An Overdue Tribute
An Overdue TributeSeptember 17, 2017
Someone asked me last week how it is that the National Arts and Crafts Conference at the Grove Park Inn has lasted 31 years.
Obviously, there are many reasons to cite, but I’ll add a name you don’t know to the list.
Tom Smith was a 25-year-old high school English teacher when, as a shy and awkward junior, I walked into his classroom in 1967. For whatever reason, Mr. Smith singled me out, and began handing me books to read and for us to discuss: novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, poems by John Keats and Percy Shelly, plays by Edward Albee, sonnets by William Shakespeare, and his personal copy of a mammoth Literary History of England that has remained with me these past fifty years.
Tom Smith knew I didn’t have that ‘touch of the poet’ essential to a great writer, but he believed I could become a teacher. And so I did. As a young, energetic English teacher, I molded myself in the image of my mentor, who by then had moved on, becoming a professor of English literature at Quincy College.
I only remained a classroom teacher for five years, but for several of those years I made it a point to attend the National Convention of Teachers of English. It was an annual three-day event, with seminars in the evenings and mornings, as well as an afternoon show, where book publishers, audio-visual salespeople, poster companies, camera dealers, furniture representatives, and authors filled booth after booth in the hotel ballroom.
And so, thirty-one years ago, when I first walked into the Great Hall of the historic Grove Park Inn overlooking Asheville, one of the first thoughts that occurred to me was, “We have to hold a conference here.” Built in 1913 and furnished in the Arts and Crafts style, by 1988 the Grove Park Inn had grown from its original 150 rooms to a total of 512, and had added two ballrooms, three restaurants, and several meeting rooms to the Great Hall (below) in the Main Inn.
In 1988, when the director of special events asked me what an Arts and Crafts conference would be like, I drew upon my experience as a young English teacher and calmly replied, as if I had done this dozens of times, “We’ll have seminars in the evenings and mornings, as well as an antiques show in the afternoon, with dealers selling Arts and crafts furniture, art pottery, metalware, art, tiles, and books in the ballroom.”
By that time I had moved from Illinois to North Carolina, and had lost touch with Tom Smith, in part because I had always felt he must have been disappointed when I left the classroom. Mutual friends kept us updated on each other, and it was in late 1988, that first year of the Arts and Crafts Conference, that I learned Tom had contracted the HIV virus. He died the following August, at the age of 47. Tom is buried outside my hometown, where we now still have our occasional talks and discussions.
Until next Monday.
“A teacher can never tell where his influence stops.” – Henry Adams