Cara McCollum, 24, has died of injuries sustained in a February 15 car accident. Best known as Miss New Jersey 2013 and a contestant in the Miss America pageant, McCollum was also a journalist who wrote several stories for U.S. 1 and was employed as a television news anchor in Millville at the time of her death.
McCollum, a native of Arkansas, studied creative nonfiction under John McPhee at Princeton University, graduating in 2015. While a student at Princeton, McCollum wrote five stories for U.S. 1 as a freelance writer, including a December 31, 2013, cover story profiling personal branding consultant Tamara Jacobs.
In the same issue of U.S. 1, McCollum wrote a feature in which she compared notes with Jacobs on how pageant contestants should present themselves. (As it happened, Jacobs had been a judge at a previous Miss America contest.) McCollum also wrote about what motivated her to compete in pageants (and U.S. 1 used her official pageant photo for the cover):
“Raised in Forrest City, Arkansas, where my father is an accountant and my mom raised me and my older brother (a math and computer science major at the University of Arkansas), I was well aware of beauty competitions growing up — pageants are really huge down there. But my mom discouraged me from entering because she felt I had other interests to pursue.
“One of those interests was youth literacy. At one point our school district was given an F by the state. I started a monthly story time at the Boys and Girls Club and a drive to donate more than 1,000 books to a children’s library. I also started a ‘Birthday Book’ program for poor children from ages 5 to 10. Kids who were registered in a Christmas-time Toys for Tots campaign got a book on their birthday.
“In 2010 I enrolled at Princeton University, but after two years I realized I had no sense of community outside of the ‘Orange Bubble.’ I started competing in pageants because I wanted to be able to get into classrooms and libraries to read with children and share that passion. Parents: you will be comforted to know that teachers are very reluctant to let total strangers near their students. But I found that the crown functioned as a sort of magical free admission ticket to classrooms and libraries across the state.”
McCollum used her Miss New Jersey crown to promote children’s literacy through The Birthday Book Project. She had worked as an anchor for the TV show SNJ Today for six months at the time of the accident.
Police said McCollum was the only person in her convertible on a rainy night as she drove north on Route 55 in Pittsgrove. McCollum lost control of the car, went off the road, and hit three trees. It was reported that she was not wearing a seatbelt and suffered severe head injuries to which she succumbed a week later.