surfing map. Lee, Larry and the entire Sheboygan surfing community have brought so much positive attention to the community by just focusing on what they love — surfing.”

(Published in The Sheboygan Press, 2010)