Town salutes its Miss North Carolina with permanent museum exhibit

Editor and Publisher
‘The Crown’
December, 2003

GRAHAM - When Jeanne Swanner Robertson became Miss North Carolina in 1963, the small town of Graham rolled out the red carpet for one of its own, treating the hometown girl as its Tar Heel queen.

Now, 40 years later, the town is highlighting Robertson’s year as Miss North Carolina with the opening of a permanent exhibit at the Graham Historical Museum. Titled, ‘Behind Her All the Way: Graham’s Miss North Carolina – The Jeanne Swanner Exhibit,’ the display consumes two upstairs rooms in the former fire station located at 135 W. Elm St. in downtown Graham.

A member of the Graham Historical Society called Robertson to ask if she would lend a pageant gown for display at the museum. She offered all of her “pageant stuff” if the museum thought it would be of interest.
The display features Robertson’s competition clothing, hundreds of newspaper clippings and photographs, program books, video footage, crowns and trophies, among other pageant memorabilia. The 44 display boards that highlight Robertson’s year from winning Miss Graham to the completion of her reign as Miss North Carolina are a main attraction.

While the exhibit is all about Robertson’s time as Miss North Carolina, she emphasizes that its purpose is to recount how the small town rallied around her during her year as the state’s beauty queen and her trip to Atlantic City for Miss America.

“It is an exhibit for the town of Graham,” said Robertson. “We are trying to show how people became so excited, all the way to Miss America.”

The town celebrated ‘Jeanne Swanner Day’ on July 27, 1963, two weeks after her winning moment, gathering at the town square for elaborate ceremonies. Preparations for Miss America quickly kicked into high gear as some 400 people from Graham made the trip to Atlantic City that September to support Robertson. Those 400 fans represented roughly 10 percent of the town’s population of 4,000 residents. Robertson said her hometown delegation is still the largest to follow a contestant to the national competition.

“We just all got into it,” she said. “It became a happening. This was a Graham project while I went to Miss North Carolina and Miss America.”

Robertson will be the first to say that the talent competition was her downfall. Bob Waddell and his wife, Ann, were judges at Miss Graham and offered Robertson’s help with her talent once she won the local title. Waddell appeared on Arthur Godfrey’s televised talent program and worked at Channel 2 in Greensboro.
“The luckiest thing that happened to me is they judged the Miss Graham pageant,” said Robertson.

While it’s common today to see pageant delegations carrying banners and waving signs to generate support for their favorite contestant, Robertson said such practice in the early 1960s was a rarity. To hype up Robertson’s talent at Miss North Carolina, her followers were told to print and hand out business cards that read, ‘Although it’s July, Miss Graham says, ‘Beware of the Snowman.’”

The business cards obviously worked since the audience applauded as Robertson came onto stage. The next day in the newspapers, Robertson’s performance to the Waddell-written song, ‘The Great Snowman,’ which she dedicated to conceited men, was called a crowd favorite that ‘brought down the house.’

While Robertson’s performance may have been a crowd favorite, it did not sit well with famed Miss America executive Lenora Slaughter. “They said, ‘You can’t do that at the Miss America pageant,’” said Robertson, who played the ukulele for talent in Atlantic City.

A total of 84 contestants competed in the 1963 state pageant and members of the news media had their chance to interview each contestant. Standing in a line, Robertson said a reporter moved down the row, asking about good luck charms. She noticed that the reporter wrote very little about the contestants who told about carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot or a four-leaf clover.

Robertson quickly realized her chance to gain statewide media coverage. When the reporter came to Robertson, she said her lucky charm was an engagement ring she received before arriving at the state pageant. Her remarks immediately grabbed the attention of the reporter who questioned if such a gesture was against the rules.

Her story ran in newspapers statewide, telling all the details of how David Harrington, who Robertson said was nine years old, gave her a ring he considered an engagement ring. After the young Harrington read the story in the paper, he let Robertson know that he was 11 years old and the ring was not from a popcorn box. Actually, it was an old Confederate ring, said Robertson, who added that Harrington now lives across the street from her home in Burlington.

Robertson said she felt confident after her Miss North Carolina interview, but realized that a “pleasant dispute” with one of the judges during her Miss America interview would likely keep her out of the top 10 in Atlantic City. “When I left the interview at the Miss North Carolina pageant, I knew I had made the top 10 and would do well,” said Robertson, who was touted by newspaper reporters as a candidate to make top five at Miss America. “I knew (at Miss America that) I wasn’t going to be in the top 10.”

Robertson did not win in Atlantic City – Miss Arkansas Donna Axum was crowned Miss America 1964, but she did receive the prestigious Miss Congeniality honor, receiving 50 of the 52 votes. In 1963, there were 52 contestants, one from each state, Washington, DC and New York City. Robertson said she didn’t vote for herself and guessed that Miss Alabama did not vote for her since she attended Auburn University and had plenty of fans in Alabama.

“This business that they voted for yourself is just not true,” said Robertson. “They told us they’d throw out your ballot if you voted for yourself.”

Robertson remembers presenting pageant host Bert Parks a Mr. Congeniality trophy since he always complained that he never received any awards.

Robertson, who also was named Miss Congeniality at the Miss Graham pageant, but not at Miss North Carolina, sponsors the $1,000 congeniality award at Miss North Carolina and said she’d do so at Miss America if they would reinstate the award.

Robertson recalls that the 1964 state pageant did not feature glitzy production numbers and that any time the directors needed filler, they sent her out to entertain the audience.
“I’d just go back out and be funny and there goes the speaking career,” said Robertson, noting that she has been referred to as the female Andy Griffith.

A successful humorist and professional speaker, Robertson credits her time as Miss North Carolina for giving her a boost in public speaking. She had plenty of practice in 1963, making over 500 appearances to become known as one of the most popular Miss North Carolinas ever. She’s also the tallest Miss North Carolina in pageant history.

A self-proclaimed funny lady, Robertson speaks to more than 100 organizations, corporations and associations each year about the importance of a sense of humor. Her time as a beauty queen, her tall stature of 6’2" and other personal experiences are topics often used during her speaking engagements. She has produced videos, been featured on ’60 Minutes’ and received numerous awards.

“I would have taught and coached a long time, but I would have been a professional speaker,” said Robertson, noting her career as a speaker began at age 19 while serving as Miss North Carolina. “As a 19 or 20-year-old speaker, you can not buy that kind of opportunity.”

The advice she offers to audiences across the country is to “accept things about yourself you can’t change.”
Robertson was recognized in June at the 2003 Miss North Carolina Scholarship Pageant with the Woman of Achievement award and was asked to crown the new state titleholder, who happened to be Dana Reason, the shortest Miss North Carolina.

She uses her pageant moments in her presentations, a move she hopes may change people’s perspective on how pageants can positively influence a young woman’s life. “I poke fun at it a little bit and therefore I elevate it,” she said. “I change the opinion of a lot of people.”

Robertson said she has noticed a number of changes between today’s Miss North Carolina pageant and the competition from 1963. Obvious differences are the “more revealing” swimsuits and that the production is no longer televised across the state. She said having more contestants in the pageant representing communities from Murphy to Manteo could revive an interest in again televising the finals.

“I got three letters from people, who told me I looked great on TV,” said Robertson, of her participation in the 2003 production. “They still have it in their memory bank of being on TV.”

Robertson believes she is a prime example of how someone can benefit from participating in a pageant and that educating the public about the program’s purpose is important in downplaying stereotypes.
“You always wish people understood the pageant and gave it a chance,” said Robertson. “It is not about what you look like, it is about what you do with it.”

Article and photos by Todd Hagans, editor and publisher of "The Crown"