CULLOWHEE – Ron Rash, accomplished writer and educator, is the first John A. Parris Jr. and Dorothy Luxton Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University.
Rash, who comes to Western from the University of South Carolina where he served as visiting writer in the graduate creative writing program, has received numerous awards for his poetry and fiction, including the recently announced Appalachian Writers Association’s Book of the Year Award for his novel “One Foot in Eden.”
The book also won Foreword Magazine’s Gold Medal for Best Literary Novel of 2002. Rash is scheduled to embark upon a national book tour when the paperback edition is published by Picador Press in February.
Rash should make an immediate impact on the work already under way at Western in the area of Appalachian cultural studies by faculty, students and staff in a variety of academic disciplines, said Curtis Wood, professor of history at Western, who chaired the professorship search committee.
“We had an excellent pool of applicants for the Parris Professorship, including many of the best people in the field of Appalachian studies,” Wood said. “We’re fortunate to attract an individual of Ron’s stature. He’s an accomplished poet, novelist and teacher, and is a powerful voice of and for the region.”
The $500,000 professorship was established in the summer of 2002 as the seventh endowed professorship at Western. It was made possible through the estate of the late John and Dorothy Parris of Sylva, who were longtime supporters of the university, augmented by matching funds provided by the state of North Carolina and the C.D. Spangler Foundation’s Challenge Grant for Endowed Distinguished Professorships.
The professorship in the interdisciplinary area of Appalachian studies was specifically designed so that it could be anchored within the departments of anthropology, art, communication and theatre arts, English or history. As a poet and fiction-writer, Rash will be working out of the department of English.
“Ron Rash strengthens our department’s existing connection to Appalachian studies and literature,” said Brian Railsback, head of the department. “He is an important part of our desire to be connected to the region and he is a major step ahead for us as we build a professional writing program of national stature. I am very pleased that he is teaching a freshman seminar as his first class at Western. He is willing to pitch in wherever we need him and therefore fits into the department’s teaching culture. Ron is absolutely first-rate.”
Rash said he is looking forward to helping uphold the legacy of one of Western North Carolina’s most beloved writers. “I am a great admirer of John Parris’ writing, and, when I was growing up, read his column ‘Roaming the Mountains,’” he said. “His deep love and immense understanding of his native region are an inspiration for me. Since both my father and my mother’s family have deep roots in the North Carolina mountains, this new position is a homecoming of sorts.”
Rash is working with Western’s Mountain Heritage Center on setting up a new series of performances, reading and lectures that will highlight Appalachian culture.
Rash holds the bachelor’s degree in English from Gardner-Webb College and the master’s degree in English from Clemson University. In 1994, he was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship, and in 1996 his fiction won the Sherwood Anderson Prize. His poetry and fiction have been published in more than 80 journals and magazines, and, in addition to the novel “One Foot in Eden,” he is author of two collections of short stories and three collections of poetry. His second novel, “Saints at the River,” is slated for publication by Henry Holt Publishers in spring 2004.
Dorothy Luxton Parris, who died in 1995, was a skilled artist – with achievements in art, writing and creative consultancies – in New York and other cities. Through the years, she became broadly involved in civic and community service in Western North Carolina, especially focusing on the cultural advantages and life-changing influences of art and music on public school children.
John Parris, who died in May 1999, was recognized most readily in his later years for his “Roaming the Mountains” newspaper columns in the Asheville Citizen-Times and for his books on his beloved mountains and their people. He also led an illustrious earlier life as an internationally read correspondent in New York City and in wartime London.
Parris had a long affiliation with Western Carolina, covering the university’s early athletics program as a young newspaper correspondent. He helped establish Western’s journalism studies program and assisted in developing the university’s first Board of Visitors. He championed the establishment of a center to preserve the traditions and cultures of the WNC mountains, which led to the founding of the Mountain Heritage Center at the university, and was recipient of the first Mountain Heritage Award, presented annually by the university as part of its Mountain Heritage Day celebration.
In addition to the professorship, the Mountain Heritage Center received various artifacts from the Parris estate, including handcrafted items and a set of watch-making tools. Western’s Hunter Library obtained various books, tapes and papers.