The woman who wouldn't take no for an answer
A few years ago, Gay Currie Fox invited Nathan Ramsey and his wife to her house. Just a small gathering, she told them.
Ramsey, a former Buncombe County Commission chairman, was in the General Assembly at the time. Fox, a diehard Democrat, didn’t like what he and other Republicans were doing in Raleigh. So she wanted to talk.
“I thought she said it was a little meeting. It was a full house,” Ramsey said last week, several days after Fox died at age 97. “And some of the people weren’t too happy. There were some controversial things happening at the state level, some of which I agreed with, some I didn’t. People (at the meeting) were a little passionate.
“But as far as Gay, she was incredibly kind. So gracious. Bottom line is, I trusted her, regardless of whether we agreed or disagreed. You can agree to disagree, but you don’t have to be disagreeable. She epitomized that.”
Fox, a real estate agent who compressed limitless energy in a tiny frame, left behind a lot of fond memories and friends when she died March 25 at her Black Mountain home. But she was more than just sweet, her friends said. She was also effective. If it had to get done, Gay Currie Fox was the one to do it.
“She was willing to try anything. It didn’t matter her age,” her daughter, Marguerite Crawford, said. Her mother, who loved picnics and tennis, was always moving. And driving fast. “Get off the road if she was on the road,” Crawford said.
"I made a lot of friends, and some enemies. But I would do it all again," Fox, a Black Mountain alderman from 1981-1985, told The Black Mountain News in 2010.
One of her proudest achievements as alderman was rescuing Lake Tomahawk, which a couple of decades ago was choked with weeds and filled with sediment. It was a popular place for drunks, her daughter Marguerite recalled – a sentiment echoed by Fox’s longtime friend, Mary Leonard White.
“Lake Tomahawk was a mudhole and just ugly,” White said. “And it had people hanging around it that you wish weren’t there. Nobody wanted to do anything about it.”
Fox imagined how it could be and set about creating the place it is now, a place for the community to play, exercise and listen to concerts.
By 1995, the stately but empty city hall building on State Street was slated for demolition. Fox and others wanted it for the nascent Black Mountain Center for the Arts. She co-chaired a local capital campaign drive to raise $1 million for renovations. Once the work was complete, the arts center moved in. That year – 2000 - Gale Jackson became the center’s executive director. Fox, she said, was “a force to be reckoned with.”
“She was very stubborn and willful. If she decided something should happen, it would happen,” Jackson said. “She basically wouldn’t take no for an answer. She put her words into action and made things gel. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her.”
Cited as a “tireless volunteer" and "a 'we-can-do-this' leader," Fox in 2015 was given the Black Mountain-Swannanoa Kiwanis Club's Community Service Award. Speakers mentioned her work on Lake Tomahawk and on the arts center. They also credited her with helping bring art classes to Black Mountain Primary School and with helping establish community advisory committees in all Buncombe County schools. They noted her role in twice saving the Carver School building for public use and with helping organize the first Swannanoa Valley Martin Luther King Prayer Breakfast in 1991.
Born in 1920, Fox was the oldest of six children born to missionary parents in China. "My parents, Ed and Gay Currie, were remarkable, courageous people," Fox told The Black Mountain News in 2010. "I had such a happy childhood. Even during the most severe Chinese political problems and uprisings, they paid individual attention to each of their children.”
Fox was seven when she first came to the United States. She spent two years in Richmond before returning to China at age nine. In China and Korea, she was friends with the late Ruth Bell Graham, the Rev. Billy Graham’s wife, as well as the late John Wilson, for whom the Dr. John Wilson Community Garden in Black Mountain is named.
Fluent in Mandarin, she was unprepared for being a teenager in America when she returned at age 18. Fox graduated from Agnes Scott College in 1942, and from Columbia University in New York in 1946. A public health nurse, she began a career in foreign service in 1957, working as a nurse in Tehran, Iran, with the Agency for International Development. In 1959, she developed an orphanage there that became a demonstration model. She set up the first international adoption agency in Tehran.
“She just bullied her way into the country,” Crawford said. “She was a bossy woman (who) wanted it her way. And went out there and did it.”
It was in Tehran that she met her husband, Joe Fox, who worked in the U.S. Information Service. During the two years they lived in Borneo - Joe was serving in the Peace Corps - they adopted their daughters, Marguerite Gay (now Crawford) and Joanne Mary Fox, who were later naturalized in the United States.
In 1964, the Foxes moved to Black Mountain – to a Montgomery Ward pre-fabricated house - to give their daughters a home and to look after Gay’s parents, who lived in Montreat on Virginia Road.
Before his death in 1991, Joe and Gay Fox made Springles, artificial flowers netted the couple admittance to the Southern Highland Craft Guild. The couple made them out of their home with a group of people who might not have had jobs otherwise, White said. “It was a very inclusive group,” she said. Fox “saw people as important individuals.”
“Gay was one of the most caring people that I have encountered,” said Kelce Lytle Sr., who met her soon after he moved to Black Mountain from McDowell County to take a job in Asheville. He ran for alderman, and Fox helped him meet a lot of people.
“She seemed to have no constraints when it came to people of color,” Lytle said. “She cared about all of us in the Black Mountain area. She was a tremendous lady. I think anyone who has ever encountered her would tell you that.”
Her impulse to take risks to accomplish her goals was evident in 1997 when, after selling homes for nearly 25 years, she took a team approach to building a house. She assembled a group of subcontractors to plan the house together, a departure from what she said was the standard at the time – hiring contractors piecemeal. She invested more than $400,000 to prove her concept worked.
“"I figured that if other people couldn't see how well teamwork works when building a house, I'd show them myself," she told The Asheville Citizen Times in February 1997. The house, she said, was “sort of my monument to what is right. It may be a big gamble, but I believe you have to have the courage to make a stand. That's what I've done.
“It may be a big risk, but I have faith that it will pay off in the end.”