Robertson: Look for humor in everyday life

Published 12:46 am Thursday, October 20, 2011

Jeanne Robertson knows how to look for the humor in life, whether it’s an argument between a mother and daughter in an airport over the daughter’s new boyfriend, or the results of sending her husband to the grocery store.

Jeanne Robertson, a humorist who began her speaking career as Miss North Carolina 1963, will speak at the second-annual Washington Women’s Luncheon. (Photos courtesy Jeanne Robertson)

For the past 48 years as one of the most popular speakers at numerous conventions and other corporate events, Robertson has honed her skills at looking for that humor.

Although comedic timing may be a gift, anyone can train himself or herself to look for humor and make it part of his or her life, Robertson said in a recent interview with the Daily News from her home in Alamance County.

“It’s my job,” she said. “But you can train yourself to look for the humor. If you make a habit of looking for the humor every day, you make it a part of your life.”

It’s a skill that parents and grandparents can pass along to their children and grandchildren, she said.

“I think we can teach young people to have a sense of humor just as you can teach them to set a table,” she said.

One way to do that, she said, is for parents and grandparents to ask, “Tell me something funny that happened in school today.”

Robertson will share her insights on life and the importance of humor in it at the second-annual Washington Women’s Luncheon set for Nov. 10 at Yankee Hall Plantation. The event is sponsored by the Washington-Beaufort County Chamber of Commerce.

Robertson got her start on the professional speaking circuit as Miss North Carolina in 1963, representing Graham, going on to be named Miss Congeniality in the Miss America Pageant.

She was approached to enter the Miss North Carolina pageant by the Graham Jaycees when she was still in high school, but her mother encouraged her to wait a few years.

After Robertson perfected her talent as a songwriter and ukulele player, she decided to try for the title as a 20-year-old sophomore at Auburn University.

At 6 feet, 2 inches tall in her stocking feet, Robertson literally stood head and shoulders above most of the other contestants. She displayed her sense of humor on national television in her answer to a question about Elvis Presley (She said that many people still recall that question and her answer 48 years later).

She credits her time as a contestant in the Miss North Carolina pageant and the 500 speeches she gave across the state during her yearlong reign as the spark to her professional speaking career.

“Being in a pageant doesn’t give you a career,” she said. “It gives you an opportunity.”

During the Miss North Carolina pageant the next year, when Robertson was scheduled to pass her crown to the new titleholder, the North Carolina Jaycees asked Robertson to entertain the crowd during breaks between events. Robertson was a hit, and she was tapped for speaking engagements immediately afterwards.

“I had an opportunity you just can’t buy, and I’ve never looked back,” she said.

That’s a message she tries to give to her listeners.

Initially, Robertson, who earned a degree in physical education, divided her time between speaking, teaching physical education and coaching basketball.

But after nine years, she said, “something had to give,” and she decided to become a professional speaker full-time.

At first, her speaking career primarily involved speaking at corporate events, but with the advent of new media — one clip on YouTube has received some 14 million hits — Robertson has been appearing in sold-out, one-woman shows across the country and on satellite radio, where she has gained a national following.

Her material is based on her life experiences and what’s happening now. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, being a 6-foot-2 tall, basketball-playing beauty queen provided her with a lot of material. Then when she had a son, she started talking about her experiences as a parent. Her main source of material these days is “Left Brain,” the nickname she has given her husband Jerry, a former basketball player at Duke University.

“I feel so fortunate to do what I have done,” she said.

Robertson has received numerous awards, including The Cavett Award, the highest honor the National Speakers Association gives one of its members, in 1989; The Golden Gavel, given by Toastmasters International in 1998; and the 2001 North Carolinian of the Year, given by the N.C. Press Association.

With more than 45 public appearances scheduled for the remainder of 2011 and most of 2012 — not including convention dates that are not open to the public — Robertson, now 68, says it may be time to start slowing down.

Robertson said she hopes to continue her career “as long as people would like me to come.”