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story.lead_photo.caption Keith Bryant/The Weekly Vista Donna Sue Carr, left, and John Carr now live together in an apartment at Concordia Retirement Center.

A couple of Bella Vista residents, looking through old documents, turned up a memento from nearly 60 years ago, a reminder of the moment that started a career that included acting, modeling and narrating.

John and Donna Sue Carr found a set of notes put together on a hotel letterhead by a then 19-year-old Donna Sue Needham preparing to speak at the 1959 Miss Universe Beauty Pageant in Long Beach, Calif., where she was representing Arkansas alongside 107 other young women from all over the world.

It's amazing to think of her putting together her notes in a hotel room to deliver a speech -- from memory -- in front of a nation-wide audience, John Carr said.

"She's such a great person," he said. "A little 19-year-old girl taking notes in a hotel room with nobody helping her."

The notes suggest she saw Arkansas as a land of opportunity, full of friendly people -- with the Ozarks specifically being the "land of a million smiles." She expressed pride in the state's recent progress in industry and education, as well as its purple mountains and waving fields of grain -- no doubt a nod to Katharine Lee Bates' "America the Beautiful."

The notes also suggested she felt her role as a Miss Universe contestant was to help facilitate better understanding across nations.

The pageant opened opportunities for her, John Carr said. She met Jack Webb, who was impressed with her ability to smile for a week straight on national television. Donna Sue Carr performed with Webb in "-30-" -- a drama following the hectic life of a newspaper editor in Los Angeles.

The time in Long Beach, he said, is also how he ended up meeting her. He was dating her roommate at the time, he said, and that ended soon after he met her.

They married in 1961, he said, and will have their 57th anniversary Feb. 28. They lived in California for some time, he explained, though they spent about a decade in Chicago before moving back, weary of the windy city's winters.

They decided not to have children because of their hectic work lives, he said, and instead volunteered with the Special Olympics and the Make a Wish Foundation.

They also started a charity of their own, he said, called the Charitable Giving Foundation, which partners with businesses to make donations alongside customers' purchases.

Before they were married, he said, she ended up dating David Nelson as well as Ricky Nelson, and may be the only person who dated both brothers. Moreover, he said, she spent some time hanging out with Elvis Presley, though he did what he could to prevent that.

"I never figured out why she would pick me over a David or Ricky Nelson," John Carr said. "I kept her away from Elvis because who could compete with him?"

He said that, while she likely could have become a starlet, she was worried about getting a big head and being pushed away from people she cared about, like her family and husband. She spent time working as a model, he said, which let her travel the world, and she also performed narration for educational and technical videos, including some for General Electric.

"I couldn't pronounce half of the words in it but she had to memorize it," he said.

She's an Arkansas native, John Carr said, born Donna Sue Needham in Bonanza, Ark., which sits just south of Fort Smith. She grew up on a farm, he said, and studied drama at the University of Arkansas -- though she dropped out to pursue her career once she appeared in film.

"I was trying to get some different things," Donna Sue Carr said.

They moved to Arkansas more recently, John Carr explained, to be closer to her family.

In 2009, he said, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and he's been her caregiver ever since.

It's not uncommon in his family to say that life doesn't always work out the way people plan it, he said.

"I wasn't thinking about us when I said it," he said.

But despite her illness, he said, Donna Sue Carr still gets along with everybody. She's friendly and loves everyone, he said, and doctors have told him that this suggests that she was always nice at her core.

"She probably has been genuine and loving her whole life," he said. "That's the way she's always been."

General News on 02/07/2018

Print Headline: 'Land of opportunity'

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