I wasn’t sure what to expect when I pulled up to 265 Charlotte Street this past Friday night. I knew a little bit about the building, a little bit about the event, and an even littler bit about the hosting organization. I blushingly admit I was skeptical about the “Diamond Ball.” I was coming in as an outsider to a soirée thrown by a very reputable league, sponsored by a patriarchal business that has perhaps the strongest back bone in Asheville, even surviving the Great Depression. The Junior League of Asheville was founded in 1925, and Wick and Greene Jewelers in 1926. The two have been leaders in the community, often rubbing elbows, and taking charitable journeys together ever since. I knew I was entering a world of great successes Friday night, but also a world of strong community presences that reach back decades. Truth be told, I was nervous. However, I’m always looking for a reason to discover…and to wear a pretty dress, of course, so I went.
The writer in me took in the atmosphere first: the smells, the sounds, the ambiance. I got the warm fuzzies immediately. My high heel shoes clicked delightfully against the hardwoods that I knew had experienced history itself traipsing all over them. I could tell already that this was a building that knew things. The Manor Inn served as an upscale resort in the early twentieth century during Asheville’s wellness heyday. Naturally, dwarfed in size by the nearby Grove Park Inn, this building had much to prove…which it did. Architects from across the country added bits of flavor to the structure that ultimately took on a tudoresque and colonial revivalist feel. Surrounding cottages followed suit, and so did Asheville. Buildings all over downtown would idolize such architectural tastes and make for a beautiful “lost generation” stomping ground.
I felt like I opened the front door to this magical place Friday night and became whisked right into that roaring era that no one can seem to forget. I was surrounded by newsboy hats, flapper’s dresses, sequined headbands, and vibrant bow ties. I could hear big band music in the back, but with a fiddle player touting a specific style that reminded me I was in The South indeed. A genuinely-dressed flapper carried the sought after single-carat, 15,000 dollar diamond around for all to admire (donated to be raffled by Wick and Greene Jewelers). It took about fourteen seconds for me to realize these women could throw a par-tay.
I’m a huge advocate of the idea of “work hard and play hard”. I think people who give such large amounts of their lives and energies to charity and voluntarism should know how to have a ball, and do so with the community who supports them. I just wasn’t sold yet. I wanted to know how I would be received in this prestigious group, and I wanted to get to know these women on a more personal level. I was by no means trying to hold them under a microscope, yet human nature left me slightly guilty of doing so.
I set out to meet Keri Wilson, the Asheville chapter’s president. I thought I would have to ask around and seek her out. I pictured her to be surrounded by important people, finding it difficult to get away. However, I would soon find out that the bubbly brunette who ushered me in with a smile not even an Oscar winner could fake would turn out to be her. I’d never gotten such a warm greeting. She was eager to welcome me in personally, as well as the askasheville organization. She directed me where to find food and beverages, without forgetting to give Wick and Greene jewelers a chorus of praise for all they’d done. She was the first representation of the Junior League I’d ever encountered and the impression was a breath of fresh air. I wanted to meet more of these women.
A group of J.L. members with the diamond courtesy of Wick and Greene Jewelers (Keri Wilson, president on far left)
After mingling a bit I came across J.L. member, Melissa Kledis. This charismatic woman had a huge energy about her that lured me in quickly. After talking for a few minutes I learned that this Edward Jones advisor, school volunteer, wife, and mother of three was one of the co-chairs of the event. I had trouble imagining how such an incredibly busy woman had so much stamina left in her, but I realized after talking with her it was because she believed in every single thing she did. In that ten to fifteen minutes we talked, she spoke passionately about her job, her children, her wonderful husband, the terrific family she had married into (who introduced her to the league), and the tremendous opportunities to serve her community she would not have had without the Junior League. This woman’s busy schedule truly was her reward, and I could see her wearing it as plainly as the feathers in her hair. This woman felt empowered by her efforts, but was focused most on empowering others.
Melissa Kledis and her husband.
By the end of the night I sat thinking in a beautiful wing-backed chair by the door. I could feel the air conditioning getting fresh with my leg from the antiquated vent beneath me. I noted the air conditioner had a certain smell, like the one in the house I grew up in, which was coincidentally was built circa 1920. I felt so at ease now, with the skepticism erased, and a sense of community embracing me. I’d had a magical night escaping to my favorite era, but the bigger roar came from within the passions of the incredible women I had the pleasure of meeting. The Junior League’s Mission Statement reads, ” “The Association of Junior Leagues International Inc. (AJLI) is an organization of women committed to promoting voluntarism, developing the potential of women and improving communities through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers. Its purpose is exclusively educational and charitable.” I found it to be more than accurate.
I will gladly support The Junior League of Asheville in any way I can. Their current missions have focused on helping those falling below the poverty line, which in today’s economy is far too many. Most days it is people in need that these women care about becoming important to. They have been working closely with the Homeward Bound project to put an end to homelessness in the Asheville area. They have also been cooperating with the ABCCM and Children First organizations. When the community supports the Junior League at fundraisers like the Diamond Ball they are really supporting the faces they see everyday, and making far-reaching contributions to those who need it most. These are the fruits of the grander roar these women create every day.
For more information on the Junior League of Asheville, please visit http://www.juniorleagueasheville.org