SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Years before Mary Hart became a fixture in American's living rooms as co-anchor of "Entertainment Tonight," she was already famous in the Coyote State.
In 1970, she was among the 10 finalists in the Miss America pageant as the official entry from South Dakota, where she was attending Augustana College here.
Hart has moved on (she graduated in 1972), but she hasn't forgotten her alma mater, nor it her.
She has been a frequent participant in fund-raising drives by the small liberal arts college (about 2,500 students) affiliated with the American Lutheran Church. This past year, Augustana returned the favor by honoring Hart with a display dedicated to her in the student union building.
Doris Huseboe, dean of the summer school and public events (and wife of Hart's one-time English professor, Arthur Huseboe), said in an interview that Hart was a "natural" first choice, when college administrators decided to honor various alumni by exhibiting a display of their achievements.
"I think Mary has been an inspiration to students in the communications and entertainment-related fields," Huseboe explained.
The display, under the heading "Get the Augustana Advantage," contains photos of Hart from college to the present, including publicity stills, excerpts from magazine articles (such as the one that ran in Ranch and Coast) and, of course, from her Miss South Dakota days.
Huseboe remembered Hart as "one of the most talented and humble young ladies we had. When the Junior Chamber of Commerce was involved in putting together the Miss Sioux Falls pageant, a number of us were involved with inviting girls to take part and finding sponsors for them. I remember talking with Mary and suggesting that she fill out an application and become a candidate.
"She said to me, 'I don't have any talent. What would I wear?'
"Well, of course, she won the pageant."
Huseboe pointed out that Hart wasn't the only famous alum to come from Augustana. "We've had several actors," she explained, mentioning David Soul (who attended Augustana but did not graduate) as probably the most well-known.
"His father just wrote a history of American Lutheran Colleges in America," she added.
Back in Los Angeles, Hart said that she had been both surprised and flattered by the display.
"They contacted me around the first of the year and said that they wanted something to put in their display case to reflect what I do and who I am," she explained. "I still haven't figured out what to send them; probably an 'E.T.' jacket and maybe a microphone."
Hart laughingly ruled out the possibly that she would send a pair of pantyhose to commemorate her shapely legs (which have generated a fair share of fan mail and admiring comments from media critics). "I loved my education at 'Auggie,' she enthused. "I majored in English, although I had no plans to go into journalism at the time."
Huseboe recalled that Hart did have interest and ability in the areas of singing and dancing, which she displayed in the annual homecoming show, "Viking Varieties."
"When Mary was in that show, she gave an outstanding performance. I hear students who try out for the show saying to each other, 'Gee, you mean Mary started out in this?' "
The display is just the first of many honoring Augustana alumni and eventually will be changed, but it seems doubtful that Hart will ever be forgotten by her alma mater.
"Mary doesn't forget Sioux Falls or Augustana," Huseboe concluded. "She is so special."