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A Denney for Your Thoughts – Book club has staying power

By Connie Denney

Talk about staying power! Eighty years have seen mighty structures, governments and powerful men rise and fall, not to mention men walking on the moon and many scientific discoveries. Would the group of 12 women who decided to form a book club in Erwin in 1939 have thought that 80 years later women would still gather monthly for the very specific purpose they had in mind?

But, really, why not? From the beginning Parnassus Book Club intended: “The object of this club shall be a united effort to promote the culture and entertainment of its members.” 

If you need a bit of orientation regarding the name, Mount Parnassus is in Greece. Figuratively speaking, think home of poetry, literature, learning. The book, “Parnassus on Wheels” by Christopher Morley (published 1917), directly inspired the name.

The perpetuation of such a purpose has continued through limiting the membership to 12 invitees. With each bringing one book a year, all 12 months are covered. By meeting monthly to exchange books over tasty desserts, all have the opportunity to read the books. Chatting with them during a recent meeting, I asked how they felt about being a part of the group. “Honored” was the response with added nods of agreement.

A variety of life experiences was represented in the room, including raising families, teaching school, working in federal service, as a librarian, as a social worker. There’s a granddaughter of J.F. Toney, for whom the local public library was named. Another is a former member of the library’s board. There was, also, an almost tangible camaraderie—one of the newer members arrived with three others for whom driving on their own would be a problem.

One aspect of the perpetuation of the club that struck me as very special is the mother-daughter relationships. One member is the daughter of one of the original 12 members. Four others are mother-daughter pairs.

Nancy Gentry spoke with me later about her mother, Mildred DeArmond, whose artwork appears on the club’s first yearbook, which is now displayed in a scrapbook. She was an artist and taught art, mostly for private students. Some of her works are still in the family. Although her mother did not formally teach her, Gentry did become interested and planned a college major in art but changed to math, which she taught for 25 years. After retirement she took art lessons and enjoys painting, and can “forget everything else.” Her mother influenced her love of both art and reading.

Gentry joined Parnassus after her mother’s death in 1980. Members wanted daughters to come into the club and several did.

Fast-forward to today. The membership includes Missy Lewis, the daughter of Martha Lou Bain, and Karen Loughmiller, daughter of Ann Howze.

After both retired from federal service, Lewis and her husband moved to Erwin and enjoy the outdoors. She is “thrilled” to have the book club as a social activity with her mom. Her Erwin childhood memories include going to the library, especially for Dr. Seuss and Madeline books. Her mom read to her. She now reads to her granddaughter. 

About Parnassus, she told me that regardless of being a daughter member, she feels it a “tremendous honor” to be asked to join and wants to carry on the tradition.

“I’m thankful every time I cross the mountain to live in such a beautiful part of the world,” Loughmiller says of coming from Asheville to visit her mom. They discuss lots of books and share books. She remembers her teacher parents being avid readers, always having books in the home. 

Loughmiller worked for the Buncombe County (North Carolina) Library System for 25 years. “In my experience, part of our mountain heritage is the high value our families and communities historically placed on books, learning and education, despite the challenges these rural areas often faced.” She spoke of the accumulated wisdom, kindness, compassion and humor among women in the book club she felt honored to join. 

May each of us be especially grateful Sunday, May 12, for our own mothers and others who passed along the love of books and reading.  Here’s wishing the Mothers of Parnassus Book Club—indeed all mothers — Happy Mother’s Day!