Before opening local day care, Jill Mertens was Miss America contestant
(Editor’s Note: Jillayne Mertens is the owner of Creative Stars Academy in Kasson. Before she opened her childcare facilities in Rochester and Kasson, she was a college athlete, Miss North Dakota, and a contestant in the Miss America Pageant and was getting ready for rehearsals on Sept. 11, 2001. This is the first part of her conversation with DCI’s Wayne Hendrickson.)
Jillayne Mertens grew up on a hobby farm near Motley, Minn., population 676 and a little west of Brainerd, and has a younger brother, Beau. They had horses, cows, sheep, pigs and chickens, a dog and a cat. She would get up and help feed the livestock early in the morning before school so this got her used to hard work at an early age.
Her parents were both teachers at the Staples-Motley school district. She would help her mom with lesson plans, and learned her love for children and education at a young age. Jill had a real love for books and learning new things. Her father, Warren, was a pitcher with the Orlando Twins, in the Minnesota Twins minor league system for a couple of years, plus later he was the head coach of the Central Lakes College in Brainerd for several years.
Jill grew up singing in church and music was always a part of her life, and when she was nine years old she was in her first opera “The Tender Land” in an outdoor setting on a farmhouse in Staples.
4-H played a huge role in her life, and she loved barrel racing at the Cass County fair with her strawberry roan horse. Jill took a special interest with their sheep, and each day would take her ewe out for a mile walk along the country road. It got so accustomed to doing this that the ewe would follow her without using a leash, and people driving by would stop, and were amazed how the lamb would do this. She would even take naps with her at times and sing to the sheep.
That year Jill received a reserve 4-H Grand Champion with her ewe lamb at the Minnesota State Fair. Many of the other entries in her class had paid a lot of money to purchase their sheep which was not true for hers. “Just a reminder that with hard work, you can achieve anything,” Jill said.
Jill entered the 4-H talent contest at the State Fair. Her mother was undergoing a bone marrow transplant in Seattle, and during this time her father was also there, so she and her brother stayed with relatives. Jill said faith really helped get the family through her mother’s cancer, and they couldn’t have done it without the help of the community, friends and family. Jill said music is a powerful gift from above. Her cousin is country singer Pam Tillis.
She sang the country song “Daddy’s Hands” on stage at the State Fair and dedicated it to her parents. Looking out from the stage, she saw tears in the audience watching her, and her dad was also able to make it back to see her take first place in the competition.
Jill said she was really a tomboy growing up, and she would compete against the boys in sports. She was active in volleyball, basketball, choir, track, speech and played the alto sax at Staples-Motley plus the violin. Jill is quite tall and was bullied while in school. Her mother would keep telling her to keep praying, continue to be nice to the other kids, and told her, “We can only control ourselves, not others, so focus on becoming the best you possible.”
As her sports career became quite successful (still holding the high school’s record of most points in one game, 39), all conference and who’s who in America, she became the team’s captain, and the other students’ attitude toward her started to improve. Jill also studied German in High School and during the summer between her junior and senior years, stayed with a family in Baden-Baden, Germany.
Jill received some offers from various colleges to play sports, but because she couldn’t decide which sport to focus on and wanted to stay close to home, she chose North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, N.D. She was on the volleyball and basketball teams which took a lot of time and was something she really wouldn’t recommend doing. Although she loved both sports, Jill said she suffered from shin splints so bad at times that she would have to walk around campus wearing a boot and in a lot of pain.
After practice one day, the college registrar approached her, and asked if she would consider entering a scholarship pageant for Miss North Dakota as she was a good speaker, talented musician and likable. She thought he was kidding as she knew nothing about what it took to be in a pageant, how to walk in heels, and she didn’t even have a gown to wear. They told her there could be scholarship money available and people to work with her. After she talked to her parents, she told them she would give it a try. They went through rehearsals for the contest and the pageant committee got her lined up with a dress, hair styles and make up.
Each contestant needs a platform of what they want to promote if selected, and hers was the Bone Marrow donor program since her mother had received this to help save her life. And her talent was singing. Jill became Miss North Dakota State College of Science and was headed to the big state pageant in Williston, N.D. to compete for Miss North Dakota.
At the Miss North Dakota pageant, when they called out the names for the top 10, she was included, and also when they named the top five group. When they started counting down for the finalist, she was in the last two. Before they were ready to announce the winner, the two women stood in the center of the stage, and when her name was announced as the 2002 Miss North Dakota, she had a very surprised and an unusual expression on her face!
Jill would then attend the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, N.J. in September 2001, and get ready for the rehearsals for the event. On the morning of September 11, her traveling companion came to her room, and told her to turn on the TV. She thought at first this must be a movie, but soon learned of the tragic events happening that morning. Some of the contestants’ parents had not yet arrived, and since all the planes were grounded, they ended up driving to Atlantic City. The parents of Miss Hawaii needed to take a ship to California, and then drive across the country to make it there.
Jill said security was very intense and was everywhere in their location. In the coming days, there were a lot of decisions that needed to be made about the pageant and if they were even going to have one. Contestants were asked if they were willing to go through with the pageant and they all had to agree, even if one person had said no, they would not have proceeded. She has a photo of all the women gathered in a large circle, holding hands, and praying in the convention hall.
She was the youngest contestant at age 18 and one of the youngest contestants in history at the time to compete for the title of Miss America but was asked to go on CNN and tell the TV audience that the pageant would continue on and not be canceled. During the talent portion of the pageant, she sang and played the violin. Security was so tight that even when they walked on stage at the final program, they would each be assigned a security person to walk with them to the stage.
Jill said that the Miss America is the world’s largest scholarship organization in the world, and she really felt very honored to be part of this event and the first televised event after 9/11. The contestants later published a book, “Under the Crown.” in which Jill wrote about what it meant to be in the Miss America Pageant during the events of 9/11 and how that impacted her and the pageant. Jill stays in contact with many of the women who were with her that year.
“We became family, we had each other while the most horrific acts of terrorism were unfolding on USA soil,” Jill said.
(Wayne Hendrickson continues his conversation with Jill in next week’s DCI.)