Wendell Begley named chairman of N.C. Bankers Association Board of Directors
Wendell Begley is known for a seemingly endless list of things in his hometown.
Many recognize him as a historian, who has chronicled his community’s past through more than 875 essays featuring thousands of photos. He’s played an instrumental role in the success of the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center during his 21 years as the board’s chairman and trail running enthusiasts would be familiar with his name as one of the founders of the Mount Mitchell Challenge. Plenty more people came to know him over the course of his 24 years on the Buncombe County Schools Board of Education.
For the past 47 years he’s been a fixture at Black Mountain Savings Bank, where he succeeded his late father Marcus as the president and CEO in 1979.
On June 25, as the N.C. Bankers Association gathered in Lake Oconee, Georgia for its 123rd Annual Convention, he was introduced to his contemporaries in the industry as the 2019-20 chairman of the board.
“Membership of the NCBA ranges from banks with three employees to banks like Wells Fargo, with 232,000,” Begley said from his office in Western North Carolina’s oldest bank. “To my knowledge, based on conversations I’ve had with others, there has never been a chairman from a bank as small as Black Mountain Savings representing the industry.”
Black Mountain Savings opened its doors in December of 1908 with a sole focus of serving the financial needs of Swannanoa Valley residents, according to Begley. With five employees, including two of Begley’s three daughters, the mutual savings bank serves around 1,250 customers and is still guided by its founding principles, he said.
“We’re not out playing golf on Wednesday afternoon,” he said. “I can tell you I put in around 50 hours a week, or more, and that’s what it takes to run a small community bank. We’re so close to our community and customers that we have to do what’s in their best interest.”
Begley is the longest-tenured bank executive in the state and the fifth president to lead the institution, the eighth-oldest in the state.
“The typical bank in this country holds around $220 million in assets with around 29 employees,” he said. “A lot of people think of banking as Wall Street, but when you look at communities throughout the U.S., small banks like us are what the communities depend on.”
Stepping into the leadership role of the NCBA, Begley plans to continue the work started by past chairman David Stevens.
“Some of my top priorities are to unite all facets of the banking industry to stand together with top regulatory concerns, promote and develop new leadership within the industry and to help the communities throughout the state better know their local bankers,” he said.
Nurturing a relationship with his community has long been a priority for Begley, who was born and raised in Black Mountain after his parents moved to the town from their native Hazard, Kentucky.
He grew up exploring the mountains above the Valley and developed a love for the outdoors.
A career in banking wasn’t what Begley had in mind when he graduated from Owen High School before heading to Bristol, Tennessee, where earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and business administration from King College (now King University).
“I took a battery of tests when I was a senior at Owen,” he said. “The tests were designed to help you figure out what career path would work best for you. After two days of testing, they determined my direction in life was to be a camp director in a far-flung wilderness camp.”
However, as he left for college, he was preparing for the possibility of fighting in the Vietnam War.
“I was 1-A in the draft, meaning I was eligible for service,” he said. “When you were in college you were exempted from the draft but that year, when I graduated from college, I had a draft number of 112.”
He went to Charlotte for a physical and was told he would be called back in three weeks. While biding his time, he worked for the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department as an undercover drug agent in 1971.
“We had so many cases that Tom Morrissey, who was the sheriff at the time, contacted the solicitor asked if I could stay for three or four months to help get through the cases,” Begley said. “Four weeks later President Nixon ended the draft. The Vietnam War holds a special place in my heart because I knew so many people from this area who left and never came back.”
After learning he would not be going to war, Begley remained in his hometown and started working in construction until his father asked him to spend three weeks working at the bank in 1973 to see if it was a good fit.
“I thought it would just be a desk job,” he said. “But back then, we would cash checks on a Friday afternoon and we probably had 100 local people come through the bank on those days. I got to see dad working with people in the community who couldn’t get loans at other banks and I was drawn to that.”
Two years later, it became clear to Begley that he’d made the right decision.
“I’d always wanted a hunting cabin in the wilderness,” he said. “I was able to buy property on Mount Mitchell and I wouldn’t have been able to do that without my dad. That is probably what kept me from going out west to Wyoming or Montana.”
Begley has taken more than 50 trips to the western wilderness in the years since, including a trip through the Thororfare Valley on horseback with his wife Mary, but his true passion is for his hometown. He served multiple terms as president of the Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce, spent time on the town’s planning board, served on the Swannanoa Valley Medical Center Board of Directors and the Asheville Water Authority.
In 1983 he was encouraged by his late wife Vickie, who taught at Black Mountain Primary School for over three decades before succumbing to breast cancer in 2007, to seek a term on the Buncombe County Schools Board of Education.
“I was the longest-serving member of the Board of Education,” he said. “I served as the chairman for 10 years, making me the longest-serving chairman of the board as well.”
Among his many accomplishments on the board, Begley was instrumental in finding property on which to build the current Owen High School, which had been in the current Owen Middle School building since it opened in 1955.
He met key figures in his life during his tenure on the board.
“We hired Dr. Frank Yeager to serve as the Buncombe County Schools superintendent,” he said. “Not only did he do an exceptional job in that role, but besides my father, Frank has been my greatest mentor.”
In 1984, he played a key role in bringing his fellow Swannanoa Valley native Kenny Ford in as the Owen head football coach. The two would become “best friends” over the subsequent decades as they developed a daily tradition.
“Wendell would come up to the old field house at Shuford Field everyday and we worked out together,” Ford said. “We talked about so many things over the years and he’s been one of my best friends since then.”
It was Begley, Ford added, who was standing by his side the first time he addressed the Warhorse football team during a head coaching career that would go on to span nearly three decades at the school.
“Wendell and his family would come out on the field and see me after every home ball game,” Ford said. “They were right there with me, and that support motivated me to not let them, or this community, down.”
His accessibility is part of what makes Begley a pillar of the community, Ford said.
“I’ve busted in his office so many times to talk to him about one thing or the other,” he said. “He’s always been like that with anyone in the Valley. He’s never in a hurry when you need to talk to him, he listens and gives the best advice he can.”
Begley has not only earned the respect of his community, according to Carl Bartlett, his ascension to the role of chairman of the NCBA serves as a clear indication about his status among his fellow bank executives.
“This is a prestigious appointment,” said Bartlett, a district sales manager for WNC, upstate S.C. and eastern Tennessee during his 35-year career at The Northwestern Bank, which merged with First Union and ultimately became Wachovia after a 2001 merger. “It really speaks to the deep respect his fellow members of the banking industry have for him.”
Bartlett described Begley as one of the “most genuine people” he’s ever met.
“His values are above reproach,” Barltett said. “He served on the school board for ages and he not only considered the needs of the Valley, he deeply considered the needs of the entire county. He saw us probably go through the greatest building phase, as a school system, since the original six county high schools were built.”
But banking and education are only two of Begley’s many passions. His love for the outdoors helped launch one of the most unique ultramarathons in the country, an event that would eventually evolve into the Mount Mitchell Challenge. The annual race, which takes hundreds of runners from the center of Black Mountain to the peak of the highest mountain east of the Mississippi River, can trace its roots to the Black Mountain-Mount Mitchell Ski Challenge, which Begley gave birth to in 1983.
The first Ski Challenge was organized more than a decade before Begley was approached with the task of putting together a running event that would feature Mount Mitchell. He reached out to Trent Thomas, who owns Asheville’s Black Dome Mountain Sports and created the Mount Mitchell Challenge.
The ultramarathon still brings hundreds of ambitious runners to the Swannanoa Valley every February since its debut in 1997.
The mountains around his hometown continued to serve as inspiration for Begley, who was asked by the late Mary Hemphill to serve on the board of the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center in the late 1990s.
By 2010, Begley was in his 12th year on the board of the museum when the chairman challenged his fellow members to present ideas that would help generate revenue for the museum.
“I asked them to come up with a project that would generate money for the museum,” he said. “I told them they had two months and that they could come up with an idea or come up with $1,000 to support the museum. My project was the Swannanoa Rim Explorer Hike Series.”
They branded the series, which offers 11 hikes that encompass the majority of the 31 miles of the Swannanoa Rim — from Jesse’s High Top, across Lakey Gap and over Ridgecrest and Montreat along the Blue Ridge Parkway down to Cedar Cliff above Camp Rockmont — as “eastern America’s highest and most historic skyline.”
The hikes are still among the museum’s most popular events.
“The rim hikes allow our natives to teach people who are new to the area about the history of these mountains,” he said. “People love those hikes.”
While his career as a banker has allowed Begley to impact his community in countless ways, it’s his love for the land that he hopes will be his lasting legacy.
“I’ve told Mary that when I’m dead and gone I would prefer to be remembered as a person who loved the great outdoors and had a passion for photography, hunting and fishing, as opposed to banking,” he said. “I’ve taken the photographs for many of the historical essays I’ve done over the years, and it’s something I have a great passion for.”
Begley will be remembered for that and more, according to Ford, who said it’s impossible to imagine a Swannanoa Valley without the Begley family.
“This Valley would be like Bedford Falls in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ without George Bailey,” Ford said of his friend. “He means that much to this place.”