As Miss North Carolina in 1963, Jeanne Swanner Robertson of Graham gave several speeches a day. She found that when she added humor to her speeches, people paid more attention. Now she travels across the country, giving 100 speeches a year as a professional speaker and humorist.

By Sondra J. Casey

                                                                           June/July 2001

Finding Jeanne Robertson
óSondra J. Casey

In 1963, Jeanne Flinn Swanner won the Miss North Carolina Pageant in Greensboro. I remember feeling proud that the winner was from Graham. I was also proud that she was the tallest contestant ever. And I was proud that she won the Miss Congeniality title at the Miss America pageant that same year.
Many news stories were written about her through the years, and she was even on "60 Minutes" last year with Morley Safer. Now, after 38 years, it was time for me to do my own story.
So I looked her up in the phone book. Wrong number.
I tried again and her secretary, Toni, told me Jeanne was out of town and unavailable at the moment. She would get back with me.
On my way to the interview, I went down a wrong street and had to backtrack.
When I got to her house, she was nowhere to be found. The French doors leading to her study were open, and the room looked inviting, but nobody was there.
I heard glasses tinkling in the kitchen, so I went around to the front door and rang the bell. Then I saw her. Tall, slender, 6-foot-2, frosted hair, gray eyes. She could have been a model. Instead, she had played basketball.
"Come on in," she said, leading the way to a kitchen full of antiques and bright sunshine. "Would you like some lemonade? Iíve just made a fresh batch." She poured pink lemonade into tall glasses with blue rims, and we went to her study, where we drank it. "What can I do for you?" she asked cheerily. I opened my notebook and wrote, "Jeanne Robertson, May 2001."

Finally.


Jeanne Swanner Robertson recalls the interview questions the judges gave her at the Miss North Carolina Pageant in 1963.  "That was back when they had a silly question and a serious one," she says.

The first question was, "What person, other than your parents, do you most admire?"  "I said to admire somebody, you really had to know them," she says. She told the judges about a blind student who attended classes with her at Auburn University, punching out her notes in Braille every night. The student made straight Aís and was going to teach school.

The second question was, "If you were seated on an airplane and Elvis Presley sat down next to you, what would you do?"  Robertson replied, "Iíd pull out my ukulele and play him a few of my songs."

She knew she had impressed the judges. "They didnít want me to go, we were having so much fun."

The Miss America Pageant was a different story. "When I walked out of the interview at Miss America, I knew I would not win." She said three contestants were interviewed at a time. "I never could never work my way into the conversation," she says.  She still took home the Miss Congeniality Award and was written up in papers across the country as the tallest contestant, at 6-foot-2, ever to compete.

She has judged three Miss America pageants since and each June, gives the Jeanne Swanner Robertson Miss Congeniality Award to a contestant in the Miss North Carolina Pageant.

The Humorist

As Miss North Carolina, Robertson gave several speeches a day, attending ribbon cuttings and other events. She found that if she put humor into her speeches, people paid more attention.  "It didnít take me long to figure out that people were tired of hearing, ĎItís so nice to be hereí and cut the ribbon. If I could get them to laugh, they loved it."

Now she gives 100 speeches a year, traveling all over the U.S., giving speeches at corporate meetings. She enjoys making people laugh. "When two people laugh at the same thing, something clicks, and you are not as far apart as you used to be."

Her business is JSR Inc., and she works out of her Burlington home. Toni Meredith, who lives two blocks away, is her national coordinator. The two attended Auburn at the same time, even working in the library the same year, but didnít meet until after they had left college.

Her husband, Jerryówho played basketball for Williams High School and Duke University and was co-owner of Greenís Fuel Gas Company on Webb Avenue, Burlington, before selling to Piedmont Natural Gas Company in 1985ówrites the serious portions of her speeches, and she writes the funny stuff. "He writes the points and the segues. Without his notes, Iím just funny, and thatís not enough."

Her material is original, based on her daily observations of people. She has written three books on how she does it. "Basically, the system is to keep your eyes and ears open and write it up."

She is not a trainer or motivational "rah-rah" speaker. "People do cry at my speeches, but itís because they are laughing so hard," she says.  A humorist is different from a comedian in that the humorist has a point to make. "Both make you laugh, but the humorist is leading to a point that you and the meeting planner have decided on," she says. Also the comedian may use off-color stories and four-letter words and "just go for the jugular. If five people on the front row have been mortified and will never come back, itís okay with the comedian, if the majority of the people laugh."

Stuff Happens
Robertson travels thousands of miles a year and sees all sorts of things.  "When you get in front of a group of people with a microphone, you never know what is going to happen," she says. "Iíve had the electricity go out, fire alarms go off, tablecloths set on fire, people falling over. You just never know."

A common problem is the microphone going out. I stop and say, "Well, what are we going to do? Weíre going to have to get us a new one." A guy comes out to give us a new one, and I put him into the show. I say, ĎWhatís your name? Who are you? Letís give him a round of applause.í You just learn to do those things. And then of course something else will happen tomorrow."

Then there are the centerpieces. In May, she spoke at a banquet that had helium balloons in the middle of each table. "They had me on big screens, and you couldnít see the screens, and you couldnít see me," she says. Twenty years ago, she would have asked the client to get rid of the balloons at once. But this time she waited until she took the podium, then asked one person at each table to stand, pick up the balloons, and move them to the side of the room. "When we did, they applauded, because they hadnít been able to see," she says.

"There are a lot of things that can go wrong at meetings. When you are a pro, your job is to make that okay."

Audience Participation
One of Robertsonís trademarks is involving the audience. She particularly enjoys bringing men to the stage to do a takeoff on the Miss America Pageant. It was her husbandís idea, and itís always a big hit.
It has to take place at the end of her show, because "there is no piece of material that you can do after that," she says. "Itís over."

She gets names in advance from the meeting planner and calls the men to the stage and lines them up. "We say, ĎNow hold your stomach in, roll up your pants legs, do a quarter turn.í I eliminate them down to two and question the last two, have them whistle Andy Griffith, or whatever. The women go nuts, because we flip the tables. The point is that you have to be secure enough to laugh at yourself."

Running a Business
The purpose of JSR Inc. is to market Jeanne Robertson. She has a hefty marketing packet that includes a compact disk, videos, books, printouts and brochures. And her web site at "www.jeannerobertson.com" has pages of information about her.

Still, the best way to market herself is to do a good job wherever she goes, she believes.

"Every time you speak, you are either getting speeches or losing speeches," she says. "Itís marketing your mama taught you. If you are just nice to everybody when you go and do your job, you are going to have more speeches than you want."

As a non-celebrity speaker, she receives from $4,000 to $9,000 per speech, depending on the location and length of the speech. "If you get up into the $10,000 range, you are into the celebrity range," she explains.  "What I am able to do is make a living that could be compared to a doctorónot a brain surgeon. But I am able to make a good living at this."

She was named Auburn Universityís Woman Entrepreneur of the Year 2000 by the National Collegiate Athletic Association Southeastern Conference.  She saw the award as recognition of her business success. "It was like, look, they know that Iím not just funny. Iím actually running a business here."

Walking a Marathon
Last year, Abby Ross of Miami approached her after an event and said she wanted to give speeches and asked how to go about it. They talked, and Robertson discovered that Ross ran marathons. "I want to do what you do, but I want to walk the marathon," she told Ross. They agreed to help each other.

As a result, Robertson participated in the Myrtle Beach Marathon in February, walking the 26.2 miles, instead of running. It took her six hours, 20 minutes and 35 seconds.

"People have finished the race, gotten their medals, gone to the hotel, showered, cleaned up, gone to the airport, and are flying home, and Iím still out there walking," she says, laughing.

She says a friend told her she would "hit the wall" at about mile 20. Later, Robertson told her that she had "hit the wall." The friend said, "How did you know that you hit the wall?" Robertson said, "Because some people I have never seen before in my life came by in a car, and I came close to begging them to just take me home." The friend said, "You didnít hit the wall. If you had hit the wall, you would have offered to buy their car."

To train, Robertson walks every day. She has already registered for the Walt Disney Marathon, in which 18,000 people will participate in January.

Getting Into Show Biz
This year for the first time, Robertson will speak at 10 shows attended by people taking motor coach tours. She has booked 13 for next year.  "This is a total switch from anything Iíve done in my entire life," she says. With the motor coach tours, she may be crossing over from non-celebrity to celebrity status.
When she speaks at a corporate meeting, the people are there for the meeting, not necessarily to see her.  But with the motor coach tours, people get on a bus and go to hear her. She is the headliner. Her first motor coach tour event is in Renfro Valley, KY, in August.

"Itís just real exciting," she says. She will be working with a friend, Carl Hurley, who is organizing the shows.  Robertson, who likes the tailored look, says she will need a new wardrobe for the motor coach shows. "This is a little more show biz," she says.

Small-town Girl
Robertson, a Graham native, says growing up in a small town had its advantages. "It let you do everything," she says. "You could be funny if you wanted to, you could be in a talent show if you wanted to, you could do all the things that maybe if you were in a huge town, only a few would have gotten to do."

She played basketball at Graham High School and is still a fan. "I am a Graham Red Devil all the way."
She gets humor and inspiration from her high school days. "In the 60s, when Graham High School did not have a band, the radio station would play John Phillip Sousa, and everybody turned to the same station in their cars for the parade. To me, thatís just wonderful."

If she hadnít won the Miss North Carolina title in 1963, she would probably have gone into teaching and coaching basketball. "I would have gone on and gotten my masterís, and maybe a doctorate in physical education." As it was, she received a bachelorís degree in health, physical education and recreation, and a minor in speech, from Auburn University, taught for nine years, and then went into speaking full-time.

She remains involved in local activities, acting in the plays "Steel Magnolias" in 1996 and in "Legends" this year at the Paramount Theater to help raise money for the Alamance County Arts Council. She has also spoken to Habitat for Humanity, the Boy Scouts, Loaves and Fishes, and other groups in Alamance County.

"Enjoy Every Day"
At 57, Robertson is going strong. Obviously high-energy, she says she probably would have joined the speakerís circuit, even without the beauty pageant title.

But then she wouldnít have the beauty pageant material that she uses in her speeches. She says she definitely has used the title to advance her career. "Although I poke fun at it, I also say it was a wonderful opportunity," she says. "Nobody has milked it for more."

Her hard work has paid off. In 1989, she became the first woman to receive the Cavett Award, the highest honor from the National Speakers Association. In 1998, she became the first woman speaker to receive the Golden Gavel, the top honor from Toastmasters International. She has been inducted into the National Speakers Associationís Council of Peers Award for Excellence Speakers Hall of Fame and has been designated a Certified Speaking Professional by the National Speakers Association.

Whatís next? She doesnít intend to slow down, especially with motor coach "show biz" career on the horizon and a January marathon coming up.

"Several male speakers who are older than I have said, ĎThe phone just stops ringing,í" she says. But so far the phone is ringing off the hook. And since there have been no women speakers who have reached her notoriety, she doesnít know exactly what to expect.

"I try to enjoy every day," she says. "But I do think you have a responsibility to help the people around you enjoy their days, too, and I donít think thatís just being a speaker. Whether itís the person next to you on the plane or the tired woman checking you out somewhere, if you can make her day a little bit better, that would be worth it."
The day I spoke to her, she had just gotten back from Columbus, OH, where she had opened a convention attended by 1,100 long-term health care people. The previous week, she had been in Amelia Island, GA, speaking to people who grind up granite, in Hutchinson Island, FL, speaking at a Bekins Van Lines convention, in Auburn, AL, addressing people who work for a convenience store chain, and in Bakersville, CA, speaking to 1,500 women entrepreneurs.

When she gets home, she starts preparing immediately for upcoming events, making notes and rehearsing. After all, in this business, she says, "You are only as good as your next speech."


Jeanne Swanner and beauty pageant contestants in 1963