'An Awesome Responsibility'

Shirley Cothran Barret wore the crown of Miss America -- and she's carried the honor all her life.
Written by: 
Jessica DeLeón
Shirley Cothran Barret
Shirley Cothran Barret ('73, '74 M.Ed.)

Always a shy kid, Shirley Cothran Barret ('73, '74 M.Ed.) didn't grow up wanting to be Miss America or a princess.

But when she was a student at North Texas, members of the Denton Jaycees civic organization suggested she enter a local pageant, telling her it offered valuable scholarship money.

She competed in two Miss Denton pageants, but didn't win.

"You have to sometimes stumble to be successful," she says. "It worked out that way for me."

She switched pageant cities, winning Miss Haltom-Richland, in the suburbs north of Fort Worth, in 1974. Then, in a matter of months, she was named Miss Texas and crowned Miss America.

Barret was swept up in a whirlwind of activity after taking the title -- just a few years after another Denton native and North Texas alumna, Phyllis George, won in 1971. Another alum, Ellie Breaux ('23), the current Miss Texas, will vie for the honor Jan 14.

After she finished her reign, Barret earned a doctoral degree in education and pursued a successful career as a motivational speaker. She enjoys spending time with her six grandchildren and living in Aledo. But she'll never forget that moment when she heard her name called out as Miss America.

"All that is very surreal for someone from Denton, Texas," she says. "My life has never been the same ever since."

'A Moment That You Don't Forget'
Shirley Cothran Barret
Shirley Cothran Barret ('73, '74 M.Ed.) in 1975.

After she won Miss Haltom-Richland, the pageant organizers prepared Barret well for the next step. She perfected her talent -- playing the flute -- and worked hard on other aspects for the pageant.

"When I won Miss Texas, I was really ready," she says. "Psychologically, getting ready for the Miss America pageant is surreal."

That year, the top 10 contestants stood as the four runners-up were announced. Six women waited for emcee Bert Parks to announce the winner.

"That is a moment that you don't forget," she says. "All the TV lights are on you, and for someone who has never been in show business, and wasn't used to the lights and cameras -- it's a very distinctive feeling. I remember thanking the judges and looking around, and everyone's clapping and cheering. Bert asked me a question. And honestly, I wasn't paying close attention to what he was saying, because I was so overwhelmed with the moment. I turned around, I said, 'I don't know, how can you ask me questions at a time like this?'"

With the scepter in her hands, she walked the runway -- "the longest runway in the world" -- where she glanced at the Texas delegation that included her parents, boyfriend and now- husband, Richard, and others who had helped her on her journey.

"I was stunned," she says. "I'm waving and holding flowers, and I'm going, 'What have I done?' My friends and family are going back to Texas, and I'm going to go off with a bunch of people that I haven't even met yet."

'A Slice of Americana'
Shirley Cothran Barret with Bob Hope
Shirley Cothran Barret ('73, '74 M.Ed.) with Bob Hope in 1975.

Being Miss America was quite the experience.

"People ask me what's it like being Miss America," Barret says. "The honest answer to this: For two weeks, it is very glamorous. You're traveling. You're wearing evening gowns and beautiful clothes. But then, it becomes a job description."

Barret was constantly on the road, logging 250,000 miles that year -- only traveling home for Christmas. She spoke and signed autographs at conventions, store openings and civic celebrations.

"In the 1960s and 1970s, Miss America was a slice of Americana," she says, "and when Miss America came to town, it was a really big deal."

One time, she felt exhausted as she waited backstage at an appearance where she was to perform in her long, sequined evening gown and crown. She wearily eyed a group of elementary school age girls who looked ready to ask for her autograph.

"They just looked down at me," she says. "And I looked down in those little adoring faces of theirs. They weren't looking at Shirley. These little girls were looking at Miss America, and they were thrilled from the tip of their toes to the top of their heads, and I thought, 'Shirley, this is an awesome responsibility.'"

'A Great Life' 

After her reign ended, Barret continued speaking at events, often for faith-based and women's conferences. She married Richard in May 1976.

The pageant victories meant she earned enough scholarship money to fund her Ph.D. in early childhood education and family counseling at Texas Woman's University. She studied for her degree while traveling and finished it by age 26.

"When I do something, it's pretty much 100 percent," she says.

She wanted to teach at the college level, but ultimately focused her time on raising her family. Her original goal in college was to teach at public school.

"My heart has always been with elementary-aged children, and so I would have been very happy doing that. But my life took a trajectory that I never even in my wildest dreams thought that I'd be doing. It's been a great life. I've been blessed over and over and over again many times."

UNT state and national pageant winners:

  • Phyllis George, attended from 1967 to 1970, Miss Texas 1970, Miss America 1971
  • Shirley Cothran Barret ('73, '74 M.Ed.), Miss Texas 1974, Miss America 1975
  • Chandler Foreman, attended from 2016 to 2021, Miss Texas 2019
  • R'Bonney Gabriel ('18), Miss Texas USA 2022, Miss USA 2022 and Miss Universe 2022
  • Ellie Breaux ('23), Miss Texas 2023

Life at North Texas

For Shirley Cothran Barret, UNT always has been part of her life.

She grew up close by the campus, at her family's house on West Sycamore. As a kid, she helped the fraternities make their parade floats. And as a junior high and high school band student, she played in North Texas' Homecoming parades.

When she was a student at North Texas, Barret frequently attended basketball games and was a member of the Green Jackets. She and a few other friends started their own sorority, then called Omicron and now known as Pi Beta Phi.

Even after she left Denton, her hometown stayed on her mind. She didn't know fellow Denton native Phyllis George while they were growing up since they were a few years apart in school, but they would run into each other at Miss America events as adults.

"We always laughed," she says. "What is it about Texas? What is it about Denton, Texas?"