A Coke and A Smile

A Coke and A Smile

While she did her own part in building the world's most recognized brand some seven decades ago, a Medford octogenarian spends her days in a modest south Medford home, volunteers when she can and wouldn't exactly call herself much of a Coke drinker.

"I'm more of a Pepsi girl, really," says 89-year-old Jeannie Luther with a laugh.

Her smile is still as warm as the one depicted in a 1941 Coca-Cola ad and her mind equally as sharp.

Luther was a 19-year-old, small-town rodeo queen when she left the Rogue Valley for a few years to live in Chicago, where she took up modeling and landed a gig with the nation's top selling soda company.

She rarely mentions that her face was plastered on billboards across the country.

As humble about her ads for Coca-Cola today as she was in the 1940s, Luther — born Jeannie Salade — says she didn't keep track of all the places her photo turned up in print.

Family members have found a few copies in more recent years, in both Life and National Geographic magazines, which she says she occasionally drags to the grocery store to "show the checkers."

Luther got her start in front of the camera with a last-minute entry into the 1940 Medford roundup days at the county fairgrounds, then held near the armory along Highway 99.

The self-described horse girl won the title of queen and led her royal court of princesses, all on horseback, in a parade the next day. As royalty, she sat in special seats during the rodeo.

Soon after the rodeo, she moved to Chicago with her mother and sister and began taking voice lessons from an aunt, taking side jobs singing at weddings, birthdays and Republican women meetings.

Her mother and friends suggested the 5-foot, 3-inch blonde take up modeling for a little extra income.

Almost immediately, she earned modeling gigs for J.C. Penney and Sears Roebuck, modeling as a homemaker with linens and bedspreads. Jobs followed with Walgreen's, Johnston Candies and Studebaker, a gig that piggybacked with a then-new beverage, Squirt.

"I didn't even realize I was introducing Squirt to the world!" says Luther, who also admits she has never tried the drink.

But she was picked for her biggest gig in a two-year modeling career when Coca-Cola talent scouts contacted her modeling agency "looking for someone to have their picture taken with two other girls, drinking Coca-Cola."

Weeks later, her face was on billboards around the country and in print ads.

"I had to hold the Coke bottle like I was really enjoying it," she says.

"It's OK, I guess, but I never was much of a Coke drinker."

For some time after she posed for Coke, she recalls, friends back in the Rogue Valley would see her face on billboards in Oregon.

"They'd be driving down the road and say, 'Hey, there's Jeannie!'"

While top models today earn five- and six-figure contracts for work with major companies, Luther earned $50 for her work for Coca-Cola.

Luther married in 1942 and became a mother to twin girls in 1944. She says she gave up her modeling days and never looked back.

Rae Lynn Barker, Luther's niece, says the family enjoys her aunt's notoriety as a "Coke girl," but respects her desire not to "toot her own horn."

"She's very humble about it so we respect her wishes," Barker says, though adding, "It's such a big company, you have to wonder, shouldn't she have been getting royalties all these years?"

Luther offers, "Well, they did things a lot different back then."

Barker teases that her aunt's brief stint with the national brand was to the benefit of the soft drink maker, more so than Luther.

"We all think it's great that she did it," Barker says.

"But to us, she's just an amazing lady for a lot of other reasons."

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at

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