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The Best From High Country Magazine Joan and Dick Hearn: Young at Heart

The Hearns

By Jesse Wood  (reprinted from The High Country Magazine, July 2011)

Photography by Lonnie Webster

It’s hard to imagine the High Country—and Blowing Rock, in particular—without Joan and Dick Hearn. Just about every day they are active in the community and eagerly engaged in making a difference in other people’s lives.

Whether it’s jumping into icy waters with homemade penguin costumes and participating in charity marathons or speaking to fourth-graders about protecting the environment or investigating child and elder abuse, the Hearns are more energetic than people a quarter of their age.

Tracy Brown, executive director of the Blowing Rock Tourism Development Authority, has known the couple for 20 years and plunges into Chetola Lake with them each winter. He called the Hearns the best cheerleaders our area has ever known.

“They not only talk the talk, but they walk the walk. They are always raising money for different charities…and they are not there for show,” Brown said. “They are there to do their work. They are just a real gem of a couple.”


In the ‘70s, Dick came to the High Country to run in the Grandfather Mountain Marathon. After the race, he told Joan, “This is where we should retire.” And two decades later they did.

Joan and Dick met at the University of Maryland and within three weeks they were engaged. In 1954, they married. The couple worked for an insurance agency in the D.C. area and New Jersey. They have a son and daughter and two grandkids. In the early ‘80s, the couple returned to the High Country so Dick could run another marathon. After the race, the couple got lost driving around Blowing Rock on Blackberry Road and saw a tiny sign that read Land for Sale. The next day they bought that parcel of land. In 1995, Dick retired, and the following year so did Joan. They moved to Blowing Rock, built their passive solar home with a vegetated roof and immediately volunteered their time, money and energy.

In the past, they were too busy working to volunteer, and now time is one of the major things they can offer, Joan said. The number of organizations they have served is upwards of 20, maybe more. The first local organizations they joined were High Country Hospice, Adopt-A-Highway and Watauga County Cooperative Extension (WCCE).

Wendy Patoprsty, natural resource agent for WCCE, called them her heroes and said they were very proactive. They won’t just throw out ideas and expect someone else to do it,” Patoprsty said. “I’ve sat through a lot of meetings where there are all these ideas and nobody wants to do them. It’s awesome to see them take charge and make things happen.” Ten years ago, the Hearns and Patoprsty developed the Kids in the Creek program, in which they visit fourth-grade classrooms. Joan dresses up as Mandy the giant mayfly and Dick as the Stream Doctor to teach students about the importance of clean water.

While teaching fourth-grade students about the importance of clean water, Joan and Dick dress up in costumes to engage students and make the learning fun for their Kids in the Creek program. Photo by Wendy Patoprsty

“It’s magical to watch them grab the kids’ attention for the entire skit,” Patoprsty said.

Joan and Dick have raised thousand of dollars to build streamside forests that stabilize stream banks and provide habitats for creek critters while protecting water quality. The couple practices what they teach, planting vegetation along the streams and extracting thousands of pounds of trash from the rivers during the annual Big Sweep River Cleanup.

“The list goes on and on,” Patoprsty said. “I think because they are not afraid to say, ‘I can help with that,’ other people help out. They are catalysts in the community to make things happen.”

The Hearns’ volunteer outreach spans many disciplines, from environmental advocacy and educating children to counseling seniors about health insurance.

Since 2006, they have been board members with High Country United Way.

“It’s incredible what they do for the community outside of United Way,” High Country United Way Executive Director Linda Slade said. “It’s clear they love the environment, they love children and they love the community.” In terms of volunteers, Slade said the couple is what every community wants a hundred of. They bring humor to every project they encounter.

Last year for the annual United Way Pig Kiss-Off, they provided a treat for the pig. They bought the pig a bowling ball because pigs like to root in the mud and push things around.

“Who would have thought of a thing like that?” Slade said.

Blowing Rock Christmas Parade
Joan and Dick Hearn participate in the Blowing Rock Christmas parade as polar bears. Joan makes all of their costumes by hand.

It doesn’t take long for the Hearns to make an impact on people they meet. Monica Caruso, a county librarian, has known them for a year or so. She’s sees the couple frequently, as Joan is the volunteer coordinator for Friends of the Watauga Library and serves with the Watauga Literacy Association, an adult literacy program. Also, Joan and Dick participate in the Reading and Rolling program, which delivers books to children in rural areas.

“Their spirit and endless energy are a force to be reckoned with,” Caruso said. “Now if we could clone them and put them in every community, wouldn’t that be a fabulous thing?”

Of all the organizations the Hearns serve, the Guardian ad Litem program is the one they take most seriously—one with which they are able to directly impact an abused child’s life. For the past five years, the Hearns, who were appointed by a judge, have served this program, where they investigate the surrounding life of an abused child. After a thorough investigation of documents and interviewing everybody who knows the child—parents, neighbors, teachers, friends, probation officers, social workers—the Hearns recommend to a judge whether custody of a child should be given to the Department of Social Services or stay with the parents.

Every year, Joan and Dick participate in parades throughout the High Country. They are rowing their boat down through the smooth waters of King Street in downtown Boone during the annual 4th of July parade.

“We are basically an advocate for the kids. The parents have attorneys, and DSS has attorneys,” Dick said. “We are their voice in court.” Sometimes the court agrees with their conclusions. Other times it doesn’t work out like the Hearns think it should, and the abuse continues. “Some of the situations are indescribable…One I cry over still. It’s just a shame,” Joan said. “We had a feeling it was going to work, but it didn’t. The family moved out of the state.”

As Joan said, some of the situations are deplorable and Joan and Dick, who signed confidentiality forms, vent to themselves or at monthly meetings with other members in the program. To balance the emotional stress that comes with such serious, sometimes heartbreaking cases, the Hearns enjoy working on top of their roof, where they have a vegetable garden, several flower gardens and a gazebo.

“We do a lot of things to balance it out. Pulling weeds is great therapy,” Dick said.

Joan added, “They quiver when I come out there.” Also for fun, they take classes with ASU’s Lifelong Learning Program, and they exercise—walking and jogging, yoga and tai chi. For the past 11, they have taken martial arts with Tim Winecoff. They were among his first group of students, and they have learned the entire 48 poses of the Chen Hunyuan Taiji. This is no small feat, Winecoff said.

“They continue to be active in class, and they’ve come quite a long way. They are inspiring as a teacher to have students that are engaged,” Winecoff said. “Where most people tend to plateau and go on to other things, they dig a little deeper and refine a little more.”

Joan and Dick (far left) and members of the Appalachian Lifelong Learning Program pose for a picture while the Doe River Valley looms in the background. When they aren’t volunteering, the Hearns like to exercise and participate in the Appalachian Lifelong Learning, a program offering non-credit courses to adults.

When Winecoff has to leave town for other obligations, Dick has taken it upon himself to teach beginner students so they continue to learn and progress and become familiar with the routine of the lessons and poses. “Joan and Dick are quite encouraging to those who have just started, and they help them negotiate through what may be unfamiliar territory, which can be disconcerting to most folks, particularly older individuals,” Winecoff said. “They always add a great deal of humor and lightheartedness to keep it fun.”

Over the years, the Hearns have run many marathons. Dick has run the Grandfather Mountain Marathon 11 times and Joan, seven times. Dick started running when he was 40. He decided he had to lose some weight after Joan asked him if he had life insurance. It took him a year to be able to run a mile, though he enjoyed running so much that he went from running short distances to “crazy stuff,” like ultra races, multi-day races and running across the state of Indiana and Washington.

“Adventures,” Dick said.

Joan ran her first marathon when she was 52 and said she “drags her little tail up” Howard’s Knob each year as part of the Triple Crown Series benefitting the High Country Girls on the Run. “It can be pretty boring to sit while somebody runs for nine or 10 hours,” Joan said. “I started [running] because I got tired of waiting in the car.”

JULY MAG 2001 - #1.inddJohn Weaver, director of the Grandfather Mountain Marathon and director of ASU Track and Cross Country, has timed them during many High Country races over the years. He said the Hearns are the nicest people he knows. “It’s good to see them at such good shape [at their age],” Weaver said. “They show up and are a great inspiration for everybody to stay healthy.”

The Hearns treat life like a continuous adventure, and of all of their activities their craziest yet may be their annual plunge into the icy waters of Chetola Lake in Blowing Rock and the Duck Pond at ASU. The Hearns don’t think it’s crazy, but Dick said it embarrasses the grandkids.

When they first moved to Blowing Rock, they were looking for things to do, and the polar plunge looked interesting. It was different, so they decided to take the plunge. It being for charity was all the better.

“We thought we would do it just one time, but we enjoyed it so much we kept doing it,” Dick said.

Each year for the plunge, Joan designs and creates their costumes. Over the years, they’ve been penguins, skunks, ducks, flamingos, sailors and octopi.

They have jumped in the frozen Chetola Lake 11 times and the frozen Duck Pond seven times. Last year for the Polar Plunge in Chetola Lake, Joan and Dick jumped for High Country United Way. The Duck Pond plunge benefits the Watauga County Special Olympics (WCSO).

“We always wonder what kind of costume they will show up in—whether it would sink or float,” Keron Poteat, WSCO coordinator, said. “We are always excited—and I gotta say a little scared—about them jumping.”

The majority of polar plungers at Duck Pond are students, so the Hearns stick out not only for their colorful and thoughtful costumes but for their age. Dick is 81, and Joan is younger. She didn’t want her age mentioned because people seem to downgrade others because of their age. “We have found that age is not really anything except being on your driver’s license,” Joan said. “Have you ever met people who tell you not to do things? Well, we never met them.”

The Hearns are in the public eye, but not because they try to be. They have been in numerous newspaper articles not because they want the attention but because they are so engaged in the community. As Winecoff said, “They are not after fame or accolades. It’s just what they want to do. They are models in how a community should operate. You do what you can and when you can for those around you.”

Joan and Dick love the High Country and the people who live here. They moved here because they loved the mountains, and they liked a university being within a small town. Joan said the university kept them from going stale, and there isn’t anywhere else they would rather be. For them, volunteering isn’t a chore. It is not something they do because they feel like they have to.

“We wouldn’t be a member of a group unless we didn’t enjoy what they were doing,” Dick said.

Joan added, “It is a wonderful way to meet people in your community. We love it. We learn something new from somebody every week. We meet so many great people, all kinds of people doing so many different things that I find incredible.”

The Hearns
Joan and Dick Hearn, dressed as a sailor and a mermaid, plunge into the icy waters of Chetola Lake in Blowing Rock. Over the years they’ve jumped into Chetola Lake 11 times as part as the Polar Plunge fundraiser for charity.
The Hearns
Climbing back out of the lake after their Polar Plunge.
The Hearns
The Hearns sit in front of their passive solar home. Their home has a vegetated roof where they have a vegetable garden, as well as flower gardens and a gazebo.
MFGA Mast Store Photo
Members of the Mast General Store present a check to the Middle Fork Greenway Association, which the Hearns organize. The association is a collaborative effort of volunteers to promote and organize the expansion of a trail connecting Boone and Blowing Rock. Photo by Heather Wagoner