In 1949, comic strip artist Milton Caniff was a guest speaker at the University of Missouri‘sJournalism Week celebration. The observance was then and continues today as a week-long party celebrating excellence in journalism.
Each year famous writers, editors, publishers and broadcasters assemble on the Mizzou campus in Columbia, Mo., with the mission of informing and inspiring classroom apprentices in the lofty craft of good reporting and writing.
Caniff was already a celebrity with his comic strips, “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon,” both of which set a standard of accuracy never before achieved in the medium.
Caniff habitually spent hours researching the smallest details about weapons and locations for his wartime stories before ever putting pen and ink to paper.
His status was further enhanced when his research sparked a Congressional investigation into pictures in his comic strip of a new Air Force fighter jet that was classified Top Secret. When asked how he got the photos, he reportedly shrugged and replied, “I wrote to the Air Force and asked for them.”
All of this might have withered to little more than a historical footnote if Caniff had not turned around after his visit and created a character named Miss Mizzou as a cohort of Steve Canyon.
While Canyon was well known for having a girl in every port, so to speak, Miss Mizzou was different. She showed up out of nowhere, wearing a trench coat and reportedly, nothing else. Little was ever disclosed of her past except that she had some vague connection to the university.
That was enough for members of the journalism fraternity Sigma Delta Chi. They immediately adopted Miss Mizzou as their own and promoted her as a resident of the university.
In October 1952, during the halftime celebration at the Missouri homecoming game against Southern Methodist, a New York chorus girl by the name of Bek Stiner paraded centerfield as Miss Mizzou and slipped off her trench coat to reveal a skin-tight tiger-striped swimsuit.
Two years later, the fraternity launched a Miss Mizzou contest and published the first Miss Mizzou calendar. Miss Mizzou ignited both campus and the town of Columbia like wildfire. Every year girls by the dozens donned trench coats and paraded before the judges.
The contest continued each year until 1971 when the world and the journalism school shifted focus to a serious war in Southeast Asia and a growing unrest throughout the world. Campus activity became less lighthearted and Miss Mizzou faded into obscurity.
Still, when homecoming draws nigh in Columbia, it’s not unusual to catch a glimpse or two at the book store or the student union of a girl with cropped blond hair wearing a trench coat.