There is nothing better than a parade, especially a college homecoming one. If you are an alumnus, you remember the long, but hilarious hours of practicing your routine for Yell Like Hell, putting together your float for the theme that year, or practicing for your interviews for court.
Since 1947, Pittsburg State University has been honoring the tradition of homecoming and do not disappoint! Alumni return to their alma mater, kids line up and down Broadway to catch candy being thrown floats, area school bands keep their lines sharp as proudly play their cadence, and we get to see our own Miss Pittsburg State as she waves from her convertible down Broadway.
It was almost fifty years ago this month Pittsburg was particularly proud to line up on Broadway to watch a special parade. On July 8, 1967, Debra ‘Debbie’ Dene Barnes was named Miss Kansas from among 34 candidates. Debbie came back to Pittsburg, Kansas, July 15th, where she was honored with “Debbie Barnes Day” that included a parade, interview, and a dinner on campus. It was in later in October when Gov. Robert Docking proclaimed October 26, 27, and 28, Kansas Days for Miss America. Several towns in Kansas hosted receptions and dinners welcoming the new Miss America 1968. More than four thousand people came to Pittsburg when the town hosted Miss America Day (MAD) on Saturday, October 28, 1967. The day included a press conference, a parade with Miss America Debbie Barnes, Miss Pitt State Becky Elliott and the new Miss Kansas Kandee Kae Klein.
Debra Dene Barnes wowed everyone once again with her grace and beauty as she waved to the crowd. There were tears of pride and joy as the Kansas State College band played ‘There She Is, Miss America’ at the end of the parade. It was a busy day her first year returning to the university as Miss America. She received a standing ovation at McCray Hall after her piano recital that included Born Free, the song that won her the talent competition. A luncheon and press conference took place at Hotel Besse and in the evening, a colossal reception in the Student Union.
How did it all begin? Born and raised in Moran, Kansas, Debbie began taking piano lessons from her mother. By the age of twelve, she was giving private piano lessons herself. After graduating from Marmaton Valley High School, Debbie enrolled at Kansas State College of Pittsburg (KSCP) in Fall 1965 semester majoring in music. She was active in several organizations on campus and held offices in CWENs, a sophomore women’s honorary society, in Tau Beta Sigma and Sigma Alpha Iota. She played baritone in the KSCP marching band and French horn in the concert band. In April 1967, Debbie entered the second annual Miss Pittsburg State Pageant. She was first runner-up in the event the previous spring. In the 1967 pageant, ‘Reflection of Loveliness,’ she won all three preliminary competitions of swimsuit, evening gown and talent, and Miss Pittsburg State. She went on to enter the Miss Kansas Pageant in July and won the preliminary swimsuit and talent competitions. The talent competition consisted of her piano arrangement of a jazz, classical, bossa nova, swing style variation of the movie theme, “Born Free.” That arrangement was never written on paper.
From the moment she was crowned Miss Kansas, Debbie and her Pitt Crew began preparing for the Miss America pageant. She won the preliminary swimsuit competition (the evening after her 20th birthday), wearing the same yellow swimsuit that won for her at Miss Kansas in Pratt, at the Miss America pageant and went on to be crowned Miss America on September 9th, 1968.
The Miss America pageant also witnessed controversy that year when during the actual pageant that evening, some protesters sneaked into Boardwalk Hall and unfurled a banner reading, “Women’s Liberation,” while shouting, “Women’s Liberation!” and “No More Miss America!” Their action gave the growing movement an invaluable amount of exposure during the live broadcast before they quickly being escorted out by the police.
Debbie went on to use the scholarship money that she received from the local, state, and national pageants to finish her Bachelor and Master’s degrees in Piano Performance from Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas. In 1994, she joined Missouri Southern State College in 1994. As an adjunct professor, she has taught Class Piano, Music Appreciation, and has accompanied many students as they performed their Senior Recitals. As Assistant Professor since 2007, she now teaches the music methods courses for students majoring in both Elementary Education and Music Education. She is also a highly regarded motivational speaker, traveling extensively to address youth and women’s church groups about her faith journey. Since winning Miss America, she has performed in forty-one states and three foreign countries, on network television, numerous cable stations, and still maintains an active performance schedule.
Today, visitors can view her exhibit at the museum, including the yellow swimsuit that won her the swimsuit competition for both Miss Kansas and Miss America. Ask those who remember her journey and a flood of different emotions return. Pittsburg State can proudly state that we have we our very own Miss America, Miss Kansas and Miss Pittsburg State, Ms. Debbie Barnes.
See you all on Broadway this Saturday for the Pitt State Homecoming Parade!
— Amanda Minton is the director of the Crawford County Historical Museum, as well as a lecturer of history at Pittsburg State University.