Patricia Mary Donnelly sang in a "double trio" in grade school. She also sang on the radio, worked as a runway and floor model with J.L. Hudson and sang with a band right after high school. On a dare, she entered a pageant at Jefferson Beach and was crowned "Miss Michigan".
In events that featured famed film star Buddy Rogers and crooner Rudy Vallee, Pat didn't give herself much chance of winning in Atlantic City. Taking this all in good stride, Pat decided to take a swim in her only bathing suit on Saturday afternoon, only to find out that evening that she had made the finals. In a charming twist, another contestant loaned Pat her swimsuit to compete in.
For her talent presentation, Pat sang the ballad "To You" and then switched to a more upbeat number with "Old Man Mose" where in the second chorus she picked up the bass fiddle to end her routine. "I didn't really "play" it", Pat insists, "I slapped it!"
Standing among the final five that evening, Pat and the other finalists were called to speak with the judges in the judge's box. Their question to the contestants was, "What would you do if you became Miss America?" Pat waited until last to give her response as her peers told of what they'd do upon receiving the title. When they got to Pat, she said, "I'd drop dead!"
She was crowned Miss America 1939 on stage in the Marine Ballroom of Atlantic City's famed Steel Pier. Her prize? The Miss America trophy. She was the last Miss America crowned there.
After winning the title, Pat criss-crossed the country alone on a personal appearance tour and was lovingly nicknamed "The Long-Stemmed American Beauty". Before the end of her reign, Pat was named the First President of the Miss America Sorority â€“ Mu Alpha Sigma. After holding the title Pat went on to sing in New York at the famous Stork Club, on Broadway, and in several "showgirl" roles in Hollywood films. Signed by the John Robert Powers modeling agency, she was also named the "Peanut Queen"!
En route to Chicago on the famous "Super Chief" of railways, Pat was introduced to Jack Warner of Warner Brothers Studio. He recognized Pat's strong resemblance to Hollywood beauty, Ann Sheridan. Soon a Hollywood contract was offered, but Pat turned it down. "I realized by that time that I didn't want my face known", says Pat. "In other words, I wanted the freedom of movement. To go where I pleased without people knowing who I was."
In 1948, Pat married Robin Harris and for years they worked together as traveling editors of the Hearst Newspapers. They also had two children, Amanda and Stephen, who both work in the newspaper business.
In 1986, Pat was diagnosed with throat cancer. Many years of cigarette smoking had taken their toll. She had no alternative but to undergo throat surgery, which would affect her vocal chords. Spending more than one year of her life being unable to vocally communicate, Pat underwent a second operation called a "Puncture". She said, "This miracle restored my speech."
Pat remained most interested in St. Jude's Children's Hospital, and charities concerning animal welfare.She celebrated each day thankful she was able to be instrumental in the care of her two grandsons: John ("Jack") Robin Harris born in 1994 and Matthew Lynch Harris born in 1996.Reflecting on the title, Pat said, "We were the first. We set the pattern for the others to come, and we've all retained a quality that sets us apart. Our theme song "There She Is" is an immediate identification."
Pat loved her Miss America sisters and made her last pageant visit in 2004 to spend time with them while celebrating her 65th anniversary of being crowned Miss America.
Pat passed away on Sunday, October 25, 2009 at the age of 89, just shy of her 90th birthday. We will always remember Pat for her genuine kindness, her grace and her commitment to the legacy and tradition of Miss America. We will forever treasure the memories of Miss America 1939 Patricia Donnelly Harris who helped build a lasting tradition that has continued to set us apart and has helped inspire new generations.(Courtesy Miss America)