New Exhibit opens Sunday at Graham Historical Museum
The Jeanne Swanner Exhibit

The Alamance News
Tom Boney, Jr.

Forty years ago this weekend, the citizens of Graham erupted in excitement as one of their hometown girls gained fame and notoriety when she was crowned "Miss North Carolina" for 1963.

It proved to be only the beginning of a whirlwind of activity for the town and the beauty queen as Jeanne Flinn Swanner prepared for the even bigger festivities in Atlantic City, the Miss America pageant.

Commemorating those events is a new exhibit opening Sunday afternoon, the 40th anniversary of her crowning as Miss North Carolina, at the Graham Historical Museum, 135 West Elm Street in Graham, from 2:00-5:00 p.m. 

At 6 feet, 2 inches tall, Jeanne was then -- and still holds the record as -- the tallest contestant ever to compete in the national pageant.

But is was not only her height that attracted attention and caused people -- in Graham, and across the state and nation -- to remember the 19-year-old.

It was also her humor, a lifelong trait that carried her into a career as a professional speaker and humorist across the country.

She was repeatedly asked, "Are you really 6'2" tall?"

Characteristic was her quip when someone observed she ought to be an inspiration for tall girls.  "I'd rather be an inspiration for tall boys," she observed.

Her talent, playing the ukulele and singing original songs, was unique, indeed.  One of the questions posed to her at the Miss North Carolina pageant also captured that humor.  "If you boarded a plane and found yourself sitting beside Elvis Presley, what would you do?"  She referred to her baritone ukulele presentation and replied without hesitation, "I'd get out my ukulele and let him hear some of my songs."

The former Miss North Carolina, Jeanne Swanner Robertson, now lives in Burlington, and has provided some of the memorabilia items for the new exhibit -- entitled "Behind her all the way - Graham's Miss North Carolina."  Citizens have come forward since the exhibit was first announced in February to provide other pieces.  The exhibit will include numerous pictures and even a video made from film footage fro the 1960s.

Jeanne (pronounced then as two syllables, like the genie in a bottle) hopes to keep the focus of the exhibit on the tribute to the people of Graham who responded so overwhelmingly to her achievement.

The town rallied around their beauty queen -- free use of a car from County Ford, free dry cleaning, free cosmetics from a local drug store, free hosiery from Glen Raven Mills, help from a local seamstress in sewing dresses for future appearances, donated corduroy from the county's famous Cone Mills manufacturer to make some outfits, including an evening dress.  "Home of Miss North Carolina" signs were posted on the major thoroughfares into town; The Alamance News carried that same moniker under its front page banner throughout her year-long reign.

Graham Jaycees president Tyson Johnson summarized the town's enthusiasm for the former high school cheerleader and basketball player and lifeguard at the Graham swimming pool: "Graham, although not big is physical size, is a giant in the things that count: helpful, generous people."  Indeed, it was a comment by Johnson in a letter which provided the title for the exhibit 40 years later, expressing that Graham was "behind her all the way."

Jeanne reciprocated with pride in the town.  Asked about Graham's location, she declared, "Burlington and Greensboro are right over near Graham, North Carolina."

Jeanne's popularity in her home town was summed up by Mayor Myron Rhyne when he said, "There's no need for saying how proud we're of Jeanne.  The only thing you need to do is look at the admiring looks on people's faces."

About 2,000 people turned out two weeks after she was crowned Miss North Carolina for a Jeanne Swanner Day in downtown Graham.

Rhyne also summarized the town's hopes for her success at the Miss America pageant and confidence in her regardless of the outcome: "In our opinion, the judges can make no other selection for Miss America than Jeanne.  However, should the judges in their limited time of observation fail to realize the fact which is obvious to us all, Jeanne will still be Graham's Miss America."

Six busloads of Graham supporters, about 275 people, made the trip to Atlantic City.  Sheriff John H. Stockard replied to a reporter's question about what percentage of people would be watching that year's Miss America contest: "About 90 percent.  The other 10 percent will be in Atlantic City," he was quoted as saying at the time.

While she remained, in Rhyne's words, "Graham's Miss America," Jeanne did not fair as well in Atlantic City, although she was voted by fellow contestants as "Miss Congeniality" -- and by the highest vote margin ever accorded a contestant.  Early reports of 45 of the 52 voting for her were later changed to 50 or the 52.

"We had to sign our ballots so I couldn't vote for myself," she jokes.

Her advice to future pageant contestants getting ready to go on stage: "Stop at the end of the ramp."

Even as she pointed to various exhibits this week in getting ready for the opening on Sunday, Jeanne pointed out a black hat which she is seen wearing in several photos (including two included on the front of this edition).  She noted that in other pictures, if she wasn't wearing that hat, her mother often was.  "It got a lot of use," she explained.

Jeanne Swanner Robertson, Miss North Carolina 1963, stands beside one of the displays to be unveiled Sunday at a special exhibit at the Graham Historical Museum.  In the Miss North Carolina and Miss America pageants that year she played the baritone ukulele and sang humorous songs.

In going through items for the museum, she opened one box to find earrings she had borrowed from someone in Greensboro to accent one dress.  Horrified that she had unknowingly kept them for 40 years, she called the friend who readily made them a part of the historical museum collection.

Jeanne is hoping that residents old enough to remember the fanfare of 1963-1964 will see the exhibit, as will younger residents who might in inspired to rekindle the sense of small town community from which she benefited 40 years ago.

She will be at the museum Sunday after, as will be the current Miss North Carolina, Dana Lynette Reason from Greenville, whom Jeanne crowned at the pageant several weeks ago where she also accepted an award for lifetime achievement.

Reprinted with permission from The Alamance News
Last photo by Tom Forrest