Hazel Fobes, a woman who traveled the world with her family and made her mark in Asheville crusading for clean water and air, died Feb. 19. 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 the day after her death. Her son is the publisher of Mountain Xpress.
Raised in Fork Union, Va., Fobes earned a master’s degree in library science. She helped establish the library at the American International School in New Delhi while her husband, John “Jack” Fobes, was serving as assistant director and then deputy director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s mission to India, the largest U.S. foreign-aid program at the time. After she and her husband moved to Paris in 1964, Hazel Fobes 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 chaired the grass-roots group Citizens for Safe Drinking Water. She fought to reform the regional air-quality agency and later to keep it intact. She monitored local water-authority meetings and was a member of a volunteer group that worked on water conservation.
“She was passionate about her issues and did a very good job of presenting those issues,” said former Asheville Mayor Charles Worley, who worked with Fobes both in that capacity and as chair 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 recalled. “I think she brought her issues to our attention before anybody else.”
Tom Sobol, a former Water Authority board member and former chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, said Fobes was admired and respected for her activism. She always spoke up at public meetings and pushed relentlessly to get people she supported appointed to local boards and commissions, said Sobol.
“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,” he said, recalling battles with Fobes over board appointments.
Leah Karpen, who worked with Fobes at the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County, called her 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,” said Karpen.
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 to honor Hazel Fobes will be held Saturday, March 15, at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, starting at 11 a.m. The church is located at 789 Merrimon Ave. For more information, contact Jeff Fobes at Mountain Xpress, 251-1333, ext. 109.