By Tim Gardner
Janet Barton Speer is an interesting person and a likeable one.
She’s also an achiever, a giver, a passionate patron of the North Carolina High Country in general and Banner Elk, Avery and Watauga Counties and Lees-McRae College in particular.
She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Southwest Texas State University and a Ph.D. from Louisiana State University. Dr. Speer has worked at Lees-McRae College since 1976. She is a retired professor there, but remains the creative director of its acclaimed Summer Theatre program. To list all Dr. Speer’s community activities and service awards would fill a book. They include: The North Carolina’ Governor’s Volunteer Award; Avery County Woman of the Year (twice); the North Carolina Theatre Conference Service Award; Outstanding Educator at Lees-McRae College; and most recently The Order of the Long Leaf Pine, which is given by North Carolina’s Governor and is the state’s highest state-service award.
Dr. Speer has a hard time saying no to worthwhile causes. Her existence has been centered around a lifetime of giving. “You know, I have never given one minute of my time that I didn’t get twice in return,” she proudly proclaimed.
A devout member of Banner Elk Presbyterian Church, which has many programs designed to help those in need. Dr. Speer shared: “I honestly feel we’re put on this Earth to serve others, and that’s why I try to serve others. I hope that when I take my last breath, God will say, ‘a job well done.’ That would be the ultimate reward.
Dr. Speer continued by listing her life’s philosophy as such: “Above all, show kindness to one another. If you knew everything there was to know about a person, you would have a difficult time hating them. The more we can learn about the human condition, the more we can move toward a peaceful world.”
The Order of the Long Leaf Pine is presented to “persons for exemplary service to the State of North Carolina and their communities that is above and beyond the call of duty and which has made a significant impact on…North Carolina,” according to the Order of the Long Leaf Pine Society web site.
It’s also the state’s second-highest civilian honor behind the North Carolina Award.
Dr. Speer was presented with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine on July 11 during the opening night of Speer’s latest show at Lees-McRae, which she wrote and directed: “From the Mountaintop: The Edgar Tufts Story,” which highlights the life and accomplishments of the Reverend Edgar Tufts, the man who envisioned and built several of Banner Elk’s most important establishments including the Banner Elk Presbyterian Church, Lees-McRae College, Cannon Memorial Hospital, and the Grandfather Home for Children.
The award was presented to Speer by the college’s president, Lee King, and Board of Trustees member Barbara Miller Whitton. King and Whitton nominated Speer for the award, which has been presented to around 15,000 people since its inception in 1963. Others who have earned the honor include Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, and former Lees-McRae President, Barry Buxton.
“To be affirmed by the people you work for in most gratifying,” Dr. Speer said. “I feel very tied to Lees-McRae College. It’s been a major part of my life for many years. I’ve had opportunities to leave and work other places, but Lees-McRae and these far most North Carolina Mountains have always held my heart and held my loyalty.”
She added that she was surprised to receive the Order of The Long Leaf Pine Award. “I think of myself as being well known locally, but not well-known statewide,” Speer said. “So, no, I never dreamed of receiving an honor as prestigious as this. I’m most grateful for it.”
“Dr. Speer’s impact has not only been on Lees-McRae, but the entire High Country,” King said. “In fact, it would be hard to put a true value on her significant contributions to our cultural environment, tourism, education, and even the development of Avery County and Banner Elk. She is a legend in the High Country.”
Whitton added: “I have for many years been in awe of Dr. Speer and her talents. She has been such a shining star for Lees-McRae for so many years. People all over the country who are in theatre know the name Lees-McRae because of her and our wonderful productions. Her enthusiasm for her work is contagious.”
Dr. Speer has been teaching theatre and performing as an actor, choreographing, writing, and directing plays for nearly fifty years. Her career includes more than 600 educational and professional productions. As the Virginia McKenzie Reeves Endowed Chair of Performing Arts and Distinguished Professor and faculty emeritus at Lees-McRae, Dr. Speer is the founder and artistic director for the Lees-McRae Summer Theatre.
She also taught for one year (interim position) at Appalachian State University in its Speech and Theatre Department as an Assistant Professor. Additionally, she taught theatric-related and child expression classes in Watauga County as well as tap, ballet and jazz through the Watauga Parks and Recreation Department.
Dr. Speer was Musicals Director for Blue Ridge Community Theatre in 1977, which remains in operation, for more than a quarter century. She also has worked in various capacities for theatric productions at Horn In The West, Green Park Theatre, Tweetsie Railroad and the Blowing Rock Stage Company.
And Dr. Speer is a published co-author of three books, including one entitled “From Banner Elk to Boonville,” as well as numerous plays and musicals.
Dr. Speer is married to Dr. Allen Paul Speer, a retired history professor and writer at Lees-McRae, and her children are Donovan and Barton Carroll. Donovan Carroll is a former football standout for the Avery County High School Vikings.
Dr. Speer’s life, has, indeed, been a fulfilled one. “I have lived the impossible dream, ” she declared. “I’ve earned three degrees. I’ve got to do so many things I’ve wanted to my chosen career. I’ve met thousands of interesting people. I’ve had the opportunity to teach many wonderful and gifted students. I’ve made many treasured friendships. I’ve traveled to many places. I’m married to a wonderful man. I have two wonderful children. In fact, may favorite activities are going on dates with my husband and being with my children. Life could not be much better.”
What you see is what you get, or better yet, who you see is who you get with Dr. Speer. She said that her sense of humor is a blessing that has seen her through tough times and brought happiness to others. “I try to laugh a lot,” she said. “I think if you can honestly see the humor in your life, that is probably the best blessing you can give. Make the best of any situation and in most situations, you can find a way to laugh about it. If you can give a smile to a person, you’ve given the greatest gift.”
As the list of her achievements keeps growing, Dr. Speer feels most gratified when the goals are achieved and she can look at her work with perspective.
“The gratification comes after you finish the project and you see the effect it has on people,” she said. ”When you help others, you’re giving the most important thing you can give, and that’s the human element.”