Reflections from the Learning Tour: Remembering a Friend

Photo by Josie Hoggard

Photo by Josie Hoggard

My orientation and learning tour diverged strongly from the other fellows when late Monday morning I learned of the death of my good friend, William. On June 1, William Lindley died unexpectedly in his sleep. He was only 30. Others in the program knew him as well. It’s been said that William had never met a stranger—and I can attest to that as being true. He seemed to know everyone. William had been loosely involved in everything from The STAY (Stay Together Appalachian Youth) ProjectThe Beehive Design Collective. Still, my relationship with William had not only been familiar, but, in retrospect, life-changing as well. I had met him two years earlier at a conference where he convinced me to come to grad school in western North Carolina. Since then I had become part of a band of individuals committed to Appalachia in all its forms, of which William was a key member.

William was genuinely the nicest person I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. He was a man who was perpetually late, due in no small part to his tendency to stop and speak with every person he passed on the street. Always looking to be of help to others, William had been a part of the Appalachian Service Project (ASP) for more than a decade. Working with ASP to repair substandard housing throughout Central Appalachia, he had earned the nickname 'Ginger Jesus' as local communities found him to be the answer to their prayers.

Along the Appalachian Trail in southwest Virginia. Photo taken by the author the day before William's death.

Along the Appalachian Trail in southwest Virginia. Photo taken by the author the day before William's death.

Incessantly, and at times aggravatingly, curious, William loved to teach, read, and travel about Appalachia. He spent countless days hiking the Appalachian Trail, often heading the unusual direction of north to south just so he had the opportunity to meet new people. What is more, the last time I saw William was when I dropped him—and some German hikers he had befriended in the Hundred Mile Wilderness—off for Trail Days in Damascus, Va.; he would die only two weeks later. I take some solace in the fact that he spent some of his final days with friends in beautiful southwest Virginia, doing what he loved.

I was lucky enough to be able to travel from our learning tour in Charleston, W.Va. to attend the funeral in Burlington, N.C. I arrived too late to attend the wake, but it was perhaps for the best; there was a line of people out the door, like no one had seen before, all waiting to pay their respects to their departed friend. The funeral home stayed open for two extra hours since they were unwilling to turn people away. The following morning the church was packed for the funeral. Hymns were sung, stories were told, and banjos were played. The mood was joyous, and humorous, and sad. Just sad.

The Highlander Center. Photo by the author.

The Highlander Center. Photo by the author.

Afterwards we all met on the wide porch of an old American foursquare. This close-knit group of friends represented just a small portion of the countless people William’s kindness had touched. Who knew when we would all be together again? I looked around at my friends who had just graduated. I grew proud and nostalgic: pertinacious first-year law student heading to a prestigious institution to further the public interest and environmental justice; an inseparable, touring duo spreading their unique blend of old-time and Americana; a soft-spoken, bright-eyed woman who doesn’t know just yet what her life holds in store for her. This presence of loss and opportunity stayed with me on my return to West Virginia—until I received a surprise greeting at the rental car return from several of my program fellows. They were there for no reason other than they felt it was something they should do.

It’s hard to find any positivity in the death of someone young, especially when they were so good to others. "Et est quicquam tam vanum," asks the Teacher.[1] If I were the sort of person who put weight in these sort of things, I would find it significant that William passed on the day I began my Appalachia Transition Fellowship—a period in my life I can say with certainty would not be happening if I had never met him. Even more, William undoubtedly would have been among those "emerging leaders" in Appalachia that we keep talking about. Who knows what differences he would have gone on to make? Unfortunately, he is gone; and we are all poorer for it.

--Zach Swick


[1] Ecclesiastes 2:19