“Consummate storyteller” Terrell dies

Remember the Asheville Tourists manager who called a trick play to strike out Pete Rose and win the game for the T’s?

Photo courtesy Pack Memorial Library/North Carolina Collection

Or the time a famous local racecar driver started at the back of a 36-car race at old McCormick Field facing the wrong way and then wheeled around and won?

How about the Rev. Billy Graham‘s crusade in India, during which he preached to half a million people and toured a flood-ravaged countryside?

Bob Terrell remembered, and he wrote it all down.

A prolific writer, editor and columnist, Terrell forged a career with the Asheville Citizen-Times that spanned six decades and more than 17 million words. He died of cancer May 31 at the home of his son in Arizona. He was 80.

Terrell published 75 books, was the proud father of three sons, learned to fly small planes and worked for the globe-trotting Graham. But he began as a sports writer with a passion for baseball.

“There was one thing that catapulted me into writing and another that helped me learn how to write. Both were baseball teams,” Terrell wrote in his 2006 autobiography, Bob: My Father Was “Mr. Terrell”. Terrell tracked the Tourists, spending untold hours recording the hits, runs and managerial rants.

Dave Bristol was a 14-year-old playing baseball in Sylva when he met Terrell. They shared a lifelong friendship, and Bristol managed South Atlantic League baseball before moving on to the majors, including managerial stints with the Cincinnati Reds and Atlanta Braves.

Terrell “was an outstanding sports writer, and when he interviewed you and wrote a story, he could make it sound like you,” Bristol recalls. “Not many writers can do that.”

Besides storing a wealth of baseball knowledge, notes Bristol, “He cared about people. The goodness of Bob Terrell will live forever.”

If sports writing got him into the newspaper business, it was his columns that cemented his reputation. Terrell moved from the sports department to the newsroom in 1969, when Executive Editor Luther Thigpen offered him a three-day-a-week column. John Parris had already carved out a niche writing about mountain culture and its people. But Terrell saw a broader pool of potential column fodder, and he dove right in.

“Always I worked on the simple premise that every person has a story to tell,” Terrell wrote. “I felt if I talked to a person long enough, I could get the handle on a good column.”

He was soon flooded with people dropping by the newsroom or calling him at home to talk, cranking out five columns a week. He interviewed one of the last Cherokee medicine men. He recounted how four guys had rescued a companion from an overturned car in the Nantahala River. He sat down with a Black Panther leader when local racial tensions were at their height.

Longtime Citizen-Times photographer Malcolm Gamble, a friend of Terrell’s, calls him “an incredibly entertaining writer” who could even make the annual report for Central United Methodist Church a page-turner.

By the time Terrell officially retired from the newspaper in 1986 after 37 years, he estimated that he’d written 17 million words for the Citizen-Times. He went on to work for the Graham ministry, handling press relations. In the mid-1970s, Terrell began leading tours to the Holy Land, where he developed lasting friendships.

But he also kept writing, turning out books on everything from sports figures to gospel groups. Meanwhile, his regular Sunday columns still came into the Citizen-Times on typewritten pages that he typically delivered himself.

Friend and co-worker Larry Pope, the paper’s sports editor and later executive editor, calls Terrell the consummate storyteller.

“Terrell was, I think, a great writer, but more than anything he was a terrific storyteller,” says Pope. “He was a writer that, when you finished something, you’d say, ‘Damn, that was a good story,’ rather than, ‘Wow, he’s a good writer.’ I think the good story trumps the good writer.”

Terrell’s common touch helped, notes Pope.

“He was like the guy you saw at church every Sunday who caught you up with what was happening around town. He was the guy who stopped and talked to you on the porch, only his vehicle was the newspaper column. In that respect, he helped people understand their neighbors. Bob never made a caricature out of anyone.”

In the end, however, Terrell himself may have done the best job of summing up his life’s work: “People of all types, from all walks of life, with every kind of story imaginable, gravitated to my desk. Some of their stories were hilarious, some inspiring, some unusual, some not worth writing. … I always thought I had the best job in town because I got to see all sides of humanity.”

A memorial service is set for 3 p.m. on Sunday, June 14, at Central United Methodist Church in Asheville.

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One thought on ““Consummate storyteller” Terrell dies

  1. John Smolkin

    God bless Bob Terrell. I have enjoyed his columns for so many years. A part of the Asheville I’ve always known has died with Bob. No doubt he will keep God entertained with plenty of new human interest stories. I know God will enjoy Bob since God Himself is a Southerner at heart.

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