Men Making a Difference – Past and Present


This month we recognize some of the men who have worked to make this community what it is today. Many are unsung heroes whose names or accomplishments we have forgotten; others we know or remember, and we applaud them ALL.

Staff reports

Michael Harney 
Photos: Urban News

No community is perfect; how citizens deal with its imperfections says a lot about its character. Our region is blessed with people who tackle problems head-on, whether a housing shortage, a polluted environment, lack of jobs, racial inequalities, or troubled youth.
Michael J. Harney, Jr. is an HIV/AIDS Educator for WNCAP, addressing the needs of HIV/AIDS in Asheville and the surrounding region.

Michael shares his thoughts regarding this outreach: “One of the greatest problems in addressing HIV/AIDS is the silence around the disease. Many people living with HIV/AIDS fear rejection, stigma, and ridicule. To deal with this epidemic, it is essential to speak of it. Say it aloud: “HIV/AIDS.” Now, can we begin to talk about the issues?”

Fred Simms, now retired from a long professional career, has spent untold hours ensuring that Building Bridges thrives in its goal of bringing together citizens to develop understanding, new relationships, and personal friendships across the racial divide.

DeWayne Barton

DeWayne Barton has been involved in community improvement and youth development for more than 15 years. DeWayne is co-founder of Asheville Green Opportunities, a job-training program designed to prepare Asheville area youth and adults for “green-collar” careers, and he serves on the board of Clean Water for North Carolina.

Tyrone Greenlee
Photo: Urban News

Church is Tyrone Greenlee’s way of life. He has been administrative assistant at New Mount Olive for many years and is Executive Director of Churches for a United Community. Greenlee is also on the board of Children First and works with the youth in the community. “I have a heart for the struggles of young people, especially at the middle school age,” says Greenlee. “There are so many young people who don’t have the support they need and deserve to become successful.”

The risks facing young African American males are many. Schoolboys who lack role models for academic achievement are at risk of poor grades, repeating a year in school, and ultimately dropping out. Dropouts risk the temptation to join gangs, both for the sense of belonging they offer and because gang life is seen as an easy way to “score” money and girls. “Gangstas” are at risk for incarceration, drug and alcohol abuse, overdoses, and such health problems as heart failure, kidney disease, respiratory problems, hepatitis, STDs, HIV/AIDS, and even early death from gang-related gun murders.

So what happens to the youth who face these risks? If they’re lucky, men step in to intervene, making a difference in countless young males’ lives.

Cedric Nash, Assistant Principal of Asheville High School, has guided countless youth through the maze and perils of growing up. His goal is to turn out young men ready to face the world, rather than turn away those who must struggle to succeed.

Dr. Gene Rainey served as a professor, a pastor, a City Councilman, and chairman of the Buncombe County Commission before founding Our Next Generation, a program (1996-2008) designed to provide opportunities for youth at risk by finding a positive path in life.

On the Shoulders of Others
These leaders are able to accomplish what they do because others led the way. They were trailblazers and “firsts,” men determined to take on the problems they identified or find a way to make a good community better.

Henry Robinson

Henry Robinson was the first African American print journalist to work for the Asheville Citizen and Asheville Times. From 1968 through his retirement in 1999, Robinson wrote editorials, features, columns, and sports reports, and he was religion editor for many years. Since retirement he has undertaken the task of writing a book about overlooked Asheville history.

As minister of New Mt. Olive Baptist Church, Rev. O.T. Tomes refused to sit around talking about faith. His ministry emphasized his belief in a holistic approach to health and racial inclusion, and he put his faith to work—even winning a seat on City Council—to get at the root of racial problems in Asheville by confronting them and taking action.

Scott Dedman has served as executive director of Mountain Housing Opportunities in Asheville since 1993. He was part of a small group of volunteers who founded MHO in 1988, repairing the residences of elderly and disabled homeowners. Since then, MHO has completed over $35 million in home repair, development, and neighborhood revitalization. Today it builds more than fifty single-family town homes, condominiums, and apartments annually.

Attorneys Gene Ellison, Terry Young, and George Weaver have offered direction and guidance under the law for many years, serving as role models to keep our youth out of trouble and stepping in to represent those in need. Their advocacy for individual young men and for improvements to the system we all rely on has made a difference in countless lives.

Pastors such as John W. White, Otis Dunn, John H. Grant, Wesley Grant, Sr., Dr. Charles Mosley, Rod Whiteside, and many other religious leaders have kept people on the path of righteousness.

These men, like all of us, owe a debt to those who came before. Elders remember those pioneers who built the foundations we all stand upon, and we are proud to keep their accomplishments alive.

Building a Community
Dr. John P. Holt was enrolled at the Allen School at the age of four, attended Stephens-Lee High School, and earned his medical degree from Meharry Medical College in Nashville. Dr. John Holt returned to Asheville to practice medicine, where his father, Dr. John Walker, was one of the early black physicians. Dr. Holt’s maternal grandfather, Plummer Austin Richardson, a barber with a third-grade education, acquired tobacco farms and other real estate near Durham, NC, to become “the first black millionaire in North Carolina.”

Osborn M. Hart was a graduate of Stephens-Lee High School and A & T State University. A career military man who retired as a Lt. Colonel of Company A, First Calvary in Korea, he was also principal owner of Hart Funeral Services of Asheville, now under the direction of his son Daryl. A community-builder, Hart served as chairman of the YMCA Market Street Branch (now the YMI Cultural Center), as Vice-Chairman of the Asheville Civil Service Board, and on the United Way Board.

Alvin Mills was the first African-American photojournalist and camera person to work for WLOS – TV 13 in Asheville. Many people also remember his voice as “Professor Bop” on WLOS radio and broadcasts.

One of 13 children, Jesse Ray, Sr. graduated from Stephens-Lee High School in 1924 and the Worsham College of Mortuary Science in 1932. After working for McCoy Undertaking, he opened his own funeral home in 1936, now operated by his son Jesse Ray, Jr. Always active in civic affairs, Jesse Ray, Sr. served as chairman of the redevelopment project in 1979 and played a leading role in the rebirth of the YMI Cultural Center.

WBMU-FM media gurus Jim Robinson and Carl Johnson became known for keeping people informed and entertained. Today John Hayes of WRES brings a contemporary vision to community radio.

Sports leaders Gene Hammond, Henry Logan, and the late Bennie Lake demonstrated and taught competitive yet disciplined sportsmanship both on and off the fields and basketball courts.

How many leaders have we overlooked? Too many to list or thank, but we are grateful to them all, for they help make this community a better place.