The call came as Dr. LaToya Mason Bolden was pushing a cart around the grocery store. It was from the Mobile, Ala., national office of the Distinguished Young Women Program, formerly known as Junior Miss. Program administrators asked her: “Would you serve in summer 2017 as a judge in the 60th annual competition?” Mississippi’s 1994 Junior Miss didn’t blink. “It was immediately a yes,” said Dr. Bolden, an associate professor of anesthesiology who came to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in September 2016. Her wonderful experience as Hinds County’s Junior Miss and at the state level made giving back at the national level a no-brainer, said Dr. Bolden, who previously served for a decade on the Baylor College of Medicine faculty.
“I was a junior, and I heard about the program about two weeks before it was going to happen,” said Bolden, valedictorian of her class at Forest Hill High School in Jackson. “A teacher told me I’d be a great candidate for the program. I had no prior history with it, and no family who had been in it. Literally, my mom (Eula Mason) and I barely met the deadline.” Her skills as a classically trained pianist and her academic record catapulted Dr. Bolden to the top, and she became the first African-American to earn Mississippi’s crown. “I did a piano medley composed of a classical selection and a jazz selection,” Dr. Bolden said. “It was a Beethoven sonata and a Duke Ellington jazz standard. My music teacher, Mrs. Ernestine Ross, who continues to be a well-known piano instructor in the Jackson area, and I figured out how to do that in 90 seconds.” The timing on the invitation to judge was tricky: Dr. Bolden was pregnant with her first child, due just two months before the June 29-July 1 program at the Mobile Civic Center. She had relocated from Texas back to her home state only about a year earlier to reside in Madison County with her husband, Arnel Bolden, an insurance agency owner and former Canton mayor. But with the encouragement of Dr. Douglas Bacon, professor and chair of anesthesiology, Dr. Bolden was able to make it work. Her busy schedule at the Medical Center also includes serving as associate chief of obstetric anesthesia and director of obstetric anesthesia education. “I was recovered long enough to go down there, and my mother kept the baby for me,” Dr. Bolden said of little Ari-Elle Grace. “I was praying that everything would come together, and it did beautifully.”
Dr. Bolden is a stellar example of a former program participant who went on to excel in her academic and professional careers, said Kendra Haskins, Distinguished Young Women executive director. Dr. Bolden graduated summa cum laude from Xavier University of Louisiana and completed medical school and residency training in anesthesiology at the Tulane University School of Medicine before her obstetric anesthesiology fellowship at Baylor. “We were looking for alumnae of our program who exemplified the kind of young woman we are looking to encourage and reward: talented, intelligent and accomplished,” Haskins said. “Dr. Mason Bolden embodies all these qualities.” Distinguished Young Women isn’t a teen beauty pageant: It’s a time-honored competition that prepares young women for the world after high school, awarding more than $1.1 billion in scholarships nationally each year. The 51 contestants are judged in five categories: scholastics, 25 percent; interview, 25 percent; talent, 20 percent; fitness, 15 percent; and self-expression, 15 percent. The 2017 contestants had an average grade point of 4.3 on a 4.0 scale and an average ACT score of 30. Dr. Bolden experienced the Distinguished Young Women program from the other side of the stage. “We had a really hard job. The talent was just phenomenal,” she said. “And scholastics plays such a big part, so that’s what made the difference between one girl and another. These are some really intelligent ladies. “We were told that if we stayed true to the premises of the program, the numbers would work out. It’s a very well-developed judging system. It was a tough task, and we did well.” She and the other judges shared in the heartbreak of Mississippi’s DYW, Neha Arora of Madison, who suffered an injury during the preliminary round of physical fitness competition and was on crutches for the final competition. Arora was one of the top eight finalists based on her performance leading to the July 1, 2017 broadcast. “We were given strict instructions from the executive team that we could only judge what we saw on the stage live on Saturday,” Dr. Bolden said. “So even though they showed a video of the talent she performed during the preliminaries, we couldn’t judge it. We couldn’t judge her physical fitness. But we could judge her self-expression.” Arora “was excellent in her interview and handled the setback with grace,” Dr. Bolden said. The city of Mobile “rolled out the red carpet for the judges,” Dr. Bolden said. That included dinner at the home of a prominent local neurosurgeon – and an impromptu performance that showed Dr. Bolden, who also plays violin and has a professional dance history, remains a talented musician. “I was part of the entertainment for the evening,” Dr. Bolden said. “Someone asked if I still played the piano, and so I played some classical songs, jazz songs – even some hymns. Everyone joined together and sang.” The crowning touch was when she accompanied on piano fellow judge Rebecca Luker, a veteran Broadway performer who has appeared in musicals including Mary Poppins, Nine, The Sound of Music and The Music Man. Luker sang “Over the Rainbow.” “It was a really nice duo, and very unexpected,” Dr. Bolden said. Luck certainly played a role in Dr. Bolden’s arrival at the Medical Center, Dr. Bacon said.
“I got a phone call from a friend of mine as I was landing in San Diego for an association meeting two years ago,” Dr. Bacon said. “The friend said that Dr. Mason Bolden was getting married to the mayor of Canton, and that she was interested in what UMMC had to offer. I didn’t know all of the great things I was getting when she came here. “She is one of a handful of world experts in obstetric anesthesiology. We’re very fortunate to have her here,” Dr. Bacon said. “She’s had a great academic career. She’s absolutely phenomenal, and such a wonderful nice and easy person to work with, and her outreach to the community is important.” Her time as Mississippi’s Junior Miss, Dr. Bolden said, stays fresh in her heart.
“More than anything, it’s inspired me to be a model of excellence, especially in this society where there are so many controversial images,” she said. “I want to be a model of integrity, of character, of scholarship and of leadership, while trying to make a positive difference in the lives of others.” At last summer’s program, she made new friends, had fun, and learned a lot – just as she did in 1994. “I would definitely welcome the opportunity to do it again,” Dr. Bolden said of judging. “The executive director said, ‘You will definitely hear from me.’"