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Folk Tale in a Mason Jar

Appalachian myth and legend


Sylva storyteller, writer receives honorary doctorate

By Lynn Hotaling, The Sylva Herald

The strength of home and family ties were common themes heard Friday (Aug. 1) as Western Carolina University bestowed an honorary doctorate on a Sylva writer and storyteller during summer commencement exercises for approximately 430 graduating students.

WCU Chancellor John Bardo presided over the ceremony, which included the awarding of an honorary doctorate of humane letters to WCU alumnus Gary Carden, an advocate, promoter and presenter of traditional Southern Appalachian culture for more than 40 years.

Both Carden's written and spoken performances have won critical acclaim, and his body of work includes "Mason Jars in the Flood and Other Stories," which won the 2001 Appalachian Writers Association Book of the Year award.



Your Storyteller
- Gary Carden

Western Carolina University Chancellor John Bardo, left, watches as Sylva storyteller Gary Carden is "hooded" by WCU Provost Kyle Carter (behind Carden) as Carden received an honorary doctorate in humane letters from his alma mater. Carden's degree was awarded during WCU's Aug. 1 summer commencement.

Despite admonitions from a family member not to forget his mountain roots, Carden told the Ramsey Center audience that he "couldn't get out of Appalachia quick enough" after his 1958 graduation from what was then known as Western Carolina College.

"I wanted to be near theaters, book stores and nice restaurants. I wanted some culture," he said.

For 15 years, Carden worked as a teacher in the metropolitan areas of Atlanta, Charlotte and Raleigh, but as the years passed he said he became less and less happy. "I was definitely homesick," he said.

Eventually, Carden came back to Sylva for a visit and stopped at WCU's Mountain Heritage Center to hear a program by Southern Appalachian poet Jim Wayne Miller. Through the poems in his collection, "The Mountains Have Come Closer," Miller exhorts his readers to "come home," and Carden decided to move back to Sylva and live in his grandfather's house.

"I took him literally, and I came home," Carden said. "I moved in my grandfather's house in Rhodes Cove, and for the past 40 years I've been trying - striving - to remember where I came from."

With regard to his new title, Carden told The Herald Tuesday that he's "tickled to death" and is grateful for the honor WCU officials have bestowed on him.

"What alarmed me was when I heard why I was getting it and what other people think of me," he said. "They see me as some sort of icon and a representative of local culture and Appalachian tradition. Now I'll have to live up to that."

Carden credited Jim Manning of WCU's theater department with helping him achieve Friday's recognition. Manning has staged several of Carden's plays at Mountain Heritage Day.

"I always wanted some sort of recognition for my plays," Carden said. "I've written six, and they've done real well."

Carden said he appreciates the honor and the opportunities his new doctorate will bring.

"It's going to enable me to do things related to mountain culture I couldn't do before," he said.

The commencement audience also heard stories about the strength of family ties from commencement speaker Will Peebles, a WCU professor of music who was honored as one of the University of North Carolina system's best teachers earlier this year when he was named one of 17 recipients of the UNC Board of Governors Awards for Excellence in Teaching.

Peebles said his great-grandfather, who was born in 1873 and taught mathematics at an Illinois college, "knew how to care for a horse, and later, how to hold a Model T Ford together with baling wire." Peebles said his great-grandfather liked to impress him and his identical-twin brother by calling out "whoa" to stop his red Corvair car just short of the garage wall. "We were 6; he was 90," Peebles said. "We thought he was nothing at all like us.

"I know now that my great-grandfather and I are not really all that different," Peebles said. "When I first met some shirt-tail cousins in Tennessee, 30 years after my great-grandfather had visited them, they surprised me by saying, 'You have his laugh.' We are more like our ancestors than we think."

Peebles said the "most serious problem any of us face is really the same one our ancestors faced, and that is to see ourselves in others - our friends, our neighbors, and even our enemies - and to do unto them as we would have them do unto us.

"It's an old and familiar rule, but let's see what might happen if we were to treat it not as a rule, but as an opportunity," he said.

In his charge to the graduating students, Bardo thanked them for what they contributed "to what this university is becoming."

"As you leave Western, remember what you learned here," he said. "Remember the lessons of what it means to be human, and remember the real value of being forever a Catamount.

"Those of us who will stay here in Cullowhee look forward to keeping in touch with you. Whatever it is you do, remember that you have a home in Cullowhee, and we care a great deal about you and your future. Congratulations, graduates, and best wishes."

WCU's class of summer 2008 includes 31 Jamaican teachers who have earned graduate degrees in education through the university, and another 33 Jamaicans who are receiving their undergraduate degrees in education.

More than 5,000 teachers from that Caribbean island nation have earned teaching degrees from WCU.

A complete list of graduates will be announced following the posting of grades from final examinations.


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