October 26, 2016
Allen de Hart, a genteel force whose generosity and perseverance brought culture, an appreciation for history and nature, and a legacy of environmental stewardship to Louisburg College, died Oct. 14.
De Hart, 90, professor emeritus of history, was one of the most influential people in the college’s 229-year-old history and an active advocate for the arts in Franklin County.
Three weeks before his death, he was guest of honor at the Crystal Gayle concert, part of the Allen de Hart Concert Series at Louisburg College. The audience sang Happy Birthday to the engaging nonagenarian and ate birthday cake with him at intermission.
He died at Wake Medical Center in Raleigh after a brief illness and will be buried in Virginia, where he grew up.
Born on a dairy farm in Patrick County, Va., de Hart began camping and hiking at age 5 and was building trails by the time he was 10. He planned, constructed and hiked trails for the rest of his life, conquering the Appalachian Trail and many others between Pennsylvania and Florida.
Known as “Earth Daddy” to the trail-building community, de Hart estimated in 2012 that he’d hiked more than 65,000 miles in the previous 30 years. He founded Friends of the Mountains to Sea Trail, which is overseeing the building of a 934.5-mile walking path across North Carolina. He wrote 11 trail guidebooks on hiking in North and South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.
De Hart, who served as a warrant officer in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, is an alumnus of Ferrum College in Virginia and High Point College, according to Louisburg College archives. He earned his master of arts from the University of Virginia. He told a writer for the Charlotte Observer that he later earned a degree in psychology to help him understand the why and how behind history.
In 1957, de Hart accepted a job at Louisburg College teaching history, psychology and reading development. He also acted as the college’s public affairs director.
De Hart was devoted to Louisburg College. He was a full-time faculty and staff member for 36 years and served another 16 years part time. He loved teaching, mentoring, exploring with his students. He was driven.
Louisburg College’s 2012 Columns magazine outlined de Hart’s accomplishments. After studying psychology, he established the Office of Testing and Guidance, out of which grew a developmental reading course and a learning skills program.
“By 1970, he and Flora [his wife] had written a textbook entitled ‘Systems Approach to Learning.’ In the same year he published ‘Cultural Arts Programming in the Two Year Colleges in North Carolina,’ a textbook developed from a graduate course at UNC-Chapel Hill.” Columns reported that de Hart also wrote “Introduction to Experimental Psychology,” a companion to the four-hour course he taught in Louisburg’s Department of Science.
Outside the classroom, de Hart established programs for cultural arts. He started the concert series that now bears his name, as well as a lecture and foreign film series. He helped establish the College and Community Arts Council, which became the Franklin County Arts Council.
He also helped start a folk festival to honor traditional folk music and dance. Within four years, the event had become the National Whistlers Convention. De Hart marketed the festival aggressively and brought international attention to his adopted hometown for years.
De Hart, whose charm was part of his success, helped found the Franklin County Historical Society and established a short-lived museum in the old Franklin County Jail in downtown Louisburg.
Perhaps his most lasting gift was in 2012, when the de Hart family gave the college 91 acres of forests, gardens, trails, lakes and historic sites.
For more than 50 years, the family had cultivated the De Hart Botanical Gardens. The gift, Louisburg College President Mark La Branche said at the time, was “one of the greatest historic developments in the 225-year history of the college.” The Botanical Garden Nature Museum is 90 percent complete.
For the rest of his life, Allen de Hart lived in his house on the grounds, taking care of the gardens and giving tours to those who stopped to take in the beauty.
One of his final wishes, said Dr. Robert Bruck, professor of environmental science and curator of the De Hart Botanical Gardens, was to ensure that the biologically unique gardens be dedicated to a continuing legacy of scientific exploration.
Nearly 20 years ago, as de Hart walked North Carolina’s Mountain to Sea Trail, he explained the appeal of exploration: Finding the unexpected and nourishing the spirit.
“We got to meet the people,” he told an Associated Press reporter. “It’s kind of like learning what we’ve forgotten about the state when you walk through farms and they wave at you, and the dog doesn’t bite you, and the children want to know what you’re doing. … Sometimes they ask if you are hungry and ask you to stay for dinner. Or to stay for the night.
“It’s real stuff,” de Hart said. “Some of it’s integrity, some of it’s quality. Its what we see if we slow down. We’re in such a hurry.”
De Hart wanted us all to slow down, to notice the hundreds of species of plants, the 200-year-old Beech and Oak trees, the Paleozoic rock formations. The violet and ruby spring flowers. The gold and rust fall leaves.
The treasures he left for the next generation to enjoy.
De Hart was buried Oct. 19 in the Woolwine Cemetery near Stuart, Va. Louisburg College plans a celebration of de Hart's life at 11 a.m. Nov. 12 at De Hart Botanical Gardens on U.S. 401, 5 miles south of Louisburg.
Memorials may be made to the De Hart Botanical Gardens, Louisburg College, 501 N. Main St., Louisburg, NC 27549.