SEASIDE — Miss Oregon. Those two words are extremely significant to Dana Phillips. They represent a longtime source of pride, passion and, at times, stress for Phillips, who has served as executive director of the Miss Oregon Scholarship Program since 1986 and seen many young women she holds dear to her heart succeed.
That will change Monday — after this year’s Miss Oregon is crowned Saturday — when the 65-year-old Phillips retires her post and hands the baton to three former Miss Oregon winners who together will take over.
But Phillips’ enthusiasm for the program — which has provided approximately $2 million in scholarships to young women over the past 15 years — runs deep, and she plans to reroute her focus to the Oregon Scholarship Foundation in an effort to increase the monetary awards given to contestants.
What Phillips is taking with her is a sense of pride in having led a program that gives young women confidence, support and, often, a chance to achieve the improbable.
“This program means a great deal to me,” Phillips said. “It’s changed so many young ladies’ lives, and it isn’t just because a crown goes on their head. It’s all the young ladies that have gone through and have had the opportunity to go to colleges that they wouldn’t have because of scholarship opportunities. We’re not asking anything other than for them to believe in themselves and set goals and try to achieve those goals. And we open the door and allow them to walk down that road. It’s so rewarding for all of us.”
A change of heart
Although her parents both were involved in the program — her mom was chaperone to Miss Oregon 1959 and her dad ran the Miss Portland pageant — Phillips was a theater major at Portland State University and very anti-pageant — that is, until one of her friends became Miss Oregon, and it sucked her in, she said.
In the early 1970s, Phillips started working on the Miss Portland pageant, which is a preliminary to the Miss Oregon pageant. When she moved to Seaside in 1979, her husband, Steve, was running the Miss Oregon Scholarship Program as a co-executive director. Seven years later, it was Phillips.
“I always laughingly say I didn’t like the way he was running it, so I took over,” she joked.
Around the time of transition, the Phillips and a few others had recognized the program needed to grow in terms of the scholarship dollars distributed, and they knew the way to do that was by setting up a nonprofit foundation with a separate board of directors. The Oregon Scholarship Foundation now handles the scholarship money for Miss Oregon, as well as the memorial scholarships the Phillips set up in the name of their daughter, Tiffany.
During the pageant, contestants can win about $60,000 in Miss Oregon scholarships and special awards, and about $350,000 of in-kind scholarships to various schools in and out of state. Young men and women who help with operation and production also can receive scholarship awards.
Phillips said she believes, however, the program could do better, especially at the teen level. She wants to see the prize for Miss Oregon to double to $20,000 and the prize for Miss Oregon’s Outstanding Teen to double to $6,000. When she joins the foundation, she plans to write grants and find other ways to make that possible.
What has been accomplished, though, has been life-changing for some contestants, who have gone on to work in politics, engineering, economics, education and numerous other fields.
“When I look back to 44 years of involvement in this organization, as a volunteer, we put money into it. We don’t receive a penny for what we do,” she added.
The only paid people are from the production group that handles lighting and sound; their payment comes from ticket sales and fundraising, not entry fees or other sources designated for the scholarship fund. Everyone else volunteers.
“Nobody can understand how supportive this community is to the Miss Oregon Scholarship Program and has been since it started in 1947,” Phillips said.
People donate time, meals, rooms and funds. “It’s mind-boggling,” she said. “And it’s really heartfelt enthusiasm they have for this program.”
A pageant family
When reflecting on which aspect of the program she takes the most pride in, Phillips said it would have to be that the first Miss Oregon, Jo Ann Amorde, is still involved, although now at a local level as she progresses in age.
“We have so many of our past contestants, past Miss Oregons, past Miss Oregon families, past contestant families still being involved in the pageant,” Phillips said. “We call ourselves a pageant family and we really are.”
That became evident in a personal way when the Phillips lost Tiffany in a car accident in 1998 shortly after she turned 17. Phillips was supposed to fly to a National Association of Miss America State Pageants meeting in New York when the accident occurred. She didn’t attend the workshop, but when her counterparts heard what happened, “the phone calls kept coming in,” she said. They also raised about $50,000 to set up a memorial fund in Tiffany’s name. The family received a great deal of support from the Miss America organization, other individuals affiliated with the program and the Seaside community, Phillips said.
Tiffany — a 6-foot-4-inch star athlete — was never a contestant herself, but she liked the behind-the-scenes aspect and was close to the Miss Oregon winners who would stay with the family.
“She was one of those young ladies who was always willing to help others and believed in making sure people understood that you can pick up your own bootstraps and you do whatever you want to do,” she said.
Tiffany “was a miracle child,” and though she was unexpected, Phillips said, “we were so blessed to have had her, but too short.” Her spirit remains, however. “She’s my guardian angel,” Phillips said.
Having Tiffany also gave Phillips a deeper understanding and ability to form relationships with the Miss Oregon winners. Growing up, she didn’t babysit and she didn’t like being around children.
“Then Tiffany came into my life,” she said. “It just gives you an insight, to have a little person that you made and that you can sit there and enjoy and mentor. It gives you an insight that I wouldn’t have had without that. I didn’t really have the true heart of it until I had my own child. And I think that’s one of the reasons Steve and I have stayed so involved is because of the heartache so many of these young people go through in life because they don’t have or come from loving families. And there isn’t anybody to be supportive and there isn’t anybody to lift them up and say, ‘you can achieve whatever you want to achieve.’”
From not being particularly fond of children, Phillips now has been “accumulating daughters in a special way by being involved in this organization” for several decades.
“These young ladies are the legacy that we’ve helped build in this program,” she said. “Our daughters — our Miss Oregons — are very special.”
Phillips has enjoyed her 44-year tenure with the program, but “it’s time to turn it over and let new blood come in with their new ideas and move forward,” she said.
She’s content with the work she has done. She’s been an advocate for fostering equality, openness and anti-discrimination within the program — at one point, a woman could not compete if she had an abortion. Phillips quickly dismissed a sponsor when one of its representatives made derogatory remarks about a black woman being crowned Miss Oregon.
In addition to helping with the foundation, she will continue on as chairwoman of the Miss America State Trade Show, which supports the Tiffany Phillips Memorial Scholar-Athlete Award, open to any contestant in the United States.
When Phillips retires, three former Miss Oregon winners will take over. April Robinson and Nichole (Mead) Lahner will handle the Miss Oregon component and Stephenie (Steers) West will focus on Miss Oregon’s Outstanding Teen.
“I feel really good about it, because they understand the heart of the program,” Phillips said.