Friday, July 12, 2024

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
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Personal Reflections on the loss of Jeanne Swanner Robertson


This newspaper joins in mourning the sudden death of Jeanne Swanner Robertson, who died at her Burlington home this week at age 77.

Jeanne – whether pronounced as one syllable or two (those who’d known her the longest knew it was two) – has been a great source of pride for her hometown of Graham and the surrounding areas of Alamance County for more than half a century.

For most, it all started in 1963, when she won the Miss North Carolina pageant. At 6’ 2″, she was then the tallest contestant in the Miss America pageant – and continues to hold that record.

Local folks thought she had a real chance of winning it all, and five enthusiastic busloads of supporters were up to board their transportation for the 12-hour trek to Atlantic City at 5:00 a.m. on a Friday morning before the final broadcast on Saturday night to support the pride and joy of Graham. (A sixth bus, with Western Electric employees, made a “red eye” trek to Atlantic City after working hours on Friday.)

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Her popularity was summarized by then-mayor Myron Rhyne at another hometown event celebrating Jeanne’s Miss North Carolina crown: “There’s no need for saying how proud we are of Jeanne. The only thing you need to do is look at the admiring looks on people’s faces.”

Her talent was unique, indeed. She played the ukulele and sang original songs.

Jeanne Swanner was a 19-year-old sophomore at Auburn University (see school mascot War Eagle name on stadium’s sports writers’ box in background) when she came back home in 1963 and won first the Miss Graham pageant and later the Miss North Carolina crown.

Her personality was as big a hit even among competing contestants as it was in Graham. She won the “Miss Congeniality” vote among contestants that year. According to this newspaper’s editor and publisher, who was among the busload of supporters, Jeanne won the personality honor with 50 of 52 votes.

“We had to sign our ballots,” she said at the time, “so I couldn’t vote for myself.”

Jeanne at the 1964 Miss America pageant with the Miss Congeniality trophy amid other contestants.
Jeanne’s route to the Miss America pageant began as Miss Graham.

The congeniality honor was perhaps a preview of the winsome personality that would later capture audiences for half a century on speaking tours across the country where her wholesome brand of comedy was a refreshing departure from other forms of humor that often seemed more prevalent.

For this newspaper and the Boney family, however, the rapture with Jeanne started before her pageant years.

From about 1959 to 1961, she was this newspaper’s correspondent at Graham High School, where her weekly column, “Graham Hi-Lites,” chronicled local student achievements, upcoming events, etc.

In those days, it was commonplace for local high schools – and a few elementary schools (there were initially no middle schools) – to have a writer, just as rural communities (Snow Camp, Eli Whitney, Pleasant Hill, Pleasant Grove, Mt. Hermon, McCray, and other areas) had someone who would write up the comings and goings of people in those communities, and this newspaper’s archives are filled with their contributions.

Her leadership was evident early on. In glancing through old Alamance News newspapers of her high school era, we found her to have been elected school secretary and was chosen for the cheerleading team.

For the Boney family, in addition to serving as the high school correspondent at the newspaper, she was also a frequent “baby sitter,” for the first three (of four) Boney children, when we lived on South Main Street, about where the BB&T building is now.

As the oldest (about 8 or 9), I can remember that our grandparents had to come from Charlotte to care for us the weekend of the Miss America pageant – since the usual baby sitter and many of her friends (including our parents) were gone to New Jersey.

Jeanne would recall with pride even decades later that a front-page tag line on the masthead (the banner) at the top of The Alamance News front page every week throughout her reign read: “Home of Miss North Carolina.”

In 2001, as outgoing president of the state’s press association, it was my privilege to present her with a non-journalism honor of the North Carolina Press Association as North Carolinian of the Year.

Jeanne had the ability to be genuine and humorous, and in such a gentle, small-town way that it was hard not to pull for her – whether in a pageant or in life.

The tenderness she showed toward her husband, Jerry, known by her stage name for him as “Left Brain,” was evident in real life, as well as on stage; he died earlier this year.

We’d followed her career with admiration and pride for many years, and we’re sad to see it come to a close.

But we highly recommend to those who are technologically able, go online to the YouTube website (your children and grandchildren can tell you how) and find some highlights of Jeanne’s appearances over the past decade or more – locally at Elon University, or around the country.

It will still bring a smile to your face, even in the midst of loss.

Read news coverage on the death of Jeanne Swanner Robertson:

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