The French Broad’s grande dame memorialized

In a remarkable tribute to Appalachian writer and advocate Wilma Dykeman, Asheville’s Diana Wortham Theatre was filled on the afternoon of Wednesday, June 13, with a human quilt made up of the kinds of people whose lives she had affected: singers, poets, authors, readers, fans, friends, family — all there to honor a woman who had honored them by writing “the truth” of the Appalachian mountains.

Dykeman, whose productive life as an author, speaker, historian, educator, environmentalist and civil-rights proponent spanned the years 1920 to 2006, was celebrated as the quintessential voice for regional history of place in her signature nonfiction book, The French Broad (originally published in 1955), and in such fictional heavyweights as The Tall Woman and The Far Family. Her literary accomplishments alone likely would have packed the hall. But as speaker after speaker discussed the Wilma Dykeman they had known, admired and learned from, it became clear that this was a tribute to both the woman from “a little wooded cove outside Asheville” and to the values and honesty she embodied.

Doug Orr
, president emeritus of Warren Wilson College, hosted an array of on-stage guests who spoke about their memories of Dykeman: eulogist Dan Matthews, a Canton native and rector emeritus of Trinity Parish in New York City; Laura Boosinger, local/international folksinger and teacher; Fred Chappell, also a Canton native and a North Carolina Poet Laureate; Asheville-raised author John Ehle, an “idea man” for the creation of such cultural treasures as the N.C. School of the Arts; Sharyn McCrumb, bestselling novelist and granddaughter of circuit-riding preachers in the Smoky Mountains; Robert Morgan, poet, fiction writer and Cornell professor who grew up in the Green River valley; and Dianne Tuttle, writing consultant and personal friend whose final remarks captured the strength and transcendence of Dykeman’s spirit.

A woman who could see “far beyond far,” as Matthews put it, Dykeman was particularly hailed for her environmental prescience and for the dignity and grace she afforded the people of Appalachia. She was, it seems, the woman she described when she spoke about writing The Tall Woman: a woman “whose life embodied all kinds of creative forces … who really cared about the world around her — the natural world, the human world.”

Nelda Holder, news and opinion editor

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