1940 was a memorable year for Autumn Glen resident Carolyn Akin Shenk.
She graduated high school, won the Vanderburgh 4-H Health contest, was named Miss Indiana and went to Atlantic City to participate in the Miss America contest.
Today, at age 86, Shenk is the oldest living Miss Indiana and holds the distinction of winning over the largest Miss Indiana field ever, of 92 contestants. She now resides in Greencastle, and recently met with the candidates in the Putnam County Fair Queen contest, giving them a few tips.
According to Terry Iden, author of the "History of the Miss Indiana Pageant," on the night of the competition in 1940 the group was reduced to ten, to six, to four, to three and then the winner. All chosen by the audience applause meter which local papers guaranteed had accurate readings."
One of her girlfriends told her she had a great figure and should enter the contest. At that time, there was not a talent portion in the state contest, so she entered. She wore an evening gown that her mother sewed for her. It was the only formal dress she owned. To her absolute surprise she was named Miss Indiana.
"I was so amazed to win. And, suddenly I realized I had to figure out a talent for the Miss America contest in Atlantic City. Then I was scared," she commented with a twinkle in her brilliant blue eyes. Her prizes consisted of a diamond ring from Kay Jewelers, a Chubby fur and $200 for a new wardrobe.
"I bought four outfits including dresses, gloves, shoes and hats and that's what I wore in Atlantic City," she reported.
Next, she had to figure out a talent.
"I had a friend from Reitz High School (Evansville) who had taught me five tap dance steps during lunch at school. I went to a dance studio and had them teach me a routine with those steps," she laughed. "I was so scared when I performed at the Miss America Pageant that afterwards they had to take me to the back to lay down."
Born in 1921, Carolyn describes herself as a country girl.
"To compete in the Miss America contest I had to take a train alone from Evansville to Indianapolis then to Philadelphia. There I met the other contestants and my chaperone and we traveled with the group to Atlantic City's Boardwalk for the Miss America contest," she recalled.
In one of her scrapbooks are newspaper advertisements for Kay Jewelers with her posing in her bathing suit. She still has the jersey bathing suit and can still fit into it. She says she wore it for years swimming in lakes as she raised her family.
When asked, she will tell you her finest accomplishment is not winning the Miss Indiana contest that she entered on a whim, but raising her two children alone.
She recalls her early life when in 1943 she married a handsome bombardier named Thomas H. Black Jr. He was a lieutenant in the Air Force. Their wedding announcement showed separate pictures of Black in his uniform and Shenk in her competition bathing suit. They were blessed with a son and daughter, Thomas and Barbara.
When her husband was 36 he died from cancer, leaving the beauty queen to raise the two kids alone.
"Raising my children alone is my single greatest accomplishment," she states. "It didn't take a lot to live on back then. I owned a duplex with my husband and got social security benefits and something from his military service so we managed."
After her children were through with school (Barbara became a teacher and Thomas is Greencastle physician Dr. Thomas Black), she took a federal communications job with the U.S. Post Office. Years later she met up with an old school friend named Irvin Shenk. They married and ran Shenk Farms in Vincennes until his death a few years ago. She moved to Greencastle to be close to some of her eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
She was honored a few years ago in Terre Haute during the 60th anniversary of receiving her crown.
"I met a lot of people. Being Miss Indiana opened the door to many interesting and thoughtful people.I have made many friends over the years, renewed old friendships and made new acquaintances," she notes. "It was a wonderful thing to have happen."
Just as beautiful today as she must have been in 1940, her brilliant blue eyes sparkle and her gentle smile and soft voice all make it easy to see why a little country girl with no special talent was named Miss Indiana 1940.