Shaffer: Ousted Miss Raleigh returns to reclaim throne

jshaffer@newsobserver.comAugust 26, 2012 

Carolyn Byrd, minus the beehive she sometimes wore, is crowned Miss Raleigh in 1962 by her predecessor Ruby Gail Newton. Then-Miss America Maria Beale Fletcher of Asheville is at left.

1962 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO BY WARREN UZZLE

— RALEIGH -- In 1962, a high-school beauty queen with a towering beehive hairdo won the celebrated Miss Raleigh pageant, thrilling judges with her figure, her poise and her rabbit-conjuring magic tricks.

At age 17, she had already appeared in “Airborne,” a B-movie shot at Fort Bragg, and the brown-eyed semi-starlet steered a course to the big time: Miss America, maybe.

Then scandal hit. Judges learned that Carolyn Byrd was two weeks too young to compete – tipped off by a spurned boyfriend and his mother.

In front-page news, appearing alongside the space exploits of John Glenn, the N&O declared “Pretty Carolyn Byrd” tearfully gave up her crown.

“At least I got publicity,” says Carolyn Byrd Yeager, now 67. “Any other Miss Raleigh would have come and gone.”

But this fall, the dethroned queen returns for her 50th reunion at Broughton High School – reminding her hometown of an injustice grown half a century old.

When she hugs her old classmates, she’ll hug them as the true Miss Raleigh, the rightful monarch, the lion-hearted sovereign come home.

She isn’t bitter. She’s had a lovely life in Florida – married to a yacht captain, the mother of twins.

“I had some offers,” she says a bit wistfully. “I was so young. I think God lets everything work out for the best.”

But let’s dust off a few facts:

1.) Back in ’62, Yeager told the pageant organizers about her age, warning them it might be an issue if she won and advanced to the statewide contest. Their words to her: “We’ll work it out.”

2.) The runner-up who took Yeager’s crown was a Meredith College student from Fayetteville. A Miss Raleigh from Fayetteville? Where’s the real scandal here?

3.) Had Yeager advanced, she would have competed in the same year the Miss America pageant chose magic as its theme. Magic! Her forte!

“I would pull a rabbit out of a burning frying pan,” she recalls from Ft. Lauderdale. “A live dove would fly from my handkerchief.”

In her day, Yeager could pass for Sophia Loren with a Marge Simpson coif – vogue for 1962.

Her entry into movies came when a pair of filmmakers spotted her on the stool of a Raleigh diner, just like Lana Turner. She didn’t believe their offer until they rolled up to her parents’ house in a pink Cadillac with California plates.

In “Airborne,” the story of a country-boy-turned-paratrooper, she played Jenny May, the doe-eyed love interest.

When she toured North Carolina to publicize the film, audiences lined up around the block for her autograph.

A smitten writer for the Star-News in Wilmington swooned with hearts flying out his typewriter:

“She radiates charm, grace and poise of a queen, reared in regal ways of the court. She transmits sincerity, honesty and warmth usually associated with the ‘girl next door.’ ”

She once rode in a car with teen idol Troy Donahue, and he confessed, “You remind me of my girlfriend, Suzanne Pleshette.”

None of this went to Yeager’s head. She didn’t lord her good fortune over her classmates at Broughton, who chose her for Queen of Hearts.

But her boyfriend at the time – she remembers your name, if you’re reading this, buster – didn’t want her competing. He told her “me or Miss Raleigh,” and she chose Miss Raleigh.

Jaycee organizers at the time blamed a rush of anonymous callers for the Miss North Carolina pageant – Yeager’s next challenge.

But she always knew it was Mr. Ex.

Meanwhile, the N&O drooled over the shake-up.

“Judges found nothing immature about Miss Byrd,” wrote one reporter, practically leering. “Her measurements are 38-24-37.”

Now that she looks back, Yeager thinks the boyfriend did her a back-handed favor. One movie had left her drained and exhausted. And even though “Airborne” didn’t exactly burn up the box office, she might have been tempted to try again.

Instead she met her husband, John from Hickory, breaking the early-dating ice with some of her old magic tricks. She wanted children, and they had two, leaving Raleigh for Florida.

They’re still married after 43 years, the yacht captain and the Queen of Hearts.

When she comes back for the reunion in October, she’ll dust off her scepter and tell stories of her days in fabulous exile. Staff researcher Peggy Neal contributed to this column.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4818

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