Miss America Pageant honors Smith-Zoll for service

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

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Energy streamed off of Lois Elaine Smith-Zoll as she strolled through The Columbian’s newsroom, gearing up to talk about her 45 years of work with the Miss America Pageant.

Asked if she’d mind doing the interview in a small area with no windows, she had a ready reply.

“No,” she said. “I’ll brighten up the room for you.”

The quick-talking Smith-Zoll, 74, could be considered one of Vancouver’s best-known characters. She takes over a room once she enters it, shaking hands and offering friendly banter to anyone in range.

Her polished style no doubt has come in handy during her time working with Washington’s young women trying to prepare for the Miss America competition. Smith-Zoll knows what she’s looking for in contestants.

“I look for intelligence, sincerity, a smile on their face, their own convictions and how they stand up to the real world,” Smith-Zoll said.

During her time with Miss America she’s volunteered as a coach, judge and scholarship coordinator. And though she’s been working with the group for a long time, she said she’s not ready to quit just yet.

“I would like to do 50 years,” Smith-Zoll said. “That’s my goal.”

Pageant organizers gave Smith-Zoll a commemorative pin and hosted a special ceremony in honor of her service on Wednesday as part of its 91st pageant, now held in Las Vegas.

“It’s remarkable that she’s been a volunteer for 45 years,” said Sharon Pearce, the pageant’s vice president. “Her level of energy, enthusiasm and passion for the program are undeniable. Everyone loves her. Everyone knows her.”

The pageant finale will be on TV at 9 p.m. Saturday on ABC.

Her most recent work with scholarships is probably her favorite part of the competition. She manages about $800,000 worth of scholarship funds for Miss Washington, Smith-Zoll said.

“It’s the gratification of seeing what those dollars can do for a person in college,” she said.

Smith-Zoll got started with the pageant because of her reputation as a singer. After moving to Vancouver in 1965 she sang the national anthem at several Portland Beavers and Trail Blazer games.

The pageant recruited her to help with the Clark County contestants initially, because there were several singers among them.

Raised as a bit of a tomboy farm girl in Wisconsin, she never really thought of competing in the pageant herself.

“Are you kiddin’? You wouldn’t catch me dead in a swimsuit,” Smith-Zoll said of that idea. “I was too embarrassed.”

In the next five years, she’d like to groom her own replacement, she said.

“I would like to mentor someone to take over the scholarships in the state,” Smith-Zoll said, adding that there is no pay for the volunteer position.

In the meantime, Pearce said the pageant will be happy to have Smith-Zoll stick around for as long as she’d like.

“She’s an extraordinary woman with such depth and such a heart of gold,” Pearce said. “We’re very proud of her.”