Growing up in Waynesville, Davis has fond memories of spending time with his relatives and running around the hills of Western North Carolina. It was a rich fabric of oral tradition, one which soaked into his soul. That tradition of storytelling ultimately led to his calling as a minister, a platform where his speaking talents emerged and flourished.
After he retired, the 68-year-old kept being asked by friends, family and strangers alike to share his tales. Eventually, he started to tour the country, standing up onstage night after night with a whirlwind of words, expressions and lore, all in an effort to make a connection with those in the audience.
Davis will be returning to Haywood County when he takes the microphone on April 18 at Stuart Auditorium in Lake Junaluska as part of Lake Junaluska’s 100th anniversary celebration. The Smoky Mountain News recently caught up with Davis at his home in the Outer Banks. He spoke of his childhood, the importance of storytelling in the modern world, and how he ended up with a collection of 400 bow ties.
The Smoky Mountain News: What was it like when you were a kid in Waynesville?
Donald Davis: It was beautiful. When I was little I loved the mountains, I loved being able to walk, hike and troop around all over the place. I had lots of relatives spread out all over the county, so we visited them a lot. Wherever we went, we have relatives. Our family had been there a good 250 years before I was born.
SMN: One of those things with exploring is coming across experiences and stories. What were some of your first experiences with that?
DD: You’re not aware of things like that, you don’t even know it’s happening until later on. We’d go to my grandmother’s house in Fines Creek and there would be a whole gang of relatives talking and I was just listening to them.
SMN: Were you into storytelling before you made it a profession?
DD: Yeah, without even knowing it. When I was little, I would go back to school and tell everyone what I had heard. I couldn’t understand anyone not doing it. It’s just the way you talk.
SMN: Did you always enjoy public speaking?
DD: Never even thought about it, it’s just something you do, like walking or eating. You know people talk about being scared speaking in public, I just never understood that. What is there to be scared of? You’re just doing something, and it was always comfortable to me.
SMN: What are the similarities to being a minister and a storyteller?
DD: What I was doing as a minister was preaching, and gradually I realized that storytelling was what really worked there, so I kept putting it into effect more often. And I just wanted to listen to people’s stories. Everybody has a story and people love to tell their stories without realizing it.
SMN: What do think about face-to-face communication being called a lost art these days?
DD: Well, it’s really not. It’s funny to hear people talk about that. Storytelling is becoming more and more part of a school curriculum and of society than it has ever been before. I think technology is more of an addition than a replacement.
SMN: Where did the idea to become a professional storyteller come around?
DD: I would tell stories for local programs, and I kept getting asked to do more and more storytelling. Having been a minister telling stories, one thing had grown to be almost as big as the other and eventually I let go of the first part.
SMN: What types of stories do you tell?
DD: All of the stories are original and about growing up. They’re about trouble because those are the events in which we learn from. It’s all about learning and things that move us forward. They’re all funny, even if they may be sad. They’re all set in the mountains of North Carolina. Some of the stories I tell have come through my family, but it can be a double story because I’ll tell you about that person and then the story.
SMN: What do you want the audience to walk away with?
DD: I want them to think of their own stories they would have never thought of if they hadn’t heard my stories.
SMN: What’s the key to telling a good story?
DD: It’s all description. You can have way too much plot, but you can never have enough description, because when we listen to a story, we’re really watching it like a movie, not analyzing it. And they’ll sit there and say they know somebody like who I’m talking about.
SMN: Why is it important to cherish these stories?
DD: A family that builds a strong story tradition copes with trouble a lot better than a family that doesn’t.
SMN: What’s with the bow tie? Where did that come from?
DD: I don’t know. Every picture of me dressed up, from the time I was two years old, I’m wearing a bow tie. I don’t know what started it. It’s kind of always been there. I was born with it, I guess.
SMN: So, how many do you own?
DD: Oh, around 400 or so.
Stories by the Lakeshore
Renowned storyteller and Waynesville native Donald Davis will regale audiences with tales at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 18, in Stuart Auditorium at the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center. The show kicks off Lake Junaluska’s 100th anniversary celebration, which will continue with special events throughout the summer. Davis is uniquely qualified to capture the essence of life at Lake Junaluska — his dad was at the opening ceremony for the Methodist retreat back in 1913 and Davis is a retired Methodist minister himself. The event is free and open to the public.