The Jeanne Swanner Exhibit
By Jim Wicker, The Times-News

GRAHAM - It's not exactly a time machine. But a full-scale exhibit that will open Sunday at the Graham Historical Museum will be the next best thing for those who'd like to learn about an exciting period in the county 40 years ago.

Many of today's area residents hadn't been born by July 13, 1963, the day a young, tall and exceptionally attractive Graham woman won the Miss North Carolina title. But they and other, somewhat older people who were around but missed the excitement will be treated to hundreds of artifacts and first-hand accounts of the long-ago events.

Jeanne Swanner Robertson stands in her exhibit in Graham honoring her pageant career.

"The first part of the theme of the exhibit is, ‘Behind her all the way' and, honestly, the people of Graham and Burlington and the entire area really showed that they were my enthusiastic supporters," said Jeanne Swanner Robertson, standing before a large, panoramic photo of the pageant and five of her gowns.

Not only does the exhibit deal with Robertson's winning the Miss North Carolina crown, but there also are extensive artifacts and newspaper articles dealing with her winning the Miss Graham title on May 4, 1963, and her competition in the 1963 Miss America Pageant, where she won the Miss Congeniality title.

The permanent exhibit, which will be open free to the public from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday, is on the second floor of the museum at 135 W. Elm St. Robertson, who has helped arrange the truckload of mementos saved through the years, will be at the opening to greet visitors. She will be accompanied by the new Miss North Carolina, Dana Reason of Greenville, who was recently crowned by Robertson at the 2003 pageant.

"I've already had several calls and visits from people who wanted to find out if various things will be in the exhibit, especially whether they or their relatives can be seen in the crowd of 400 with the six Trailways buses that they took to Atlantic City to support me during the Miss America Pageant in 1963," she said.

"More than anything else, I want this exhibit to be a tribute to the people of Graham and what they did for one of their own -- me," Robertson said. "I live in Burlington now, but I grew up in Graham and I'm still a Graham gal."
Robertson was 19 years old and a student at Auburn University when the series of events that changed her life occurred.
"I came home from college to take part in the Miss Graham Pageant at Graham High School, which is now Graham Middle School," she recalled. "I was one of seven contestants in it, and when I won I became Graham's representative in the Miss North Carolina Pageant at Guilford College."

Not only was she the first woman from Graham and Alamance County to wear the Miss North Carolina crown, she was the tallest. And at 6 feet, 2 inches in height, she was assured of constant news media attention at the Miss America event early in September. The exhibit includes press clips quoting her as saying, "I'm here to make a mark for the tall girl."

Additionally, the exhibit includes a reprint of the Times-News' declaration in a 1963 article about her and her height: "A queen, after all, should be queen-size." Robertson said she's sure she got her height from her 6-foot-1-inch father.

Almost every memento one can imagine is included in the exhibit -- the crowns, five of her gowns, the ukulele she played in the talent competitions, and a recently discovered home movie of the "Jeanne Swanner Day" events in downtown Graham. Robertson said there is a story behind every item on display.

Robertson, who used the $2,200 in prize money from the 1963 pageants to pay her tuition at Auburn, graduated in 1965 and worked in athletic education. She went on to become a nationally known speaker, humorist and author. She is married and a grandmother.

Reprinted with permission from The Times-News