June 6, 2003
Laurie celebrates 25th anniversary of crowning


It was 1978. Casinos were just opening in Atlantic City. There was no Internet, no MTV, no cell phones and no ESPN. Oprah Winfrey was a news anchor in Baltimore and Britney Spears had not been born.

That was the year Ocean City High School graduate Laurie Berchtold became Miss New Jersey, 25 years ago next month.

"That really makes me feel old," said Laurie Berchtold Kohr, now a dental assistant and the mother of three living in Marmora. "But it was such a special time for me that it almost seems like yesterday."

Her selection in 1978, at Cherry Hill East High School, opened the doors for this area. She was the first Miss New Jersey from Ocean City, to be followed within 13 years by both Tricia Bowman and Amy Fissel. Winners from the Atlantic-Cape May county area had also been rare, but Laurie was followed in 1979 by Mary McGinnis of Somers Point and, in 1983, by Suzette Charles of Mays Landing.

In the 1977 state pageant, Kohr competed as Miss Cape May County and was second runner-up. She was Miss Glassboro State College (it was not Rowan University yet) the following year and, because of her success the year before, was seen as one of the favorites. But she did not win a preliminary competition in 1978 and went into Saturday night a little nervous.

"I just wanted to make the top ten," she remembered. "I thought Mona Franklin (Miss Atlantic County) was going to win and I was just hoping to be part of the competition on Saturday night."

She was part of it, all right, walking away with the crown, scholarships, a new car and a full year of personal appearances.

But first, came the Miss America competition in Atlantic City just two months later. And a major problem.

Kohr had performed "Consider Yourself" from Oliver as her talent presentation, dressing up as the Artful Dodger. Because of the network TV show, Miss America rules required each contestant to obtain written permission to perform their talent on camera. Laurie"s request was denied by Columbia Pictures, producers of the Academy Award winning film. They said she could sing the song, but she could not create the character.

"The song wouldn"t work without the character so we had four weeks to come up with another talent," she said. "I ended up doing 'Money' from Cabaret but it was just so rushed. I think we did a pretty good job putting it together but I didn"t have as much confidence as I did with the Dodger."

Laurie's suitemate in Atlantic City was Kylene Barker, Miss Virginia, who went on to become Miss America that year. "Neither of us thought we would make the top ten," Kohr said. "I was right and she was wrong."

Atlantic City was beginning the casino era, with lots of construction and demolition going on. In fact, the two contestants were among the last people to eat at the Strand Hotel, where they were housed. "We had dinner there on Saturday night before the pageant," Kohr remembers, "and they tore the hotel down on Sunday. The Hilton is there now."

The Miss America week, despite the tension over the last-minute talent, was fun but, in retrospect, Kohr is glad she remained Miss New Jersey. "It was a great year, a chance to travel around the state and meet lots of interesting people. But I could tell, from listening to what they told us, that being Miss America could be grueling. I felt I got the best parts of the job without the pressures."

Her family was as involved and excited as she was the year she served as Miss New Jersey. Her mother, Maggie, who still lives in Ocean City, was a great help to her preparing for appearances and, in fact, later spent 15 years volunteering for the state pageant as a hostess. Her father, Bill, who died in 1996, seemed to smile the entire 12 months. And her sister, Alyce Williams - a mother of three who lives in Palermo and owns a pre-school - would occasionally accompany Laurie on appearances.

Through the years, Kohr has stayed active within the pageant structure. She produced and emceed the Miss Ocean City Pageant for 11 years. She has judged preliminary pageants around the state and is the longtime emcee of Ocean City's Boardwalk Easter Parade. She has emceed Ocean City's Miss Artisan Pageant for years and will serve as a judge for that competition this weekend.

Her family loves the fact that Mom was a Miss America contestant. Daughter Lyndsay, 20, will be a junior at Rowan University. Son Daniel, 17, who was born deaf, attends high school on the campus of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. And youngest son Randy, 14, is a successful junior high school athlete who will be a freshman at Ocean City High School in September.

"Lyndsay has nearly everything to be a successful contestant in the Miss America Pageant," Kohr said. "She is beautiful, bright, personable and determined. But she didn"t feel she had a strong enough on-stage talent to compete. Watching Randy in sports gives me a little of the feeling my parents must have had when they would watch me in pageants.

"And Daniel has made everything special. There is no feeling of handicap about him. We have all learned sign language and his successes have helped bring the entire family closer together. In fact, my niece, Jessica, teaches sign language."

Next weekend, during the Saturday night finals of the Miss New Jersey Pageant, Kohr has been asked to host the return of former state representatives. She will introduce each of the women who held the Miss New Jersey title as they walk the runway on the Ocean City Music Pier.

It was on that stage that Laurie Berchtold first competed (unsuccessfully) for the title of Miss Ocean City while a senior at OCHS. She returned to become Miss Cape May County on that stage, getting her journey toward Miss New Jersey on its way.

"It was a great experience," she says, "that continues to impact my life to this day."

25 years later!