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
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).
- Librarian, North Carolina Room, Pack Memorial Library
- Helps bring history to life with popular story series and exhibits
- Promotes various NC Room resources available like online photo databases
- Encourages community members to search archives
- Facilitates preservation of current archives for future generations
“Zoe has created the Heard Tell series of programs in Lord Auditorium that is highlighting different aspects of Asheville life, bringing the library archives out to people. The room is always packed, and the programs are really well-organized by a committee she works with. She could easily just sit in there behind her desk and wait for people to come in and look at books, but she is bringing the library archives alive.”
What books, music or other media influenced you as a kid?
Other than maybe the first seven years of my life, I was pretty late in finding myself. Rather than a person influencing my childhood, I would have to say that it was place that most influenced me. I grew up on Turkey Foot Lake, part of the Portage Lakes outside of Akron, Ohio. Living on a lake, for me, meant that life was about being outside, and about enjoying friends and family coming to our home to do the same.
I left Ohio in 1976, traveling by myself, in search of a college. Not too happy at seeing me traveling alone, a relative started showing me colleges in Western North Carolina. Nothing quite worked until, on her last effort, she drove me out to see Warren Wilson College. As we rose over the hill, looking over the barns and the farmland, with the college campus in the distant view, I said, “That’s where I want to go.”
Who are the three most influential people in your life as a kid?
The first two meaningful people in my life were the religion professor/pastor and the farm crew manager at Warren Wilson―Fred Ohler and Ernst Larsen. From the first, I learned the importance of story and that everyone has a story to tell. Ohler’s classes and sermons were firmly based in biography, so we read Frederick Buechner and Martin Buber, but also Annie Dilliard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Zorba the Greek, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and a biography of a baseball player whose name I no longer remember. Ohler’s sermons seemed almost always to be about being stunned by the ordinary.
From Larsen, I learned a very strong work ethic. If the hay wasn’t bailed by sundown, you turned on the tractor lights and kept going. To this day, I can hear him saying, “Keep the place nice and clean off your tools after you use them.” He also told us, “If you borrow a tool from a neighbor, always make sure you return it in better condition than when you got it.” The college also offered classes in creative writing, and I took every one offered. That resonated in me like a gong going off.
What books, music or other media influence you today?
By revisiting Dillard’s Tinker Creek, I came across the idea again of “seeing,” which is about noticing what is around you, and not taking sight for granted. I got it at that point in my life. It woke me up, and it is something I constantly work at learning. Shortly thereafter I stumbled across the new-to-me idea of individuation, the philosophical idea of “waking oneself up” such as was taught by Gurdjieff and Jungian philosophers. This interest led me to writers who included psychology in their writings, such as Colette, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Wolff.
Who are the three most influential people in your life today?
A few years ago, when thinking about the people in the world who most inspired me, I shocked myself to realize they were all comedians: Robin Williams, Lilly Tomlin and Ellen DeGeneres. They are/were all willing to be frank, unruly and deeply honest about the world. And be seriously funny. I also enjoy the wisdom and humor of Southern rural ways of saying things. I get some of the best passed on to me by a co-worker who grew up near Marion. Her mother says, “Everyone in our family has such big feet, we have to back up to a door to knock.”
The place I most love being at is home. Particularly outside. I think I even like preparing gardens for winter as much as I enjoy spring. I like playing in the dirt. Some people call it gardening. I love cooking a meal for friends and having long conversations.
What is your favorite quote?
Not exactly a quote, but an unsaid way a dear friend of mine lived: “Live with as many animals as you can and as close to them as you can.” Something I try to say to myself every day is, “Be sure to regard love as my highest law.”
What makes you passionate about Asheville?
Oddly enough, I never had any interest in history, but when I began working in the N.C. Room, I lost myself in this town’s history. I made indexes of buildings, architects, photographers, mostly for myself, to learn what I needed to know. For some reason, it came quite naturally to me. I was as interested in this place’s history as if I’d been born here. Asheville is the right size for me. I care about its architecture and I love living in a place that is beautiful, where the mountains ring the city and form the most beautiful backdrop every day. I realized not long after coming here that Asheville is my home. What I like most about my work is ferreting out answers to questions, working to rebuild, layer by layer, lost people, visions, buildings, communities.
Why is investing in your community important?
I would like to see Asheville residents and city government be more like peaceful co-workers. I wish, as in the 1980s, the community was more involved in the present and future of Asheville. Especially the younger people. I worry that new businesses cater too much to tourists, so that we have boutiques that most of us can’t afford to shop in and we no longer have a grocery or a “Five and Dime” downtown. I would like to see more business owners who say, “What can I do to make Asheville better?” When Eckerd’s closed its downtown store in the early ’80s, Hashim Badr, who worked there, opened the Asheville Discount Pharmacy, because he wanted to provide a place for senior residents to get their prescriptions. I think Aloft Hotel’s effort to find homes for homeless dogs is breathtaking, as well as the volunteers who take their work breaks to walk them.
If you had $50,000 to spend on your project, how would you spend it?
If I were given a lot of money, I would buy land and care for homeless farm animals. When I retire, I would like to write or edit a collection of nonfiction stories about women who keep barns. That women do this ― that I do this ― blows me away. I, at first, interpreted this question personally; there would be no end to how I could see $50,000 well-spent in the North Carolina Room. Scanners, voice recorders, digital cameras, (with extras to be checked out by patrons for documentation purposes) a webcam, funds for speakers, funding for more staff, funds for purchases for the collection, etc.
What keeps you awake at night?
I worry most about how segregated our city is. I worry that our needs are still so great for low- and middle-income housing. I worry that we are building too many buildings and that not enough consideration is given to their architecture. I worry that our older buildings aren’t protected enough by being on the National Register of Historic Places. I could lose sleep over the loss of the Imperial Theater block and the buildings at North Pack Square. Imagine our town if they were still in place! Billboards I lose sleep over, and the impact of the crosstown expressway (I-240) through town and the new changes coming for I-26. You can’t treat a mountain city like any other city. As writer Douglas Swaim said, “For sheer devastation to the existing environment, both built and natural, nothing compares with I-240, the downtown expressway.” (Cabins & Castles, 1981.)
What is one thing about you that people would find surprising?
I suppose most people would not guess that I have milk goats. In 2006, Brenda and I finally moved to the country, to a tiny spot of land up from the end of Reems Creek, which came with a nice-size shed we turned into a barn, and enough of a lot and woods where I keep three milk goats and a small flock of chickens. Though the house didn’t pass the marble test, it does have a pool, so I can swim in the summer anytime I want to, and I come back to a home that is about leisure and playfulness and company.
What can the community do to support your work and efforts?
To the community, I would say if you are interested in local history, come visit us and do some research you’ve been dying to do. Join the Friends of the North Carolina Room (it’s only $15/year). It promotes our outreach and our programming. If you care about our built environment, join the Preservation Society of Asheville & Buncombe County. If you are a library user, or use the North Carolina Room or enjoy our programs, write the Buncombe County commissioners and tell them you believe the library is a vital service. Be on the lookout for what needs to be documented. Let us know about it ― or bring it to us. Take photographs of our city and our people and send them to us. Donate your church’s or synagogue’s directories or your high school annuals. Join our blog. Visit our Special Collections database. The North Carolina Room is your local history room.