The generosity and spirit of Adelaide Worth Daniels Key has been celebrated for decades, especially in Western North Carolina. Now the region is mourning the loss of perhaps the most influential philanthropist it has ever known. Key died Aug. 20 following a long battle with cancer. She was 78.
“She took philanthropy to a whole other level,” said Wells Greeley, a long-time business owner in Haywood County. “She never lived here, but she had a business here, and included the community in her efforts.”
Key purchased The Mountaineer newspaper of Waynesville in 1989, and asked then-publisher Ken Wilson to continue his duties, which he did until 2000 when her son, Jonathan Key ’82, purchased the paper. “She never put any demands or limitations on me as the publisher of the newspaper, and I managed the paper a lot like I think she would have managed it — to be fair and make sure the underprivileged, the underappreciated and the underserved are given their due,” said Wilson, a former chair of WCU’s Board of Trustees. “She was just an extraordinary humanitarian.”
Among her contributions to the region were a $200,000-plus donation to Folkmoot USA to start a foundation to support the international festival of folk music and dance; a donation to the First United Methodist Church in Waynesville following a 1994 fire that destroyed the sanctuary; and the founding of the Rathbun Center, a home where those who wanted to stay near loved ones at nearby Asheville hospitals could have a place to take a quick nap, stay the night or relax. A former chair of the Western Carolina University Board of Trustees and former member of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, Key also made a significant contribution to WCU through her gifts.
Clifton Metcalf worked closely with Key when he served as vice chancellor for advancement and external affairs at WCU. Mutual interests in community projects and politics led to a deep friendship, Metcalf said. “Adelaide Key had remarkably strong interests in a whole host of public areas such as education, health care and community projects that were helpful to people who couldn’t afford to meet their needs on their own,” he said. Anytime a site was needed for an event to benefit a cause she supported, it was almost a given that Key was willing to host it at her Asheville home, Metcalf said. She was an excellent hostess who stayed in the background, and she never wanted recognition and always had others introduce the speaker, said Metcalf, who was editor at Mountaineer Publishing before Key became involved.
Jim Miller, WCU associate vice chancellor for development, said Key was the first individual to fund an endowed professorship at the university. Her contribution of $666,000, along with state funds, created a $1 million endowment in 1996. The Adelaide Worth Daniels Key Professorship in Special Education was created to hire a faculty member of distinction in that field. In announcing the professorship, Key had this to say about her interest in the area: “All through my childhood and adolescence, I was told to sit still. When I was a child, no one had ever heard of attention deficit disorder, so I was bad, I was stupid and why in the world could I not sit still. It is my hope that this professorship will create teachers who will come away from Western Carolina University understanding that different isn’t stupid.”
Key also worked behind the scenes to help WCU’s first comprehensive fundraising campaign (2007-2009) succeed, Miller said. “She was passionate about Western Carolina University and she was certainly a force to be reckoned with. We are saddened by the loss and will miss her dearly,” he said.
David Westling was hired as WCU’s first Adelaide Worth Daniels Distinguished Professor and still holds the position today. During his tenure, Westling has implemented a training program to prepare teachers to help students with severe disabilities and to address needs that weren’t addressed previously.
Westling said he met with Key several times a year to talk about the program and its progress. “She was always interested in what I was doing,” he said. “She wanted to support special education because of difficulties she faced as a child. She wanted teachers to be better able to work with students with disabilities. She was a very nice, congenial, down-to-earth person who just wanted to do good.”
Key received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from WCU in May 2003.
Reprinted in edited format with permission of The Mountaineer.
The campus community mourned the loss of two former members of the Board of Trustees, in addition to Adelaide Key, who passed away in the fall. Wade Harold Mitchell, who died Oct. 1, practiced law in Valdese for more than 50 years. He served as a trustee from 1967 until 1971. Roberta Mollie Gloyne Arneach Blankenship, who was known to most as Mollie Blankenship, passed away Sept. 22 in Cherokee. She was one of the founding members of the Cherokee Historical Association and served on the WCU board from 1991 until 1999.