ESP Magazine
The Jeanne Swanner Exhibit

Jeanne mugs beside the cardboard cutout of her when she was Miss North Carolina.

The Way We Were
Forty years later; Graham's Jeanne Swanner Robertson
finds that her hometown is still 'Behind Her All The Way'

By Ogi Overman

Ask the man on the street to name Miss North Carolina. Any Miss North Carolina. Chances are, the name most folks will come up with is Jeanne Flinn Swanner. Even though it has been exactly 40 years since her reign, she remains the most popular, the most visible, the most memorable Miss North Carolina ever. And, through a series of strange twists of fate, it is Jeanne, now Jeanne Swanner Robertson, who is restoring some of the luster, some of the mystique, some of the innocence, to beauty pageants in general, and the Miss North Carolina Pageant in particular.

A different era
It gets buried in the Sunday papers these days — if it makes the papers at all — but back when the baby-boomer generation was coming of age, it was A-1, above-the-fold news. Writers were assigned to the story in droves, columnists were given deadline extensions by editors, photographers jostled and jockeyed for the perfect shot, and pressmen delayed their run time so that the story could get in. Back then, the state qualifier for the Miss America pageant was a big, big deal.

One of the walls with panoramic photos of Atlantic City in 1963.

But, for better or worse, the daughters of those same baby boomers who enter beauty pageants today will rarely experience the hype and hoopla — bordering on hysteria — that accompanied them in the 1950s and ’60s. The paradox is that the contestants themselves take pageants much more seriously, often entering numerous pageants and/or the same one over and over, while the general public has become rather blase about the whole thing.

“It was just a different era,” said Jeanne, “not just the pageants but the whole way we lived. It’s just not that way anymore. I think beauty pageants were unique to that era; things were just simpler, more innocent.”

Robertson is obviously in a position to know. The Graham native was Miss North Carolina of 1963, the year, some would argue, that marked the final year of the Age of Innocence. It was during her reign, remember, that President Kennedy was assassinated, forever changing America, and with it, the Miss America Pageant.

Although she didn't become Miss America, she did create quite a national splash, for several reasons. First of all, she won the Miss Congeniality title at Atlantic City, of which she quips, “That's what they give the person who has the least chance of winning Miss America.” Second, her down-home charm, stunning good looks, Southern wit, and self-deprecating sense of humor completely disarmed and enchanted the national media. And third, at a regal 6-foot-2, she was then and is now the tallest-ever Miss America contestant.

“Somebody asked me why I entered the pageant,” she reminisced last Sunday, “and for some reason I said, ‘I'm here to make a mark for the tall girls.’ Well, everybody picked up on that. I ended up in Time and Sports Illustrated. I've gotten a lot of mileage out of being tall.”

She's tall but that ain’t all
A 6-foot-2 woman in 1963 was not only rare but practically unheard of. Yet, instead of being the gawky, gangly and out-of-place school girl, Jeanne learned to use it to her advantage early on. Not only did she become the standout center for the Graham High School girls basketball team but began developing other talents, as well. She excelled in the classroom, getting accepted at Auburn University, and learned to sing and accompany herself on the ukulele. But, most of all, it was her wit and humor that would serve her well in years to come.

“Believe me, I wasn’t much of a singer,” she smiled. “Bob and Ann Waddell had me come to their home in Greensboro every night for a month before the pageant to rehearse. (Bob, locals may remember, was the longtime organist at the S&W Cafeteria, head of the musicians’ union and winner of the Authur Godfrey talent contest.) They usually have the outgoing queen come out and sing a few numbers the next year; they asked me if I would tell a few jokes. Now what does that tell you?”

It tells you that even then, Jeanne Swanner Robertson had a knack for seizing an opportunity and turning a liability into an asset. During her reign she made over 550 personal appearances, which, in a roundabout way, prepared her for a career as a nationally known banquet speaker. After her reign (she was a rising junior in ’63) she returned to Auburn, and upon graduation taught P.E. in high school and college for nine years. But by 1976 had taken the plunge into professional speaking and hasn't looked back since.

Except, of course, to thank the people who got her to this point in life. And, it seems she hasn't forgotten a single one of them.

A living history lesson
Even as her celebrity has spread far and wide since that halcyon year of ’63, Jeanie's stature in her hometown has grown to almost mythic proportions. She and husband Jerry — an educator and administrator who holds an Ed.D from Carolina but graduated from Duke and was the captain of the 1956 Blue Devil basketball team — make their home in nearby Burlington, but she still wears her Graham Red Devil colors proudly. If Graham has a Favorite Daughter, she is it.

That fact was certainly not lost on Jerry Peterman, President of the Graham Historical Society. Peterman had been instrumental in converting the old volunteer fire department into the towns historical museum about two years ago and not long ago had another brainstorm.

“The city had graciously given us the building to start a museum,” he disclosed, “but then we had to decide what to do with it. We had the downstairs pretty full but still had the whole upstairs empty. We knew that Jeanne had stored a bunch of her memorabilia and gowns and press clippings, so it seemed a good idea to ask her if she’d mind putting it on display for the public.”

Here Jeanne picked up the story. “That was in January. We’ve had all this stuff in boxes for all these years, and Jerry and I were only too happy to go through it and bring it down here. It created a brand new room for us in our house.”

Jeanne did have one stipulation, however: that the exhibit not turn into a shrine for her but rather a tribute to the town of Graham for the way they supported one of their own.

“I wanted the focus to be on the town and the people,” she smiled, “and the things so many people did to support me. I wanted to get as many pictures of local folks in here as possible, things that would spark a fond memory, things of a sweet time of life for all of us.

“It was a time when people sent telegrams, when they’d ring the fire alarm and everybody knew to come to the courthouse, when you could walk home from anywhere in town. It was Mayberry.”

To quote one of Mayberry’s finest (albeit in reference to the museum rather than the gold truck), “Aw, Ange, this is big. This is big, big!”

Behind her all the way
A note from Tyson Johnson, who was president of the Graham Jaycees when Jeanne was set to embark on her trip to Atlantic City, sparked the idea for the theme of the Jeanne Swanner Exhibit: “Behind Her All The Way.” “That just says it all,” raved Jeanne.

“The support from this little town was like nothing Atlantic City had seen.” As proof, adorning one of the walls of the exhibit, is a panoramic photo of the six busloads of locals who accompanied their heroine to the pageant. On the opposite wall is another panoramic shot of the Graham-proclaimed “Jeanne Swanner Day,” July 27, 1963, showing the throng that turned out at Courthouse Square to catch a glimpse of her. “Tom Forrest (a former employee of the High Point Enterprise) did the restoration work on these pictures,” revealed Jeanne. “We want folks to come in here and help us identify as many of the people in them as possible. Or if they sent a telegram we want them to sign it. We’ve got at least seven interactive things for them to do here.”

The exhibit had its grand opening this Sunday, July 13, which happened to be the 40th anniversary of her winning the Miss North Carolina crown. Upon entering the exhibit, which takes up the entire upstairs of the museum at 135 W. Elm St., visitors are encouraged to watch a 22-minute video, parts of which were recently discovered by former WFMY general manager Jack Hilliard. Among the hundreds of items on display are five of her gowns (designed by Grahamite Mary Harden) and six other outfits, one of her crowns (“I gave them all away to kids that needed a pep-up. I found this one on eBay. The girl, now a grown-up, said she’d loan it to us.”), her ukulele, jewelry, telegrams, letters, contracts and assorted memorabilia. Also, all the contestants in last month’s 2003 Miss North Carolina Pageant (in which Jeanne crowned the winner) signed and donated several children's books. In fact, Dana Reason, the current Miss N.C., not only made an appearance at the grand opening but stayed all afternoon. (Ironically, she is the shortest Miss N.C. and was crowned by the tallest.)

Then one comes to the real history lesson, 44 poster-sized hanging story boards filled with photos and newspaper clippings chronicling Jeanie's reign as well as the rest of her bountiful life and successful career. Each board has a sub-topic describing one element of the “Behind Her All The Way” theme.

For history buffs, pageant fans, or local folks wanting to take a stroll down memory lane, this lovingly crafted exhibit is a wonderful way to while away an afternoon.

Back to the future
As Jeanne gives the nickel tour of the museum, it is obvious that she is enjoying the moment. Not because she relishes the attention and adulation but because she enjoys people, renewing old acquaintances and making new friends. She is not one who revels in her celebrity and certainly not one who lives in the past.

“If this were all I’d ever done in life, it would be sad,” she mused. “But I’m fortunate to have a good career, three wonderful children and a great husband, and a full, rewarding life. So I’m, OK with it, especially since it's focused on the town and not just me.

“I've never viewed myself as a celebrity, anyway. I'm just a smalltown girl who got very, very lucky.”

Perhaps, but personality, talent, brains, looks, charm, wit and a sense of humor had a little something to do with it, too.

Reprinted with permission from ESP Magazine
Photos by Gene Stafford