Forsyth County Public Library

Biograhy of John Ehle

John EhleJohn Ehle [Ee-lee] was born in Asheville on December 13, 1925, and grew up the eldest of five children in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, which would become the setting for many of his 17 books. He is the author of 11 novels and six nonfiction books and has won numerous literary awards, including the North Carolina Award for Literature, the Thomas Wolfe Prize, the Lillian Smith Award for Southern Fiction, and the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction, which he has earned five times—more than any other writer to date. He has been awarded four honorary doctorates and has earned the Governor’s Award for Distinguished Meritorious Service. In 1997, he was added to the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. His work has been translated into numerous languages, including French, German, Swedish, Czech, Spanish, and Japanese.

In addition to his contributions to literature, Mr. Ehle served as special assistant to Governor Terry Sanford from 1962-64, where he was a "one-man think tank," the governor’s "idea man". Some of his most notable ideas resulted in the creation of the North Carolina School of the Arts, the North Carolina Governor's School, the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, the North Carolina Film Commission, the North Carolina Institute of Outdoor Drama, and the Awards Committee for Education, which provides educational enrichment experiences for gifted young African Americans, Native Americans, and white Appalachians. He was instrumental in establishing the first statewide anti-poverty program and integrating 21 Southern prep schools. For nearly eight years, he sought out academically gifted African American students around the state and placed them in special summer programs at North Carolina universities. Later, Mr. Ehle worked with the Ford Foundation, with the White House Group for Domestic Affairs, and with the First National Council of the Humanities. Governor Sanford once said of Mr. Ehle: "If I were to write a guidebook for new governors, one of my main suggestions would be that he find a novelist and put him on his staff."

As a youngster in Asheville, Ehle attended Lee Edwards High School, where he met Bertha Hunt, the teacher he credits for spawning his writing career. He later enrolled at Asheville Biltmore Junior College, where he became a radio announcer until the outset of World War II. Then 18-year-old Ehle was compelled to join the Army as a rifleman in the 386th Infantry Regiment. After combat action in Germany and Japan, he returned home and continued his studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he received his BA in Radio, Television and Motion Pictures and an MA in Drama. It was here that he met several other important teachers, among them, Robert Schenkkan, Sam Selden, Walter Pritchard Eaton, and Phillip Russell and upon graduating began writing 13 half-hour radio plays for the American Adventure series broadcast on NBC radio and Radio Free Europe. It was this work that got Ehle noticed by one of his faculty advisors, the famous playwright Paul Green, who encouraged him to write a novel and then helped get it published.

Originally released in 1964 by Harper & Row, The Land Breakers is the first book of seven in a sweeping saga detailing the opening up of the North Carolina Appalachian frontier. Rob Neuland of the Asheville Citizen Times has called Ehle’s series, "the greatest epic of our region."

Mr. Ehle lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with his wife, actress Rosemary Harris. The two divide their time between Winston-Salem and two other homes, one in Penland, North Carolina, and another in New York City. They have one daughter, Jennifer Ehle, also an actress.

Compiled by Sheryl Monks, co-owner of Press 53.