Obituary for John Ehle by George Brosi
John Ehle, one of our most distinguished Appalachian literary figures, died on March 24 in his Winston-Salem, North Carolina, home at the age of 92. His wife, Rosemay Harris, and their daughter, Jennifer Ehle, were at his side. Ehle’s maternal ancestors were pioneers from families who settled in both Kentucky and Virginia, and his mother grew up on a dairy farm near Asheville. His paternal great-grandfather emigrated from Germany, and his grandfather was a tailor in Morgantown, West Virginia, who sent his son to The Bingham School in Asheville. Ehle’s father remained in Asheville and supported his family in the insurance business.
John Ehle served as an infantry rifleman in World War II and then obtained both a B.A. and an M.A. from the University of North Carolina. They retained him as a teacher. By 1960, he had already published three books and been a professor for ten years when he wrote an article critical of the University in the school newspaper. Terry Sanford, who was running for North Carolina governor, invited Ehle to join his campaign staff on the basis of that article, so Ehle quit his professor job and accepted the invitation. When Sanford won the election, Ehle joined the Governor’s staff. Among Ehle’s many accomplishments in that capacity was the creation of the North Carolina School for the Arts, the North Carolina School of Math and Science, and a community action program that was used as a model for the national VISTA program. To spread his good ideas, the Ford Foundation hired Ehle to work on their national staff out of New York City.
In 1965 Ehle moved back to North Carolina. He chose to live in Winston-Salem because his book, The Free Men, that told the story of the Civil Rights Movement in Chapel Hill, had angered many in the town’s power structure who didn’t like being characterized as racists. In 1967, on a trip back to New York, Ehle met Rosemary Harris, an English woman well on her way to a career as one of the most distinguished actresses in the English-speaking world. Both were divorced, and their courtship ended in marriage before the end of the year. They maintained homes in Winston-Salem, New York, London, and a mountain cabin on the National Register of Historic Places in the mountains near Penland, North Carolina.
Seven historical novels lie at the heart of John Ehle’s literary work. Taken together they encompass the history of Western North Carolina from the time of European settlement portrayed in The Land Breakers, through the ante-bellum era portrayed in The Journey of August King, to the Civil War – Time of Drums - to the flourishing of commerce brought on by railroad development – The Road –to the depression depicted in The Winter People to Asheville as a modern city as depicted in Lion on the Hearth and Last One Home. Both The Journey of August King and The Winter People were made into films.
Three of his novels can be viewed as portraying the three major sub-cultures of Western North Carolina. Move Over Mountain features an African-American family; Trail of Tears (sometimes categorized as non-fiction) traces the history of the Cherokee through the story of the Ridge family, and The Widow’s Trial explores the culture of mountain people. He also wrote a novel set on North Carolina’s Atlantic Coast and another set in France.
As a non-fiction writer, John Ehle published three biographies, his account of the Civil Rights Movement in Chapel Hill, The Free Men, and The Cheeses and Wine of England and France, with Notes on Irish Whiskey.
It is striking to compare his career with that of Wilma Dykeman’s across the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. Both stood publically for civil rights at a really crucial time and wrote books about race relations; both served in government; both portrayed regional history in novels, both wrote books of non-fiction as well as fiction, and both married notable and prosperous partners. The greatest contrast to me was their public speaking. Dykeman was very poised and formal, but Ehle was much more informal. I remember a public Ehle reading when he got so tickled by a passage he read from The Land Breakers (not the snake scene) that he couldn't stop laughing.
John Ehle was as comfortable hobnobbing with the wealthy as he was with the most humble, and he was a very generous person. He was the only person who ever invited my late wife, our seven children, and me to a restaurant meal. He brought a car-load of remainder books - Innocent Bigamy by Olive Tilford Dargan - from Winston-Salem to me in Berea one January; he even let me drive him to the Lexington airport from Berea in his sports car and use it until I came to pick him up, and he invited my family to visit him at Penland for a cook-out where we met his daughter, Jennifer, a distinguished actress in her own right. John Ehle was a thoughtful person with a wide range of interests, but he was not naturally gregarious. Conversations with him were likely to be filled with long silences punctuated with wit, striking observations and intriguing juxtapositions.
John Ehle was much more than one of our region’s most distinguished writers. He was a courageous and exemplary and accomplished citizen, as well as a caring and compassionate person.
Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America won one of the American Book Awards presented for 2017 by the Before Columbus Foundation.
Nominated for Transylvania University’s Judy Gaines Young Book Award presented to the author of a book of distinction from the Appalachian Region for 2018 are:
Galaxie Wagon by Darnell Arnoult
Trampoline by Robert Gipe
Small Treasons by Robert Powell
The Weatherford Awards were established by the late Al Perrin in 1970 under the aegis of Berea College to honor W. D. Weatherford and later his son, Willis Weatherford, pioneers in service to Berea College and to Appalachian Studies. They honored a book each year deemed to be the most outstanding of books related to the Southern Appalachian Region. In the year 2000, the Appalachian Studies Association became a joint sponsor of the Award, and beginning in 2003 two awards were given – in fiction and non-fiction. In 2010 a third award – for poetry - was established in honor of Grace Toney Edwards.
For 2017 the award in fiction has been given to The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash. James Still: A Life by Carol Boggess received the award for non-fiction. The poetry award went to Palindrome by Pauletta Hansel. Finalists in poetry are American Purgatory by Rebecca Gayle Howell and Planet of the Best Love Songs by Ron Houchin. Finalists in non-fiction are The Life and Work of John C. Campbell by Olive Dame Campbell edited by Elizabeth McCutchen, The Industrialist and the Mountaineer: The Eastham-Thompson Feud and the Struggle for Wet Virginia’s Timber Frontier by Ron Lewis and The Rebel in the Red Jeep: Ken Hechler’s Life in West Virginia Politics by Carter Taylor Seaton. Finalists for fiction are Fire Is Your Water by Jim Minick, Monsters in Appalachia by Sheryl Monks, and The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker.