Hazel Fobes, a woman who traveled the world with her family and made her mark in Asheville crusading for clean water and air, died Tuesday. She was 93.
“She was a small-town girl with big-world ambitions” who married a diplomat, traveled the world, started a family and moved to Asheville in the mid 1980s, her son, Jeff Fobes, said Wednesday. Fobes is publisher of the Mountain Xpress.
Raised in Fork Union, Va., Fobes earned a master’s degree in library science. She helped establish the library at the America International School in New Dehli while her husband, John “Jack” Fobes, served as assistant director, and then deputy director, of the U.S. Agency for International Development mission to India, the largest U.S. foreign-aid program at the time. After she and her husband moved to Paris, she helped establish the UNESCO Community Service, a support group for the spouses of employees of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, where her husband worked as deputy director-general.
In Asheville, Fobes became an outspoken advocate for the environment. She was active with the nonprofit Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air, where she fought for reforms to keep the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency intact.
“She was passionate about her issues and did a very good job of presenting those issues,” said Charles Worley, a former mayor of Asheville who worked with Fobes in that capacity as well as chairman of the Asheville-Buncombe Water Authority.
“She could gently chew anybody out with a smile on her face. Whether you agreed with her or disagreed with her, you had to admire and respect Hazel,” Worley said. “I think she brought her issues to our attention before anybody else.”
Tom Sobol, a former water authority board member and former chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, said Fobes was admired and respected for her activism. Fobes always spoke up at public meetings and pushed relentlessly for people she supported to be appointed to local boards and commissions, Sobol said.
“Hazel and I go way back, and I’ve been on her good side and I’ve been on her bad side, and it sure was better to be on her good side,” said Sobol, recalling battles with Fobes over board appointments.
Leah Karpen, who worked with Fobes at the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County, said Fobes was a model activist.
“I told her that she and Jack wanted to change the world, and I think they did have an impact. She made people aware of issues and the fact that you could stand up for them,” Karpen said.
Jeff Fobes echoed that sentiment. “My mother was a fighter. That would probably be her message — that you can make a difference, you can have an impact.”
A memorial service will be held to honor Hazel Fobes. Details are pending.
— Jason Sandford, multimedia editor