We love the High Country for so many reasons — the friendly folks, the gorgeous vistas and the cool climate. But let’s be honest — it’s the characters that make our region unique.
Everybody knows one or two or 200 local characters around these parts. They are the spice that zaps an already tasty dish; the fifth of tequila in the party punch; the wink in Han Solo’s eye; that secret ingredient that takes an otherwise mundane day and imbues it with zest.
That’s Jan Robbins Elder to a tee.
When I heard of Jan’s death on Monday, it made me smile instead of cry. Don’t get me wrong — I mourn her passing like we all do. Jan lived an electrifying life, and I can only assume she left us on her terms and her rules. Hearing her name has always made me smile and my mouth could not resist one final grin — Grim Reaper be damned.
My few words can’t begin to encapsulate Jan’s cinematic biography, so I won’t try. You can read her life story at http://tinyurl.com/y6j3dwvt. Pay particular attention to the words “flying planes,” “dealing blackjack,” and “hiring out as a boat’s mate.” To know those three things is to know so much about Jan.
I first met Jan in 2013. At the time, I worked as the communications director for Hound Ears Club in Foscoe. Many will recall that Jan’s father, Grover, along with his brothers, Harry and Spencer, created Hound Ears from 750 acres of farmland into one of the premier resorts and later private clubs in the region.
Upon being hired in 2012, my boss told me one of my first jobs would be to coordinate the club’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2014. I had no idea where to begin. Everyone I asked said, “Go talk to Jan. Jan knows everything about Hound Ears.” So, like any eager journalist, I called her up.
I don’t recall exactly how she accepted my invitation for a visit, but I came away from the phone call thinking “That woman is a true character!” I couldn’t wait to meet her.
The next day, we sat down in my office on Shulls Mill Road. Jan looked me up and down. I think she made a good-natured remark about my recently shaved head and then sat down as if she owned the place — and who could blame her. She really did in so many ways.
The next hour or so delighted me. She gave me enough information, leads and stories to create Hound Ears anniversary events for the next century. She told me some stories from Hound Ears’ opening days in the ‘60s. She allowed me to re-tell some in public, but she swore me to secrecy on more than a few zingers.
I knew this when I heard of Jan’s passing: My only mission would be to share my favorite Jan story. Here’s my imperfect — yet I know Jan-approved — paraphrase.
“After Dad, Spencer and Grover opened Hound Ears in the ‘60s, we often used No. 1 fairway to land our airplane. About that time, I attended college in Miami. Every now and then, I’d pick out some old boy I liked and I’d invite him up to North Carolina for the weekend. I didn’t always tell him HOW we’d get there. So, we’d load up in this tiny plane and away we’d go. As we approached the golf course — with no airstrip in sight — I’d watch his face. If he didn’t look too scared or sick; well, I might keep him around for a while. If he did — well, he was OUT.”
Those who knew and loved Jan Robbins Elder all share that same passenger seat. She allowed us to soar with her; she kept an eye on us and she let us hang around for a while. Bon Voyage to a High Country Character.