By Michael W. Sasser
To hear Jane Jayroe tell it, all she needed to learn to excel in multiple careers as a pageant champion, media figure, author and community leader, she learned in the values, the inspiration and the drive instilled in her by her grandmother, and by Oklahoma City University.
"My grandmother, Clara Hill – or Mama May, as we called her – was a renaissance woman for her time," Jayroe explained. "She came to Oklahoma on a train, I believe, and settled in the Panhandle. She was just a young girl, but was able to homestead her own land. We actually have the deed, and she was the first owner of the property."
Hill would go on to become the first teacher in the county and, years later, an inspiration to Jayroe.
"She was the most feminine, beautiful woman," Jayroe continued. "Imagine, she survived the Depression, the Dust Bowl, six kids ... and she started the Methodist Church. She maintained a beautiful, feminine presence, even in a tough life. She and her husband both have been huge inspirations to me. I had a lot of cousins, and there was always so much laughter. We spent every Christmas at her house, and it was always such a great time, even with 20 cousins and the adults all in one house. One of my most vivid memories is of her rose garden – roses, in the Panhandle!"
Born in Clinton, Oklahoma, in 1947, Jayroe was no stranger to a childhood in the country. "There is something very special about a rural upbringing," she said.
Although Jayroe also cites her mother and other relatives for their inspiration, she firmly credits her college experience for opening her eyes to the larger world. She happened to see a production of a performance group from Oklahoma City University, and was smitten.
"The Methodist Church was always very important to me, so finding that there was a Methodist university in Oklahoma City was so exciting. Plus, they sent singers to the USO, which was a dream of mine – to perform for military overseas."
Jayroe was accepted into a public university but expressed a desire to pursue her education at OCU. Her parents made the desire a reality.
"It says a lot about my parents that they went the extra mile so I could go to OCU. It was a life-changing experience. There are turning points in everyone's life, and I believe God leads you, if you just listen."
She was just a small-town girl with grit and a passion for music and performance when she arrived at OCU.
"I was so very shy, I lacked confidence, so it was a huge deal to go to the 'big city,' which Oklahoma City was to me at that age."
A music education major, Jayroe learned far more from her program tract at OCU. She learned an approach to education and to life in general from the university's specific culture – a precious culture that has long inspired her commitment to the lauded university.
"OCU fosters an environment of support, of encouraging students to think big and to try, to explore themselves, their dreams and their capabilities," Jayroe said with obvious enthusiasm. "It wasn't the kind of place where you would fail and be demoralized. On the contrary, the students and faculty were right there to pick you up and help you get back on track. It has a uniquely loving and supportive environment."
Not that Jayroe had to confront much in the way of failure – although notably, despite her educational pursuit, she never did move on to become a teacher.
"That's a good thing!" Jayroe believes. "I would not have made a good teacher."
Fueled by inspirational predecessors and the nurturing environment at OCU, the beautiful but shy Jayroe was encouraged by sorority sisters to take a huge leap for a small-town girl – to compete to become Miss Oklahoma City.
"That had always been a dream of mine," Jayroe said. "I grew up watching the Miss American Pageant, and always wanted to be on that stage. I had a $50 gown my parents gave me for a Christmas present, I had no experience and very little training – and I won. Today, there is so much training. I had none of that, and no experience. I felt like I didn't have anything to lose. But that's part of OCU – students are very supportive of one another.
"I was the most surprised; my parents were second most surprised!"
Her passion continued as Jayroe competed in the Miss Oklahoma pageant, for which she and her mother had to travel to Tulsa.
"I loved the experience, and it was a wonderful time," Jayroe said. "I'd never been to Tulsa, so we were lost a lot of the time. I didn't feel like the competition was so intense with the other women. We became friends, and I didn't expect to win."
Instead, Jayroe was named Miss Oklahoma in 1966, which itself was a stepping-stone to the very Miss America pageant she had regularly watched in her youth. By 1967, she had an advisor and practiced intensely.
"I was still so shy, but I had a great advisor and was prepared – that way, once I got into competition, the training took over," Jayroe said. "I had no expectations, and there really wasn't a lot of pressure. I don't think anyone from Oklahoma was there. I became friends with the other women. Most contestants just wanted to do their best to represent the people who'd sent them there."
Once again, Jayroe surprised everyone and was voted Miss America in 1967, opening doors to travel and the many skills associated with it – communications and public relations among them. It was during that year that Jayroe accomplished another long-time dream: performing for troops stationed overseas, in Vietnam. There, she entertained troops, met many young service members, and traveled the country – as the first Miss America to ever visit a combat zone. It was an emotional experience.
"We were 19 and so were they," Jayroe said. "They were our peers and friends. My cousin was there. Some of the other girls who were traveling with me had friends and family there, too. They stood in line for hours to shake our hands. We visited hospitals. It had nothing to do with politics. They were doing what they were told to do in Vietnam. I was always very patriotic, but I think that experience changed the way I saw America."
Just years later, Jayroe blazed yet another trail as a news broadcaster.
"I had spent most of my life in communications – writing, public relations and, of course, that's what Miss America does. I believe I always really wanted to be a journalist. Back then, though, you didn't see a lot of women in the media, particularly in broadcast media."
Jayroe was attracted to the writing end of broadcast news, but soon found herself on-air with KOCO, becoming the first woman hired as a prime time news anchor in the market.
"Oklahoma TV viewers must be pretty forgiving because I know I made a lot of early mistakes," Jayroe said. "More women came on the air in the next two or three years, which was a big deal. Previously, Barbara Walters was really the only major female broadcaster. I absolutely loved it."
Jayroe excelled with KOCO and KTVY (now KFOR-TV) in Oklahoma City and KXAS in Dallas/Fort Worth. She won several awards during her 16-year career, including the first female to be awarded “Outstanding News Personality” in the Dallas-Fort Worth television market. She also hosted a health-related public affairs show, “Health Matters,” on Oklahoma's PBS network, OETA. Jayroe later went on to co-host a popular television show, “Discover Oklahoma,” promoting tourism within the state of Oklahoma.
Being in broadcast media and having the opportunity to travel the state fostered a deep appreciation for Oklahoma. The next phase of her career enabled her to explore and share that passion – even if it started with a surprise.
"Actually, my life has been full of surprises, and very little of what I planned on worked out," Jayroe said. "But I also took opportunities when they presented themselves, and I always worked hard."
One day, post-broadcast career, Jayroe's phone rang. She was asked to become Gov. Frank Keating’s Secretary of Tourism and Recreation. In addition to her service as tourism secretary, Keating appointed Jayroe to serve as the director of the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation. Her communications skills and grace made it only a logical progression.
"I really enjoyed promoting the state of Oklahoma, both internally and externally – it was great," she said.
Jayroe was familiar with public service and assisting significant organizations. In 1992, she became the first spokesperson for the Oklahoma Health Center and vice president of the Presbyterian Health Foundation. She was the first woman elected chairman of the Oklahoma Academy for State Goals, and is on executive committees for the University of Oklahoma Breast Health Institute, Oklahoma City University Board of Trustees, and the Oklahoma Health Center Foundation. As a member of the United Methodist Church/Church of the Servant in Oklahoma City, Jayroe is on the Women's Ministries Team and a board member for the Education and Employment Ministries. She has taken an active role in issues affecting young people, serving as honorary chair for the Conference on Teen Pregnancy, Youth Arts Month and the Oklahoma Parents and Teachers Association. She is a former trustee for the Sarkey's Foundation.
Jayroe also launched Esther Women, an initiative she intended as a one-time occasion.
"I started it 13 years ago, and meant to do it once," she said. "I wanted to create luncheons for women leaders. Well, they didn't want to stop at just one luncheon, so I kept doing it another 10 years. It's been a labor of love. I don't think we have enough inspirational stories."
Although the structure has changed, Jayroe remains deeply involved in the group, and it helped inspire one of her books, “Devote Forty Days.” Jayroe is also the author of several articles appearing in McCall's and other publications, including Out of the Blue, Delight Comes Into Your Life and Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul. She was producer for "Daily Devotionals," a set of audiocassettes by area ministers and laypeople, and recently created a seminar for women titled “Living Grace-fully.” Her most current publications include “More Grace Than Glamour: My Life as Miss Americaand Beyond,” and “Oklahoma 3,” a book published for the Centennial year of Oklahoma’s statehood and portraying the diversity of the state.
"I love writing, and I love writing inspiration," Jayroe said. "I'm working on another book – more men and women telling their Oklahoma stories. Well, really they are God's stories told through Oklahomans."
Trailblazer though she may be, and as far as her diverse and impressive career has taken her, Jayroe remains rooted in the powerful influences of her youth. That includes her commitment as a trustee at OCU, an institution she has loved for decades.
"OCU’s unique culture fosters fertile ground for creativity and growth," she said. "It's a loving and kind place, an environment for students who tend to be driven. OCU is a place for people who want to live with purpose."
Given the influence of a grandmother whose achievements were remarkable in her – or any – time, a supportive, dynamic family and an approach to life buoyed by the culture of a faith and of a university that inspired her, it's little wonder there is anything Jayroe can't achieve, even today.
Well, almost anything.
"I've tried taking Bridge lessons," she said. "But I just don't get it. I don't think I will ever be any good at it."
Generally, Jayroe said she is no longer driven to pursue serious goals.
"I am at the point where I am filled with gratitude for what I have today. The gift of aging is the appreciation of every day, the people I care about, the people I love. I want to love them more and to be more spiritual. I don't want to be driven anymore; I want to be called by His love and grace."
However, Mama May's influence might still prompt Jayroe to take on a new challenge.
"Oh, a rose garden! I might just have to try that! Although, maybe not in the Panhandle!"