When I took the job as editor of Haywood County’s community newspaper The Mountaineer in 1992, the position had been vacant for several months. That era was still the heyday of newspapers, a time when the economy was strong and the Internet was a gee whiz toy for brainy professors and programmers. The Mountaineer was known as the best non-daily newspaper in North Carolina, and I was ecstatic that Publisher Ken Wilson hired me to lead the news staff.
One of the first people he introduced me to was Webb Garrison, who had been a dean at Emory and president at McKendree College. Garrison lived at Lake Junaluska and was a part of the Assembly’s collection of wise, learned high-ups in the church who had retired to the mountains.
Without an editor, Ken had turned to Garrison to write opinion pieces for the newspaper. Garrison was ready to hand that job back to me, but as we talked in my office at during my first couple of days in the mountains, I realized what a unique man he was. He didn’t tell me at the time, but I learned later that he was an accomplished writer and scholar. Ken had been smart enough turn to him when the paper needed a helping hand.
A few weeks later, a book showed up in the mail with a personal note from Garrison. It was his new book, The Lincoln No One Knows, and I still have the inscribed copy. In those days before the Internet, you couldn’t just Google someone and get their history. A trip to the bookstore at Lake Junaluska revealed other titles by Garrison, books about history and on language and words. A search today will tell you he wrote more than 55 books. Impressive.
Garrison’s columns for the paper were progressive and well written. But they also had humor and style. I’m sure readers of The Mountaineer and all of Haywood gained valuable insights from his intellect.
One of the other weekly contributors to the editorial pages at that time was Claude Evans, a retired Methodist minister who also had moved to the mountains because of his ties to the church and Lake Junaluska. As writer Evans could be funny and combative at the same time, and over the years I learned that he had been a passionate player in the Civil Rights movement as a minister in South Carolina. His columns were, again, smart, and in some ways very liberal for a newspaper covering a conservative mountain county.
During those first few years that I lived in Haywood County, it seemed I was constantly meeting community leaders and volunteers who had a history that went back to Lake Junaluska. During our weekly meetings to discuss editorial coverage in The Mountaineer, I picked Ken’s brain about this, and we talked frequently about how Haywood County’s history was influenced by these church leaders who also became influential members of the community. Many of today’s leaders in Haywood County had parents who first brought them to the mountains to visit the Lake. It is a unique relationship, that between Haywood County and the Assembly.
And it continues to this day. Nothing energizes my rebellious spirit like seeing those protestors at the Haywood Courthouse who have gathered for years every week to stand against the wars in the Middle East. The leaders of that group are also from Lake Junaluska and the Methodist Church.
The sense of engagement that Lake Junaluska personifies was also evident during the recent merger process with Waynesville. Some at the Lake did not want this to happen, and I can understand their concerns. But I can’t remember a civic debate in Western North Carolina that had so many interested, informed people on both sides. Nothing makes a journalist happier than covering people who read newspapers and are knowledgeable.
That informed, inspired and ethical voice is what I associate with Lake Junaluska, and I know Haywood County and the surrounding region have benefitted from having it for 100 years. Here’s wishing Lake Junaluska a happy anniversary, and hoping the Assembly and that same brand of leadership will be around to mark the 200th. In these challenging times, we’ll need that voice.