Obituary Note: John Ehle

John Ehle, the prolific author, champion of Appalachian literature and founder of the North Carolina School of the Arts, died last Saturday at age 92, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported.

Ehle wrote 11 novels and six works of nonfiction. His 1964 novel, The Land Breakers, was the first of seven of his books that highlighted western North Carolina's history from pioneer days through the 1930s, a series that concluded with The Widow's Trial. Five of his books won the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for North Carolina fiction. He also won the North Carolina Award for Literature, the Thomas Wolfe Prize and the Lillian Smith Award for Southern Fiction. Two of his novels--The Winter People and The Journey of August King--were made into films.

Historian Rob Neufeld said Ehle "developed a style of combining folk history and realism that stands as a model for historical fiction."

Ehle's The Free Men, published in 1965, was a first-person account of the civil rights movement in Chapel Hill.

In the early 1960s, Ehle was special assistant to North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford, helping to establish the North Carolina Governors School and the North Carolina School of Arts. As the Winston-Salem Journal wrote: "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."

"The School of the Arts was born in the 1960s out of John Ehle's clear vision and tenacious advocacy," said Chancellor Lindsay Bierman. "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."

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