Asheville activist dies

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


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

10 thoughts on “Asheville activist dies

  1. Melissa

    I spent 3 years covering City Council, plus a bit of time covering the commissioners and the water authority. Hazel was relentlessly there, making comments when there were supposed to be none and basically kicking asses that needed to be kicked.

    She was FEARLESS. I admired her so much.

    When she found the need to take me to task on occasion, I gladly took my medicine. When the air quality was too poor for her to go to one of her meetings, she still found a way to make her opinion known. (She was tough via telephone as well and didn’t mind leaving a loooong message.)

    Hazel, you were awesome — one of the best, most articulate gadflies this city ever had. Rest in peace.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I only met Mrs. Fobes a few times, and I only really spent any time in her company during the 2005 film festival prior to and after the showing of GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK — a movie she was particularly keen on seeing. I found her to be a lady of great personality and impact — and, so far as I was concerned, of great charm. I liked her enormously and only wish I’d known her better. I know the world will be a little worse and a little colder without her in it, but at least it’s better because she was in it.

  3. Peggy Manning

    What a loss for Asheville. Hazel Fobes served as a model and mentor for anyone who knew her. Carrying on her mission would be the greatest tribute to this great woman.

  4. David Cohen

    Back in the days of Green Line, the Mountain Xpress’ predecessor, I met Hazel at the same time I met Jeff and John. Asheville needed the Green Line, and I was happy to be a part of it. Many of those early days were spent at the Fobes’ home, where, while Jeff and the crew were putting out the monthly, Hazel and John were in and out, going to meetings and speaking out on the issues that were dear to them. Many years later, after John was gone and I had moved on to other publications, every time that I saw Hazel she would approach me with an idea for a cartoon, saying, with that fire in her eyes and in her voice, “You need to say something about this!”
    Let me say something about this—–Hazel, thank you for your years of speaking out. You leave us with many battles left to fight, but you also leave us with a plan and a role model.
    Asheville is a better place because of you. Thank you.

  5. Anne Craig

    A long, well lived life! Bravo! Hazel was an inspiration and a role model, a wise-woman with whom I was honored to have ‘rubbed shoulders.’ Rest in Peace. Condolences to Jeff, family and friends.

  6. She changed the world in that she changed her immediate world and let the ripples of community activism spread. She did the best that any of us could ever hope to do. She will be well remembered, her legacy will long endure.

  7. Keith Thomson

    Hazel’s life and her testimony speaks volumes about the power of good citizenship and service to others. We all are able to breathe easier having had her relentlessly stand up for clean air and a healthy environment.

    Jeff, those of us who were her “other children” wish you and your family condolences in your loss and we thank you for sharing this wonderful, exemplary lady with us.

  8. Darcel

    I like Melissa spent three years in City Council watching Hazel. I am honored to have had a mentor of her capabilities. She certainly held her own. I thank her for choosing the life that she led and for being such a great teacher for many of us!

  9. Clare

    Hazel was a gem. Her brilliance will be reflected throughout this city for years to come. When she stood to speak in a City Council chamber or at a public meeting, we listened. Hazel could tell the truth with disarming charm. We’ll all miss her keen mind, kind heart and warm smile. You go girl, into the light that shined so brightly through you for so many good years. A bright and shining light for justice.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.