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Omaha Magazine

There She is, Miss...

Nov 01, 2021 10:44AM ● By Dawn Gonzales
Jodie and Morgan Holen hold Miss Nebraska crown

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

Miss America has been a disrupter for 99 years. Although frequently seen as old-fashioned, the crown has often been worn by high-achieving women. In 1943, Jean Bartel of California won, in part, by selling $2.5 million worth of war bonds. 1971 Miss America Phyllis George was an entrepreneur, and several Miss Americas have gone into national broadcasting
or acting. 

Jodi Holen was a girl with lots of energy. Tired of watching her tumble off the couches, Jodi’s parents sought dance lessons for their daughter in hopes of channeling her energy into more creative activities. They chose the Kitty Lee Dance Studio and like many young girls, dance lessons were part of growing up. Jodi, 1988 Miss Omaha and 1988 Miss Nebraska, credits the late Kitty Lee for introducing her to the opportunity to participate in her first pageant. “Miss Kitty was always supportive of the Miss Nebraska program and talked about it as we grew up,” Jodi said of the life lessons she learned through dance.

“I desperately needed the scholarship money,” Jodi said, continuing that it was the No. 1 reason for participating in the Miss Omaha pageant. The second reason was the training she received in preparing for the pageant. “Miss Kitty would always talk about how participating in the pageant grows you as a person,” Jodi said. “I know I received interviews that I may not have had because of having Miss Nebraska on my resume.” 

She sold herself in those interviews based on the skills she had learned, such as speaking in front of an audience and relating to all different age groups. “I learned how to keep them engaged, learned how to read the audience and relate to them,” Jodi said. Those skills learned more than 30 years ago helped her launch a successful career in pharmaceutical sales as the senior sales director of the Alzheimer’s Division for Biogen.  

Jodi found value in the Miss America pageant program, so much so that she continued to choreograph and volunteer for the organization as a young professional and mom to two. She remains involved today. Her daughters participated in the little sister program, but no one could have predicted that her youngest daughter, Morgan, would follow in Jodi’s footsteps to the Miss America stage. 

Crowned Miss Omaha in October 2019, Morgan prepared herself mentally for the Miss Nebraska competition. Then COVID-19 happened, and the world changed. She continued her studies in broadcast journalism, advertising, and public relations at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she was involved in Omicron Delta Kappa Honors Society. This is the National Leadership Honor Society that recognizes and encourages superior leadership and exemplary character.  

“The day before graduation in May 2020, I learned that being Miss Omaha would be a two-year commitment,” Morgan said. “It drove the decision for me to take the GRE and then I got into the master’s program at Lincoln,” she said. Morgan began studying for her Master of Business Administration degree at UNL that fall. This former captain of the Husker Scarlet Dance Team continued her studies during the pandemic instead of preparing for the canceled 2020 state pageant. On June 12, 2021, Morgan won the Miss Nebraska crown in North Platte. 

As the organization prepares to crown the 100th Miss America in December in Connecticut, much has changed, and yet so much remains the same. Gone are the swimsuit and beauty competition, the focus is now on scholarship, interview technique, and leadership. Women competing today are representing more than their state. They are ambassadors for a multitude of causes and are frequently called upon for speaking engagements with local schools to the halls of government. 

Morgan’s platform is one that she developed after earning her Gallup Certified Strengths Coaching certificate. “Lead With Your Strengths: The Power of Strengths Based Mentoring” focuses on mentoring youth. As an ambassador for the TeamMates mentoring program, she has gained much insight and experience into the value that mentoring brings to students. She wants to help mentors focus on a child’s strengths; to focus on what they do well and why they can be leaders.

“All my life I have been surrounded by strong women. My great-grandma, grandma, and mom worked full-time. Grandma was a vice president of her business. She always had her lipstick on, dressing fabulous and running the business,” Morgan said. “My mom commuted and would be on the phone from across the country calling and asking me at 5:10 p.m. how my dance practice went knowing that it was over at 5 p.m.” 

Both women agree that participating in pageants helped them to be successful in life. “It doesn’t define you, but it does change your life. There are things that I was able to do because of it,” Jodi said. 

More than a pretty face, the Miss America pageant is now a nonprofit. Peggy Fox, Miss Nebraska Executive Director, said that it is a great female scholarship program. “Miss America has helped young women gain friends across the country, helped them go through college debt free, and learn valuable lifelong skills. Miss America has stood the test of time for 100 years through changes and adversity.” 

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This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann