Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.



Miss N.D. shows drive to succeed

In the spring of last year, Jacqueline Johnson was bustling about a hall at Fargo North High School, seeing to the smooth flow of a blood donation drive she had helped orchestrate.

In the spring of last year, Jacqueline Johnson was bustling about a hall at Fargo North High School, seeing to the smooth flow of a blood donation drive she had helped orchestrate.

In between crossing off donor names on the sign-up sheet and overseeing post-transfusion snack distribution, Johnson, back then a North High senior, welcomed a guy friend - a hulking football player and something of a macho man - who strutted in gung-ho about spilling blood lavishly.

But soon after she wandered off, she heard him call out, "Can you come over here for a second?" Turns out, he was a first-time donor who could use a hand-holder.

"He did squeeze hard," says Johnson about the transfusion, though it wasn't established if that was because of his extra sturdy grip - or an extra acute case of the jitters.

On his way out, the athlete inquired if he could call Johnson if in need of another blood drive hand-squeeze.


The cynics out there might suspect the football player was pulling an elaborate scam to line up a date with Johnson, 20, who two weeks ago snatched the Miss North Dakota title in Williston.

But then, the cynics might also say blood donation, her pageant platform of choice, is just that - a noble-sounding mission to win over competition judges. By all accounts, however, Johnson means business.

She's taking a year off from her pre-med studies at Minnesota's Gustavus Adolphus College to plug blood donation in the area - and to work on her bid for Miss America, which, with a brand new broadcast partner, seems poised for an infusion of fresh blood.

A full-time job

Since she beat 21 young women to the North Dakota title and a prize of $8,000 in cash scholarship money, Johnson, who competed as Miss Red River Valley, has had a hectic schedule. She gave interviews to Williston and Fargo media, joined the Williston Rotary Club, had breakfast with an Amtrak rep to discuss a possible promotional campaign and crashed the Miss Montana pageant.

There, she played the cello and performed in the group dance numbers, but mostly she acted as an emotional hand-holder to the jittery contestants. She hung out in the contestant dressing room rather than her designated "royalty" room and tutored them on how not to become "overpageantized," or too worried about perpetually smiling for the judges and dropping "ums" in interview responses.

In the wake of her coronation, she had promptly canceled her summer break plans: a summer-school biology class at North Dakota State University, cello lessons for high schoolers and possibly a temp job at The Gap.

She also decided that in the fall she wouldn't go back to Gustavus Adolphus, where she had been named Freshman Chemistry Student of the Year and secured a slew of scholarships, listed in tiny type on her pageant resume. She thinks the year off school will fit right in there. "That's going to look amazing on a resume," she says. "It's like schooling in itself."


Then, on returning from Montana, Johnson found out the Miss America pageant, after eight months of uncertainty, had secured a new TV home at CMT, MTV's country-music affiliate.

Some pageant insiders had lamented the move to cable of the 80-plus-year-old contest, which ABC ditched last year after ratings hit an all-time low since the show's TV debut in 1955.

But Johnson was upbeat. "It's a huge relief to the contestants to know we have a network," she says. Plus, CMT scheduled the Atlantic City, N. J., pageant for January, a break from decades of September contests, which will allow her to kick off her school tour promoting blood donation at the very start of the school year.

The tour will be the centerpiece of her reign and the would-be pediatrician's answer to the question, "How can I help now in a field where I will be working 10 years from now?"

Johnson has donated almost a gallon of blood since she became eligible at 17. Her former Student Council adviser, Connie Deutsch, says at the time Johnson tackled it, the Fargo North annual donation drive was threatened with extinction by increasing student no-shows.

Instead of sitting with a sign-up sheet at an information table in the buildup to the drive, Johnson put up signs, posted reminder notes on lockers and lobbied her friends. The efforts paid off in 100 percent participation.

Johnson is planning an equally proactive approach to the school tour. She will sow the seeds of volunteerism in impressionable elementary school minds ("Blood donation will be really hard to explain to a first-grader") and make sure a donation truck waits in front of high schools after her pep talks ("Hopefully, they'll all be riled up about it then").

Drive and prejudice


Johnson hit the pageant circuit a year ago, when she won Miss Fargo after deciding to run two weeks before the contest, a very short notice by pageant standards. Deutsch pulled her out of a calculus class, sat her down in her office and pitched the Miss Fargo idea, meticulously avoiding the words "Miss" and "pageant."

"It's a scholarship competition, and you'll get to play the cello," Deutsch told her. When she finally disclosed what she was talking about, Johnson cooled off a little. "Is there a swimsuit portion?" she recalls asking, her face puckering up in a dubious frown to mimic her initial reaction.

But she thought about the competition overnight - she has since come to see the swimsuit part as an earnest message to an increasingly obese and unhealthy nation - and she decided to give it a shot. The pageant dress she quickly picked out later doubled as her prom dress and then tripled as an outfit for her Miss North Dakota debut, when she won first runner-up.

Johnson's parents couldn't be more supportive. Today, her mom, Caroline, a stay-at-home mom, might tear up as she fires off her daughter's pageant and non-pageant accomplishments. Her dad, Gary, who works for a Fargo outdoor advertising company, promptly fetches some tissue.

"She just makes us so proud," Caroline says apologetically, wiping her eyes. She is as proud of Jacqueline's academic prowess - she graduated at the top of her high school class - as she is of her flair for organizing "sister nights," which involve at-home manicures or movie-theater outings with Cassandra, 14, and Lauren, 3.

"She's quite the kid," confirms Gary, chucking the more customary "young lady," as in "She's a determined young lady" (dad) and "She's a very positive young lady" (mom).

Non-family members agree Johnson has the can-do spunk that has endeared many a would-be Miss America to pageant judges across the country. "She was always happy, always upbeat," recalls Deutsch. "Everybody liked her. She's so personable, it's hard not to like her."

Marilyn McGinley, president of the Miss North Dakota organization, picked up on Johnson's go-getting outlook, too, and in the process banished any doubt the young lady is truly passionate about her platform.


The night after this past Miss North Dakota competition, Johnson spotted a United Blood Services truck pull up into the parking lot of her hotel. The next morning, she contacted the local reporters who were scheduled to interview her and asked them to meet her at the blood donation site.

The most pressing question she had to answer was why she wasn't donating. Cynics, back off: A few days earlier, in the middle of a dance number rehearsal, Johnson realized she saw the producer's lips move but didn't hear his voice. A doctor diagnosed an ear condition and prescribed three medications, including the antibiotic that made her ineligible to donate that day.

But that didn't mean she couldn't help, as she explained to two needle-phobic ladies who sheepishly inquired if they could contribute without actually donating blood. There are pamphlets to hand out, cookies to distribute and sign-up desks to man.

And of course, occasionally, there is a slightly spooked-out football player in need of a hand-holder.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

What To Read Next
Get Local