Arts & Culture

Revisit late novelist, who founded some of NC's most innovative schools

John Ehle
John Ehle

Editor's note: North Carolina novelist John Ehle died Saturday at 92. The Winston-Salem Journal reported his death and called him "one of the state's greatest writers and a formidable promoter of the humanities in North Carolina."

On July 15, 1996, The News & Observer published this column by staff writer Rob Christensen, headlined "A one-man Rand Corporation,' John Ehle turned state on its ear."

WINSTON-SALEM — What if you turned over the keys to state government to an innovative novelist/intellectual and told him he had a year to come up with some original ideas for the state?

That is what Gov. Terry Sanford did in 1962, when he hired John Ehle as his special assistant and idea man. The result was a burst of creative energy that North Carolina state government had not seen before.

If you have not heard of Ehle, you might be familiar with some of his babies: the N.C. School for the Arts in Winston-Salem, the N.C. School for Science and Math in Durham, the Governor's School for bright high school students.

And that's just the start.

The early '60s was an era of intellectual ferment, grand plans and innovation — a time before today's era of cynicism about government. Sanford surrounded himself with a group of bright young men, including Joel Fleishman, Tom Lambeth and Hugh Cannon. At 37, Ehle was the oldest.

Ehle, an Asheville native, was teaching at Chapel Hill and writing a novel when Sanford recruited him.

Ehle was not your usual bureaucrat. He has written such novels as "The Winter People" and "The Journey of August King" — both of which were made into movies. He has written several works of non-fiction, such as a biography of former UNC-system President Frank Porter Graham.

Now 71, Ehle lives in Winston-Salem in what looks like a transplanted English country house along with his British-born wife, Rosemary Harris. She is one of the country's best-known stage actresses (now starring on Broadway in Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance"). Their daughter, Jennifer, is also an actress and recently starred in the movie adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice."

Ehle had no desire to work for government but reluctantly joined the Sanford administration, becoming what Time Magazine called "a one-man Rand Corporation."

Concerned that North Carolina's brightest high school students weren't being challenged, Ehle proposed setting up four residential high schools on one campus - for science, languages, the humanities and the arts - probably in the Research Triangle.

He didn't get four schools. But Sanford started the N.C. School for the Arts for both high school and college students.

Twenty years later, Ehle persuaded Gov. Jim Hunt to create the N.C. School for Science and Math. (Ehle still laughs about Hunt serving him cranberry juice at the Executive Mansion. "CRANBERRY JUICE," guffaws the author of the book, "The Cheeses and Wines of of England and France, with Notes on Irish Whiskey.")

Worried about the state's poor, Ehle was instrumental in creating the N.C. Fund, a pioneering anti-poverty effort that experimented with different approaches to helping people improve their lives. The program, unlike many government efforts, expired after five years, as it was designed to do.

The program later served as the model for the War on Poverty, VISTA and the Peace Corps. Lyndon Johnson invited both Sanford and Ehle to the White House to witness the signing of the Great Society programs.

Another Ehle idea was the Governor's School — a summer program at Salem College and St. Andrews College to challenge bright high school students.

Ehle was also instrumental in starting the Advancement School for underachieving students; the Learning Institute of North Carolina in Durham, which provided research for the improvement of education; and the forerunner of the N.C. Film Board to help promote film making in the state.

The outpouring of creativity contributed to North Carolina's national reputation as a "Dixie Dynamo." To finance the programs, Sanford and Ehle went hat in hand to the Ford Foundation in New York City, as well as other foundations, winning grant after grant by impressing the officials with their ideas.

In all, the programs cost $15 million to start, with North Carolina taxpayers putting up just $1 million of it, Ehle said.

After a year and half, he left state government for good and returned to his writing.

"I couldn't wait to get out of there," Ehle says, puffing on a stogie. "While I was in the governor's office, 'The Land Breakers' [his first hit novel] got published. It was a big success. And there I was trying to start a damn art school or start an anti-poverty program. It worried me."

Could North Carolina again experience such a burst of energy - particularly in today's more conservative political climate?

"I think today the state can most do anything it wants to, if it will raise the money privately and let the legislature have a chance to evaluate the project as it goes," Ehle says. "It's a little risky to start anything."