Adelaide Key's legacy touched Haywood

By Vicki Hyatt | Aug 27, 2014
Adelaide Key served on the Western Carolina University governing board, including a stint as chairman.

The generosity and spirit of Adelaide Worth Daniels Key has been celebrated for decades, especially in Western North Carolina. Now the region is mourning the loss of perhaps the most influential philanthropist it has ever known.

Key died Aug. 20 following a long battle with cancer. She was 78.

“She took philanthropy to a whole other level,” said Wells Greeley, a long-time business owner in Haywood. “She never lived here, but she had a business here, and included the community in her efforts.”

Key purchased The Mountaineer in 1989, and asked current publisher Ken Wilson to carry on, which he did until 2000 when Key’s son, Jonathan, purchased the paper.

“She told me to basically ‘treat it as your own, and I’m here if you need me,’” Wilson recalled. “The principle owners decided to sell off subsidiary newspapers, and Adelaide wanted to own her own newspaper. When that became a reality, she gave me an opportunity to be part of it. Our agreement was totally verbal. That’s the way she was. She never put any demands or limitations on me as the publisher of the newspaper, and I managed the paper a lot like I think she would have managed it — to be fair and make sure the underprivileged, the underappreciated and the underserved are given their due. … She was just an extraordinary humanitarian.”

While there were many efforts Key supported on a regular basis, there were two donations Wilson said had the most dramatic impact in Haywood County. One was a $200,000-plus donation to Folkmoot to start a foundation. As long-time Folkmoot supporter Rolf Kaufman recalls, the donation was a challenge to raise an equal amount in the community, and that’s what happened.

The second was a donation to the First United Methodist Church following a 1994 fire that destroyed the sanctuary. Key wasn’t a member of the congregation, but her son and his wife, Barbara, were. Key’s contribution funded the construction of the faith classroom/multipurpose room/chapel, as well as the installation of an elevator.

Church member and interior designer Mary Millar worked with Key on the project she estimated to exceed $100,000.

“She was very, very easy to work with and set very few parameters,” Millar said. “She told me to do whatever I felt was important and to follow the guidelines set by the church. Her only request was to put a little bit of blue in it somewhere, and she told me what shade. We worked with stained glass, and agreed the doors should not be stained glass.”

Millar said furniture from the original sanctuary was used and other furnishings were made to match, including the closet doors.

“In my estimation, she was a very generous, gentle, caring benefactor,” Millar said. “She was very soft spoken, but also very firm and definitely had her opinions. She was not afraid to express them, but was very genteel about it.”

Western Carolina University

Lake Junaluska resident Clifton Metcalf worked closely with Key when he served as vice chancellor for advancement and external affairs at Western Carolina University.

Mutual interests in community projects and politics led to a deep friendship, Metcalf said.

“Adelaide Key had remarkably strong interests in a whole host of public areas such as education, health care and community projects that were helpful to people who couldn’t afford to meet their needs on their own,” Metcalf said, noting she had supported WCU both financially and through service.

Anytime a site was needed for an event to benefit a cause she supported, it was almost a given that Key was willing to host it at her Asheville home, Metcalf said. She was an excellent hostess who stayed in the background. She never wanted recognition and always had others introduce the speaker.

“She had a feeling for the newspaper business that was clearly rooted in the family business,” said Metcalf, who was editor at Mountaineer Publishing before Key became involved. “We had a lot of interesting conversations about things like freedom of the press and other issues.”

Jim Miller, associate vice chancellor for development, said Key was the first individual to fund an endowed professorship at Western Carolina University. At the time, a contribution of $666,000 was matched by the the state to create a $1 million endowment. The Adelaide Worth Daniels Key Professorship in Special Education was created to hire a faculty member of distinction. In a WCU publication in early 2000, Key had this to say about her interest in the area.

"All through my childhood and adolescence, I was told to sit still," she said. "When I was a child no one had ever heard of attention deficit disorder, so I was bad, I was stupid and why in the world could I not sit still. It is my hope that this professorship will create teachers who will come away from Western Carolina University understanding that different isn't stupid."

Key served as a member, then chairman of the WCU board of trustees and later served on the UNC board of governors, which sets policy for the entire university system in the state.

As a state appointee, Key wasn't able to take a public role in WCU's first comprehensive fundraising campaign in 2009, but she was instrumental in working behind the scenes to help it be successful.

"She was passionate about Western Carolina University," Miller said, "and she was certainly a force to be reckoned with. We are saddened by the loss and will miss her dearly."

David Westling was hired as the first Adelaide Worth Daniels Distinguished Professor at WCU and still holds the position today.

During his tenure, Westling has implemented a training program to prepare teachers to help students with severe disabilities and to address needs that weren't addressed previously. He brought in a new professor to help in the effort with the $6 million in grants he brought in through the years.

Westling said he met with Key several times a year to talk about the program and its progress.

"She was always interested in what I was doing," Westling said. "She wanted to support special education because of difficulties she faced as a child. She wanted teachers to be better able to work with students with disabilities. She was a very nice, congenial, down-to-earth person who just wanted to do good."

Rathbun Center

A lasting legacy many in Haywood believe will be her most significant was founding of the Rathbun Center, a home where those who wanted to stay near loved ones at the Asheville hospitals could have a place to take a quick nap, stay the night and relax in the atmosphere of the nearby center.

Kauffman said Key’s excitement for the project inspired him to donate.

“I loved that lady,” he said. “She was just great — very down to earth, and she never used her wealth to make it appear she would rule over you. She was just looking for people to join her in these endeavors. She was not somebody I was in contact with very frequently, but my experience with her was fantastic.”

Greeley, too, believes the Rathbun Center was Key’s crown jewel.

“She had a way of convincing people this wasn’t an Asheville project, but one that would benefit all of Western North Carolina,” he said.

Mary Ann Enloe, of Hazelwood, vividly remembers several interviews she had with Key.

“She told me about the Rathbun house and said she started it after what she saw when she was battling cancer,” Enloe said. “She had resources the rest of us don’t have, but she chose to use those resources for the betterment of people you might not think about. She didn’t just write checks, she actually got involved, and she got involved because of personal experiences.”

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to The Mission Rathbun House, 121 Sherwood Road, Asheville, NC 28803, or to The Key School at Carolina Day School, 1345 Hendersonville Road, Asheville, NC 28803.

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