Author, former executive director of the Great Smokies Writing Program and retired lecturer in UNC Asheville’s Master of Liberal Arts and Sciences program Tommy Hays has been named to the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the governor of North Carolina. The award, begun in 1963 and presented in recognition of extraordinary service to the state, was bestowed by Gov. Roy Cooper.
Hays is the author of Sam’s Crossing; In the Family Way, winner of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Award; The Pleasure Was Mine, a Finalist for the SIBA Fiction Award in 2006, and selection for numerous community reads; and What I Came to Tell You, a Fall 2013 Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA).
Hays first came to UNC Asheville as an adjunct professor in 1991, and soon after began directing the Great Smokies Writing Program (GSWP), UNC Asheville’s writing program offering courses with professional writers and authors. Over two decades he nurtured and developed the GSWP from its infancy into a program that has served thousands of students at all writing levels and regularly publishes an online magazine. In addition, Hays served as core faculty in UNC Asheville’s Masters of Liberal Arts and Sciences program, teaching creative writing. He has also taught intro to creative writing as well as advanced fiction writing workshops in the English department.
“I thought long and hard about what to write about Tommy,” wrote GSWP student and faculty member Audra Coleman, also a graduate of UNC Asheville’s MLAS program, for the Great Smokies Review edition honoring Hays’ retirement. “My first draft focused on what a wonderful instructor he was while I was in the MLAS program, how much he helped me grow as a writer, how much I learned about the craft of writing, and how I became a more astute reader by writing what seemed like a million annotations…. What I appreciate most about Tommy is that he is simply a good person. He cares about others. Now more than ever, this feels like a gift.”
“Tommy Hays’ mastery of craft permeates every page of his novels, stories, and essays. His students and fellow writers benefit from that consummate skill, but perhaps even more from what lies between the lines,” said Elizabeth Lutyens, an instructor in the GSWP and editor in chief of the Great Smokies Review. “Tommy’s greatest praise for a piece is to say that it is ‘so felt.’ You hear the italics. As executive director, Tommy led, taught in, and nourished UNC Asheville’s Great Smokies Writing Program from its inception in 2000 until his retirement in 2020. During that time, he inspired the program’s students and teachers to put craft into the proper perspective; to aim for the real, for the heart of things.”
“I learned over the years that what you see on the surface with Tommy—the kind, genteel southern gentleman—was not the entire story,” said Gerard Voos, retired director of the MLAS program. “Students would tell, one after the other, always through a huge grin, of their first experience getting an assignment back in class. They were so proud of their first product, but then, once they looked at their story and the blue ink that covered it, they quickly returned to earth. Tommy didn’t pull any punches with his criticism, but he also did not hold back his praise. That balance is what made him such a good teacher and valuable mentor to his students. Tommy helped each and every one of them find an inner voice they hadn’t known existed.”
Distinguished recipients of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine honor include former UNC Asheville Chancellor Anne Ponder, retired UNC Asheville Professor of Management Robert Yearout, retired founding Director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Diversity Education Deborah Miles, former UNC System President William Friday, Maya Angelou, Coretta Scott King and many other leaders in business, education, public service, arts, entertainment and sports.