- Written by Meredith Westgate Meredith Westgate
Since 2000, 50plus LIFE (previously Senior News and 50plus Senior News) has won more than 130 awards for its editorial content and design.
Here’s a look at an award-winning article from our archives.
Evelyn Ay – Where is She Now?
October 2000 issue
Mature Media Awards: Silver Award
By Meredith Westgate
It was September 1954 when 20-year-old Evelyn Ay, of Ephrata, became the pride of Lancaster County, and indeed, all of Pennsylvania. She was crowned Miss America in the Convention Hall, Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Ephrata may not have ever before or since seen such a grand celebration as the one that took place the day she returned to her hometown. Sixty thousand people lined the streets for a parade of flower-studded floats while area high school marching bands played triumphant tunes.
Carlo M. Sardella, a Press staff writer, called Ay “the People’s Choice.” He wrote, “Riding on a wave of popularity that began with her first public appearance in the [Miss America] parade … Ay copped the Miss America title … before a cheering, whistling, full house.”
Ay earned her place in the finals by winning the first-night trophy in the swimsuit competition and earning top points in talent with her dramatic reading of Leaves from My House, a poem about a house and life in the South Pacific. But, it was in the question-and-answer period that Ay clinched the title.
“She came through with colors flying so high that there were expressions of amazement up and down press row,” Sardella wrote.
As the last Miss America to be crowned before the pageant was televised, Ay represented the end of an era. With the title, Ay was awarded a $5,000 scholarship, a car, and some $40,000 in personal appearance fees during her reign. She traveled 390,000 miles across the U.S., England, France, and Germany, serving as “the headliner” at festivals and charity events.
At the time of her crowning, Ay was a junior at the University of Pennsylvania. She had never participated in a beauty pageant. Approached by the Junior Chamber of Commerce in Ephrata, she was persuaded to compete in the local competition.
Advancing to the Miss America pageant was “one big, giant step,” Ay said. Winning was “a serendipity” in her life.
With no expectation of winning the pageant, Ay had become engaged on the Saturday before the Miss America pageant. Her fiancé, Carl Sempier, was in officer candidate school at Penn. A November wedding was planned.
On the night of the pageant, Sempier and some friends gathered around a radio in Newport, Rhode Island. Ay earned a place in the top 10, the top five, and then the Miss America title.
Sempier’s friends told him “he was history,” Ay said, laughing. “They said if I was decent, maybe I would return the ring.”
Ay and Sempier postponed the wedding, seeing each other only four times that year.
“I looked the world over, but didn’t find anyone better,” she said. They married a year later.
From her home in Malvern, Pennsylvania (the Sempiers have resided in the Paoli area since 1962), Ay reflected on the Miss America pageant.
The first pageant (1921) was organized by the merchants of Atlantic City to celebrate the most beautiful time of year, Ay said. The first contestants were daughters of summer residents. In 1945, the first scholarship was awarded.
“It was this step that enabled the pageant to celebrate 80 years,” Ay said.
Today, the Miss America pageant has the largest scholarship foundation exclusively for women in the world, awarding more than $30 million in scholarships annually.
In the ’50s, Miss America represented “the Age of Innocence — Donna Reed, family, neighbors, friends,” Ay said.
The contestants “were the show,” performing oratory, classical piano, ballet, tap — whatever was “available at their fingertips.” Ay observed, “Singing and dancing were only in the movies.”
After her reign, Ay was offered exciting opportunities, but preferred a quieter life.
“I enjoyed every minute of my year [as Miss America], but I wasn’t caught up in the glory,” Ay said. A life of “entertainment and exposure had neither the stability nor sincerity” she sought.
A devoted supporter of the Miss America scholarship program, Ay attends the Miss America pageant each year. She has judged local, state, and national pageants, and served as Miss America pageant commentator in 1985 and 1987.
She accepts numerous speaking invitations annually. She writes her own speeches and presents them from a “very, very personal perspective.” According to her Miss America biography, “Ay is best known as an enchanting and captivating speaker.”
The Sempiers raised two daughters and six Great Dane dogs. Their daughters, who both live within 4 miles of their parents, are “beautiful and talented.” The couple enjoys their two young grandchildren. They love to travel and recently vacationed in Italy.
Ay, who calls herself a “gray-haired lady,” notes that she is “identifiable as an older person.” Gray-haired or blond, Ay is surely as gracious and charming as she was the day she was crowned Miss America.
She laments that life isn’t as carefree as it was then. Now, “young people race from work to daycare to the dry cleaner,” she said.
In her speeches, she encourages people to slow down and enjoy life.