Outstanding Achievement Award

Annually the WNC Historical Association presents its Trophy for Outstanding Achievement to an individual or organization which has made significant contributions to the preservation and promotion of the history of the mountain region. Recipients of this Award include:

1954 Sadie Smathers Patton
1955 George William McCoy
1956 Clarence W. Griffin
1957 Owen Gudger
1958 Margaret W. Freel
1959 Glenn Tucker
1960 Hiram C. Wilburn
1961 Asheville Citizen-Times
1962 Vetust Study Club
1963 Samuel E. Beck
1964 Cordelia Camp
1965 Paul A. Rockwell
1966 Florence Harrison Dunlop
1967 Myra Champion
1968 William Ernest Bird
1969 W. Clark Medford
1970 Carson House
1971 John A. Parris
1972 Cratis D. Williams
1973 Bascom Lamar Lunsford
1974 Goingback Chiltoskey
1975 Mary Myrtle Cornwell
1976 Appalachian Consortium
1977 Leona Penland Purkey
1978 Ora Blackmun
1979 George Stevens
1980 Bob Terrell
1981 Frances McDowell and Ruth Camblos
1982 Harley E. Jolley
1983 Sarah G. Upchurch
1984 John Baxter
1985 Robert G. Fortune, Jr.
1986 S. Kent Schwarzkopf
1987 Roy A. Taylor
1988 Big Ivy Historical Association
1989 Mille Barbee
1990 Appalachian Cultural Center
1991 Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County
1992 Walter F. Ashe
1993 Historic Valdese Association
1994 no award presented
1995 Waynesville Historical Society
1996 Betty Sherrill
1997 Cherokee Historical Association
1998 Richard Dillingham
1999 Doris Cline Ward
2000 Museum of the Cherokee Indian
2001 J. Ronald Holland
2002 Historic Resources Commission of Asheville and Buncombe County
2003 Harriet Stiles
2004 NC Dept. of Cultural Resources
2005 South Asheville Cemetery Association
2006 AB Technical Community College
2007 Harley and Betty Jolley
2008 Dr. George A. Jones
2009

 

2010

Henderson County Heritage Museum

 

UNCA Special Collections, Helen Wykle

2011  Thomas Wolfe Memorial, Stephen Hill
2012  No award presented
2013  Fred Davis Chappell
2014 Gordon McKinney
2015 Patricia D Beaver
2016 Doug Orr
2017 Daniel S. Pierce
2018 James R. Stokely III
2019 Rob Neufeld

Rob Neufeld, longtime history writer, recognized for Outstanding Achievement
John Boyle, Asheville Citizen Times Published 8:44 a.m. ET Aug. 4, 2019


Robert Neufeld, author of multiple books and the Visiting Our Past column in the Citizen Times, has been named the recipient of the 2019 Western North Carolina Historical Association Outstanding Achievement Award.
Robert Neufeld, author of multiple books and the Visiting Our Past column in the Citizen Times, has been named the recipient of the 2019 Western North Carolina Historical Association Outstanding Achievement Award. (Photo: Citizen Times file photo)

For more than two decades, local historian and Citizen Times columnist Rob Neufeld has shined the spotlight on memorable local figures, history and mountain lore.

Now it’s time for him to bathe in the limelight a bit.

The Western North Carolina Historical Association has unanimously voted Neufeld, 65, the recipient of its 2019 Outstanding Achievement Award. Neufeld’s name will become the 66th engraved on the award, and he will join such luminaries as recent winners Fred Chappell, an author and poet, and Doug Orr, president emeritus of Warren Wilson College.

More: Visiting Our Past: Monuments to Asheville’s African Americans, an imaginative proposal

“It’s most gratifying,” said Neufeld, who has served on the association’s board. “The thing I’m most proud of is being able to tell people’s stories and making the connection to that time, and putting their lives in historical context. Mostly I did that by focusing on people’s lives, so that people know what it’s like living another person’s reality.”

Fighting ALS
The award comes at a time when Neufeld’s reality is dominated by an incurable disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

A progressive neurological disease, ALS affects nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscle movements. Over time, functions such as walking, talking and chewing become difficult and then impossible. Those with ALS remain cognitively sharp but steadily lose most physical functions. The disease has no cure or treatment to reverse its progress.

“My mind is very good,” Neufeld said during a telephone interview in late July. “I find that I live in my head now. This disease sharpens the mind. If I were really sensitive, I’d be crying every minute.”

Always prolific, Neufeld has continued to write his regular column and shorter pictorial features for the Asheville Citizen Times since his diagnosis, dictating to friends and his wife, Bev Robertson, as his ability to type has diminished. The decline in his physical abilities has not affected his writing.

“I think my writing is becoming more powerful,” Neufeld said.

Neufeld was diagnosed with ALS in April 2018. That January, he had noticed an involuntary clenching of his hand, which he thought was carpal tunnel syndrome, and then in March tightening of his calves.

“I googled those two symptoms and the first result was ALS,” Neufeld said. “I thought, ‘That damn internet.'”

Still, he has not slowed down his writing schedule.

‘So prolific’
“I’m amazed at the breadth of his stories, and that fact that he’s so prolific,” said WNCHA Chairman Allan Tarleton, an Asheville attorney. “I can’t imagine who’s offered more substance to local history and done so more regularly than Rob Neufeld.”

Besides his history columns, Neufeld also has regularly reviewed books for the paper, and he’s been a key figure in regionwide reading programs, including a seven-year stint as director of the Together We Read program and more recently as director of Mountain Lit. His resumé notes that acclaimed author Ron Rash has called him, “the person who has done more than anyone else to promote reading in this region.”

Neufeld has published four books to date, two of local interest and two collaborations with novelist Gail Godwin. He was previously a library administrator for Buncombe County.

More: Visiting Our Past: Zeb Vance found his value in Reems Creek

His newspaper column has remained a staple, both for Neufeld and his loyal readers.

“Rob always has interesting and sometimes surprising topics in his broadly defined and long-running ‘Visiting Out Past’ column about Western North Carolina,” said Geoff Cantrell, an association board member and himself a previous history columnist at the Citizen Times. “And that approach carries over to his many other works and activities, which can’t be confined by any physical limitation or illness. He is diligent, unrelenting and well-deserving of this outstanding achievement award.”

Finishing his ‘master work’
Neufeld’s nomination for the award came from Carol Boggess, an emeritus professor of English at Mars Hill University, and the the 2019 conference chair of the Appalachian Studies Association in Asheville at UNC Asheville.

“I have always admired his ability to ask the question and then pursue the research,” Boggess said. “I think he’s made a real contribution to the area, and to the history and the literary history of this area. He’s been so supportive of different projects that involve awarding writers or recognizing them — showing them how we feel about them and what their value is to Western North Carolina.”

Neufeld continues to work on what he considers his “master work,” which started out “being based on personal stuff but has now evolved into a dramatic suspenseful and deep poem for the stage,” Neufeld said. Titled, “The Main Show,” it’s available on Neufeld’s website, The Read on WNC (https://thereadonwnc.ning.com/profile/RobNeufeld).

Neufeld also has been a top-notch organizer of literary events and has a real knack for landing high-profile writers for local events, Boggess said.

“He’s always been a person who could see an opportunity and then make things happen,” Boggess said. “I really admire him for that. He’s friendly and inviting to people at the same time.”

Neufeld and his wife, Bev, met while getting their master’s degrees in library science at Columbia University in New York City. Neufeld holds degrees from Swarthmore College and Columbia.

They married in 1988 and moved to Asheville, where Neufeld had landed a job with the Buncombe County library system. They raised their two sons here, Henry, 29, and Nathan, 27.

Robertson is the director of Mars Hill University library.

“I’m glad Rob is being recognized for the work he’s done,” Robertson said. “He’s given so much of his heart to it.”

A New York Appalachian
While Neufeld moved to Asheville from New York, he has always considered himself a northern Appalachian.

“There is something special about the mountain people, as opposed to the people who were merchants and lived on the plantations,” Neufeld said. “I found similarities between the two (New York and North Carolina) — that fierce independence for one.”

He’s always found the people here have a “a kind of humility that goes along with sly humor.” Through the decades, Neufeld has conducted scores of interviews with mountain people, who have always been willing to slowly reveal themselves to him.

“I’ve loved everyone I’ve talked with,” Neufeld said. “They’ve opened up to me, and they’ve educated me in the process.”

Robertson said she’s been going through Neufeld’s books recently and found a call slip in one from the New York Public Library system. It was a book on Appalachian folk songs, showing Neufeld’s fascination with the region goes back decades.

‘A hell of a janitor’
Neufeld also received high praise from Jim Buchanan, an association board member, former Citizen Times editor and columnist, as well as mountain native. He said Neufeld “would’ve made a hell of a janitor.”

“Let me explain,” Buchanan said. “In my days at the Citizen Times, I’d bump into Rob quite frequently. He was usually carrying an armload of books and always wearing a smile. Our chats would naturally always turn to history.”

One day they talked about the last panthers in the region, and Buchanan related a story about his grandmother being stalked by a panther as a child.

“She’d learned that you never turn your back on a panther, to lock eyes with it,” Buchanan said. “She wound up walking backward down a mountain trail, for miles, with the creature consistently 20 or so yards behind her, before she reached the safety of a cabin clearing and was able to yell for help.”

Neufeld knew a great story when he heard one.

“Rob’s response was immediate and predictable: ‘Are you going to write that or am I?'” Buchanan said. “That’s Rob. Sweep those stories up, write them down, preserve them and share them.”

“That’s what he’s done for decades. In their own way, each of those stories — even the ones that showed the sharp elbows of mountain history — is a love letter to Western North Carolina,” Buchanan continued. “It’s a fine and enviable legacy.”