The North Carolina Press
Association began naming its North Carolinian of the Year in 1993 to
honor an individual who "reflects pride in North Carolina and who
has brought honor and recognition to the state." Past recipients include Elizabeth Dole, Rev. Billy Graham,
Meadowlark Lemon, Hugh Morton, William Friday, Bob Timberlake, and Dean Smith.
Friday, July 27, 2001
'I couldn't believe it'
Jeanne Swanner Robertson
given press group honor
By Jim Wicker
When humorist Jeanne Swanner Robertson of Burlington got the call notifying her that she'd been selected "North Carolinian of the Year," she was "honored, thrilled, excited and flabbergasted," all at once. "I couldn't believe it," said Robertson. "But since I've had time to think about it, I just don't know why they picked me or what I've done to deserve it." She is receiving the award today at the NC Press Association's annual convention in Pinehurst.
Representatives of the association, which began the annual award in 1993, said Robertson was selected for the honor because of her "popularity on the (national and international) speaking circuit, her award-winning ways, and her representation of North Carolina."
"I don't feel like a celebrity," she said. "But I know I'm really in good company because others who have gotten the honor include Elizabeth Dole, the Rev. Billy Graham and Dean Smith." Other past recipients include Meadowlark Lemon, Hugh Morton, William Friday, Bob Timberlake and Doc Watson.
She said she also is pleased to be the first to represent Alamance County as a North Carolinian of the Year.
Robertson, who stands 6 feet, 2 inches tall, is a native of Graham. She indirectly began her 37-year career as a speaker, entertainer and author in 1963 when she won the Miss North Carolina title.
"I went to the Miss North Carolina Pageant because I had won the Miss Graham contest earlier in 1963," she said. The Graham Jaycees, who sponsored the event, had asked her to enter. "I was a freshman at Auburn University the first time they asked me to enter, but I didn't have time to do it that year," she said. "So I entered the next year when I was a sophomore."
Known then as Jeanne Swanner, her maiden name, she played the ukulele and sang an original song in the talent portions of both the Miss Graham and the Miss North Carolina Pageant. She also played the instrument as a contestant in the 1963 Miss America Pageant, but officials asked her to perform a different song.
Robertson didn't win the Miss America crown, but she brought home the Miss Congeniality award from Atlantic City, NJ, and is still listed as the tallest contestant to take part in the national beauty pageant.
"I think I must have made at least 500 little speeches as Miss North Carolina. I traveled all around the state and made talks -- most of them short -- to various groups," Robertson said. She found that she enjoyed talking to audiences. After she graduated from Auburn, she became a physical education instructor, but after a short time she felt the urge to try her
hand as a speaker.
"I've been on the circuit ever since, which has covered 37 years," said Robertson, 57, the grandmother of two. "And I'm still having fun and enjoying it. As long as people want to listen to me, I hope to keep on doing what I'm doing." Each year she makes about 90 speeches and does a dozen or more shows.
HER CAREER has taken her to 48 of the 50 states and to Canada. She said she will add the 49th state in September when she goes to Alaska for a talk in Anchorage. "Then, the only state I haven't been to will be Rhode Island," she said.
At one point a few years ago, Robertson was classified as Delta Air Lines' No. 1 flyer because of the frequency of her travel. She said she has logged more than 5 million miles on Delta's jetliners, plus more than a million miles on USAir's planes. She has traveled "hundreds of thousands of miles on other airliners, such as United and American. I fly on all of them."
Robertson has published three humor books and has won numerous awards as a speaker and entertainer. She said her career involves much more everyday hard work than members of her audience probably realize. "It's hard work to keep coming up with new material," she said.
Robertson said that each speaker who makes the rounds of the circuit has a "signature story -- a story that they become known for." Hers is "the baton story," about a beauty pageant contestant who twirled the baton for her talent without really knowing how. "I've been telling it for 30 years," she said. "But I've put it on sabbatical and I've told it only one time since November 1999."
Reprinted with permission from Times-News 2001