Just one of the girls|Josie Smith hosted Mississippi’s queens for 49 years

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 5, 2009

Josie Smith has participated in more pageants than just about anyone else. When the Miss Mississippi Pageant gets started next week, it will be her 49th — and that’s more than half of her life.

If you go

The 2009 Miss Mississippi Pageant will be July 15-18 at Vicksburg Convention Center. Tickets are $100 for all four nights, $25 for Wednesday, $25 for Thursday, $30 for Friday and $50 for Saturday. Call 601-638-6746 or visit www.missmississippipageant.com.

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Josie will be 97 in October.

She began hosting contestants in 1960, and that has been her main role. It began when Betty Bullard asked her to be a hostess, she said, “and I’ve been there ever since.”

She retired officially two years ago, after 47 years, and now, she said, “They let me do what I want to do.” She’ll be there, dining with the contestants occasionally and going to the competition each night.

She was never in a pageant of any kind, she said, but attended some here in the early days when Vicksburg began hosting the event. As a hostess, she said, “I’ve loved every minute of it,” and always cheered for her girls.

When Josie became a hostess, the contestants stayed at the Vicksburg Hotel and then at All Saints’. She stayed with them during the day, a job she said was “really like chaperoning,” for she went everywhere with them.

Josie met Mary Ann Mobley and Lynda Lee Mead, the two famous Miss Americas, and though she never was hostess for a national winner, she remembers all as “nice, lovely girls — and no two were alike.” Though the competition was keen, it was wholesome — all the girls got along.

Though Josie said she never had favorites, one of her girls has maintained friendship and contact with her since 1960. She was Miss Mendenhall Molly McGee. The year she competed was Josie’s first time as a hostess.

One of Josie’s duties was that of traveling hostess, accompanying girls to appearances around the state and to the national competition in Atlantic City. Those trips proved to be exciting for her and the girls. When Molly had to go from North Mississippi to the Coast in a matter of hours, she and Josie were transported by highway patrolmen in relays — from one district to another, where the next driver was waiting. It was also during a series of Miss Mississippi appearances that she took her first helicopter ride.

There were stories she’ll not forget, such as the one when a highway patrolman stopped a speeding young lady who tearfully told him of her dying grandmother — and of course she was sent on her way. A few months later, it happened again — same girl, same patrolman, same grandmother — only the patrolman remembered.

It wasn’t one of her girls, Josie was quick to say.

In 1999, Josie was recognized by the Miss Mississippi Scholarship Pageant as the Volunteer of the Year. Recounting her years of service, the award also stated, “Her love for the Miss Mississippi Pageant is evidenced through her care and concern for every young woman who participates. Motherly kindness and maternal nurturing are Josie’s trademarks. Weary contestants are constantly uplifted by her gentle words and broad grin. A friendly smile awaits fellow staff members… The Miss Mississippi Corporation thanks Josie Smith for her faithfulness and loyalty.”

Josie grew up in Utica, born in the old Price home just outside of town on Fisher’s Ferry Road. Her father was a justice of the peace. When she finished high school, she came to Vicksburg, working at The Valley and for Ellis Koury. She married Marshall Smith after a long courtship because “it was during the depression, and we couldn’t afford a marriage license.”

She remembers going to Tchula as a girl when you had to flag down the train. When her father made the 100-mile trip in his Maxwell, it took all day on gravel roads.

Josie and Marshall had a daughter, who is deceased, as is Marshall. Josie has two grandsons, Paul and Glen Campbell.

“I’m not driving anymore,” Josie said, parking her car some months back because “I might have a wreck and kill somebody or kill myself.” She told the grandsons she had decided to quit and left the car in the carport — and one day she looked out and it was gone. She mused that they had taken it because “they thought I might change my mind.”

The boys are good about taking her places, though, as are the members of Gibson Memorial United Methodist Church, where she attends.

“Don’t call and ask me to go if you don’t want me to,” she said, “because I’ll go. Don’t invite me if you don’t want me.”

There’s no doubt where she’ll be when the Miss Mississippi Pageant is under way, and she’s already made up her mind about one thing.

“I’m going to have a good time.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.