By Jessica Isaacs | [email protected]
Photos by Ken Ketchie
Friends across Avery County kicked off a new year Wednesday night with a favorite tradition — the Banner Elk Chamber’s annual dinner at Stonewall’s restaurant. The evening began with fellowship and a meal at the restaurant, which is now under new ownership, as the ceremony began.
With Chamber President Jo-Ann McMurray out sick, her husband Tom asked local resident Roy Krege (who’s always quick to step up and help out) to read the remarks and announce the winner of this year’s Person of the Year Award. Although the recipient’s name would be a surprise to him, too, Krege was more than willing to take the microphone, as he almost always does at local functions.
“We’re all involved, each one of us, one way or another, day in and day out, in making Banner Elk the place to be. This is not to say this year’s selection was difficult. In fact, it was quite easy,” Krege said to the crowd. “This person is the epitome of our town booster and someone that can be relied upon when something needs to be done. Our board is quite certain that everyone here tonight will consider this year’s honoree a well-deserved addition to the honor roll of past recipients.”
McMurray passed him the plaque, and Krege continued, “We are pleased to announce that the recipient of this year’s Frank Watts Person of the Year Award is … ”
When he read his own name listed as the recipient, the crowd erupted in laughter and applause as Krege remarked, “That’s a dirty trick.”
The roomful of friends and neighbors enjoyed time together over another great dinner at Stonewall’s, thanks to new owners Scott Garland and Chef Tim Heschke, as well as updates on local chamber happenings and sharing words of encouragement and appreciation with the Krege family.
Chamber Vice President Deka Tate said to the group:
“Roy Krege’s impact on the Banner Elk community is massive and integrated into the very fabric of life in the town. Roy picks up trash along the highways to maintain the attractiveness of the town. Roy takes woolly worms into the local schools to excite children about the upcoming festival. Roy has driven thousands of miles from early August to late September to promote the Woolly Worm Festival, even getting Paul Harvey’s attention during one of his radio broadcasts.
“Roy dresses in pink to support the Cancer Resource Center at Cannon Hospital. During charitable auctions, Roy gets bidders to offer $40 for a $20 item. He was at every summer concert in the park, verbally jesting with members of the audience. He was at every summer theatre production at Lees-McRae College, organizing the evening for a smooth performance and selling candy bars during intermission.
“There is no good stopping place when trying to tell the personal good works of Roy Krege — the list is long and varied. The evening of Jan. 11, 2017 will mark just one additional attempt by a grateful community to say, ‘Thanks, Roy. It’s good to know you and call you friend.’”
In recent years, the realities of a heart condition have convinced Krege that it’s time to pass the torch on some of his self-appointed responsibilities around town, but he’ll always be Mr. Banner Elk.
“I’m very honored by it. Humbled by it. At this stage in my life I certainly would not have expected that,” Krege said. “Maybe there’s some advantage to going through all these heart problems and everything? Maybe they just thought, ‘If we’re going to ever do anything for this guy, we better do it now before it’s too late.’ I’ve come along way, and we’re feeling pretty good about it.”
A Servant’s Heart
A lot of good can happen during a span of five decades, and it certainly has in the community of Banner Elk thanks to beloved local resident Roy Krege, whose kind heart, benevolent spirit and proclivity for service have earned him a reputation as ambassador for all that is good in Avery County.
If you’ve spent any time at all in the Banner Elk area, chances are you’ve happened upon the legend himself, and he was likely sporting the color pink for cancer awareness or a suit donned with woolly worms when you did. If you’re a regular around town, you’ve probably been blessed to know him in one way or another, and he probably calls you a friend.
Lovingly known as both “Mr. Banner Elk” and “Mr. Woolly Worm,” Krege’s had a hand in nearly every fundraiser, service project, nonprofit program, community outreach, awareness project and local event in the area since he moved here with his wife, Marion, in the late 1960s. He joined the family of Banner Elk, jumped right in and never looked back, and the High Country is undoubtedly a better place because of it.
His friends and neighbors literally cannot say enough about the humble man who continually captures the hearts of an entire community.
The Kreges made Avery County their home in 1968 when Roy began his venerable career at Lees-McRae College, where he served in a variety of directorships and vice presidencies covering arenas like business affairs, financial aid, institutional development, alumni relations and more. Over the years, he and Marion also became heavily involved in the college’s summer theatre program, a family of which they’re still very much a part to this day.
“I have known Roy for almost 40 years. Our journey began at Lees-McRae when he was one of the vice presidents and is current now, as he is in charge of several areas of Lees-McRae Summer Theatre,” said Janet Speer, the program’s artistic director. “I have yet to meet a person so driven to serve. I do believe his brain is fully wired to creatively seek out ways to meet the needs of family and community.”
He also joined the Kiwanis Club of Banner Elk, where his servant’s heart felt right at home in a local branch of the international mission to improve the lives of children around the world. For Krege, no task is too big or too small if it means a chance to make a difference.
“In all things that bring people together — community, school, college, hospital or even an orphanage — Roy is there. He will spend hours gathering money for the Kiwanis duck race, or pour your coffee as you dine at a benefit. He will emcee community concerts, or call a square dance for school children,” said Speer. “His work seems bottomless, much like his heart.
“I would be remiss if I did not also say that his wife, Marion, is not only his support, but also travels with him on most all of these journeys. She is truly part of his mission. To add to that, their three children are three of the kindest people I know — all live to serve, taking their cue from their father and mother. Avery County was truly blessed when Roy and Marion decided to make their home here.”
When he earned the Kiwanis organization’s prestigious Walter Zeller Fellowship in April 2016, Krege said, “As a Kiwanian, I can put good works into my belief that to be great in God’s kingdom you need to be the servant of all.”
Mr. Woolly Worm
His active role in the Kiwanis Club led to heavy involvement in the annual Woolly Worm Festival in downtown Banner Elk, which was established in 1973 by Jim Morton, editor of the now defunct Mountain Living Magazine and son of Grandfather Mountain developer Hugh Morton.
When the Kiwanians and the Avery County Chamber of Commerce took the reigns in the late ’70s, Krege took over as festival emcee and he’s been doing it ever since. He’s spent countless hours and traveled many miles to help promote the festival, the community and its local businesses, and his devotion to the project (along with his signature woolly worm suit and hat) have earned him his title.
On stage at the festival last October, Krege announced to the crowd that he was officially retiring from his role as Mr. Woolly Worm and would pass the reigns to his right hand man, Adam Binder, who’s also been dubbed “Mr. Woolly Worm in Training.”
“I moved to the High Country back in 2009 and was just looking for a way to get involved, and I found it through the Kiwanis Club and the Woolly Worm festival as a volunteer,” Binder said. “I realized in very short order that the person I wanted to emulate more in my life was Roy Krege. From top to bottom, he lives to help other people.
“I realized that if something was going on in Banner Elk or surrounding areas and I showed up, Roy would be the focal point, whether he was the emcee or just participating. I started to show up where he was and started talking to him and his wife, Marion, about how I could help. He might be the emcee for many events, but people don’t realize he’s always the first person to show up and the last person to leave, picking up things from the grass as he leaves. He’s not just the guy on the microphone.”
Krege is also known for his active work at the Grandfather Home for Children, where he joined as assistant director in 1995 after serving at Lees-McRae for many years. At the time, he worked closely with fellow Kiwanian Jim Swinkola, who was acting CEO of the ministry at the time.
“I was fortunate enough to be CEO when Roy came in as Assistant Director. At that time, he had already established the Mr. Woolly Worm title for himself; such that when the local newspaper, The Avery Journal, came to do a story on his joining the staff, the headline was ‘Mr. Woolly Worm Joins Grandfather Home,’” Swinkola said. “Roy worked literally 20 feet away from me. My office was just across the hallway.”
Not only was Krege a staunch advocate for the Grandfather Home and the children it served, his heart for people made him a true representative of its mission to create a kinder, better world for people in the community.
“Roy has a remarkable talent and a remarkable characteristic for paying attention to the inner feelings of people, and I admire him for that. That is not something God gave me a great gift for, so there was a perfect balance,” said Swinkola. “If you were looking at it like a teeter totter, my decisions were based on data and crunching a lot of numbers to try to move forward. Roy would always be there to support the staff and the children and he kind of kept that balance — he was the perfect counterweight for me, in my opinion.
“He paid a lot of attention to the people things. He was always well liked, always making jokes, always knew whose birthday was about to happen, and, if a staff member had a sick child, he would do something to help that sick child. That kind of person orientation, that people sensitivity, was his greatest strength and it just permeates everything Roy Krege.”
During his time at Grandfather Home, Krege also led the effort to establish the ministry’s on-site academic program, the Grandfather Academy.
“There was a major, major controversy when the school system refused admission to the children who were residents at Grandfather Home into their schools,” Swinkola said. “Turns out that, exactly at that point in time, North Carolina was establishing charter schools, so we were first in line for a charter school application and Roy was the principal and director of Grandfather Academy, one of North Carolina’s first 32 charter schools.”
His education background was put to good use in the establishment of the academy. Meanwhile, down the road in Crossnore, Krege’s other half was making strides of her own.
“While Roy was the principal of the charter school, his wife Marion was the principal of the charter school at Crossnore School,” said Swinkola. “So, this husband-and-wife team had the two charter schools in Avery County under their command and directorship.”
Although now retired from the Academy, Krege’s role as an administrator, educator and champion for children will forever tell an important part of the story of the academy and the Grandfather Home for Children, which has since been merged with the Barium Springs organization to form Children’s Hope Alliance.
A Legacy of Love
No matter who you ask or how they know Roy Krege, anyone who’s crossed his path will agree that he’s one of a kind, and the legacy that he’s created is just as special and unique.
“I started helping Roy with the festival in 2010, and the next year I assumed a title that I gave myself as Mr. Woolly Worm in Training. My line has always been that I would love to keep that ‘in-training’ title for 20-30 more years,” said Binder. “The reason I love doing it so much is because I get to do it alongside Roy.”
The Banner Elk Chamber’s Man of the Year Award is one of many recognitions he’s received for his service over the years, but those who have seen is heart in action agree that there could never be reward enough to repay Roy Krege for what he has done for the community.
“He will always tell you it’s about God, family and community. He’s very faithful with his church and religious beliefs and his family is the number one priority in his life,” Binder said. “He’s got amazing kids and grandkids and he does everything for them. Then, there’s his community. I always ask him, ‘When do you have time for you?’ but those three things are so engrained in who he is.”
The story of Roy Krege is a truly inspiring tale, and all who call the High Country their home are blessed by his life’s work and the example he continues to set for us all.
“He could probably be considered for every type of award you’re giving in any context. He truly is special. He’s more than Mr. Banner Elk, more than Mr. Woolly Worm, and his selfless nature is the main reason,” said Binder. “Nothing is about him at all. If something was made about him, he’d shy away from it. I remember that I emceed a roast in his honor many years ago, and we had to cut so many segments of it out because he does so many things that you can’t even calculate it.
“The title of Mr. Banner Elk is in his DNA. He’s totally selfless — it’s always about the cause or the people or the area. That’s just what he does. Congratulations, Roy, this is well deserved.”
Continue reading to see what more of Krege’s friends and neighbors have to say about this Person of the Year and scroll for more photos of Roy doing what he loves to do — serving the community.
“I’m the pastor here at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church. I’ve been here for 15 years, so I’ve known Roy all this time. He is probably the most service-oriented person that I have ever known. Three years prior to becoming pastor here I was a member for three years, so in 18 years worth of observation I can say that serving people is his comfort zone. Helping others is his life’s mission and that’s the place that he seems to be most happy and most powerful. His lifetime of service has more than qualified him to be recognized as man of the year. He’s a man of faith and has a deep-rooted sense of connecting his serving others to his belief in Christ, and I believe that’s a big part of why he does it. He believes that’s the way God would have him live. I really admire him and his family. They have shown themselves to be the kind of people to follow in his footsteps and he has made a real impact on our church and our community, and we’re a better place because of that.”
– The Rev. George Wright
“I have known Roy for as long as we have been here, which has been more than 30 years. I’ve known him more as a friend and a fellow Kiwanian, and I have always been impressed by his devotion to the concept of service. He takes that concept very seriously, and he does not hesitate to tell others to take serve very seriously. He manages to do all of that by managing not to take himself very seriously, and he’s always joking and jesting and having fun with people; but the root of his being is still service, and that’s just a neat thing to be able to say about a person.”
– Ann Swinkola
“I’ve lived here since June 2005 and anytime there’s an event or fundraiser in Banner Elk or surrounding areas, Roy’s always a part of it helping through the process. At many fundraisers he’s front and center, and he also started the summer concert series in Banner Elk. If there’s a fundraiser going on, he’s promoting it. He’s a hard act to follow. Even those of us who do volunteer work will only ever accomplish a small fraction of what he’s been able to do. That’s his legacy.”
– John Heinlein
“I have never met a person with more dedication to his community, and with his dedication we all benefit. He’s made volunteering fun and he’s been a role model for others. I met him when I first moved up to the High Country in the early ’80s and we went to church together, Kiwanis together and I got to know him professionally through the chamber. I just think the world of him, and we even share the same birthday. I could have grown u p to be like Roy, but there’s no way I could do it with his style and grace … and he is older than me. We’ve got big shoes to fill, that is for sure, and we’re all better served by knowing Roy.”
– Kathy Boone