Wilma Dykeman, 2007 Bill Russell River Hero

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In the introduction to her book, The French Broad, Wilma Dykeman writes, "…this is the chronicle of a river and a watershed, and a way of life where yesterday and tomorrow meet in odd and fascinating harmony... Dwellers of the French Broad country are learning an ancient lesson in all their natural resources; it is easy to destroy overnight treasures that cannot be replaced in a generation, easy to destroy in a generation that which cannot be restored in centuries."

Wilma Dykeman has lived all her life near the French Broad River in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. Born in Asheville in 1920, she was the only child of a mother whose people had lived in the North Carolina mountains since the eighteenth century. She traces her interest in writing to the stories her parents read aloud to her when she was a child. By the time she was in elementary school, she was making up her own stories, plays, and poems. After graduating from high school and Biltmore Junior College in Asheville, the author went to Northwestern University for a bachelor's degree in speech.

In all, she has published more than sixteen books. The French Broad (1955), one of the famous "Rivers of America" series, was completed in a year but represents a lifetime of observation and note-taking. It recounts the history, legend, biography (such as the chapter on Thomas Wolfe), sociology, and economics of a mountain region that draws its life and ways from this river and its tributaries. The work, her first, won the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Trophy in 1955.

Dykeman's many honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Senior Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Distinguished Service Award from the UNC Asheville, and the 1985 North Carolina Award for Literature. She has been named Tennessee Conservation Writer of the Year and Tennessee Outstanding Speaker of the Year by State Association of Speech Arts Teachers and Professors, and she has held the honorary title of Tennessee State Historian since 1981.

A popular lecturer, she taught a spring course for many years at the University of Tennessee. Sally Buckner relates in her anthology Our Words, Our Ways that: "Ms. Dykeman urges students to learn to listen and look at the world with keen eyes and ears, then apply themselves diligently. She also draws a keen distinction between aptitude and attitude. 'The talent comes from developing the aptitude,' she has said. 'The writer comes from developing the attitude.'"

Wilma Dykeman passed away at the age of 86 on December 22, 2006.

Past Recipients

2006: Frank Hensley
2005: Chester McConnell
2004: Dr. David A. Etnier