County loses First Lady of humor

Jeanne Swanner launched speaking career after reign as Miss North Carolina 1963, Miss America pageant

Comedy lovers across the nation have taken to mourning, rather than laughing, after humorist and Graham native Jeanne Swanner Robertson passed away unexpectedly Saturday.

In a statement released Sunday afternoon on Robertson’s social media, her family announced that the 77-year-old had died after developing a “severe illness” days before; her family emphasized that Robertson’s illness was not COVID-19.

Robertson was still performing up until her death, with her show in Myrtle Beach having been rescheduled for August 2022 after she fell ill.

The comedienne’s passing comes less than three months after the death of her 83-year-old husband Jerry Robertson, whom she affectionately referred to as “Left Brain.”


Comedienne got her start as pageant queen
Raised in Graham with her two sisters, Robertson stood tall in her community – both literally and figuratively. At six-foot-two, she was already distinguished among her peers, but at 19 was also named Miss North Carolina in 1963.

Later that year she was also voted Miss Congeniality by her fellow contestants in the Miss America competition. According to Miss North Carolina records, she remains the tallest contestant to have ever competed in the national pageant.

It was the hundreds of speeches that Robertson gave around the state following her state pageant win that tipped her off to her way with humor. Speaking to The Alamance News in 2013, she recalled, “When I won the Miss North Carolina pageant and had to make more than 500 speeches a year, I found out I could be funny in the first week.”

Jeanne Swanner addresses a hometown crowd from the steps of the Alamance County Historic Court House in 1963.

Using her scholarship funds from the state pageant, Robertson went on to attend Alabama’s Auburn University, where she played basketball; joined the Alpha Gamma Delta sorority; and majored in physical education. After graduating in 1967, she spent several years teaching physical education before turning fully to public speaking and humor.

On stage, she became famous for her anecdotes about everyday life, lessons learned over the years, family-friendly content, and unfailing optimism. Between the countless comedy shows and speeches – notably, a 2008 appearance the White House – she published four books and several CD’s and DVD’s.

Robertson got her start in writing as a high school correspondent for The Alamance News, keeping readers informed about student news at Graham High School.

The comedienne also drew professional acclaim, receiving the 1989 Cavett Award, the highest honor given by the National Speakers Association; the 1998 Golden Gavel, Toastmasters International’s top award; and the North Carolina Press Association’s 2001 North Carolinian of the Year distinction, among many others. Most recently, in 2019, she was named Philanthropist of the Year by the National Speakers Association.

Robertson also served on Elon University’s board of trustees from 2003 to her death, and she and her husband contributed financially to the university.

Now, after following her husband’s lead, the couple’s family said Sunday, “We are sure – Jeanne is now telling stories in heaven, all the angels are laughing, and ‘Left Brain’ is in the back with a big smile.”

A celebration of life service will be held for Robertson at Front Street United Methodist Church, located at 136 South Fisher Street in Burlington, on Sunday at 2:00 p.m. While the church asks that in-person visitors wear face coverings, the service will also be live-streamed, with a link posted on her Facebook page.

Read publisher’s personal reflections on the loss of Jeanne Swanner Robertson: