Winston-Salem author John Ehle, who at 92 was considered one of North Carolina’s greatest writers and a formidable promoter of the humanities in the state, has died.
A close friend of the family said that Ehle died a peaceful death at his Winston-Salem home on Saturday, with wife Rosemary Harris and daughter Jennifer Ehle by his side.
Ehle was part of what can be called Winston-Salem’s first family of the arts. In addition to being an accomplished writer, he helped spearhead the development of what is now UNC School of the Arts and made a home here with Tony Award-winning actress Rosemary Harris. Their daughter Jennifer also became a noted stage and film actress.
He is survived by both.
“The School of the Arts was born in the 1960s out of John Ehle’s clear vision and tenacious advocacy,” university Chancellor Lindsay Bierman said Tuesday. “He may be best known as a prolific author, but around here, in our hearts, John will always be best loved as one of our founding fathers.
“With his courage, intellect, doggedness, creativity and incomparable voice he fought to enrich the culture of this state and our nation. We will miss him dearly,” Bierman said.
Ehle wrote 17 books, both fiction and nonfiction. He is a member of the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame and was recognized for his literature with a North Carolina Award, the state’s highest civilian honor, in 2007, as was his wife, hers in the field of fine arts.
Gerald Freedman, dean emeritus of the School of the Arts, said he admired Ehle for his integrity.
“He was authentic and brave,” Freedman said. “He and Rosemary passionately believed in the concept of conservatory training.
“The school must continue to live up to the promise, the promise to take risks, to reach beyond, to create truth and beauty,” Freedman said. “These are the things he believed in.”
to Chapel Hill and UNC
Ehle was born in 1925 in Asheville.
After serving as a rifleman in the 97th Infantry Division during World War II, he attended UNC Chapel Hill, where he received both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Ehle also was a member of the university’s faculty from 1953 to 1964.
During that period, he was introduced to Winston-Salem when he worked for a brief time as an announcer for radio station WSJS.
His pioneering work in arts education started in 1963 during an 18-month stint as a special assistant to then-Gov. Terry Sanford. Ehle used the position to help establish the N.C. Governor’s School and the N.C. School of the Arts (now UNC School of the Arts). He worked behind the scenes where his efforts could be overlooked — he stepped out of the view of the cameras during opening ceremonies — but those who saw what he did knew of the significant contributions he made. Sanford said in his book “But What About the People?” that, “If I were to write a guidebook for new governors, one of my main suggestions would be to find a novelist and put him on his staff.”
In a 1967 interview in the Winston-Salem Journal, Ehle discussed how his background as a novelist helped him in his state position. He said a novelist moves by intuition, and from his writing learns how to identify with the people involved in an event. In state government, he said, experts approach a problem armed with facts but often without intuition. Writers move first with intuition, hopefully with the facts, he said.
During the Sanford administration, Ehle worked the toward the creation of the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics in Durham. The school opened in 1980.
Ehle left Sanford’s office in 1964 and worked in New York for the Ford Foundation before moving to Winston-Salem in 1965 to concentrate on writing books.
Ehle’s writing career started earlier, during his days in Chapel Hill, writing radio plays that were nationally broadcast as part of a series called “The American Adventure.” His first novel, “Move Over Mountain,” was published in 1957.
In 1964, he wrote his breakthrough book, “The Land Breakers,” a work of historical fiction about the first white settlers in Western North Carolina. The novel was the first, chronologically, of what would become a seven-novel series examining life in the Appalachian Mountains.
Ehle also wrote nonfiction. His book “The Free Men,” a first-person account of the civil rights movement in Chapel Hill, was published in 1965. It discussed the first Freedom March down Franklin Street, sit-ins, and the integration of local businesses. Ehle said he knew the book would be controversial, writing, “I have written about my own town, friends and acquaintances in this book, and there are going to be hurt feelings. I am sorry about that, but I stand with the book.”
In fact, the book did cause a swarm of criticism and divided feelings in Chapel Hill. Some people praised the book for its candor about feelings toward race relations in the city, but others felt it created wounds in the community and some felt it unfairly portrayed some people as racist. Ehle would later say that continued anger over the book was one of the reasons he decided against moving back to Chapel Hill.
Roy Thompson, a Journal columnist, reviewed the book for the newspaper and concluded that Ehle did a better job of portraying the protesters featured in the book than it did covering the other side of the issue.
“Almost anyone will have to concede that — whatever he may think of Ehle’s conclusions — he has told part of the story very well indeed,” Thompson wrote.
Letter from Lee
In 1967, Ehle went on a trip to New York with arts patron Phil Hanes and Wallace Carroll, a former Journal publisher. He went to help find a new president for the School of the Arts, but he found something entirely different. Friends introduced him to Harris, who, like Ehle, had recently gone through a divorce.
Harris and Ehle would wed before the year was out.
The couple first lived in a house on South Main Street in Old Salem. They later moved to Westview Drive in Buena Vista, but frequently traveled as his writing career and her acting roles demanded.
Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines said Ehle was a city treasure.
“His impact for Winston-Salem and the state of North Carolina was immense,” Joines said. “His founding of the UNCSA and the School of Science and Math and his prolific writing made not only Winston-Salem but the state of North Carolina much better places.”
Also in 1967, Ehle wrote the next novel in his Appalachian series, “The Road.” Two later books in the series — “The Journey of August King” (1971) and “The Winter People” (1982) — were made into movies. The novels trace a nearly 200-year swath of North Carolina Appalachian history, from the arrival of the first white settlers to the rise and fall of the heady Asheville real estate scene in the 1920s.
Ehle said his books countered the stereotypes of mountain people that would often characterize them as shiftless and stupid men and subservient women.
“In this country, the image of the hillbilly makes it difficult for people to believe anything important can be said about southern mountaineers,” he told the Journal in a 1972 interview.
Ehle won numerous literary prizes, including the Thomas Wolfe Prize and the Lillian Smith Award for Southern Fiction.
“His respect for the dignity of his subjects, fictional and nonfictional, is a common thread running through all of his works,” notes his entry in the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame.
Many of Ehle’s books have been reprinted by local publisher Press 53.
Kevin Morgan Watson, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Press 53 and Prime Number Magazine, said he lost a dear friend in Ehle.
“I’m thankful for the many hours we shared,” Watson said. “I am a richer person for having known John and spending so much time with him. He touched so many lives, and many of those people have no idea.
“His writing is timeless and important and deserves to live on and on,” he said.
Watson also made public a letter written to Ehle by Harper Lee, the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In the letter, Lee extols the virtues of Ehle’s writing:
“John Ehle’s meld of historical fact with ineluctable plot-weaving makes ‘The Land Breakers’ an exciting example of masterful storytelling,” she wrote. “He is our foremost writer of historical fiction.”