Asheville activist passes

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.

Hazel Fobes

“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.


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4 thoughts on “Asheville activist passes

  1. Sandra Abromitis

    Hazel was a role model for me. She had such grace as well as strong convictions about the enviornment and the truth. I will sorely miss my friend.

  2. Diane Hartling

    I work at a church in Virginia. Every year since I have been here, Hazel called to arrange for an azalea to be planted on her birth mother’s grave. I always enjoyed talking with her so much and from time to time I would send her pictures of the azaleas in full bloom. She was a delightful lady and I wish I could have met her in person. My condoleses to her family.

  3. Ellen Weissman

    Jeff, a friend of mine (Jennifer Ball aka “B”) is passing through Ashville tomorrow and that made me think of you. (If she has time, she’ll stop by the office.) For years I’ve wanted to get in touch and tell you how much I loved your folks and how much your mom meant to mine. I think I talked with Patti when mine passed on Earth Day in ’07. (Mom was born in Valentine’s Day. Perfect days to be born and die on, eh?!) I’m glad to find the article and photo about Hazel. What a great woman!

    I hope someday I can get to visit in Ashville or you can come to Sandpoint, Idaho where I am. It would be great to catch up. I applaud your work with the XPress. Please share my love with Patti.

    With love, ellen.

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