Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center celebrates Wendell Begley
It was fitting that stories filled the Gale Jackson Theatre in the Black Mountain Center for the Arts, Nov. 8, as staff, volunteers and supporters of the neighboring Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center came together to celebrate Wendell Begley.
Tales passed down by generations of Valley residents have been a big part of his life for 21 years, since he began his tenure as the chair of the SVM Board of Directors. Yet, as he stepped down from his post to make way for a new generation of leadership, Begley himself was the central character.
“Tonight is about telling stories about Wendell,” said SVM Executive Director Anne Chesky Smith, as she greeted the crowded theater. “One of the things he always says when he does hikes with the museum is that it’s about the people, and their stories. So that’s how we’re going to honor him.”
Begley was seated in the board chair in 1998, less than a decade after a group of community leaders founded the museum in an effort to preserve the history and heritage of the area. At the time, he was in the middle of what would go on to become a 24-year term as the Owen District representative for the Buncombe County Board of Education. He was also decades into his professional career after succeeding his father as president of Black Mountain Savings Bank.
Under Begley’s leadership, the museum launched a successful capital campaign that raised nearly $1 million to renovate the town’s first firehouse, which was designed by renowned architect Richard Sharp Smith. The improvements, completed in 2016, restored the 1921 building to its original condition and added climate control and other modern amenities.
The nonprofit museum, which operated on $5,000 its first year, now boasts over 700 members, a full-time director and an annual budget of nearly $100,000.
“We really want to thank Wendell for all he’s done for our museum, and for all I believe he’ll continue to do for it,” Chesky Smith said. “When he told me he was rotating off, I had a moment of anxiety, but we really should take it as a point of pride that he feels comfortable with our staff, volunteers and board of directors, that we’re capable of leading it into the future.”
The event, which began with a reception in the museum, was spearheaded by SVM board member Carol Tyson. Guests walked next door to the Center for the Arts for a program featuring personal anecdotes from Begley’s friends and associates.
John Corkran opened the presentation by reading a proclamation from the SVM board recognizing Begley for leading the “development of a first-class, widely respected, prize-winning museum, recognized for excellence in preserving and interpreting the natural and cultural history of this valley.”
Corkran concluded his address with a resolution naming the permanent gallery in the museum “The Wendell Begley Gallery.”
Sam Shirey, who stepped in as the board chair in September, emceed the event.
“There is no replacing Wendell Begley, I’m just the next person in line,” Shirey said.
The list of speakers included board members Bob Watts, Jack McMahan, John Buckner and treasurer Yolanda Smith. Singer-songwriter Bert Brown performed original songs inspired by the Swannanoa Valley.
Local historian Robert Goodson, who chronicled much of the history of the area in “On the North Fork of the Swannanoa River,” which he co-authored with his late wife Joan, recalled the meeting when Mary Hemphill tapped Begley as the museum’s new leader.
“She got her flip phone out and called Wendell,” Goodson said. “I was sitting right next to her as she was talking, and every once-in-a-while Wendell would say a few words. All of a sudden, Mary said ‘thank you Wendell.’ She shut that flip phone, dropped it in her satchel, turned around and said ‘he said yes.’ And that, my friends, is exactly how it happened.”
Begley, an avid outdoorsman and photographer, started the museum’s Swannanoa Valley Rim Explorer Series, which takes hikers on monthly expeditions exploring sections of the 31-mile Swannanoa Rim.
Van Burnette, who represents the seventh generation of his family to live in the North Fork community and leads hikes in the Explorer Series, got to know Begley through a mutual love for exploring the area.
“We got into all this hiking, and it ends up that Wendell came up with this idea to get the museum involved,” Burnette said. “But the real reason he got into this was because it gave us a ticket to get into the (North Fork) Watershed.”
Burnette called Begley “a proud member of the Swannanoa Valley.”
“What I want to do tonight is make Wendell an honorary member of the Burnette clan,” he said. “So he can claim heritage in the North Fork Watershed.”
Burnette presented Begley with an oversized key, attached to a makeshift key chain that read “No. Fork,” as the audience erupted in applause.
The final speaker of the evening was Kenny Ford, a Swannanoa Valley native who was the head coach of the Owen High School football team for 29 seasons.
“In 1986, nobody wanted the Owen job,” Ford said. “I was working at (former Owen coach) Bill Stanley’s, and an assistant at McDowell. Wendell called Bill, because he respected him so much, being his coach at Owen.
“Wendell asked if he knew anybody that might want the coaching job,” Ford continued. “He said, ‘yes, he’s back here drinking beers and scrubbing my grease pit right now.”
Begley and the coach worked out together daily and developed a close bond.
“The first time I met with my players, Wendell and his family were there,” Ford said. “And after every game, at Shuford, they would meet me on the field. That was always very special to me.”
Begley addressed the audience before the conclusion of the program. He told a story about an interview of the late Arthur Joe Hemphill, which took place at the headwaters of the Catawba River.
“They asked him about his heritage and this river that had run through his family’s land for generations,” he said. “Arthur Joe epitomized a native of this land, and I'll never forget his response. He told them he wasn’t an environmentalist, he was a conservationist, and he was only the caretaker of that property for a short period of time. If you think about it, not only with this Valley where we choose to live, but with our families, friends and people we associate with, that’s what we all are.”