May 18, 2022

Mt. Pleasant and Ottumwa native has Miss America’s playthings

Sharon Bortz of Mt. Pleasant, formerly Sharon Smith of Ottumwa, watched the Miss America pageant this year with intrigue and particular interest. Emma Broyles was the first Alaskan and first Korean-American to hold the title in the competition’s 100-year history.

Sharon tiptoed to her bedroom closet, stood on a stool and reached way up high for a shoebox. Opening the shoebox she viewed the contents: two facial-powder containers, a tiny cosmetic compact, a Toys-for-Tots medallion and various newspaper clippings. The memories came flooding back.

Sharon was a little girl in Ottumwa in the 1950s. She lived on Ray Street on the South Side. Across the street from Sharon lived a very poor little old lady, in a run-down house, Hazel Criswell. The house didn’t have running water. Hazel used an outdoor toilet and carried water from a backyard well.

Hazel was the housekeeper for LaVerne Morris and his wife. Morris was the pastor of the Davis Street Christian Church in Ottumwa. Childless, the Morrises traveled to Nebraska to adopt a pretty little girl, Carol. Carol Morris would teach Sunday School at the Davis Street Christian Church and go on to become Miss Ottumwa, Miss Iowa, Miss America and Miss Universe. To say she was the pride of Ottumwa and her parents is an understatement. The items in the shoebox belonged to Carol Morris. Carol, as a teenager, before she was Miss Ottumwa, outgrew the items and gave them to their housekeeper, Hazel. Hazel in turn gave the items to Sharon. Sharon felt honored that she was chosen by Hazel to receive the cosmetic playthings. Sharon loved the cosmetics and spent hours pretending she was grown up and wearing makeup. Later, when Carol Morris was winning beauty pageants, Sharon was thrilled to realize she had the childhood cosmetics of Miss America.

On the bottom of one of the containers are the words, “Avon, Translucent Even Tone Finishing Face Loose Powder with Puff.” Holding the container to her nose, Sharon can still smell the fragrance that she identifies as Miss America.

Hazel Criswell, although poor, was known around Ottumwa as “Mom Criswell” and was famous for giving hugs and kisses, which Sharon ate up. Hazel was formerly married to the Chief of Police and it was rumored that the Chief kept the city from forcing Hazel to modernize her house.

Hazel’s prized possession was a Model T Ford that Sharon believes was a 1926 Runabout, because Hazel loved “running about” Ottumwa. Hazel gave rides to Sharon and anyone else who wanted a ride. Hazel was seen on the streets of Ottumwa driving around, waving and laughing and having a good time giving rides and hugs.

Very poor, working as a housekeeper for Pastor Morris and his wife provided Hazel with her only income. She knew that when she passed away there would not be enough money to cover her funeral expenses. So, she made arrangements with the Johnson Funeral Home that they could have her Model T Runabout if they would cover the costs of her funeral. Hazel had a grand funeral, and people talked about her loving to give hugs and kisses.

Sharon Bortz, formerly Sharon Smith of Ottumwa, and now in her 70s, occasionally gets out the cosmetics that belonged to the little girl, Carol Morris, who became Miss America. Sharon remembers pretending she was pretty (she is) and putting on makeup. However, she has a clearer vision of Hazel Criswell, poor as a church mouse, driving around town in her Model T Runabout, laughing and offering hugs and kisses to any and all who would accept them. “You can’t have too many hugs,” Mom Criswell was fond of saying.

Contact Curt Swarm at curtswarm@yahoo.com