The tall woman

Editor’s note: Acclaimed Asheville writer, conservationist and social critic Wilma Dykeman Stokely died Dec. 22 at age 86.

I first got to know Wilma Dykeman after I moved here from Houston, Texas, in 1988 and began attending public events at The North Carolina Arboretum, Warren Wilson College and assorted Buncombe County public libraries with my wife, Gay. We’re both avid readers, but we soon found we also had several other things in common with Wilma. Like her, Gay came from a rural background and attended Northwestern University, earning a degree in speech. Northwestern had the best speech school in the country, and Gay and Wilma used to joke that the school was ahead of its time in taking young ladies with potential. Both of Wilma’s sons went to Yale, as I did. And beyond that, we all shared a strong drive to strive for what we considered to be the very best.

Wilma always spoke of her husband, James Stokely (who died in 1977), with the greatest affection. Gay and I have been married for 55 years now, and we understood the kind of loyalty and commitment those two had shared.

Wilma’s trademark was her vividly colored, broad-brimmed hats (which, as one biographer noted, contrasted with the whiteness of her hair in her later years). Bill Friday, the long-running host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina People, recalled that his producer was afraid the hat might hide Wilma from view, but her attire prevailed and her charm came through just fine.

The only child of a 56-year-old New Yorker and a 23-year-old Ashevillean mother, Wilma grew up during the Great Depression. After graduating from Northwestern in 1940, she moved to New York, where she thought about going on the stage but opted for her lifelong dream of becoming a writer.

“I write because, if I didn’t write, I can’t live with myself — and no one can live with me,” she told one interviewer. In New York, Wilma met James Stokely; two months later, they were married. Over the next few decades, they raised two boys and wrote several books together.

Wilma’s most memorable book is The French Broad. She’d grown up in “the beautiful and secluded valley of Beaverdam Creek, which flows into the French Broad River,” and her 1955 work, an early call for water conservation, provides a richly layered, compelling portrait of the river and the region.

A writer, lecturer and conservationist, Wilma addressed many social issues in both her fiction and nonfiction work. The award-winning Neither Black Nor White (1957 — co-written with her husband) and Seeds of Southern Change (1962) discuss racial matters. The Tall Woman (1962) depicts a strong, progressive Appalachian woman in the years just after the Civil War. Too Many People, Too Little Love (1974) is a biography of birth-control pioneer Edna Rankin McKinnon. Wilma kept a journal almost all her life, ready to research and report on any subject of interest to herself and her Appalachian following.

In the 1999, Wilma was pleased to become one of the first female members of the Pen and Plate Club, to which I also belong. An Asheville institution, the club had only recently opened membership to women. The meetings combine good food, good conversation and the reading of a paper on a literary theme, and I admired her willingness to dig in and write a paper when she was almost 80.

It was, of course, on her favorite subject: Appalachian literature. Instead of considering her own considerable contribution, however, she very generously reported on other writers who helped put this area on the literary map. Her life covered quite a span from Thomas Wolfe up to today, and she saw literature from the historical perspective. I am a student of history, and I appreciated the historical perspective she brought to literature.

But Wilma saved her highest praise for Thomas Wolfe, whom she called “the ultimate Appalachian, perhaps universal writer: offering pinnacles of inspiration and hidden coves of darkness, demanding our effort and attention to all life’s minutes and days, the joys and defeats and challenges we know alone — and together.” Bound with the other Pen and Plate essays, this piece is on the shelves of Pack Library’s North Carolina Collection.

Wilma had a great sense of humor and would laugh heartily recalling that she’d had the opportunity to name a professional football team. After Bud Adams moved the Houston Oilers to Nashville, he formed a committee of football men (including NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue) and one woman — Wilma Dykeman Stokely, the official state historian of Tennessee — to come up with a new name for the team. They held several meetings, and it was Wilma who, observing the full-scale copy of the Parthenon in Nashville’s Centennial Park, proposed a name out of Greek mythology: the Titans.

Wilma got great satisfaction from her two sons, Dykeman and James, and her other family. She was particularly delighted that her grandson, Will, is attending Northwestern, her alma mater.

As her health declined, it was our privilege to pick up Wilma and drive her to our house for lunch. She loved inhaling the fresh air on the terrace, enjoying quiche and flan beneath the tall, golden-leaved oaks. In such a congenial environment, among her many Asheville friends and admirers, it was easy to recollect the good times — memories of things done together or of events that took place long before we knew each other.

This delightful and gracious lady was laid to rest beside her mother in the picturesque cemetery in her beloved Beaverdam Valley.

[Kirk Symmes, an Asheville resident since 1987, is an instructor at the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement.]

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