One on One: Philip Gerard, great teacher of great writers

Published 8:18 am Monday, December 5, 2022

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By D.G. Martin

When Philip Gerard died November 7 in Wilmington, North Carolina lost one of its most productive and multitalented writers.

His students and colleagues in the creative writing department at UNC-Wilmington would remind us of his great talent as a teacher and mentor to other writers.

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As an engaging fiction writer, he was careful to keep his stories’ underlying factual basis strictly accurate. For instance, his 2016 novel, “The Dark of the Island,” weaves a story line that brings together facts about German submarines and spying along our coastline together with fictional efforts to find and exploit oil deposits off those same shores.

The main character, Nick Wolf, is a researcher and publicist for the fictional NorthAm Oil Co., which is searching for oil off the North Carolina coast. NorthAm sends Wolf to the Outer Banks to persuade the locals that oil drilling off their coast would be a good thing for them.

Wolf’s grandfather was a German immigrant who died off the coast of Hatteras Island in 1942 reportedly while serving in the U.S. Merchant Marines, but possibly as a part of the German military.

Out of this intriguing background, Gerard’s fiction emerges as an entertaining and provocative read.

As a talented writer of non-fiction, he knew how to weave the facts into compelling stories that held the attention of his readers.

In one of my favorites, “Down the Wild Cape Fear: A River Journey through the Heart of North Carolina,” I learned a lot about history, nature, environmental protection and degradation, public policy, human nature, and man’s search to find a proper place in the world he did not create.

Thanks to Gerard’s great writing, I experienced the drama, the challenges, the joys and the setbacks that are the seasonings of any journey through unfamiliar parts.

Starting, few miles below Jordan Lake where Haw River joins Deep River to form the Cape Fear, Gerard canoes downstream, passing by Raven Rock State Park before reaching the bridge at Lillington, getting through three sets of dams and locks, all the way to Fayetteville. Then, with the rapids behind, switching to a powerboat to follow the river as it passes Elizabethtown, he is on the way to Wilmington and into the ocean beyond Bald Head Island.

We can still benefit from Gerard’s stimulating writing. In May, Blair/Carolina Wren Press published his latest book “North Carolina in the 1940s: The Decade of Transformation.”

Based on a series of articles Gerard wrote for Our State Magazine, his new book, in 13 short chapters, takes a look at North Carolina in the 1940s. No one book, especially a short one, can adequately cover an entire decade. But Gerard’s selection and description of important topics gives his readers an informed introduction to the entire period.

Gerard’s small book covers: the 1940 hurricane that brought deathly floods to the mountains of North Carolina, the origins of the “Unto These Hills” (a theatrical extravaganza depicting Cherokee life and history), challenges of land ownership for black North Carolinians, the polio epidemic, construction of the Fontana Dam and the painful relocation of local residents, the powerful 1944 storm that lashed the Outer Banks, strikes at Reynolds Tobacco in 1943, Black Mountain College and its shocking liberalism in conservative North Carolina, the establishment of the Marine Corps training facility at Camp Lejeune, and finally the “sensitive, steady, and reliable leadership” of Gov. Mel Broughton.

If these topics are not enough for you, there is some good news. Gerard left another book for us, “North Carolina in the 1950s: The Decade in Motion,” set for publication in March 2023.

D.G. Martin, a lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.