Jane Jenkins Herlong

Author and speaker shares  her wisdom and humor for life

Karen Floyd: Jane, you are a certified speaking professional. What is that, and how did you choose that career?

Jane Jenkins Herlong was Miss South Carolina 1979.

Jane Jenkins Herlong: CSP is an earned designation from the National Speakers Association. So it is awarded to those who meet thresholds of speaking engagements. It is quite a journey to get the CSP. When I married and moved to the little tiny town of Johnston (S.C.), I thought, “What in the world am I going to do?” I mean, I just was fired from teaching dyslexic children. They told me I was dyslexic. That was lovely. And unless you teach or work at the bank, there were few options. I mean, forget figures, I could not do that. My husband’s cousin, Joe Ben Herlong, said, “Why don’t you go into the schools and start talking to the young people, a motivational speaker?” So I did. I created this little musical motivational program, and I changed it every year, and I marketed it, and had fun. I had just been Miss South Carolina, and I was at the end of that title. Motivational speaking just evolved. It seemed to work into about a 30-minute musical motivational self-improvement for all ages. I could do the little ones, the junior high, the high school, and it was fun. I traveled. Gosh, I was so busy with that. .

Then our children came, and I wanted to be a good mother. I wanted to be on Oprah in a good way, not a bad way. Then I wrote the book. I was told you have to have a book. So I wrote a book, and I got an “F” in writing. So I’m thinking, “This is lovely.” Another four-letter word came into my life, which is next. I like to take “no” and go to “next.” So it started to blossom. I joined National Speakers, and they just gave me a lovely award two weeks ago to the Speaker Hall of Fame. I still cannot believe that because everybody that I know that has won, I love and admire. The lesson is just not giving up. I’ve been rejected and nominated about 12 times. Like life, one thing leads to another, and I love (I know it is crazy) to prove people wrong. That’s almost a sport for me. I took some of my comedy bits and sent them to a friend who was the guru. He said, “Oh, that’s not funny. Stale.” “I said, “Good, I get to do that four-letter word again.”

Q: Next?

A: Next. So I sent it to Sirius, and they’ve been playing me for about four years. And every time I see him I go, “Al, didn’t you wish you listened more?”

Q: So let’s talk about the three books you wrote. First, “Bare Feet to High Heels.” Tell me what it is about and what inspired you.

A: Well, it was the “you just got to have a book. You have a speech; you must have a book.” It is about the back-of-the-room sales, and I had fun. It was a journey from the tomato farm on Johns Island to the Miss America Pageant. “Bare Feet to High Heels,” and the subtitle is, “You Don’t Have to be a Beauty Queen to be a Beautiful Person.” It was just a fun little book, and it served me well. When my sister had breast cancer, I started thinking I should write a book in her memory. And so the next book is a little edgy. It’s called, “What Ta-Tas Teach Us,” and it’s illustrated. I received a review on Amazon, and it was so funny. The woman said, “This is the most worthless book I have ever read.” The next review was, “This is the most brilliant book.” I thought there’s something wrong with these people. So it made me laugh. But the Pearl (“Bury Me With My Pearls”) book is in memory of my mother. We were very close, and it’s all about the analogy of the sea pearls, small decisions. Irregular pearl, the weird stuff that happens. The dark pearl, which is the good pearl, because that’s the dark stuff that we have to define and we don’t want it to define us. And you would have to get conclusion with it. But you have to wear it proudly if you’ve been through darkness in your life. So it’s a valuable pearl. And it did great on Amazon. It just shot to the top in my categories. So I was like, “Wow. Got that big fat ‘F’ in writing, and look at this.” So that was exciting.

Q: Christian humor, bestseller, gold medal winner of the 2015 Illumination Book Awards. Why were those awards surprising to you?

A: I guess because, to be honest, I said, “They will read that first chapter and think, ‘Uh-uh.’ ” The book is about all the funny stuff my mother told me, like, “Don’t lift that,” “Don’t jump on a trampoline,” and I didn’t get it. It was, “Well, do you want to have a baby?” And that’s my first chapter about my mother’s crazy, funny stories. She was very funny. She would tell me, “You jump on a trampoline or ride a horse, your uterus is gonna fall right out on the floor. I thought, “Oh, my gosh, they’re going to read that first chapter and think this woman is seriously ill.” But instead, they apparently thought it was funny.

Q: How did you publish?

A: Well, the strange thing is, I am so into publishing. I feel like I know it. The first book was a self-pub. That’s kind of like, “Oh, that’s a shame, that’s sad.” Second book was a self-pub, and you know, it did fine. But the third one was with my publisher. What we do to sell the books, sold on Amazon, but we also put the logo of the corporation I’m speaking for on the books and pre-sell them. So I sell lots that way, and I went through a traditional publisher for the third one.

Q: SiriusXM Radio and Pandora, how did that come about?

A: Well, Sirius was my friend in Nashville, who I sent my stuff to. He was the guru. And he rejected it. So I just sent it anyway. Then I was at a speaking engagement and I got a tweet that said, “Hey, I just heard you on Sirius 97.” It was Blue Collar. Now it’s Larry and Jeff’s Comedy Roundup. And I said, “Seriously?” So I got in my car, and I had actually canceled my 97, all the other channels, and I got back on the phone and I said, “Give me that 97 back.” So what I do is take a condenser mic. I travel with it. I did this last week in Spokane. I record the audience response because you have to sound like you’re in a comedy club. So then I chop up the bits, send it to Sirius, and I was just listening to it coming up here, and I’m gonna reproduce it for CD sales.

Q: Life is a little bit of a circle. You came from a rural area?

A: Well, the tomato farm down on Johns Island, it’s a lovely piece of property. My daddy was a hard worker. He did not complete high school. He dropped out in the 10th grade. The work ethic that I saw in his life and the philanthropy that he didn’t talk about. And when he died, the stories were just jaw dropping, what he did for others. I loved that, and I’m so glad that’s in my DNA because I love to give back. I love that. And my mother was just funny. She taught me how to twist things around and just squeeze the humor out when it really wasn’t funny. You know, comedy is tragedy plus time. So the rural environment, the imagination grew.

Q: Tell me about the farm. How many acres was it?

A: You know, we had a couple of farms. I think, at one time, probably 300 and tomatoes mostly. So that was aggressive for daddy. He went back to the drawing board when a new broker came into town. He added big ponds and triple irrigation, which was a huge investment. You see, I saw that risk factor and I thought, “Now that’s pretty cool.” And he just didn’t play it safe. He told me he never needed to go to Las Vegas because he gambled every day. So I saw that. I saw the stress level, which was mammoth because daddy had three weeks to make a living for the year. That was bad.

Q: Do you still own the farm on Johns Island?

A: Yes. We love to go down there because it’s on the water and it’s beautiful old — and we allow weddings to be held out there, but it depends on our schedule. It’s a beautiful spot. So it’s kind of a take-a-deep-breath-and-remember place. That kind of attracted me to Thomas, because when you’re in agriculture, it’s not a profession. It’s a lifestyle.

Q: And that’s your husband, Thomas?

A: Yes. So he was a peach, small grain and cattle farmer when we got married. Then he shifted into financial planning with New York Life later. So that’s what he does now. He loves that because it’s an area of philanthropy for him.

Q: Does he still keep his farm?

A: We do. We have peaches on the Edgefield County farm and tomatoes on the Johns Island farm.

Q: How did you become involved in the pageantry world?

A: As I would study the qualities of the Miss America system, I knew you had to be a good communicator. I knew you had to be physically fit. I knew you had to develop a talent. And I knew you had to have a sense of style. Well, that’s life success right now.

Q: You know you’re a very pretty woman, and as a young woman, you were exquisite. How did that affect you?

A: I didn’t think about it. I just wanted to always get better. I knew my weaknesses were swimsuit. So you naturally focus on that. I don’t have a swimsuit figure. I knew that I had a good vocal coach. I knew I had a good showmanship coach. I just absorbed it all.

Q: How old were you when you started in the pageantry world?

A: It was being nominated by your high school. I went to First Baptist down in Charleston, and it was like you were nominated to do the smile and wear the pretty dress thing. Then my cousins got me hooked up. It really got serious when I was a senior at Columbia College at age 22.

Q: And when you won, you were?

A: Twenty-three.

Q: And did you think you would win when you entered into that last pageant?

A: I did. Miss South Carolina I did. I felt in my heart. I talked to several of the girls who won as well, and I said, “Did you know?” And they said, “I did.” Deep down there was a little spot that said, “You got this.” So that was exciting. Miss America, it was so different and so big. I just had to say, “You know, Lord, this is in your hands. It’s just whatever.” And I loved the girl that won. In fact, she dated my husband. I tell everybody I didn’t win Miss America, but I married her boyfriend.

Q: You won.

A: Yeah, I did. I got a great guy.

Q: Who was it that molded you as a young woman? Was it your mother, or was there another influential person?

A: Well, I had two mothers. We had a beautiful African-American woman that helped us for 50 years. Her name was Tootsie. Real name was Ruth. She, and my mama both, they just helped me understand things and helped me see things. Tootsie was so wise. She spoke Gullah up one side and down the other.

Author and public speaker Jane Jenkins Herlong at her family farm in Johnston, S.C.

Q: So tell me about meeting your husband. When was the first time you saw him, and did you know it from the beginning?

A: I did, and I’ll tell you why. I was probably 14. I’d say, “I’m gonna pray for my husband, and when I meet him, I’ll know.” So I did. My mother and I were at the Francis Marion Hotel in Charleston. I was Miss Charleston, and Thomas was the Jaycees vice-president for the state, and he said, “Please welcome the newly crowned Miss Charleston.” And he dropped his R, and I went oh, my gosh, I love a man who drops an R. It’s just so Southern. And my mother said, “Oh, he’s so cute.” I said, “Oh, my gosh,” and I was dating a guy who was amazing. He’s an astronaut, lived in Michigan. We met. Outstanding. And I just felt like, “No, I don’t believe that’s the guy for me.” And then I sat by Thomas. I was Miss South Carolina. I called him, and I wanted kind of to get to know him a little bit — I needed judges for Miss Charleston. I knew he farmed, and I knew he was very left-brained, but this took the cake. I said — I tried to be mature ­— I said, “So, what have you been doing?” I mean, you know, cause I needed a judge. He said, ready? “Artificially inseminating my beef cattle.” I said, “Oh, my gosh.” Cause then all this maturity of mine just, poof. And I said, “Oh, what do you do afterwards? Do you smoke a cigarette?” And that was wrong. Wasn’t that just trash of me? But that’s like, what is with this guy? And so then, you know, we only had one date, and he came to pick me up, take me to Camden to emcee or sing for the Miss Camden pageant, and I could just feel it. This guy’s gonna ask me to marry him. So, you would think, you know, Miss South Carolina, beauty queen; it would be an awesome place. Took me to the Lizard’s Thicket. I said, “Gosh.”

Q: That same night?

A: Well, when he met me that weekend, he picked me up at the airport, and it was the next night he took me to the Lizard’s Thicket. I said, “Seriously?”

Q: This was very fast?

A: Very fast cause I prayed and I said, “Okay, this is the guy.” I knew it. I sat down by him at that Jaycees banquet, and that’s when it really started to, you know, get going.

Q: You’ve had some pretty tough obstacles. What is it that keeps you going?

A: I am a Christian, and I feel like that the Lord is just helping open doors, just open them, and give me wisdom, and I pray for that all the time. I pray to give me wisdom to know what to do, how to do, when to do, when to let go of something. I’m not a let go — that’s the problem with being so driven. You don’t know when to let go. That’s the problem.

Q: What would be your gift — or words of wisdom — to readers of this interview be?

A: If you have an unresolved issue that’s holding you back from your personal best, get help. Seek out the right person to sit down, as I did and I’m not ashamed to say, was the best thing I ever did. My friend Nancy. I keep calling her. You been? You talked to somebody? And she’s 100 percent better because she took the time to sit down with the right person. There are wrong people, too. Seek out the right person, a professional that can help get into your head and get rid of some of those haunts and memories. I’ve got a beautiful friend of mine, and I’m thinking at this point it’s easier for her to be crippled with alcoholism than to dig up what got her there. Some people, they’d rather die like that. Got to accept that. It’s too painful. And I don’t know what the pain is. But when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change, you change. And like with my brother, I keep thinking, “What’s behind it?” And I’ve called the places he’s been, the rehab, and they say, “You know what? With your brother, could be the bottom of a grave.” And then you have to accept this. Sometimes there are no answers. None. And that is the answer. I guess I’d say get help.  E