Asheville Junction: A Blog by David E. Whisnant

Every Marriage Is Two Marriages: John Whisnant and Mary Neal Rudisill Whisnant’s Early Years Together, 1934-1940

Every marriage is two marriages: his and hers.

Jessie Bernard, The Future of Marriage (1973)1

After a short train ride north from Asheville in late August 1934, John Whisnant and Mary Neal Rudisill walked into the Madison County Justice of the Peace’s office to get married.

Madison County NC Marriage Register, August 26, 1934

At the time, young Jessie Bernard (1903-1996) was in her final year of graduate school in Sociology, and decades away from publishing her path-breaking The Future of Marriage (1973), from which the epigraph for this post comes.

As an informative (and thesis-confirming) data source for her book, Bernard might well have used the marriage(s; his and hers) of Mary Neal (who told the JP she was 19, but actually was just shy of 18) and John (21, he said, having just turned 20).

By the time Bernard’s book appeared in 1973, John and Mary Neal had been married through good and less good years, reaching from the Depression almost to World War II, raised four children in a stable home and helped them the best they could to go to college, lost the steady job John had had for some 25 years and the (still new)

John Whisnant, Mary Neal Rudisill Whisnant and their four sons, ca. April 1946. Family collection.

 first house they had ever owned. And they were–despite the efforts of both to save and harmonize their (two) marriage(s)–recently divorced.

My hope here is to understand John and Mary Neal–within the times in which found themselves and each other–their formation, their temperaments and interactions, and the resources and opportunities they had (and lacked) that shaped the early years of their marriage.2

My inquiry blends a few personal records (including recorded interviews I did with them when they were in their early 70s), public records, and some contextual information about 1930s Asheville into a narrative of the courtship between John and Mary Neal, and their first half-dozen years of marriage.

Along the way, it also reflects upon the personal, interpersonal, socioeconomic and cultural formation they each brought to the marriage, worked out together, and carried forward.

Assets and Deficits

What assets did John and Mary Neal bring to their marriage(s), and what was missing that might have eased the early years of their journey together?

Assets they shared included 1) within strongly racist 1920-30s Asheville (which had always had a substantial black population and the attendant racial injustices and conflict), they were white; 2) both were highly intelligent; 3) both had good health; 4) from their working-class parents, they had both learned early to work hard; 5) John finished high school with a marketable skill (printing), and both technical and practical knowledge of emerging radio technology, which also generated a supportive social and professional network; 6) Mary Neal emerged with a stellar academic record (valedictorian of her class), and had learned to cope with financial adversity, family instability and blighted hopes.

Although both were from working-class families, their assets differed in important ways. By 1934, John’s father Asbury had been in a stable union job with the street railway for 34 years. That regular work at predictable wages had brought increasing stability.3

Asbury's union employment

November 1910 issue of The Motorman and Conductor, official journal of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees of America. Unionized Asheville workers constituted Division 128.

Asbury & Ella's family

Asbury, Ella and family, ca. 1916

For 15 years the growing family lived in a small rented house near downtown, along the way weathering a strike, a flood and the 1918-19 influenza epidemic. Finally in 1923, they bought a modest but comfortable house in West Asheville.

John lived in the rented house until he was 9 years old, and in the one they owned (with its gardens and fruit trees) until he left home a decade or so later. And while his social circle, like Mary Neal’s, centered upon family, it also extended beyond it, both because as a male he was freer to go and come as he wished, and because during high school he neither had to work weekends as Mary Neal did, nor wanted like her to go to college.

Mary Neal Rudisill’s family (thus she herself) did not fare so well. Their pre-Asheville labor in Gaston County cotton mills had paid precious little, and Pierce Rudisill’s spotty and unreliable construction laborer’s wages in Asheville were little if any better. Although they accumulated no financial assets comparable to the Whisnants’ modest ones, several times during Asheville’s

Greenwood Park
Sunday Citizen, April 29, 1917, p. 23.

heady late 1920s they managed to buy a lot, hoping to build a house. But work was too hard to come by and irregular, loan payments were too difficult to meet, and one by one the lots were sold.

Mary Neal’s part-time department store clerk’s wages during high school helped to pay a few bills, but left nothing for college, so her hopes for that foundered. And crucially, an unintended pregnancy intervened.

So if these structural and systemic factors had much to do with shaping and defining where each of them stood when they left the perfunctory civil marriage ceremony in the JP’s office, others derived from their differing temperaments, personal choices and hopes. Those continued to shape how things would actually go for them, as a married couple.

Some hints were in evidence during their meeting and courtship days.

Checking the Drag: Meeting and Courtship

“I don’t remember how exactly he and I met,” my mother told me.

. . . It was when I was in high school, when I was about 16 I guess, or 17. . . . I remember walking down Brownwood [Avenue, past John’s house] to catch the streetcar . . . going to school, and he would sit on the front porch and whistle at me. I remember that. Maybe he just got on the streetcar one day as I did and we sat together.4

And had she dated anybody before that?

A little bit, yes.  I went out with a few boys, not a whole lot.  Never went with very many. 

John’s older sister Azile said

I don’t know of any. Don’t know whether she had any or not.  I rather think that maybe John was her first boy-friend.  . . .   Now John, . . . before Mary Neal, . . . dated a lot of girls.  He really dated a lot. 

Mary Neal’s relative lack of dating experience could have been a choice, but more likely it had to do with having to work weekend days and nights, holidays and (probably) summers at Efird’s Department Store.

Hillbilly 1931 cover

Asheville High School annual, The Hillbilly, 1931.


But as a male, John also was also more likely than a female to have regular access to an automobile–hence more social mobility and recognition. Of the 457 students pictured in his 1931 Asheville High School annual, one notes, about 150 (maybe 65 of whom were young women) signed his copy.

The humorous newspaper (The Asheville Prevaricator) pages of the annual, projecting the interests or tendencies of students into the future, envisioned John Whisnant as having taken the place of “steel king” Charles M. Schwab of Bethlehem Steel, second largest producer in the country.

“As you look back on it,” I asked Mary Neal, “what do you think attracted you to John in comparison to the other few guys you had gone out with?”

“Well,” she offered,

your daddy was a good looking chap and he was a little fun, and we went a lot of places.  We used to get his daddy’s car and ride around over town, up and down Patton Avenue. Check the drag; that’s what you did. Up Patton Avenue, up around the Square and back down Patton Avenue, round the Battery Park Hotel and back up Patton Avenue [laughs]. Go real slow and see who was on the street, who you knew. Once in a while we’d go to a movie. Went to the Imperial Theater. Then we’d come out and have a hot dog, maybe. We enjoyed that. Make a little trip once in a while. Went out to Pisgah one Sunday.

So what lies behind these coded phrases? As for the “that’s what you did” of “checking the drag,” the preferred route traced the main streets of the central downtown business district:


And the movies? Asheville newspaper advertisements defined the fare. Whether at the Imperial or the four or five competing ones mattered little. One could “choose” only among whatever was currently being hyped by the big Hollywood companies (Columbia, Fox, MGM, Paramount, RKO, United Artists), generally featuring big-name “stars” (e.g., Lionel Barrymore, Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, young Shirley Temple), dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and others.

Most of the films advertised on Asheville marquees and in newspapers offered tantalizing glimpses into the exotic world of such glamorous personages. Running parallel to that, however, was the not infrequent depiction of local mountaineers (hillbillies, they were understood to be) as themselves compellingly exotic, but also humorous and pitiable.

As historian Anthony Harkins delineates the history of the term (related to but not always congruent with the negative characterizations of southern mountain people), it emerged in popular print and film around 1915.5 In 1914, Asheville high school students launched a literary magazine called The Hillbilly, but the term carried a positive valence.

In 1926, the magazine became the yearbook, published by the senior class, but without any art or design features associated with the hillbilly stereotype.6 The next year, a graphic page header/footer silhouetted both mountains and an urban skyline, but with no negative valence.

Primitive/rural (but not hillbilly) image, The Hillbilly, 1933.

From then until an equivocal primitive / rural / “folk” image appeared in 1933, an unequivocally negative “hillbilly” valence did not appear until the 1939 edition. Its frontispiece image was a stock color photo, Rhododendron in Bloom on the Slopes of Mt. Mitchell “In the Land of the Sky.”

But its cover featured a tall-hatted, bearded hillbilly sitting on a log, long-rifle propped across his leg. No other such images appeared in its 104 pages, but the cover image became standard after its first (1939) appearance. and remained on into the late 1960s).

Hillbilly 1939 cover image

Cover image from 1939 Asheville (Lee Edwards) High School Hillbilly

Hence the crucial valence changes in the high school annual occurred after John and Mary Neal were students there (1927-1934). But beyond its covers the hillbilly image, terminology, discourse and negative valences had already long been in evidence in Asheville–prominently in popular movies.

As scholar of the movies Jerry Williamson explained in Hillbillyland: What the Movies Did to the Mountains and What the Mountains Did to the Movies (1995), the hillbilly movie genre had been in evidence for a long time. Mary Pickford rose to fame in The Mountaineer’s Honor (1909), and The Eagle’s Mate (1914), followed by many such, on into the 1920s.

The enormously popular Tol’able David (1921), which helped, Williamson says, to “[dictate] for a time the meaning of the mountains,” was screened in Charlotte on November 29, 1921,


Tol’able David poster (1921)

but didn’t make it to Asheville until early January.7 The film’s central images, characters and themes were the stuff of many successors, some successful with audiences and some not.8

The most important of them all was Stark Love (1927)–“one of the little-known masterpieces of American film,” Williamson calls it. It had a “perfunctory national run” before being withdrawn by Paramount.9

Stark Love poster, 1927. thehorseheadblog #336

It is in no way surprising, then, that on an April weekend in 1934, about the time of Mary Neal’s senior prom banquet, Asheville’s Imperial Theater offered emerging star Katherine Hepburn in her new Spitfire (1934) as “the witch-enchantress of the Carolina hills, whose flaming love set fire to the mountains.”

Unfortunately it was, critics later agreed, “one of [Hepburn’s] worst films.”  But being that did not render it unappealing in Asheville, where the market for hillbilly films was well established.

Williamson explores some of the gender-bending aspects of Spitfire‘s “mannish” female lead, Trigger Hicks, a fiercely independent though poor hillbilly gal . . . physically . . . all square and flat and hard as a griddle, big-shouldered and full of rangy sinew. Though


Asheville Citizen, April 20, 1934, p. 2.

she never dons a man’s clothes, she’s a mannish challenge to the neighborhood . . . [from which] it takes a mob of men to drive . . . her. . . . [In her] showdown with the mob, . . . [Hepburn/Trigger] stands unarmed and unafraid, . . . exposed to their hatred and their fury . . . [and] she won’t give an inch . . . .10

Riding the popular cultural wave, Al Capp’s immediately (and perennially, as it turned out) syndicated L’il Abner, featuring Dogpatch’s blonde, buxom, short shorts-clad Daisy Mae Scraggs and corncob pipe-smoking Mammy Yoakam, debuted in August 1934 and ran for 43 years.11

Urban hillbillies were absent from the genre, however, so that working-class Ashevillians might well have felt stigmatized by being included within the stereotype. But as Asheville merchants quickly discovered, the term had marketing potential among Asheville shoppers and tourist visitors.12

hill-billy rugs

Asheville Citizen, December 12, 1934, p. 7.

To take a single example, one department store published an advertisement for “Hill-Billy rugs” for the Christmas season, using an image likely drawn not from “hand-loomed” or “hand-crafted” rugs made “right under our very noses, in our own Carolina mountains” but rather mass-produced ones made partly from “hosiery rayon” (the American Enka rayon plant had opened in Hominy Valley only 5 years earlier).

“Why not send one,” the ad suggested, “to the folks up north who have never seen them before?”

Indeed. As folklorist Jane Becker showed in Selling Tradition (1998), vast quantities of “mountain,” “hand-crafted” (or represented as such) articles were being shipped from western North Carolina to big department stores in the north, as well as cooperative agencies, New Deal programs, and other entities that were promoting, rationalizing–and in some respects industrializing–the trade.13

The final item in Mary Neal’s brief account of their dating activities was the trip “out to Pisgah,” a nearby mountain that

Mt. Pisgah from W AVL

Mt. Pisgah with West Asheville in the Foreground. Wilbur G. Zeigler and Ben S. Grosscup, The Heart of the Alleghanies: Or, Western North Carolina (1883).

had been a local icon since the late 18th century. After George Vanderbilt‘s widow sold nearly 90,000 surrounding acres to the federal government in 1916, the mountain became part of Pisgah National Forest.

Mt. Pisgah was only a twenty-mile drive south from West Asheville to Hendersonville.  John and Mary Neal probably made the trip in the 1931 Chrysler his father bought new, kept immaculate and drove for nearly 25 years.


1930 Chrysler

Image of 1930 Chrysler Series 66 Royal Sedan, substituting here for 1931 model. 6-cylinder, 218.6 cu. in. displacement, 68 h.p. (both modest by 1930 industry averages). Named 66 because top speed was 66 mph. Nearly 14,000 built.

Visiting Mt. Pisgah. Asheville Weekly Citizen, May 22, 1873.




An Angel in an Evening Gown

Still hoping for other details about their courtship, I asked Mary Neal if John ever came to her house. “No,” she said, “we always went somewhere else.” He would come to pick her up, but “I never did have dates at home. I don’t know why.” Sometimes on a Saturday night, she volunteered, they would visit his married sister Azile and her husband in their small West Asheville apartment.

“I don’t know when he got to dating her,” Azile told me decades later, but one such visit–on the May 1934 night of Mary Neal’s senior banquet–was especially memorable. “He brought her by the house” on the way there, she recalled,

and she had on the prettiest . . . deep pink evening dress that had a tulle skirt, you know, net skirt over the dress, and she looked real pretty. And she just prissed up there cute, you know, and she was both thrilled with the attention, and thrilled to be dressed up. I imagine that might have been her first evening dress. And he brought her up the steps and he was singing, “Did you ever see an angel in an evening gown?”  He was singing that, he was singing it for her sake, and for us, to hear.

Since John was about 70 years old at the time of this interview, and I had never heard him sing, I was intrigued: where had all of this come together from–the gown, the song, and his impulse to perform it? The gown, as I explained in an earlier post, she had bought on layaway for fifty cents a week at the downtown Efird’s department store where she worked.

The song? It had been in circulation for quite a long while. I discovered the phrase in a stanza of Charles George’s The Sweetest Girl in Town: a Musical Comedy in Two Acts (1935).14

When you’re waltzing with the girl you prize
And the whole world seems in tune
You look in her eyes and you seem to surmise
The visions of a honeymoon
As you slowly glide o’er the polished floor
With an angel in an evening gown.

That was a welcome discovery, but John serenaded Mary Neal a year earlier, in 1934. Could the musical (and/or the “evening gown” song) have been performed earlier? If so, an extensive online search failed to confirm it.

What I did discover, however, was that many variations upon “the sweetest girl” meme had been widespread in public discourse and popular art and culture at least since “sweetest girl graduate” appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer in June 1877. Thereafter it remained in use for decades–attached to advertisements for dresses and “frocks,” underwear, candy, and other objects. By the 1890s, the phrase was in daily use in newspapers throughout the country (including Asheville’s).

“The Sweetest Girl in Dixie” was performed in the Broadway production of The Wizard of Oz in 1903, and a drama subtitled An Idyl of the Southland was performed in Asheville for years thereafter, including a United Daughters of the Confederacy-sponsored performance in 1915.15 Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra recorded “The Sweetest Girl” in 1921. As a song, “The Sweetest Girl in . . . ” had many variants from a large variety of locales.

By the 1930s, high schools were including Sweetest Girl in their list of senior superlatives (Most Athletic, Smartest, Most Popular, etc.). Department stores published elaborate ads for “sweetest girl” prom dresses (“grown up, but not too sophisticated” said one in Provo UT’s Daily Herald and numerous other newspapers). A newspaper search for “sweetest girl” confined to 1934 brought over 1700 results from widespread states and cities.

The Public Service Company of Tennessee urged young grooms to keep their “sweetest girl in the world” wives “young and lovely with an all-electric kitchen.”

It seems likely, then, that somewhere out there, the “angel in an evening gown” version of “the sweetest girl” song was in circulation for John to hear and memorize enough of it to serenade Mary Neal on her May 1934 prom night. Doing that, in any case, was perhaps a marker of how captivated he was by her.

Despite the lack of personal documents and records (letters, diaries, memoirs), then, it appears that the couple managed to enjoy–perhaps for some months–a modest version of then-typical high school courtship: “checking the drag” in the family car, listening to popular music, going to the movies and the prom, and (infrequent?) local weekend day-trips. And on one–just one–magical night, it moved him to break forth into song–crossing a boundary he never crossed again until much later in life (as I will explain later).

Where had these things come from? As with most people, they had been there all along, but frequently masked or held back for John by gender and social boundaries and dynamics.

Honor Students 1934
Asheville High School Hillbilly, 1934, p. 31.

As a high school student, Mary Neal was more outstanding than John had been several years earlier. He had failed to graduate with his 1931 class, but she was one of two valedictorians of the class of 1934.

More specifically, the advent of the Depression in Asheville in November 1930 required closing the new main high school (first used in February 1929) in 1934 and sending students back to what had been their junior high schools (David Millard in Asheville and Hall Fletcher in West Asheville). Each group had its own class officers and honorees, and Mary Neal was valedictorian of the Hall Fletcher group.16

John’s school report cards apparently vanished years ago in a records purge, but he once told me that his delayed graduation resulted from failing to complete a required piece of writing in his final year. “I just couldn’t do it,” he said, not elaborating about why. Presumably he finally did, and belatedly graduated. Later in life, he felt acutely embarrassed by the lack of a college degree.

There were also several troubling aspects of his personality, Mary Neal recalled much later, that were not altered by marriage. “He had been very socially active, ” she said, and

was a great dancer.  He went to a lot of dances.  From things I heard from various places, he drank some.  I imagine it was just like all the boys did, just take a drink at the dance.  He was no drunkard by any means.  He got hold of some poison whiskey one time, like to a died.

Never did drink any more. During the Prohibition years, you know, you had to buy bootleg liquor. They got hold of some that wasn’t all that good, and he was real sick. But I think he always had a lot of girlfriends.

Indeed he never did drink anymore–or dance either, that I was aware of. While he was (as Mary Neal perceived) on a somewhat problematic track with a lot of other males at the time, other factors (including intellectual, creative and expressive ones) urged him in better directions.

Some of the things within him that urged him to dance and sing stayed with him all his life, cropping out both in surprising small moments, but also in two longer-term interests and commitments: printing and amateur radio. They emerged about the same time, and overlapped in the late 20s and early 30s, but printing dropped away, and radio flourished, from about 1935 onward. Although they overlapped, I will treat them sequentially here.

Getting on Track: Printing and Amateur Radio


When it opened early in 1929, Douglas Ellington‘s new Asheville High School building was an architectural marvel. It also included facilities for both academic instruction and vocational programs in auto mechanics, mechanical drawing, photography, and printing. In the print shop, students (including John, it seems likely) produced all of the school’s publications.

Having developed some skill in printing, John decided after leaving school to open his own print shop. Somehow he located an old unused press down the mountain in Old Fort, bought it, and hauled it back to West Asheville. After reworking some worn-out parts, he got it back into operation and set it up in one the family’s two wooden garages.

It seems likely that the print shop began to operate sometime during this Depression-pressured period–in late 1931 (when John was no longer in school) or early 1932. If so, the small Whisnant home must have been busy and crowded: Asbury and Ella, John and his sister Bertha were both living there, as were older sister Azile (married at 15 in 1925), her husband and two young children (who had spent several not very happy years with her husband’s family in Mars Hill). That would have crowded 10 people around the table and into two bedrooms and an open sleeping porch.

A neighborhood boy helped solicit printing jobs while John ran the press. From her house at 163 Euclid Blvd. (5 minutes from 60 Brownwood), Mary Neal also walked over after school

163 Euclid Blvd
163 Euclid Boulevard. Shed-roofed section at rear may have been added later. Google Map image.

sometimes to help “sort papers and run off little jobs.” It was, she recalled vividly, “hot as Hades out there in that garage.” Whether the shop made a profit, and if so, whether any of it went toward the large, extended family’s living expenses (as Mary Neal’s department store wages did for her family), is unknown.

No city directories were published in 1933 or 1934 that might have included residence locations, dates or even mention of the printing business itself It seems likely that it may have operated until sometime in mid-1934 (when John and Mary Neal married).17

Thereafter, the priorities of marriage and the imminent arrival of a child must have competed urgently with running a print shop out of a garage. The 1935 directory did show, however, that family living arrangements had shifted. Boyce and Azile and children had moved to 51 Belmont Avenue, at the far western end of Haywood Road, and Mary Neal’s parents from Euclid Boulevard to Louisiana Avenue.

Five Years of Month-to-Month and House-to-House

At the outset, John and Mary Neal needed what all young, just-starting-out couples needed: a place to live and a steady job. Early on, they found several of the former, but the the job came more slowly. Printing, although it did not continue to be an interest or involvement for many years, led to his first paying job, and opened the way into more than two decades of professional employment (first in the Print Shop and then in engineering) at nearby American Enka Corporation.

Immediately after John and Mary Neal came back from getting married in Marshall (August 26, 1934), they went to live with Azile and Boyce (who had “stood up” with them before the JP). “We had had a little apartment out on Garden Circle near Hall Fletcher [junior high school], one that we could afford,” Azile recalled,

and we give that up and rented a house.  And Boyce] and John decided they could get a house together, and they could get their own bedroom furniture and we could have our own bedroom furniture.  And then we had [our] two children, and . . . I reckon [they] must have slept with us, because there was just two bedrooms.  And Mary Neal and John had the front bedroom.

51 Belmont Avenue. Google maps street view, May 2019. Likely the shared house of 1934.

The house was a small bungalow at 51 Belmont Avenue, near the western end of Haywood Road. The Boone children were 7 and 3 years old, and Boyce was working as a watchmaker at Finkelstein’s jewelry and pawn shop downtown.

The house-sharing arrangement required considerable trust, tolerance, and cooperation. “Yeah, we shared the expenses,” Azile recalled,

Mary Neal cleaned the  bathroom once a week, and I cleaned it once a week.  And we divided the groceries, grocery money, you know, . . . [and] I don’t know, we kept it, I guess, together, and each one contributed so much.  And we split the [rent and household expenses], we split everything.

Not surprisingly, there were tense moments, recalled differently years later by the two women. Their scant accounts may offer as much insight into the vagaries of memory as into the facts of what happened.

“Before their child was born,” as Azile cast it, John and Mary Neal

were having some differences of opinion, and Mary Neal got mad and said she was going to leave.  And she packed her suitcase . . . [but] I reckon John talked her out of it. 

But then she did [it again], and I don’t know what they got mad about. It was within their bedroom walls. . . .

Then they had another argument, which young folks have, you know. . . . And that time she left, and she started out walking, carrying her suitcase and her about seven or eight months [pregnant]. . . . John didn’t go after her until she had walked down Belmont and up to [Vance elementary] school, and he decided to go get her and bring her back.

Mary Neal recalled one of he episode as partly humorous, and not nearly so dramatic. “I walked down the street,” she said,

I never did actually leave. We were just kids, and there was a cat that climbed up on the screen out there, one evening on the back porch. Your daddy got hot water and threw on it.  Made me so mad I just walked out and walked down the street. Wasn’t any difficulty between us, just his reaction to the cat. I didn’t want to live with anybody that would be cruel to animals. [laughs]

No suitcase got packed?, I asked her. “I don’t really think so,” she laughed again. But she recalled that another incident disturbed her greatly:

He went to a dance one night without me, when I was really big pregnant . . . . And [he] stayed out till 2:00 in the morning.  And I cried and cried about that, but I  don’t remember threatening to leave.

And did the two of them ever go out together to parties or dances? “No, nothing,” she said.

Went to a movie once in a while; that was the sum of it. A few times we went with your grandpa Whisnant down to the farm to visit.  I remember them taking me down to Lenoir to visit your grandmother [Ella]’s people.

What can be sorted out from these incongruities? Factually, not much matches in the recollections except that there were repeated (two, three, more?) incidents of conflict, some during late pregnancy, that provoking incidents varied, that she was the victim of much of it, and that he was freer to blow off steam (by going out alone, for example) than she was.

Mary Neal recalled one of these incidents as humorous, and perhaps partly dismissable. At least one other was thoughtless and deeply troubling. She did (or did not) leave (one or more times), having packed her suitcase (or not). If she left, he did (or did not) follow her (an unmistakably pregnant woman–perhaps carrying a suitcase) and try to bring her back home. In that (going dancing alone, leaving her at home pregnant) incident he behaved (for sure, it seems) in a callous and humiliating way.

However any of that may actually have been, their first child was born (February 1935) while they were living in that house, which they did until sometime in the summer, when he was several months old.

Mary Neal and son Richard, mid-1935. Perhaps during a visit to her relatives in Gastonia or nearby. Family collection.


From the shared Belmont Avenue house they moved to a somewhat patched-together apartment at 895 Haywood Road, near St. Joan of Arc School (at 915; no longer standing). “Somebody,” Mary Neal said (a widowed school teacher, Mrs. Mary E. Edwards, I learned)

895 Haywood Road, West Asheville. Owned by school teacher Mrs. Edwards in 1935-36. Front porch modification for kitchen on R still evident in 2019 Google Maps photo. Probable former front lawn replaced by paved business parking lot. Photo edited by Evan D. Whisnant.

had . . . taken a porch and made a kitchen out of it, and then there was a bedroom and we shared a bath. A Mrs. Edwards had it, and she was a teacher and a very lovely person.


Azile filled in some details:



That apartment cost them $15 a month.  John was then working at Enka, and he made $15 a week.18 And . . . they put $3 or $3.50 a week for rent . . . so much for their lights . . . so much for cooking oil, . . . so much for groceries, and about $1 for John’s cigarettes. . . . And they paid . . . [the doctor] $1 a week out of John’s salary  for their first baby.  He charged about $50, and it was paid for by the time it got here. . . . So they they had John’s $15 a week budgeted to where they could live on it.

They lived in the Haywood Road apartment “for about a year,” Mary Neal recalled, “and then we moved into a little house . . . at 12 Hayes Street.” It had taken them–with early help from Azile and Boyce Boone–a couple of deep Depression years to find and get into it.

Hence at least by 1937, at the ages of 23 and 21, and only a few years out of high school, the couple could count on stable housing from one year to the next.

That little 4-room house turned out to be their home for something like 4 years.19 Fortunately they did not have to share it, because by late 1938 they had two small children and another would soon be on the way.

It was also there that Mary Neal and her children continued to build a relationship with her parents. And how were her parents reacting to the marriage? “Oh, they were sad about it,” she told me. Did they just not want you to be married? No, she said. “Your daddy never did like them for some reason; he never did treat them halfway decently.” Because he thought they were socially beneath him or something?

I never did know why he did it. He just had this thing about mother-in-laws all his life. He just wasn’t going to have any part of it.

Did they ever treat him badly? No, she said, “they were always nice to him.”

When I asked her how much she was able to stay in touch with them in those early years, it was clearly almost entirely up to her to maintain the connection on her end. Meanwhile, her parents were kind, interested and welcoming to the children as they came along.

“I used to go down there once a week,” Mary Neal recalled. “Take whatever children I had. Took Richard first, then you and Richard, and then you and Richard and Norman.”

Pierce Rudisill with 3rd grandchild, ca. 1940. Family collection.


Mary Neal, her mother Pearl, and Richard, 3d birthday (Feb. 9, 1938). 12 Hayes Street.

Pierce Rudisill with 3 grandsons, ca. 1941-1942. Family collection.

“I never did go quite as much after Johnny [the fourth son, born in 1943] came,” she said, and

you all got into school, you know, and I couldn’t be gone . . . .  But I made a habit to go once a week to see my folks, even if I didn’t get to stay but a couple of hours.  A lot of times they’d fix lunch for us, . . . .  ‘Course I was always back home in time to start supper. Your Daddy . . . wanted his supper as soon as he got in from work.  I always had it ready.

From her sister-in-law Azile’s perspective, the Rudisills themselves were not fully aligned with regard to the marriage:

Mary Neal would go see her parents about once a week.  She’d go down there, and visit them, and Mr. Rudisill always gave her things out of his garden. . . . But I gathered that they didn’t like John, and Mrs. Rudisill was mad about them getting married. . . . I don’t think Mr. Rudisill showed resentment like she did.

It was–or seemed to me to be as I tried to understand it over the years–a cleavage between John and his in-laws that the in-laws tried to bridge.

John’s “Radio Years” (for Him)

On John’s side of Jessie Bernard’s “two marriages” equation, the house at 12 Hayes Street also offered an opportunity to extend and expand his by then nearly a decade of involvement in amateur radio.

Since his early teen years, he had been involved in the emergence of local amateur radio in Asheville.20 From the early 1920s, Asheville newspapers

Asheville Citizen, October 18, 1922, p. 7. About 10 stations (most from the mid-west) could usually be heard, mostly at night, when transmission and reception were better than during daylight hours.

were carrying news of both amateur and commercial radio.

By mid-year 1925, Asheville High School students had organized the Radio Experimenters Club with its own small amateur station (W4AK). When John arrived as a 13-year-old and joined club in 1927, he was working to get his own license, which he received a year or so later (W4DE; later W4KI), making him one of only 18 individually licensed operators in the city.

The Wireless Club of Western North Carolina (W4MU) was organized a decade later. 21

John appears to have begun to design and build early versions of an amateur radio station before 1929, while still living at his parents’ home. Fearful of a lightning strike on the antenna, his father insisted that he move it out to the garage. During his final year of high school (1930-1931), he served as President of the high school club.

For the first time since his little patched-together station in the family garage several years earlier, 12 Hayes Street afforded adequate indoor space for a full-scale station.

photo radio
John Whisnant’s early amateur radio station (W4KI), 12 Hayes Street, 1936-1939. Tall component at L is transmitter/power amplifier, and unit to R is “exciter” (perhaps a first-stage amplifier)–both made by JKW. Stacked units on table are a purchased RME-69 receiver and speaker. Photo by John K. Whisnant.

Sometime during the early months there, he built a tall wooden antenna tower on a small rise above the house to increase the range of his station.

John and Richard
John Whisnant with son Richard (b. 1935), ca. 1938. Personal collection.
John K. Whisnant with Richard A. Whisnant (b. 1935) on W4KI tower, 12 Hayes Street. Family Collection.eet. Family Collection.
John K. Whisnant with Richard A. Whisnant (b. 1935) on W4KI tower, 12 Hayes Street. Family Collection.

Radio itself never became his vocation or profession, but his social circle and involvements for many years centered around it and the Asheville Amateur Radio Club, of which he (at age 25, with new station call-sign W4KI) was President in 1939.

Hamfest banquet 1939
Asheville Amateur Radio Club “Hamfest” banquet, July 2,1939. John K. Whisnant, President. Photographer may have been local amateur radio operator David Beret. Family collection.

His Radio Years for Her

Life was good for John during “the radio years.” For Mary Neal, however, those years were a somewhat mixed bag. By 1937 she was only about 3 years out from her unintended pregnancy and consequent can’t-go-to-college disappointment. She had given birth to her first child in early 1935, and some months later had a miscarriage. She had her second child (me) in mid-1938, and by the time of the 1939 Asheville Radio Club banquet was fewer than 3 months away from having her third.

Thus to her, radio had its down side: it took up space in the house, occupied much of John’s spare time, required no small amount of money from their limited budget, and brought little recognition to her beyond being an organizing “hostess” of the club’s XYLs (women’s auxiliary) in mid-1939.22

Advertisement for RME-69 amateur radio receiver, Radio magazine, January 1938, p. 174. “Complete” presumably meant that the separate speaker was included. Units made by competitors National (e.g., NC100) and Hallicrafters were cheaper. Other advertisements in this source indicate that the RME-69 was also available through Asheville dealers, although prices were not given.

Inquiring into John’s RME-69 receiver’s cost is revealing. Several RME models were manufactured between November 1935 and 1940, and the 69 was, as one radio historian says, “one of the classic communications receivers of [radio’s] golden age.”

Assuming that John bought his RME-69 about the time they moved to 12 Hayes Street, and that the house probably rented for $15-20/month, his new receiver–priced at $151.20 by Henry Radio Shop in Missouri–set them back maybe 8-10 months’ rent.

When I asked my mother many years later whether she recalled being happy during those years (in effect, was her marriage as good as his?), she was somewhat equivocal. “I think so,” she said,

I think we were fairly happy. Your daddy was always wrapped up of course in his amateur radio stuff. . . . those were his great radio days, you know. . . . He would come home from work, he’d go out fiddling with that stuff, and did it for years, and I pretty much had my hands full with children, and cooking and cleaning and sewing, one thing and another.

It was a quick list to tally, but an arduous regimen, every day. Did he ever help with any of that, I asked her. Her answer was categorical: No.

Nevertheless, she told me, there were compensations:

Those years were hard, but I enjoyed it. I always enjoyed my family.  Enjoyed watching y’all grow up and everything you learned and everything about all of you was a thrill to me.  I really enjoyed it.  I just enjoyed motherhood, I guess.  I just loved it.

And by any measure, she did an extraordinary job of it.

Besides this daily sense of pleasure in and commitment to her children, she also spoke of a kind of existential framing that modulated what might otherwise have manifested in anger: “When you are raising four kids,” she told me,

you’re just so busy, you don’t really think a lot about whether I’m happy, or whether I’m not.  I don’t remember ever feeling like the world owed me happiness.  Didn’t think the world owed me anything except what I was able to do for myself and make as good a situation as I could out of what existed.

Finally a Permanent Job

American Enka Corporation plant (1929) ca. 1935-1940. North Carolina Postcard Collection, P052, Wilson Library, UNC Chapel Hill.

Exactly when John’s job at American Enka materialized is not clear. John was listed in the 1936 city directory as a clerk, but it didn’t say where. The 1937 directory listed him as “printer Am Enka Corp,” but the 1938 directory said vaguely that he was a “rayon worker” there. That could have meant production worker, which I know of no evidence that he ever was. The 1939 directory just said he was “employed” there. It was 1940 before he was again listed as “printer Am Enka Corp.”

JKW in Enka print shop
John Whisnant (RF) as manager (?) of Print Shop at American Enka Corporation, sometime in late 1930s.

By the early autumn of 1939, it appears, they moved from the little Hayes Street house to 67 Brownwood Avenue (1940 directory address). That house no longer stands, but was likely larger than 12 Hayes Street, and was “about a half a block up from where John’s parents lived.” There their third son was born.

The Whisnant grandparents had been attentive and helpful for several years, but closer proximity made a big difference. Mary Neal recalled fondly that she

Richard, father John and grandmother Ella at 12 Hayes St., ca. October 1938. Family collection.

visited a lot with your grandmother Whisnant.  She was always good to me.  She had me down there a lot for a bite of lunch.  She was by herself and I would go down and sit with her on the porch and take you boys.  She loved to have y’all come down there and play. 

Grandfather Asbury Whisnant with Richard (ca. 1939) at (possibly) 67 Brownwood Avenue house. Family collection.

Mary Neal later recalled some aspects of the time as fairly happy for her: taking her son for after-nap stroller or wagon rides in West Asheville, laying away an elegant mirror in a local furniture store, and seeing Asbury come walking from his house below and then quietly around the house to peer through the window and marvel at his napping grandson.

The arrangement lasted through the summer of 1939, but ended abruptly when the rental house at 67 Brownwood “was sold right out from under us.” A very inopportune time it was: she had just delivered her third child.

They quickly located another rental house a mile and a half away at 69 Brevard Road, but before they could get moved, Mary Neal came down with pneumonia and was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital by ambulance, leaving the newborn at home. John was left with two young boys, a baby to take care of and the furniture to move, uncertain whether Mary Neal would live or die.

“Like to have died,” she once told me,

Just came in an ace of dying. . . . I remember hearing two of the [Catholic] sisters talking outside my door . . . about how young people with pneumonia with a small baby like that never did make it. They didn’t expect me to live at all. . . . [But they gave me] the new drug sulfanilamide, which had just been put on the market, and . . . I came out of it.23

69 Brevard Road. Front porch/front room extension may have been added after 1940. Photo by Richard Whisnant (2014).

We lived there, Mary Neal recalled, “through the winter and part of the summer, I guess.” In what was perhaps an end-of-summer photograph with her three sons, she looked peaceful but also rather tired. Since mid-1934, she had had four pregnancies, birthed three children, and moved five times.

Mary Neal and her sons (b. 2/1935, 7/1938 and 9/1939). Maybe ca. August 1940, probably at 69 Brevard Rd, . Photo likely by John K. Whisnant. Family collection. No other identifiable photographs from 69 Brevard Road have surfaced.

Mary Neal’s Feminism: Early Roots and Branches

I have many times said that my mother was the first feminist I ever knew–long before I had heard the word. Simon de Beauvoir’s epochal The Second Sex (1949) came out in the U.S. in 1953, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique appeared a decade later, but I never heard Mary Neal use the term feminist, or refer to any aspect of her own views as such.

When Friedan’s book came out, Mary Neal was 47 years old, her oldest son was in his late 20s, and she had been married for nearly 30 years. The “second wave” of feminism that book inspired–its formulation of issues, its popular discourses, its focal figures–had not yet fully formed.

In some ways she had found her way to aspects of it on her own, however, and much earlier.

In a prior post I referred to the feminist leanings of two high school teachers she had admired greatly.24 After high school, a major influence was young (b. 1910) Dr. Irma Henderson, a dynamic local woman who opened her medical practice in Asheville in 1934.25 “She was a role model for me, I always liked her” Mary Neal said,

I admired her a lot.  She was so quick and so [smart]. Richard was the first one I took to her. In fact, she delivered you, and Norman. She was not a pediatrician as such, she was just an M.D., but she treated a lot of children.

And indeed, why would Mary Neal not have liked and admired her? She was only 6 years older, a college and medical school graduate, and an independent and precocious professional woman. And things had worked out for her so that she could pursue and realize her own dreams.

She had been determined to be a doctor since childhood, attaching herself to a doctor who boarded with her parents in Marshall–tagging along on house calls and hanging around his office..26

The doctor discouraged her ambition. For a woman, he advised, the work was too hard and the hours too long. But she persisted, graduated at the top of her Woodfin High School class (1927) and–bolstered by the doctor’s promise to pay her tuition through college and medical school if she would earn her room and board–headed for the pre-med program of small local Mars Hill College. There she blazed a fast trail: star student, champion debater, musical performer, and indefatigable worker.

From Mars Hill she went to the University of North Carolina and then graduated (with 130 men and 4 other women) from Tulane University Medical School in 1933, after interning at the city’s Women’s Hospital and Dispensary.27 Meanwhile she played saxophone in the medical school band, and paid for her room and board by making her own clothes, cutting her own hair, teaching piano, and publishing what she called “very poor fiction” under a pseudonym.

Aston Park Hospital, ca. 1934-1935. Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville, E. M. Ball Collection (ball1333)

Returning to Asheville in 1933, a month too late for the annual state board examination, Henderson worked without pay for a year at Aston Park Hospital, passed her boards in July 1934, and opened her own practice in August (the same month that John and Mary Nealsigned the marriage register in Marshall), concentrating upon women and children.28

Dr. Irma Henderson, ca. 1940, and public health nurse Ruth Martin, giving a child a physical examination.

During the 42 years that Henderson practiced medicine in Asheville, the Asheville Citizen-Times carried more than 400 articles and notices of her medical practice, her advocacy of progressive activities, organizations and causes, her leadership in those sectors, and her prominence as social/medical lecturer and commentator.

By late 1940, Henderson’s large Merrimon Avenue residence had become a regular site for receptions for visiting medical and social leaders, meetings of women’s business, professional and medical committees and organizations; and planning and strategy sessions related to progressive ferment in the city and beyond.

Irma Henderson residence
1295 Merrimon Avenue. Built in 1927. Photo by Derek T. Whisnant (2020).
Dr. Irma Henderson-Smathers and Miss Amy Emmanuel make plans for the tea to be given Asheville Business and Professional Women’s Club this afternoon at Dr. Smathers’ home at 1295 Merrimon Avenue. Asheville Citizen-Times, November 17, 1940, C1. Note that in the caption Dr. Henderson (as she preferred to be called) comes on stage as Henderson-Smathers and exits as Smathers.

Unfortunately, news of many of those encounters (such as in the photograph at right) were usually relegated to the Society [Women’s] section of the newspaper, and dubbed a “social activity,” a “reception,” a “tea,” or some such.

Why? Several reasons:

(1) It was customary journalistic practice at the time to put anything considered “women’s news” (a broad and poorly defined category) into the Society section, and to refer to married women by their (real or legitimate, the implication was) “married name.”

To resist such characterization (successfully or not) required vigilance and persistence. When she began her practice, the Citizen-Times‘s Nancy Brower wrote many years later at the time of Henderson’s retirement,

She skinned her hair back and wound it into a bun to make herself look older. She promised herself she would dress like a woman, act like a woman and be a good doctor. [But when] she hung out her shingle . . . it read Irma Henderson, M.D.

Nancy Brower, “Dr. Irma Smathers [sic] Winds Up 42 Years of Practice,” Asheville Citizen-Times, June 29, 1975, 1-D.

(2) Except for nurses, white males owned the medical profession in Asheville. Of the 115 “Physicians and Surgeons” listed in the city directory in 1935, about a half-dozen were women and two or three were black (=92% white male).29

(3) As a “woman doctor” (there was no category or usage for “man doctor”) in the mid-1930s, Henderson seems in some respects to have been accorded rather guarded (and partly transferred from her husband) credibility.

When she married insurance executive William E. Smathers in 1935, the caption for her wedding photograph noted (at her request, one assumes) that “Mrs. Smathers will continue her medical career as ‘Dr. Irma Henderson.'” The inserted quotation marks, it seems fair to say, slyly suggested that the new “woman doctor” was being peevish, or expecting status she did not fully merit absent her married name.

But compared to her own stellar professional credentials, William Smathers’s appear to have been somewhat scant. The 1935 city directory said he lived in a somewhat ambiguous status at 5 Marcellus Street–at least not as a boarder [=bdg], but as a”roomer or resident” [=r; possibly renter?] said the directory, but still not as a “householder” [=h; generally, owner]. He was Secretary of an insurance agency, and Vice President of a men’s business group. He had been chosen a member of the city’s prominent 1930s Rhododendron Guard.

Her own professional route as Dr. Irma Henderson turned out to be more easily declared than realized. Subsequent references to her in city directories and newspapers as “Dr.” opted for Henderson (rarely), or (more often) Henderson-Smathers, or (now and then) Smathers-Henderson, or (declining the weak hyphenating gesture) just Smathers (as, at long last, when she was 86 years old) in her 1996 obituary).30

(4) Henderson’s focus upon women and children patients turned out to require her to tread carefully around the then tendentious social issue of birth control.

At the time of her retirement in 1975, the Citizen-Times said that she was “instrumental in organizing one of the first birth control clinics in the nation sponsored by a state medical society and a state public health department.”31

That may be true, but the history at the local, state and national levels–too complicated to even sketch here–makes such a claim risky. In her detailed study of North Carolina’s involvement in the birth control movement, Johanna Schoen concluded that the state had “one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates” in the country, and “was among the first in the South to implement reproductive policies.” She also was able to establish that the state’s first birth control clinic opened in 1923 in Fayetteville, and that American Birth Control League (ABCL) workers showed up in the early 1930s, opening clinics in several cities, including Asheville after 1932.32

At the urging of Proctor and Gamble executive (and contraceptive researcher/developer) Dr. Clarence Gamble, Schoen said, a clinic may have opened in Asheville. around March 1937, after Gamble employed a nurse to organize new clinics. The clinic model spread rapidly. Within a year, there were 36 of them in public health departments in 33 counties, and the following year there were 62 in 60 counties. Local health officers asked for (and received) funds from the State Board of Health to help with the task.

The point here is not to establish who (or where) was first in the effort, but to suggest that the efforts of a large array of widely scattered actors led to widespread results over many months in the early and mid-1930s. Irma Henderson is not mentioned in Schoen’s work, but other sources leave no doubt that she played a key role in birth control efforts in Asheville and Buncombe County.

In the absence of Henderson’s office records, or some autobiographical statement (neither of which has come to light) it is impossible to say whether or exactly when she might have begun–in the privacy of her office (opened August 1934)–to provide contraceptive advice and services to young women. But at some point during her first decade, she took charge of some of the emerging public (city-county) birth control clinics offered to indigent women.

Whether she was “first” or not cannot be established, but it is clear, nevertheless, that although she was assisting with “well baby” clinics sponsored by the Business and Professional Women’s Club as early as August 1937, her involvement in the city-county clinics apparently seems not to have begun until September 1940.33

In whatever setting, through whatever available means, Irma Henderson was an active advocate of birth control–in policy and in practice. At western North Carolina’s 15-county Tenth District Medical Society Meeting in November 1941, she spoke to attending physicians on the Asheville / Buncombe County contraceptive clinic, and the following spring she presented “A Study in Contraception” to the state medical society meeting in Charlotte. 34

Ironically, had Mary Neal known about Dr. Henderson’s private practice (she received her license in late July 1934), she might have been able to avoid the stress and life-changing impact of an early unplanned pregnancy that conflicted with other plans she had for her life.35

In any case, what happened was that during the 8 1/2 years after she turned 17, Mary Neal had five pregnancies (including one miscarriage) and gave birth to four children, two of them delivered by Irma Henderson.36

Suprisingly, by the time she gave birth to her fourth child (in 9 years) in 1943, she had stopped seeing Dr. Henderson and was being cared for, she said, by “old Dr. Hipps.” Presumably that was Dr. A. T. Hipps, whom city directories listed as having practiced medicine in Asheville at least since 1921.

So why had she stopped seeing Dr. Henderson? Because “John objected,” she recalled. And why did he? “I don’t know,” she said, “because she was a woman doctor, I guess. Your daddy didn’t like her much. He didn’t even want me to have a woman doctor.” Or, it also seems likely, to have one deliver or treat his children.

Another possible clue, I discovered years later, may have been that when John’s mother Ella Whisnant (herself a pioneering professional woman health care giver) died of cancer on June 29, 1942, she was being attended not by a woman physician (of whom the city directory listed only a half-dozen or so, including Dr. Henderson), but by Dr. A[llen] T[hurman] Hipps, one of the city’s approximately 110 male doctors.37

In any case, Mary Neal recalled vividly, after delivering her fourth child “old Dr. Hipps stood at the foot of my bed . . . and begged me to have my tubes tied.” Whether she followed the old male doctor’s advice I have no idea, but her relationship with Irma Henderson ended, and there were no more babies.38

John’s Received Version of Masculinity: Deep Roots, Marked Boundaries and Breakthroughs

Talking with me about John’s notions of what men and women should or should not do, Mary Neal located important roots in his having watched his own parents. Asbury Whisnant, whose company she actually enjoyed, she said,

was sort of old fashioned in that the man was head of the house and he was free to go and do anything he wanted to do, and she stayed there and made a garden and cooked and washed and ironed and got up and made his breakfast at 4:30 in the morning, and was there waiting on him on the front porch when he got home in the afternoon.  That was sort of instilled in your daddy . . . . By and large he was raised with this “a woman’s place is in the home” philosophy.

And how had such boundaries been enforced in the Whisnant family? Some were just quietly understood; others were stark and overt. Mary Neal could remember vividly, she told me, watching Asbury exert that kind of control:

I can see him with that  pocketbook that had . . . three or four compartments, and he’d lay out the money for her eggs, her milk money, and some of it for groceries, and that’s how much she had. And I fought that all my married life.  He was good to her, and he loved his family, and he was just as gentle and kind to me as he could be, but he had very set ideas about a woman’s place.

For him to have imposed such strictures upon Ella Austin Whisnant was an extraordinary irony, since she had–before she married Asbury–been trained and employed for years as a professional nurse, one of the earliest in North Carolina.

Ella's nursing certificate
Ella Austin’s “Nurse’s Certificate of Registration”, No. 30, December 19, 1903. Private collection.39

Although after she left her professional work she rarely if ever spoke of it again, throughout the rest of her life she wore her nurse’s watch on the bodice of her dress.40

Ella 60 Brownwood w/nurse's watch
Ella Austin Whisnant, 60 Brownwood Ave., West Asheville, ca. 1925. Note watch on bodice of dress. Courtesy of Norman Whisnant.

So how did these parental patterns sort out for John across the years? Did he even know about his mother’s professional training and career from the years before she married? If so, I never heard him (or anyone) mention it.

Some of the patterns (as we saw earlier from Mary Neal’s take on his radio years) carried more or less intact into his own marriage.

But counter-patterns (we might call them) also emerged now and then. His startling “Angel in an Evening Gown” performance at age 20 revealed how much expressive strength lay within him, and how it was called forth on a particular occasion.

Although within the family he was (upon rare occasions) referred to as having been a good dancer in his youth, later years provided neither circumstances nor contexts that called for it. Still there was one additional mini-narrative in the family (during his late-life church-going years, when three of his sons were singing regularly in church) of his having burst forth into song.

By this time in his life, he had trained himself for, and gotten, a series of high-level engineering jobs from which he had then been forced to move several times as the notoriously unstable textile plants restructured or closed: from Director of Research Engineering at American Enka near Asheville to Senior Staff Engineer for Fiber Industries in Shelby NC; from there to Hercules, Inc. in Oxford GA as Supervisor of Project Engineering; then to Beaunit Inc. in Etowah TN) as Development Superintendent. He had also been married and divorced several times (twice with/from Mary Neal).

Despite these decades of instability and upset, at least one additional moment caused him to break out into song–across some previously unbreachable gender-marked boundary of affect, emotional depth, and expressive tenderness and power. It happened after he moved to Etowah TN to take what turned out to be his final job in the textile industry.

On a tiny canoe-stage on the river, he sang again, for himself and an audience of one–this time another son (himself an accomplished singer). As the son who heard him recalled:

I would go [to visit him] every three months to do something with him–hunting, visiting the Indian mounds close by to the south, meeting his hunting buddies for a steak at a restaurant, crow hunting and boating. . . . 41

He loved for me to paddle him down the river in my canoe in the early morning [sitting] up front with shotgun ready. The target? The squirrels playing in the trees along the river bank and  on the overhanging limbs.

Only once did he break into song . . . in tune, in a very nice voice, boldly, happily:

On Jordan's stormy banks I stand, 
 and cast a wishful eye 
 to Canaan's fair and happy land, 
 where my possessions lie. 

I am bound for the promised land,
I am bound for the promised land;
Oh, who will come and go with me?
I am bound for the promised land42

But there was another kind of breakthrough I did see a number of times: his poetic way with words, never spoken that I recall, but embodied in graceful, flowing, artistic handwriting and artful prose.

At about the time of his on-the-river performance, I was living and teaching in Baltimore, and building violins. Unexpectedly, he sent me a copy of Paolo Peterlongo’s The Violin.

violin book
Piedro Petrolongo, The Violin (Milan: 1973; New York: 1979)

I had never seen the book, which was mostly a technical and historical discussion of violin making practice (very welcome at the time), and with some beautiful photographic plates as well.

To my surprise, my father had written this on a blank page at the front:

My first reaction was that I did not merit such praise. But my second was surprise and pleasure that both the sentiment and the handwriting came out of a wonderful side of him I had rarely seen.

Dancing, singing, writing beautiful prose in a flowing script. These mini-narratives attest to the presence and durability of what I will hazard to call the “feminine” side of him, despite the dominance of the masculine (similar hazards, I know) in his life and experience.

Yes, John was a hunter all his life. He was proud of his guns, took meticulous care of them, and it gave him pleasure to pick off the gamboling squirrels amidst the branches of riverside trees. But unknown to almost everyone, he was also a singer, a dancer, and writer of artful prose.

And this brings us back around again to one of the central, original guiding purposes of this blog: to understand people like Asbury and Ella, Pierce and Pearl, John and Mary Neal, Bertha, and Azile and Boyce–how they managed their lives with the tools, resources and conceptual frames available and known to them at the time. How they moved among–and bridged across, when they could–those frames.

I interviewed John, Mary Neal, and his sisters Azile and Bertha nearly 35 years ago, when I knew so little–hence had so few questions to ask. And Asbury and Ella, Pierce and Pearl had been gone for years. I wish I had known enough to ask more and better questions. They had much more to teach me, and I think my daddy had many more songs to sing.


Asheville city directories, 1925-1949; Nancy Brower, “Dr. Irma Smathers Winds Up 42 Years of Practice on Monday,” Asheville Citizen-Times, June 29, 1975, D-3. Regina Markell Porantz-Sanchez, Sympathy & Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine (1985). Zoe Rhine, “Dr. Irma Smathers” in Pack Memorial Public Library’s Heard Tell blog, October 27, 2014. “David E. Whisnant, taped interviews with Azile Whisnant Boone, June 10, 1986 ; Bertha Whisnant, June 10, 1986; John K. Whisnant, January 1, 1984; and Mary Neal Rudisill Whisnant, July 12 1986 and November 28, 1987. “Dr. Irma Henderson Becomes Bride,” Asheville Citizen-Times, Nov. 10, 1935, B1. “Dr. Irma Smathers” [obituary], Asheville Citizen-Times, Apr. 15, 1996, p. 10.

  1. See also Jessie Bernard.[]
  2. For readers previously unfamiliar with this blog, links to previous posts will provide additional context for segments of the history presented here.[]
  3. For Asbury’s first half-dozen years in Asheville, before he married Ella Austin in 1907, see these linked earlier posts.[]
  4. This and all following quotations are taken from recorded interviews I did with my mother, father, and his two sisters Azile Whisnant Boone and Bertha Whisnant between 1984 and 1987.[]
  5. Anthony Harkins, The Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon (2004), 64-69, 91, 137, 150.[]
  6. Yearbooks available online at[]
  7. Charlotte News, p. 16; Asheville Sunday Citizen, January 8, 1922, p. 14.[]
  8. Discussed at length in Williamson, Hillbillyland, 177-190.[]
  9. Williamson, Hillbillyland, 190-207. See also Moviediva.  Unfortunately this film is not easily available for viewing.[]
  10. Williamson, Hillbillyland, 244-245.[]
  11. For an insightful examination of the L’il Abner comic strip, including its seldom noted critical and progressive aspects, see Harkins, The Hillbilly, pp. 103-140.[]
  12. The term appeared more than 120 times in the Asheville Citizen between 1931 and 1934.[]
  13. Jane Becker, Selling Tradition: Appalachia and the Construction of an American Folk, 1930-1940 (1998). For Becker’s analysis of this intersection, see pp. 135-166. Closely related to Becker’s book is Julia S. Ardery’s The Temptation: Edgar Tolson and the Genesis of Twentieth-Century Folk Art (1998), an account of Kentucky woodcarver Tolson’s navigation within the rather Byzantine world of “folk art,” including the commercial side of it. My earlier All That Is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region (1983; 25th anniversary ed., 2008) focused upon several specific generative centers of “traditional” (by a variety of definitions) culture.[]
  14. New York: S. French, 1935, p. 54.[]
  15. Asheville Citizen, October 22, 1907, p. 9; Asheville Citizen, September 1, 1915, p. 6.[]
  16. For further details on these aspects of her high school years, see sections 3, 4 and 6 of previous post Maybe Down the Road Somewhere.[]
  17. A search of Asheville newspapers under likely keywords for that period was unproductive.[]
  18. At the time I wrote this post, this date for Enka employment seemed too early to me, and I was unable to confirm it. Months later I discovered that Azile was probably correct: A captioned photo of him in Enka’s company magazine, The Enka Voice 21 (November 1950), p. 6 , said that he had been working there “for 17 years” (i.e., since 1933).[]
  19. City directories, 1936, p. 677; 1937, p. 581; 1938, p. 564; 1939, p. 526; and 1940, p. 504.[]
  20. My earlier post “Calling CQ”: An Amateur Radio Geek in the 1920s and Beyond presents an extended account of the development of amateur radio in Asheville and some aspects of John’s involvement in it. The Wireless Association of America formed in 1909, the number of operators grew rapidly, and the Radio League of America (later the American Radio Relay League, or ARRL) followed in 1914.[]
  21. Amateur Radio Stations of the  United States 1927-1929 (Washington DC: Department of Commerce, Radio Division, combined editions of June 30, 1927, 1928, and 1929), ed. of 1929, p. 82. Assuming that the 1929 edition was in preparation soon after June 30, 1928 and appeared by June 30, 1929, John would have received his license sometime before his 15th birthday (July 13, 1929).[]
  22. Asheville Citizen-Times, April 16, 1939, C-4.[]
  23. Sulfanilamide was first prepared in 1908, and marketed in 1935. She may have been confused about the medication, more likely sulfadiazine or some other related drug. Penicillin was discovered accidentally in 1928, but not widely available until 1942.[]
  24. Science teacher Lucile Mercer and Latin teacher Louise Wilson, both of whom had substantial graduate training (Mercer from Georgia State Normal , Columbia University, Peabody College for Teachers, and Duke University; Wilson from Woman’s College of UNC and Smith College.[]
  25. The 1933 and 1934 city directories apparently do not exist, but the 1932 directory, in which Physicians & Surgeons are listed by initials and last name only, includes a small handful of women doctors, and scores of men.[]
  26. Nancy Brower, “Dr. Irma [Henderson] Smathers Winds Up 42 Years of Practice on Monday.” Asheville Citizen-Times. June 29, 1975, p. D1.[]
  27. In Sympathy & Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine (1985), 64-89, Regina Markell Porantz-Sanchez synopsizes the institutional and structural inequalities, gender-based opposition, exclusionary rules and practices, and social-professional norms that constrained women’s medical education during the 19th century and hindered their entry into the profession.[]
  28. “Medical Board Gives Licenses to 74 Doctors,” Asheville Citizen, July 26, 1934.[]
  29. No directory was published in the Depression year of 1934.[]
  30. By 1942, the directory had dropped a cautionary Miss following her name.[]
  31. Brower, “Dr. Irma Smathers [sic] Winds Up 42 Years of Practice.”[]
  32. Johanna Schoen, “‘A Great Thing for Poor Folks’: Birth Control, Sterilization, and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare in the Twentieth Century” (PhD diss., UNC Chapel Hill, 1996), 14, 45-81.[]
  33. Clinic schedules from Asheville Citizen-Times, beginning August 31, 1937 and continuing through at least September 1940.[]
  34. Asheville Citizen-Times, November 23, 1941, B3 and May 11, 1942, p. 13. No details were given on either presentation.[]
  35. See Section 7.1 of earlier post for a discussion of the difficulty of talking about or obtaining birth control in Asheville in 1934.[]
  36. The relevant dates (including a few important contextual markers) are presented in the following table. I present this information not to judge in any way, but to document one case of some of the impacts of the lack of easily available birth control upon young women of her generation.

    Date Event Comments
    6 May 1910 Irma Henderson born  
    26 Sept. 1916 Mary Neal Rudisill born  
    15 May 1934 Pregnancy #1 age 17 1/2
    May 1934 Mary Neal graduates from high school as valedictorian  
    Aug.1934 Irma Henderson MD opens office (for women and children)  
    26 Aug. 1934 Mary Neal and John married  
    15 Feb. 1935 Birth #1 (delivering physician unknown)  
    15 June 1936 Pregnancy #2 16 mos. since birth #1
    mid- 1936 to early 1937 John gets job at American Enka Corporation  
    1 Aug. 1936 Miscarriage Date estimated from peak probability of miscarriages, halfway into 1st trimester.
    15 Oct. 1937 Pregnancy #3 14 mos. since miscarriage
    15 July 1938 Birth #2 (Dr. Henderson)  
    1 Jan. 1939 Pregnancy #4 5 1/2 mos. since birth #2
    1 Oct. 1939 Birth #3 (Dr. Henderson)  
    3 Oct. 1939 Mary Neal critically ill; hospitalized immediately post-partum  
    21 Sept. 1940 First notice of public birth control clinic run by Dr. Henderson Mary Neal has 3 children, 5 1/2 yrs. , 2 yrs. 2 mos., 1 yr.
    ca. late 1941 Whisnant family moves to Enka Village  
    15 June 1942 Pregnancy #5 2 years 8 1/2 mos. since birth #3; age almost 26
    15 Mar. 1943 Birth #4 (Dr. Hipps delivered; urged sterilization) 3 1/2 years since birth #3; four births in 9 years; age 27
    1952 Dr. Henderson retires from private practice.  
    Sequence of pregnancies and births, delivering physicians, and mother’s Ages.
    Within months, dates of pregnancies and births are rounded to either the 1st or 15th.[]
  37. Sarah Ella Whisnant, NC State Board of Health Certificate of Death No. 314, July 1, 1942. For Ella’s training, work, and certification as a nurse, see earlier posts Ella, Asbury and the State Hospital at Morganton: From Social and Institutional to Personal History and A Document Answers Some Questions (and Raises New Ones).[]
  38. Henderson died in 1996, and Mary Neal Whisnant in 2000.[]
  39. For analysis of this document, see previous post A Document Answers Some Questions (and Raises New Ones.[]
  40. For a more complete narrative of that part of her life (ca. 1890-1905 or so) see my earlier posts Ella, Asbury and the State Hospital at Morganton: From Social and Institutional to Personal History; Mid-Course Correction: Ella Goes to (Mid-Course) Asheville (1907).[]
  41. The Etowah Indian mounds (1000-1550 AD) are on the north shore of the Etowah River near Cartersville GA. John was living two hours north, in Etowah TN.[]

2 thoughts on “Every Marriage Is Two Marriages: John Whisnant and Mary Neal Rudisill Whisnant’s Early Years Together, 1934-1940

  1. Joe Ward

    Hi David, Remeber you and your family well from our days at American Enka……always thought as coop students that they were comparing us to your older brother… who I think had been a coop student. Would love to communicate with you.My email is

  2. Sherry P Hill

    David, this is so beautifully written and structured, I am having a hard time making myself stop reading this evening. In addition, this story hits home ❤️ so directly for me for many reasons…age similarity, West Asheville where I grew up, my parent’s age each born in Sept, 1913, married in 1934, both graduating from Lee Edwards. Mother born in Waynesville, moving to Asheville as a young child, made her own graduation dress which I still have, me born in 1940….Love seeing these pics of all of you….our world is so very small and overlaps to such a degree . I will finish reading later, but wanted to touch base with you…..why do I remember Bertha’s name? One pic of your mother looks so much like mine.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.