From Dec. 1-5, Xpress’ website will feature profiles of the eight people we selected as Asheville influentials for 2016. You can also view all eight in this week’s print issue.
Our area sees its fair share of awards and recognition ceremonies. And many dedicated individuals receive well-deserved attention for the work they do to make our community a great place to live.
But it often seems a small group of movers and shakers get all the glory, while the energy and talent of legions of other contributors remain hidden in plain sight.
So, in the spirit of our mission to build community and foster civic dialogue, Xpress set out to find some of those lesser-known folks who are quietly doing important work in the Asheville area. We put out a call for nominations and received a total of 41. From there, our editorial team conducted background research on the nominees, including interviews with colleagues and collaborators. Gradually, over a series of meetings, the list was narrowed to eight outstanding influencers.
The nominees, overall, embodied a high degree of the qualities we were hoping to celebrate. That’s the calling card of a committed community: We have an abundance of passionate citizens mobilized to make a difference in the Asheville area. We realized, through the course of this project, it only scratches the surface of all the active, influential people in our region. As such, Xpress hopes to revisit this concept in the future.
Xpress applauds the work of those profiled here, and we hope you will be as inspired as we have been to learn more about their motivations and contributions.
— Xpress editorial staff
Xpress is rolling out the eight profiles on our website from Dec. 2-5, or pick up this week’s print issue to view all eight profiles.
There are two ways to view the Q&A: Either click the graphic below or scroll down to see text version of their answers (some text versions have more information than we could fit in the graphic).
- Teacher assistant, Claxton Elementary School
- Shares music, woodworking and farming skills with students
- Organizes storytelling festival for students
- Encourages students to perform with his band Buncombe Turnpike
- Writes plays with parts for students
“Claxton Elementary talent shows are always a fun and inclusive event. Tom helps many students write and perform their own songs, and backs up others who perform in the shows. He helps students of all ages from tiny kindergarten students to fifth-graders he has encouraged for years. He also helps kids from all backgrounds find their musical voices.”
Born and raised in Asheville, Tom’s mother took him to the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, where he developed a love for mountain music. In 1997, Tom began the bluegrass group Buncombe Turnpike.
Tom has had two short stories published: one in The Timber Creek Review, and one in Words of Wisdom literary magazines. He has also written four plays: A Buncombe Turnpike Sunset, Fresh Preserves, The Crowin’ Hen and Snowbound.
Tom also wrote the song “Black Sedan.” A music video of the song was produced by Legacy Films. The video was entered in CMT’s very first Music City Madness online video contest in the spring of 2007. The video finished in the top eight in the country.
Tom lives on the property that his grandfather bought in 1944, the same property where Tom grew up. He lives there with his wife and high school sweetheart, Terri. They have Shetland sheep, alpacas, a flock of laying hens, seven dogs, five cats and a donkey. Terri and Tom have two grown sons, Taylor and Bryan.
What books, music or other media influenced you as a kid?
My favorite book as a child was Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. My first recollection of music was hearing Johnny Cash cassettes that my mother played. The first live concert that I recall was when my mother took me to see Doc Watson. Doc Watson was an inspiration to me. He is a true North Carolina legend. My mother also took me to the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival when I was younger. I believe that going to the festival helped develop my love of mountain music.
Who were the three most influential people in your life as a kid?
The three most influential people in my early life were my mother, my grandfather and my uncle Robert. My mother showed me patriotism and a love for North Carolina. She was proud of being a mountain native and she passed that to me. She had a tag on the front bumper of her car that said, “I Like Calling North Carolina Home.”
My grandfather’s name was J. Weldon Harris. He was a proud, hardworking mountain man. He was also an ordained minister. Everyone in my family called him “Grampy.” Although Grampy passed away when I was 12 years old, he left an everlasting impression on me. His sense of humor, his work ethic and his overall happy attitude has helped me throughout my life.
My biggest influence as a young man was my uncle Robert. He was the person who told me about giving “good measure,” which means that you always do extra, you always do more than you have to. Uncle Robert was also a great storyteller. I used to help him on his paper route when I was young. While we were delivering papers, Uncle Robert would tell me stories from his life. He told me some of the best stories, the kind that you couldn’t make up.
What books, music or other media influence you today?
WNCW 88.7-FM is a one-of-a-kind radio station. They are who I listen to these days. In the past several years, WNCW has been really good to my band, Buncombe Turnpike. I am not sure in this day and age if there is another radio station where a local band can get their music played on the air.
Who are the three most influential people in your life today?
My wife, Terri, is my greatest influence. We have been married for 36 years. She has been right there with me every step of the way. She is my best friend and the love of my life.
My neighbor, Travis Lunsford, is also a great influence on me. I have known him all my life. He is kind of like a father figure/big brother to me. He can build, repair small engines and cook one heck of a spinach lasagna.
I am influenced by many other folks these days. It is a true blessing to be surrounded by so many wonderful people. My brothers and sisters, my cousin Delbert Fowler, friends, family and all the children that I work with, and have worked with, have all influenced me in one way or the other.
What is your favorite quote?
“That man is a success, who has lived well, laughed often and loved much, who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of children, who has filled his niche and accomplished his task, who leaves the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul, who never lacked appreciation of the earth’s beauty or failed to express it, who looked for the best in others and gave the best he had.” — Plaque given to me by my mother
How does Asheville influence you?
Asheville influences me by all its creativity. I just love it. Asheville’s creativity is so wide-ranging. My youngest son, Bryan. is a local hip-hop artist, and my oldest son, Taylor, has three works of art on display right now at the Desoto Lounge in Asheville.
What makes you passionate about Asheville?
Keeping Asheville a friendly place is what I am passionate about. I don’t want it to turn into just another busy city where drivers are rude and people are in too big of a hurry.
Why is investing in your community important?
Investing in the community is important because the children need to see us doing so. In the future, they will be the ones that will carry the torch.
Is there a defining moment or experience in your life that led you to be the community-spirited person you are today?
One turning point in my life was when my neighbor Rita Lunsford passed away from cancer. She was just 45 years old. Rita’s death made me realize that I needed to get to work because is short.
If you had $50,000 to spend on your project, how would you spend it?
If I had $50,000, I would spend much of the money to fund a creative summer camp for low-income children. I think that there is a big divide between the middle class and poor children when it comes to the art community. I would love to do something to expose poor children to creative projects that they would not normally be involved in. If there was any money left, I would use some to finish a band recording and use the rest to finish a creative project at my house that has been on hold for two years.
What’s your core advice for your fellow community members?
My core advice would be give people you meet the benefit of the doubt. Don’t judge them by the color of their skin or what clothes they wear. Say hello to one another. I heard a storyteller say one time that her aunt went through life determined to never be rude to anyone.
What keeps you awake at night?
I am very blessed that not much keeps me awake at night. From time to time, there will be a creative project that I am excited about, and it is hard for me to sleep.
If you hadn’t chosen your current path, what are some other ways your career or your interests might have evolved?
It is hard for me to imagine doing anything else for a living. I think that my path is exactly the one that I am supposed to be on. I suppose, though, that if I hadn’t chosen my current path, I probably would be working for a company where profit is the driving force. I would much rather make less money working with children than doing a job where it is all about the money.
What is one thing about you that people would find surprising?
A lot of people are surprised when I tell them that I am an Asheville native.
What can the community do to support your work and efforts?
The community can support my efforts by just simply being nice to one another. I know that every person in the world is not going to speak to a stranger, but when I pass someone on the street, I say hello. No long conversation needed, just a simple greeting.
What would you like your work’s lasting legacy to be?
I would like for my lasting legacy to be that I tried to be a friend to all, that I did my best to honor people, that I hopefully left an impression on children, in hopes that something I said or did will get passed along to someone else. I remember my third-grade teacher. Her name was Sister Ahearn at St. Joan of Arc Catholic School in Asheville. Sister Ahearn was a loving, kind, awesome, creative teacher. We did many creative projects in her class. We made papier-mache animals one time. Mine was a giraffe made of a toilet tissue tube and newspaper. I took it home and played with it until it was in tatters. It is very appealing to me that Sister Ahearn’s legacy will hopefully be passed to others through me. I am passionate about honoring people, especially children.