Remembering Donna Axum Whitworth: Miss America, Lifelong U of A Supporter
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Donna Axum Whitworth was a rising senior at the University of Arkansas in 1964 when she won the Miss Arkansas pageant – then a month later was crowned Miss America, the first Arkansan to win the title.
Her year as Miss America began a lifetime of service nationally, on state and community levels, as well as to the University of Arkansas.
The El Dorado native died Sunday, Nov. 4. She is remembered fondly at the U of A for the lives she touched, the work she accomplished and the graciousness she brought to everything she did.
Former chancellor Dan Ferritor recalled meeting her when Old Main was shuttered and enclosed by a fence, in danger of being torn down.
Donna Axum Whitworth as pictured after winning the Miss America crown.
“Donna was a member of the original group who started the restoration of Old Main campaign. When you look at a proud Old Main, remember that Donna was first in line working for its restoration in 1986.
“She lived an incredible life. No matter where she went or what new adventures she had or what new heights she reached, she never forgot her roots in Arkansas or her years at the University of Arkansas. She never failed to return and help in any way she could. She will be missed.”
Whitworth used her Miss America scholarship to complete her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in speech and dramatic arts at the U of A, earning her Bachelor of Arts in 1966 and her Master of Arts in 1969.
She spent most of her professional life in Texas and married J. Bryan Whitworth in 1984. They settled in Fort Worth, where they raised five children. Still, Donna Whitworth always maintained strong ties to the U of A – not only working to restore Old Main, but serving leadership roles in the Arkansas Alumni Association, the U of A Board of Advisors, and on the Steering Committees of both the Campaign for the Twenty-First Century and the current Campaign Arkansas. She received the the Distinguished Alumni Award in 1988, and the fitness center in the Health, Physical Education and Recreation Building was named in her honor.
“I’ve known Donna for many years and worked with her on two separate capital campaign efforts for the university,” said Mark Power, vice chancellor for University Advancement. “She was a graceful person with a great smile, great presence about her and people just loved being around her. Donna was so passionate about the university and loved students. Because of her accomplishments and support, her legacy will always be a part of the University of Arkansas.”
Whitworth was a proud member of the Delta Delta Delta sorority and was chosen as one of the “Top 100 Tri Delts in the First 100 Years” for her work with the sorority. If fact, that work brought her back to campus Oct. 25, for the re-dedication of the expanded and renovated sorority house. She had supported the project from the outset.
“She was at our first meeting with the university in June 2013,” said her friend and fellow Tri-Delta alumna, Kathryn Lawson Griffin. “And she stayed actively involved with the project – including the fundraising.
“She was so pleased with the renovation of our home. She had donated a room – the Donna Axum Whitworth Leadership and Scholarship Study – and she loved the way it highlights the accomplishments of our members. She talked to the chapter and she even did a Q & A session with the students. She spoke at our donor luncheon Friday and she and her daughter Lisa, also a Tri Delta alumna, went to the football game to cheer on the Razorbacks. I was so happy she got to have such a sweet weekend with our chapter and her daughter.”
Former chancellor G. David Gearhart remembered Whitworth fondly.
“Jane and I are deeply saddened by Donna’s passing. We have so many memories of our times together with Donna and Bryan. Donna gave generously to countless programs and projects at her beloved University of Arkansas and was a consummate volunteer for many years of association. She was just in Fayetteville for the rededication of the Tri-Delta Sorority House a few days ago and spoke about her love of her alma mater and her fondness for Fayetteville. She made all Arkansans proud when she was crowned Miss America. She will be missed for her grace, intelligence and thoughtfulness by so many people that she touched during her life of service. Jane and I will miss her greatly and send our thoughts and prayers to Bryan and her family.”
One of those touched by Whitworth was Savvy Shields, the second U of A student to be crowned Miss America. Shields posted a tribute to Whitworth on Facebook after learning of her death.
“To know her was to love her. She made everyone she met feel like they were the only person in the room. I remember getting a phone call from her a week after I won Miss America, some of her words of wisdom were, ‘Make sure you get some rest, love everyone, and make sure you do it all for Arkansas.’ When we finally got to reunite at my Homecoming, she selflessly gave me a few more gifts, her Miss America ring that she wore during her year and a reminder of what being Miss America was about. She lived as a role model to everyone who knew her name, and inspired so many more. Love you so much Donna. Forever our Miss America.”
A graveside service will be held at 2 p.m. Friday, Nov. 9, in Fairview Memorial Garden, Fayetteville.
“I cherish the time spent getting to know Donna over the past few years,” said Chancellor Joe Steinmetz. “She was kind, generous and truly loved her family. She was a founding member of our Women’s Giving Circle and understood the power of giving. The fact that she wanted Fayetteville to be her final resting place says a lot about what the university meant to her.”
In lieu of flowers, the Whitworth family asks friends to consider a contribution to the Donna Whitworth Scholarship Fund, Tri-Delta Foundation, 14951 N Dallas Pkwy #500, Dallas, TX 75254.
The University Libraries hold the Donna Axum Whitworth Papers in the Special Collections department. More information is available here.
Savvy Shields, Miss America 2016, with Donna Axum Whitworth, Miss America 1964, on the U of A campus in April 2017.
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