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Tom Orr appreciates the “guardians of history” — the preservers of the past who have told Hendersonville’s story for 100 years or more.
Among those he admires is Kermit Edney, the longtime WHKP commentator and one of the creators of Hendersonville’s serpentine Main Street. In his collection of stories, “Where Fitz Left Off,” Edney wrote that “One of the things we would like to have done we weren’t able to do was a Walk of Fame.”
“That’s something I could fulfill for that generation,” Orr says. “They wanted to make that happen.”
Orr will see his effort bear fruit when his steering committee unveils the first class of the Walk of Fame on Dec. 15 and, by next spring, places the first markers etched in granite. The Walk of Fame, which will start along the Azalea parking lot across from City Hall, will be a tribute to people who have made the most significant and lasting impact on Henderson County since its founding in 1838.
After the Hendersonville City Council and Henderson County Board of Commissioners blessed the Walk of Fame and appointed five members, the committee invited local people to nominate the first class of honorees. The committee reviewed nearly 50 nominations and pared the list to 17 for the first Walk of Fame class. Because four are husband and wife honorees, the committee will place 15 plaques by next April or May.
“In years to come we hope there will be even greater enthusiasm than this year,” Orr says. “I wanted it be people who have made a lasting contribution to Henderson County, whether living or dead.”
Nominators were asked to explain why the person’s contribution was significant, why the contribution was “long lasting or even timeless” and what specific impact the person’s achievements had made on the quality of life in Hendersonville and Henderson County.
“In other words, these are people that have had a major influence in this county,” Orr says.
Committee members discussed whether to honor living people and decided that they would, although Orr says the bar is higher for those still living. For one thing, it’s harder to judge “long lasting” impacts of achievements of more recent years, no matter how admired. “It’s harder to get this if you’re living,” he says.
Categories are agriculture, business, cultural arts, education, government, human services, industry, medicine and religion. There was no requirement that all categories would be filled.
“We were not going to be forced to take someone from each category,” Orr says. “I don’t think all nine got covered but most of them did.”
The committee is made up of Orr, vice chair Virginia Gambill, Michael Edney, Dr. Amy Pace and Kaye Youngblood — all Henderson County natives except Gambill, who moved to Hendersonville from Weaverville and ran an insurance agency here for decades. Although committee members knew of the nominees they did not.
“The burden of proof is on the nominator,” Orr says. “We cannot put words in their mouth but we did in some circumstances encourage more information.”
Committee members were allowed to make nominations themselves. Orr said he submitted only one nomination himself, then was surprised that some figures he thought would be obvious were not among the 50 nominations.
The city will place the markers along avenues where it’s already putting in new sidewalks, Orr says, meaning it won’t spend extra money jackhammering concrete to plant a new marker. Orr also hopes the Walk of Fame committee can imbed computer chips in the markers so people can use smart phones to hear a biographical sketch of the honorees. Engraved with black letters, the granite markers are 18x18 inches. They’ll be placed about 15 feet apart.
Orr hopes the biographical sketches of the honorees will be put on a website.
“I want these to be preserved in some form that the public can always access them,” he says.
Orr’s new play about local history, which premieres on Dec. 15, is both a salute to local history and fundraiser for the Walk of Fame project.
“I don’t claim to be a playwright,” he says. “It’s just that the theater is the best way that I know to tell the story of history.”
Theater and local history are two things that Orr knows best.
After graduating from Hendersonville High School, in 1957, and UNC at Chapel Hill, in 1962, Orr came home and got a teaching job at his alma mater. He taught theater and directed senior plays for 32 years. He writes a local history column for the Hendersonville Times-News.
Hendersonville has been fortunate to have those guardians of history who came before him — Louise Bailey, Frank FitzSimons, Jimmy Fain, Sadie Patton. Not only does he draw from their work but Tom Orr is likely to join the pantheon of the history preservers that people talk about and learn from years or decades from now.
In most histories, “It seems like we never get to my time period,” he says. “So in this one I’ve got a big segment on the ’50s.” People will see scenes from the Teen Canteen, which was underground downtown, Brock’s Drive-In, the Wheeler Hotel (later the Terrace), Freeman’s newsstand and more.
On Sunday afternoon Orr and co-director Pat Shepherd worked together to block and fine-tune the play at Pat’s School of Dance studio, coaching the actors and making suggestions. The all-volunteer cast includes Richard Brown, Bryan Byrd, Sandee Carpenter, Aidan Freeman, Mia Freeman, Fletch Griffith, Marcia Kelso Mills, Jay Mullinax, Penny Gash Pearson, Ronnie Pepper, Sabrina Sweeney and young student dancers from Pat’s School of Dance. The band is made up of J. Larry Keith, Rick McMinn, Sandra McMinn and Penny Gash Pearson. Kaye Youngblood supervises the screen images that appear throughout the production, assisted by Tabitha Brockus and Trish Allen.
Knowing that the play would be performed at Christmas, the creator came up with the title “Unwrapping History.”
Orr is enthusiastic about the Walk of Fame, project that he wanted to complete for generations past that will benefit generations ahead. The tributes will be literally etched in stone — the very symbol of permanence.
“I hope it goes on forever,” he says. “It could go all the way to Jackson Park if it had to because we’ve got wonderful people.”