By Lynn Hotaling
The Jackson County natives who are likely Western North Carolina’s most famous 20th century newspaper writers both got their start at this newspaper and went on to careers at the region’s largest one.
John Parris, born Nov. 23, 1914, in Sylva, and Bob Terrell, born 14 years later on Nov. 28, 1928, in Addie, began writing locally as teens, with Parris starting around 1927 with The Ruralite, The Sylva Herald’s forerunner.
By the time Terrell began writing sports for The Herald in 1946, Parris was a widely read foreign correspondent who had covered World War II for the United Press, filing stories about Hitler’s blitz of London and the Allies’ successful invasion of North Africa. A few years later, both found themselves at The Asheville Citizen-Times. Both were popular columnists for more than three decades.
The importance of Parris and Terrell to the county and region is enormous, said local historian George Frizzell.
“Newspaper reporters and columnists have voices that may reach beyond a region and, often, through time. In their columns, which could be both educational and entertaining, John and Bob captured the flavor of local life and personalities, and brought regional history and culture to a broader audience,” Frizzell said, adding that area visitors would often invoke the two columnists’ names and writings.
“Like many others, I grew up reading their columns, and it was always a treat to see the name of someone I knew being featured,” Frizzell said. “We need the writers who personalize our history and who keep the memory of local people and customs or lore alive for future generations.”
Frizzell said he interacted with Parris in the mid-1980s while assisting with “The History of Jackson County.”
“I had the opportunity to meet with John during the book’s progress as it includes his chapter ‘Folklore and Folkways,’” Frizzell said.
Both Parris and Terrell are mentioned in “The History of Jackson County” in the chapter by Barbara and James Dooley titled “The Cultural Arts.” The Dooleys write that Parris was “a master storyteller” and “produced an impressive legacy with his newspaper column, ‘Roaming the Mountains,’ and his books on mountain life, customs, and people. In fact, the columns and books have become unofficial guides to the multifaceted heritage of Western North Carolina for natives and visitors alike.”
Concerning Terrell, they note “His work has reflected a broad range of thoughtful perspectives, and his stories, especially those with a humorous character, have been exceptionally popular.”
Terrell played an essential role in compiling the Herald’s 1951 Centennial section that chronicles Jackson County’s first 100 years.
As their careers were starting to converge at the Citizen, Terrell tracked down the story of Albert Teaster, a Holiness preacher who was bitten by a rattlesnake during a church service on Cullowhee Mountain. In relating the Teaster tale, Bob was following in Parris’ footsteps – Parris’ big break came when national wire services picked up his report of Teaster and the snake. Hungry for more details, the big-time correspondents flocked to Sylva, but the preacher would talk to no one except Parris.
The following summary of the careers of Parris and Terrell are taken from Sylva Herald reports published following their deaths as, well as from biographical information both wrote for “Jackson County Heritage Vol. I,” published by the Jackson County Genealogical Society.
Parris’ report on the snake-handling preacher was the break that landed him a job offer from United Press in Raleigh, where Parris went to work on his 17th birthday. It was believed at that time that he was the youngest press association reporter in the country; two years later he was in UP headquarters in New York, and his byline appeared in more than 2,000 newspapers. In 1941 he began covering diplomatic events in Europe from the British capital.
During WWII’s North African invasion, Parris was selected to accompany Gen. James Doolittle’s executive staff. He made his way to Algiers, where he got an exclusive story regarding Admiral Darlan’s role in the invasion.
Upon his return to London, Parris used his North African experiences to write “Springboard to Berlin,” a collaboration with three fellow war correspondents. In 1945, Parris resigned from the UP to work for the Associated Press as a diplomatic correspondent. In that role, he covered major post-war events, including the founding of the United Nations.
After his father’s death in 1947, Parris gave up his AP career and came home to Sylva, where he soon began the writing for which he is most famous – his decades-long series of Citizen-Times columns titted “Roaming the Mountains.” Many of those columns were compiled into books, including “My Mountains, My People,” “Mountain Bred,” “These Storied Mountains” and “Mountain Cooking.”
Parris was included in a book titled “100 Years – 100 Men,” which profiled people who had done the most for Western North Carolina. The book used a quote from Mabel Wolfe Wheaton, sister of Asheville author Thomas Wolfe, to describe Parris.
“He always presents our people in a favorable light, a people of great dignity and simplicity of character; he describes vividly the manifold beauty of wonderful mountain region; he ferrets out and records for posterity the bold stories, traditions and legends which without his labor of love, would have been lost for all times.”
Parris continued writing columns for The Citizen until March 1997.
Along the way he amassed numerous awards, including the 1958 Thomas Wolfe Memorial Award for “My Mountains, My People,” and Western Carolina University’s first Mountain Heritage Award, presented in 1976. He also received WCU’s first-ever doctor of humane letters degree in May 1998.
“John Parris ... has chronicled much of the daily life of the people of these mountains ... and has truly dedicated the better part of his life to the people of this region,” said then-WCU Chancellor John Bardo when he conferred the degree.
Parris also contributed directly to preserving local history when he compiled his memories of the Sylva he knew as a boy for The Herald’s 1989 special section devoted to the centennials of Sylva, Dillsboro and WCU.
Parris, who said he began writing at the age of 7 and never considered another career, died May 17, 1999.
After his start at The Herald, Terrell moved on to the Asheville paper. After a stint in the U.S. Army, Terrell went back to the Citizen-Times as a sports writer, becoming sports editor in 1956. He switched to human interest columns in 1967, the same year he was named news editor. After retirement, he continued his weekly columns for the paper, with his last one appearing in April 2009.
Sylva Herald owner Jim Gray said he’s proud his newspaper launched a writer of Terrell’s caliber.
“He left his mark here,” Gray said. “The fine work he did on our Centennial section established a high standard we’ve tried to maintain.”
Retired Western Carolina University Sports Information Director Steve White called Terrell his mentor.
“He really influenced me a lot,” White said. “He sold me on the idea that anything dealing with sports was exciting – that working in sports could be a vocation and avocation.”
White worked closely with Terrell during the 1960s when he was student sports information director at WCU and Terrell was the Citizen-Times sports editor, but he knew Terrell’s writing long before that.
“As a kid in Burke County during the mid-1950s, I grew up reading his stuff,” White said. “He was a great baseball writer and could take an uneventful game and turn it into an interesting story.”
Terrell sometimes worked behind the scenes to influence the sports he loved, White said.
“A lot of people don’t know that Bob had a lot to do with (basketball standout) Henry Logan coming to Western. That was a tremendous experiment that turned out pretty good.”
Logan led the nation in scoring and was named All-American four times. He scored 3,290 points while at WCU and then played professional basketball until a sixth knee operation ended his career in 1972.
Former Jackson County school board member Martin Cook, the Caney Fork native who founded The Inspirations, said Terrell was a man of integrity who “loved his area and loved his people. He did all he could to help the people of Western North Carolina.”
Cook also had an example of Terrell’s behind-the-scenes influence – the writer’s role in helping Cook and other Caney Fork residents stop Carolina Power & Light’s early 1970s plan to construct a hydroelectric project on Caney Fork.
“He was a tremendous friend,” Cook said. “He helped me keep CP&L from covering up Caney Fork.”
When Terrell started at The Herald, he earned 50 cents a story writing about a Sylva semi-pro baseball team called the Legionaires. He indicated during a 2005 interview that he thought much of his later success stemmed from his experience with his hometown newspaper.
“Everything I learned in Sylva proved useful,” he said. “Mr. (J.A.) Gray and Mr. (J.M.) Bird taught me how to write. I can’t say enough about Mr. Gray and Mr. Bird.”
Terrell spent the summer of 1951 digging out facts and stories for The Herald’s Centennial edition, which was published Aug. 30, 1951, an experience he said gave him a foundation in newspaper principles.
“From then on, I never thought seriously of doing anything else except write,” he said.
After almost six decades of writing about the exploits of others, Terrell in 2005 turned the spotlight on himself with an autobiography, “Bob.” It includes stories of characters he met along his life’s highway and describes events of national significance – 1953 nuclear weapons’ tests that he covered as a young Army public information officer – as well as local anecdotes like the time he woke up scared to death after a Saturday horror movie in Sylva’s Lyric Theater.
Terrell wrote more than 75 books, including several based on fellow Jackson County natives. In addition to “What a Wonderful Time,” his book on Cook and the Inspirations, Terrell wrote about longtime Solicitor (district attorney) Marcellus Buchanan in “Disorder in the Court,” and about prisoner-turned-preacher S.T. McGinnis in “From Prison Bars to Shining Stars.”
In the issue following Terrell’s May 31, 2009, death, Sylva Herald editorial writers paid tribute to his legacy, noting both his regional stature and his link to Parris, Sylva’s other famous newspaper writer.
“Terrell continued a journalistic legacy started by the late John Parris, who traveled the world before returning home to become a Citizen-Times columnist.
“Country music legend George Jones once asked in a song ‘Who’s gonna fill their shoes?’ For Parris the answer was ‘no one,’ and we’re afraid it will be the same for Terrell, whose vast knowledge of our area and knack for dealing with people from all walks of life make him irreplaceable as well,” the newspaper said.
Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.