ENCINITAS — In 1956 Luella Elie Stilley had just graduated from San Dieguito Union High School and decided to enter the local Miss Moonlight Beach pageant just for fun.
“It was a lark,” Stilley said in a phone interview last weekend. “My two girlfriends and I were horsing around and decided that, hey it’s our summer swan song so let’s go for it. And so, we did.”
Stilley, who was 17 years old at the time, ended up winning, besting 13 other girls for the top spot. She said all the contestants had to wear bathing suits, which were all one-piece at the time — hers was white with grey stripes and buttons down the front — and they had to answer typical pageant-style questions.
“I can’t remember what they asked,” Stilley admitted. “It wasn’t, ‘How are you going to save the world?’ it wasn’t that profound.”
A picture from the pageant — featuring another contestant Hope Hatfield Meyers, wearing a white bathing suit — was recently posted on the “You know you’re ‘old school Encinitas’ when….” Facebook page, prompting dozens of comments from residents reflecting on those days.
“What a beauty … she was just at Tony’s Jacal the other night for her class reunion … my auntie was in her class,” one commenter wrote.
“She’s blonde and hot and nice suit for the fifties,” wrote another.
“Moonlight was so much fun back then,” yet another reminisced.
Stilley said the posted picture was from the 1957 pageant, the year after she won, and she was in attendance to pass off the crown to that year’s winner, Marianne Fuhrman.
Stilley said aside from that pageant — she was crowned Miss Encinitas and Miss Moonlight Beach — the only other one she ever competed in was Miss Southern California.
“I took third, so that was pretty cool,” she said. “It was fun, but I’m not a pageant person. I was pretty much a tomboy.”
Stilley, who moved with her husband Jerry to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, 16 years ago, said Encinitas in the ‘50s was an extraordinary time.
“It was innocent, it was secure, it was magical actually,” she said. “We knew everyone, everyone knew us, we knew no color, we celebrated people for who they were, you were who you were and that was it.”
She said at that time everybody from Encinitas and the surrounding areas of Rancho Santa Fe, Leucadia, Cardiff, Solana Beach and Del Mar all went to San Dieguito Union High School and they went there from seventh grade to 12th grade — there was no junior high school.
Stilley said the closeness of everybody in Encinitas in those days helped develop her character.
“I have beliefs that I don’t know I would’ve had,” she said. “I think they taught me that we are our brother’s keeper because everybody helped everybody else at that time and they also taught me that you share what you have and give what you can. I pretty much accept people for who and what they are because that’s all they did to me.”
Stilley said she still keeps up with several people from her Encinitas school days, in particular a classmate named Darlene Johnson Rounsville.
“Of the eight of us girls that ran around together only four are left. The two that I entered the pageant with are gone,” she said. “But Darlene and I keep super tight, we keep in touch a lot actually. There’s about 20 of us that keep in touch.”
Stilley married Jerry, who was a year ahead of her in school and her high school sweetheart, after they reconnected at a reunion in the ‘90s — both were single after having each been married to other people. They were married for 25 years until his death last year.
“It was the best thing I ever did,” she said of marrying him.
Stilley, who has three kids and five grandkids, said she holds Encinitas close to her heart.
“You’ve got to do some introspection every once in a while, because you can get lost in what’s going on,” she said. “And I know that a lot of us on Facebook, every once in a while, will say, ‘Gosh I really miss the old Encinitas.’”