How an N.C. writer and idea man changed my life

John Ehle
John Ehle

I never met the writer and idea man John Ehle, who died recently, yet he shaped my life’s flight—and that of uncounted others over the last fifty years. He published seventeen books, but his greatest invention was a state that cultivated the talents and curiosities of young people.

Born in 1980, I was a prime beneficiary of Ehle’s North Carolina, a place where literature and music and film—as well as science and mathematics—were taken seriously. Because of him, and the ideas he planted with Govs. Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt, a public school student from a rural county like me could spend four weeks of a high school summer studying geology at Appalachian State, an outgrowth of the N.C. School of Science and Math that Ehle proposed.

The next year, I spent a particularly magical six weeks at Governor’s School, another Ehle idea. We scattered T.S. Eliot lines around the Salem College campus. We imbibed the performed work of John Cage and Miles Davis, and we put on our own shows for each other.

For a few days, I wore a skirt. Endlessly we debated the existence of God. Best of all, I met an astounding assortment of fellow North Carolinians, from Murphy to Manteo, who challenged me in ways I had never been tested. They raised my academic sights. Without Governor’s School, I doubt I would have had the confidence to apply to Ivy League schools, much less attend one of them. All that would follow—my career path, my spouse, my children—changed with that Salem summer.

Such publicly funded educational opportunities did not exist for Ehle, who grew up a mountain away from me in Asheville. Not until years later—as a graduate student of history—would I learn of his role in proposing the Governor’s School, the UNC School of the Arts, and the School of Science and Mathematics in Durham.

As it turned out, his hand prints were all over my childhood. They were there when my parents took me to see “Unto These Hills” in Cherokee, and when in middle school we took a class trip to the Outer Banks and watched “The Lost Colony” — productions supported by the Institute of Outdoor Drama, which Ehle helped establish. Among the giraffes and gazelles at the North Carolina Zoo, there too was Ehle, who had pushed for a state zoo in 1963, though it did not open until 1976.

All of this I imbibed as a North Carolina birthright, without thinking of prior generations who did not grow up among such public culture and accessible enrichments, without dreaming that one day politicians would strip their funding and seek to shut them down.

Ehle’s educational institutions serve the gifted, but he was just as interested in lifting those on the bottom rungs. He was instrumental in creating the North Carolina Fund, which opened the state’s fight against poverty. Along with the School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, Ehle pushed forward the Advancement School, a residential high school for students considered at risk of dropping out. It remained in operation for a dozen years. One of Ehle’s proposals that never came to fruition was a school for adult education, targeting illiterates rejected by the draft board.

All of these he intended as laboratories for best practices, closely monitored by another Ehle organization, the Learning Institute of North Carolina, which was set up to conduct educational research. These innovations then would filter out to schools everywhere and thereby touch students across the state.

John Ehle is no longer with us in body, but we still have much of his North Carolina, a state of accessible culture and opportunity. Perhaps the best way to respect his passing is to ensure that his humanizing gifts remain for future generations.

Goldsmith is a 2002 Yale graduate and is now a PhD student in history at Duke University.