Graham museum celebrates 40 years of Miss NC
The Jeanne Swanner Exhibit

The Alamance News - By Tom Boney, Jr.

Forty years ago, the people of Graham spent much of the year excited about the renown that came to their town as a result of the success of one of their beauty queens, a local girl named Jeanne Swanner.

Jeanne (pronounced then as two syllables, like the genie in a bottle) dazzled Miss Graham contest judges and won the title of Miss Graham, as a 19-year-old sophomore who came home from Auburn University for the weekend contest.  Her talent: playing a ukulele and singing original, humorous songs.

That weekend stretched into a longer series of commutes as Miss Graham won the Miss North Carolina contest in Greensboro that summer.

Hundreds of Citizens turn out in downtown Graham for Jeanne Swanner Day on July 27, 1963, two weeks after she was crowned Miss North Carolina.

The fire horn sounded throughout Graham to signal the return of the triumphant beauty, at 6 feet, 2 inches tall, one of the tallest contestants ever to compete.  The streets were lined with enthusiastic citizens celebrating the victory of their hometown girl.

The town rallied around their beauty queen -- free use of a car by the local Ford dealership, free dry cleaning, help from a local seamstress in sewing dresses for future appearances, donated corduroy from the county's famous Cone Mills manufacturer to make some outfits, including an evening dress.  "Home of Miss North Carolina" signs were posted on the major thoroughfares into town; The Alamance News carried that same moniker under its front page banner throughout her year-long reign.

July 27, 1963 was Jeanne Swanner Day in Graham, and Mayor Myron Rhyne read a proclamation on the Court House steps as Swanner, who had been crowned Miss North Carolina, looked on. Swanner competed in the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, and was chosen as Miss Congeniality.

A Jeanne Swanner Day was held with a rally at Court Square, with the major honoring the Graham girl for her achievement and leading the rally of support for her subsequent trip to the boardwalk of Atlantic City, the customary destination for Miss America pageants.

Organizers at the Graham Historical Society Museum want to reconstruct some of the excitement from 1963 this summer with a new exhibition opening on July 13, the 40th anniversary of Miss Graham's crowning as Miss North Carolina.

The former Miss North Carolina, Jeanne Swanner Robertson, now lives in Burlington, and has offered to provide some of the memorabilia items for the new exhibit -- tentatively to be entitled "Behind her all the way - Graham's Miss North Carolina."

Bur Robertson and Jerry Peterman, who is coordinating the museum's efforts, want to unearth memories and more memorabilia from those who participated in the celebrations from the other side of the runway.

They are hoping to find old home movies or additional photographs of some of the festivities.  They are asking citizens who were involved or present at any of the events to write a few paragraphs or a page or so of what they remember.

Hundreds of citizens turned out for Jeanne Swanner Day on July 27, 1963, two weeks after she was crowned Miss North Carolina, and six busloads of Graham supporters traveled to Atlantic City to support the hometown girl.

Some of the pictures from the courthouse show people in the crowds with movie and still cameras.  "We'd like to get copies of those for the museum exhibit," explains Peterman.
"So many people in the community did so much," Jeanne says.  "It really shows a small town spirit that just wouldn't happen, then or now, in larger metropolitan areas."

Jeanne was the hometown favorite, but didn't win the Miss America crown.  She also proved to be a favorite of the other contestants, however, winning the Miss Congeniality title -- with a record 50 or 52 votes.  (She noted at the time that since ballots were signed, she couldn't vote for herself.)  She has subsequently parlayed that winsome personality and the confidence she gained from the experience into a career as a professional speaker and humorist across the country.  (Robertson notes that even 40 years later, she still holds the record as the tallest woman ever to compete in the Miss America pageant.)

Peterman is asking anyone with film, photographs, or written memories to send them to the museum, PO Box 357, Graham, NC 27253.  He can also be reached through the Graham Fire Department at 336-570-6707.

Reprinted with permission from The Alamance News, Graham, North Carolina