Protecting the best of mountain culture
“The highest form of morality is not to feel at home in one’s own home.”
“What has become alien to men is the human component of culture — which upholds them against the world.”
— Theodor Adorno, social critic and philosopher
In a small office on the second floor of a WCU building overlooking E.J. Whitmire Stadium, Boyce Deitz tells me to remind him before I leave to talk about a grouping of photographs hanging there on the wall. Among the pictures, there are three that stand out: a photograph of Horace Kephart, another of Swain County’s football team in the post-game moments of the 1979 state title win, and yet another of Sylva Collegiate Institute’s 1927 team of leather-helmeted players. The common theme that runs through these photos is that they all depict people who possess a rugged tenacity associated with Western North Carolina’s mountains.
Although Boyce Deitz was born, bred, and has lived all of his life in these same mountains, he moved often with his family within Jackson County when he was growing up. As he puts it, he “was the eldest of five, and each one was born in a different house.”
His parents worked in manufacturing: his mother the second seamstress hired at the Buster Brown plant, and his father in Waynesville at Dayco Rubber. Deitz says that while there was never money for anything extra, his family always managed to have a garden, raise cattle, and put up hay. Even during the years that Deitz coached Swain’s football teams, he only spent two years out of Jackson County. For those two years he lived on Kirkland’s Creek outside of Bryson City, still holding on to a house he had just finished on Buff Creek on land that had belonged to his grandfather.
When he asked for and received permission from the Swain County School Board to move back to his family’s land on Buff Creek, he understood he might need to prove to Swain that he was totally committed to that county and its program. He felt like Swain’s 14-0 record the year he returned to Jackson County helped lay to rest any misgivings concerning where his allegiance lay, and the record made people realize that he was fully involved in the lives of his players and the county they proudly represented.
Coaching football, teaching pride
But pride is about more than just football to Coach Deitz. Among his proudest moments, Deitz counts the day when one of his rougher team members was out on the track and saw another student drop a piece of trash. Deitz’s player made the kid pick it up, telling him, “We don’t do that around here.”
Deitz felt that the Swain player fully understood what he had tried to convey about the importance of mountain football: it meant “You came up rough and played a rough game, but you always cared about where you were from and you always demonstrated first class and sportsmanlike behavior to represent who you were.” As he also puts it, “At Swain they had this tremendous winning record, but [he] wanted them to have more than that — [he] wanted the kids to respect themselves and where they were from.”
This same pride of place is seen when Deitz talks about mountain dialects and how much it bothers him that so many kids from here sound like they‘re from the Midwest or a primetime TV show. He quotes Cratis Williams, the Appalachian Scholar from ASU, as saying, “When you lose your dialect, you lose your culture.” And mountain culture, Boyce Deitz believes, is still misunderstood, with much of this misunderstanding stemming from mountain people not being forceful and aggressive about the value of what they have and who they are.
He believes the social conservatism of the southern Appalachian culture, combined with the “live and let live” privacy that is inherent in many mountain communities, is what has allowed so much negative change to take place. People coming in who are really educated accept and respect mountain people and dialects as they are, but people from outside, as Boyce says, who are ignorant are “the ones that will take a shot at you.”
“They come in here and they think they’re smarter than we are, and we think they’re smarter than we are because they don’t talk like we do, but we need to speak up if we want to keep the life we’ve known here before it’s all gone. We need to begin to realize what a lot of outside people come in here knowing — the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” says Deitz.
And to further his point, he tells of a coach from downstate who insists on calling Deitz “mountain boy,” and another who, upon hearing Deitz use the common Appalachian word “reckon,” asked him if it was even a word. Deitz sent him a verbatim definition from the New Oxford Dictionary. It is that kind of defense, a defense based on knowledge of who we are here and what we are about, that Deitz deems is necessary if anything is to remain of what has made Western North Carolina a wonderful place to live for centuries.
He believes we have not done what we should in defense of mountain accents and dialects any more than we have done what we should to keep mountain farms from being bought up and turned into developments and mountain paths from being transformed into the gated entries of exclusive communities. The worst change, according to Deitz, is that brought by locals who go away for a few years then come back wanting to make some money on the “treasure” that is still here. Those with this “you people” attitude decide to rape as much land as they can and sell it off for a huge profit. All of that harmful change is what Deitz sees as leading to the disappearance of a community and culture that still has much to offer.
And yes, a part of that community and culture is the importance of football. As Deitz puts it, “Football has been a big deal here in the mountains for years. Football personified what we were in East Tennessee, in Western North Carolina. Where football has been greatest is in mining communities and steel towns in places like West Virginia and the mountains of Pennsylvania. Football was rough, like people who come up in the timber business, in mining, in subsistence farming. It was an extension of what we did all day, an extension of a hard life. But it was also a rallying point for communities, something they could all pull together for.”
As an example of how football pulled communities together, Deitz recalled his 1963-67 years playing ball for Sylva-Webster High School, and how Padgett McCoy’s “F& P Supermarket” closed early on Friday for the football game. And even last year in Franklin, the whole community “caught fire” because of their great football team. And while Deitz recognizes that football is less important here than it used to be, he still believes that it, too, gives mountain communities that might not be noticed otherwise a reason to get some positive attention. Other parts of the state see a county like Swain doing well in football, and they come to understand that football might not be all that Swain County is good at, and by extension, that mountain traditions other than hard-hitting football teams might also be worth maintaining, worth looking at twice.
The customs of mountain football and how it is coached are still an enormous part of who Boyce Deitz is, but his time spent as a community liaison for WCU’s athletic program is only a small part of preserving other traditions he believes in. Deitz’s ancestors came here in the early 1800s, and he says that one reason he and his family picnic more than anyone he knows is to teach his children and grandchildren to appreciate the creeks, mountains, and animals that he grew up knowing and that his ancestors grew up knowing.
He says that sometimes his family picnics on the Blue Ridge Parkway, but sometimes they just eat out at the creek at his home. He wants his grandchildren to see and love the mountains as they are now, and to speak up to prevent changes that will render these mountains unrecognizable to anyone who has known and loved them. Much of what lies behind this is that he wishes he had taken more time just to listen to his own grandparents, and he regrets not knowing more about their lives and the particulars of how they made it from one day to the next. As he puts it, “You can read what people have written and still not see or know what your grandparents have seen and done.”
More than anything, Boyce Deitz does not take for granted what remains of mountain communities and culture. As we leave his office, I remind him to tell me about the photos. From what he says, I understand from these pictures of Horace Kephart, Swain’s 1979 team, and SCI’s 1927 team that they represent his hope for maintaining a way of life in this place he has loved. To Boyce Deitz, football coach and Appalachian man, these photographs remind him that educated people from outside can accept and respect Appalachian people as they are; that our children, given the right circumstances and opportunity, can astonish even themselves; and that football in these mountains has been a rough and glorious sport for a very long time.