BROOKINGS – After being together since 1969, Raymond “Ray” Peterson, 76, South Dakota State University retired theatre director, is leaving after producing his final Miss South Dakota scholarship competition.
“It used to be a pageant. … It’s always a pageant to me,” Peterson said, laughing as he reminisced about his many years producing the annual extravaganza, now in its 74th year.
After spending 72 years in Hot Springs, the pageant was moved to Brookings in 2019 and “premiered” in the new Oscar Larson Performing Arts Center on the South Dakota State University campus. After a hiatus in 2020 necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the event returns to that venue today through June 5, with 15 young women competing for thousands of dollars in scholarships – with one moving on to the Miss America competition. This year’s theme is “C’mon Get Happy.”
“Actually, it is my 54th year with the Miss South Dakota organization,” Peterson explained. “I went out (to Hot Springs) and was a featured vocalist for the first four years.” In 1969, he began his decades with the pageant as producer and production director.
A native of Oldham, Peterson’s attraction to the Miss South Dakota pageant goes way back.
“I was about 8 or 9 years old when we had two young women from Oldham. One was a Duffy girl who became Miss Sioux Falls and was first runner-up in the Miss South Dakota Pageant.”
Another Oldham girl, whose mother worked in his father’s store – Melvin’s Store, a grocery and general store owned and operated by his parents, Melvin and Helen Peterson – was Miss Madison (or Miss Inter-Lakes) and went on to also be a first runner-up in the Miss South Dakota pageant.
Peterson graduated from Oldham High School as class valedictorian in 1963 and then attended General Beadle State College (now Dakota State University).
“My dad felt if I was closer to home, I’d be available weekends to help in the store,” he said.
A tale of two pageants
To the uninitiated, Peterson explains that there are two Miss South Dakota pageants.
He’s with the Miss South Dakota competition that selects the state’s entry to the Miss America competition; the Miss South Dakota USA competition winner goes on to the Miss USA competition, whose winner goes on to vie for the title of Miss Universe.
No Miss South Dakota has gone on to be crowned Miss America. The closest was first runner-up Irene O’Connor, from Burbank, in 1950.
She won the preliminary talent award with a dramatic monologue: “Dedication of the White Armor,” from “Saint Joan.”
“The (Miss South Dakota) pageant originated back in 1947 in Hot Springs,” Peterson explained, looking back at its history. “It was a kind of carryover from what had been; each year there was a Lake Lardy contest, kind of a festival on the water out there. They took it from there and had the contest in Hot Springs itself on the football field.
“It was at that point that the Miss America Corporation was wanting a state representative from all 48 states back then.”
Prior to that, representatives had come from major American cities, such as Chicago.
In another look at history, Peterson noted, “It’s kind of neat that the winner of that first pageant has been loyal to this day, comes back, walks the runway. She is 92. Just a super lady. She has not been to Brookings yet. She’s looking forward to that.”
Vietnam, Hall of Fame, ‘Mr. South Dakota’
Following graduation – summa cum laude – from GBSC, where in 1966 he was named the school’s “Man of the Year,” Peterson stayed on and served as director of student activities. His stay, however, was short-lived.
He was drafted into the Army in 1969. After boot camp at Fort Lewis, Washington, Peterson was trained in transportation logistics at Fort Eustis, Virginia; he was next assigned to Long Binh, Vietnam, as a transportation specialist. And despite long and very busy days, 14-hour shifts, he kept his connection to the Miss South Dakota pageant.
During his limited off-duty hours, he wrote the 1971 show – and at the end of his tour of duty, he came home to produce it. Prior to heading home, he was presented the Bronze Star Medal for “meritorious achievement.”
Peterson is especially recognized for his career in the theater arts and education at SDSU. During his 40-year tenure there, he designed sets and costumes for more than 200 theater productions and directed countless musicals. Additionally, he served as faculty adviser to the Alpha Psi Dramatics Honorary Fraternity.
Following his retirement in 2011, he has continued to work with the pageant.
“There’s something about that program that for me has been very rewarding,” he explained of his decision to stay. “I have met people from every state in the union. I’ve had an opportunity to judge 43 state pageants.”
At a Miss Alaska pageant, one of the contestants was Sarah (Heath) Palin, who finished second runner-up.
“She bowled us over in the interview,” he said. “She was sharp.”
And he judged a Miss Hawaii event, whose winner went on to be crowned Miss America.
Peterson sees all those people who contribute to the Miss America pageant as “family, some of the best people, from all walks of life. … Realtors, doctors, lawyers, ministers, which surprises me.”
In 2018, Peterson was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame. The narrative of his many accomplishments that led to his selection took note of some of the many honors he earned: three times an SDSU teacher of the year; 1995 4-H Good Neighbor Award; 1997 Friends of the Arts Award; 1998 Grand Marshal SDSU Hobo Day Parade; and leading the procession and carrying the ceremonial mace in the 2011 Spring Commencement.
Finally, in 2016 the Miss America Organization honored Peterson with the Miss America Crowning Achievement Award; and that same year, Gov. Dennis Daugaard proclaimed June 18 “Ray Peterson Day.” The result of his selection was Peterson being known as “Mr. South Dakota.”
Contact John Kubal at [email protected] (The South Dakota Hall of Fame contributed to this report.)