Asheville Living Treasures Committee Announces Honorees

Asheville Living Treasures honored four laureates at a ceremony, at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UNC Asheville. More than 100 guests celebrated the contributions of Asheville residents Thelma Porter, Julia Ray, and Hazel and John Robinson.

ThelmaPorterThelma Washington Porter

Thelma (“Thel”) Porter is an entrepreneur, humanitarian, community volunteer, and devoted wife and mother, known in the greater Asheville community for her generosity of spirit and as a role model with a quick wit and fun-loving personality.

Born in Sumter, South Carolina, she attended Hill Street Elementary School and graduated from the 11th grade at Stephens Lee High School in 1938, the final grade level at the time. There was no money for Thelma to attend college, but her love of learning remained: after her children were grown, she earned a BA in Theology at Shaw University.

But immediately after high school she went to work, first in domestic service, then for herself. She opened a small concession stand, which allowed Thelma to save money, and she soon moved to Detroit for better opportunities. Her sweetheart, James, whom she had met at Stephens Lee, followed her there, and they married Jan. 27, 1945. Later they returned to Asheville and adopted two children, James Jr. and Stephanie.

Thel established Tru-Value clothing boutique, which thrived, and then Porter’s Grocery Store in Asheville’s East End, where she and James sold groceries and other items, and operated a “rolling store,” taking items to those who could not come to the store to shop – and giving necessities to those who could not afford them. After urban renewal changed East End, James worked at the Grove Park Inn and Thelma went to work for 25 years at the YWCA.

Thelma Porter was the first African American Girl Scout leader in the area, taught Sunday school and sang in her church choir, served as a mentor, advisor, and role model to many neighborhood children, and, as a proud member of Zeta Phi Beta, has traveled and worked industriously on behalf of the sorority.


JuliaRayJulia Pauline Greenlee Ray

Julia Greenlee was born in Marion, NC, though her family relocated to New York City when she was still a child. After her mother passed away, Julia returned to Marion to be raised by her grandmother.

After graduation from Barber-Scotia College in Concord, she attended the University of Pittsburgh. When her photograph appeared in the nationally circulated Pittsburgh Courier, Jesse Ray’s mother saw it and sent it to her son. They met, he courted her, and ultimately they were married. In the years since, Julia G. Ray has been a business and community leader, artist, and loving wife and mother with an exuberant spirit and fierce determination.

Jesse had graduated from Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Chicago, and Julia worked for a time in her aunt’s catering business. A year after their first child, Wilma, was born in 1937, they established the Jesse Ray Funeral Home at 267 College Street in Asheville.

After WWII, the couple moved to 185 Biltmore Avenue, with the business downstairs and family upstairs. Three sons – Jesse Jr. (“Butch”), George William (“Buddy”) and Charles Reuben (“Buster”) – were born during the post-war “baby boom.”

Julia was the first African American woman on the Board of Mission Hospital and served on the first Advisory Board for the NC Center for Creative Retirement (now OLLI ) at UNC Asheville. As one of the Friends of the YMI she participated in the establishment of the Goombay Festival, and she played an integral role in the integration of the YWCA of Asheville.

In 2003, the YMI renamed its auditorium the Ray Auditorium in recognition of the Rays’ service; in 2007, Julia received the annual Mission/MAHEC Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award. The NC Funeral Directors Association has recognized her as the oldest living female funeral director, and in 2012, the National Funeral Directors Association proclaimed her a Living Legend of Funeral Service for 74 years of service.

Hazel&JohnRobinsonHazel and John Robinson

The Montford Park Players celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2012 as North Carolina’s longest-running Shakespeare Festival. Hazel Robinson has served as founding director, play director, actor, designer, and “everything else,” while her husband John’s roles have included accountant, budget director, videographer, archivist – and occasional actor.

Hazel was born in Bogue Chitto, Mississippi; her father was a WWI veteran hospitalized at Oteen; her mother, a teacher, brought the family to Asheville to be close to him. After graduating from Montreat High School in 1941, Hazel attended UNC Chapel Hill, where she participated in the famed Carolina Players.

John spent his childhood in Long Prairie, MN where his father was associated with the Chevrolet dealership and his mother was County Superintendent of Schools. He majored in math, physics, and chemistry at the University of Minnesota.

Hazel and John met through a common interest in Dianetics, and they married in 1954. After their move to Asheville, John worked as an accountant and corporate auditor while Hazel raised four children and worked whenever she could in theater – including as Technical Director for Asheville Community Theater.

They moved to Cumberland Avenue in 1971, when Montford Park was nicknamed “Needle Park”; and having attended outdoor theater in Minneapolis, Hazel said, “We should have something like this in Asheville.” In 1973, using $50 from their grocery money, Hazel produced As You Like It in the park, and Montford Park Players was born. Over the four decades since, MPP developed a summer season, established an annual production of A Christmas Carol, and became a non-profit with a year-round season. Now housed in an outdoor amphitheater behind Montford Community Center, summer productions are still free, and audiences are generous when actors pass the hat. During MPP’s 25th anniversary season in 1977, the city named the auditorium the Hazel Robinson Amphitheater.

MPP now draws 10,000 visitors annually and generates jobs and business opportunities throughout the community. The Robinsons have given our community a far-reaching, long-lived legacy; the benefits to those who have passed through MPP’s arms will be seen and felt for generations.

For more information about Asheville Living Treasures, please contact Marnie Walsh, committee chair, at (828) 298-2231 or [email protected].

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

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