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Fletcher Ward Left Lasting Legacy
“Everybody else was playing ball,” said Nate Ward of he and his brother when they were kids. “Fletch and I were out in the woods. We could go through the woods better than anybody.”
While the brothers occasionally enjoyed hunting squirrels, their outings were mostly focused on simply exploring and being out in the nature. “He was most happy just spending the day walking around outdoors,” said Nate.
Fletcher “Fletch” Ward — who last April passed away at the age of 67 — was a lifelong resident of Western North Carolina. He and Nate grew up in Arden, and the mountains were calling him from the beginning.
“He wasn’t outgoing. He was definitely an introvert,” said Nate’s wife, Susan Ward.
Though quiet and independent, Fletch was a man of devotion. It was what defined his character.
Fletch was devoted to his country, serving in the U.S. Air Force. His three and a half years spent at a base in North Dakota during his 20s had him longing to return to the mountains and forests of North Carolina. It also instilled in him a strong work ethic.
“Spend four years up there, and you get tough,” said Nate, who himself was in the Air Force stationed at a nearby base in the same region.
Fletch was devoted to his family. While he didn’t marry or have children, he visited his mother every day until her death. He visited Nate and Susan almost every weekend.
He loved NASCAR, and for decades he cheered faithfully for Dale Earnhardt. He and Nate would travel across the state to watch races, enjoying a good time at the track drinking beer and barbecuing on a large charcoal grill.
Fletch was fervently devoted to his job, working tirelessly as an employee of the Asheville Regional Airport for 31 years. During that span, all who flew in and out of Asheville in part had Fletch to thank.
“He set a standard of consistent excellence for all to follow,” according to a commendation statement from the Airport Authority.
Wearing multiple hats, including property manager and facilities and maintenance, Fletch had a hand in most operations that kept the airport running. When snow blanketed the runaway, it was Fletch who manned the blower to clear it.
“Fletch was versatile employee,” the Airport Authority's statement observed. “His duties would take him from the most remote spot on the airfield to the most crowded point in the terminal. He accommodated the needs of everyone.”
So devoted to his work was Fletch that during his career he accumulated 3,556 hours of sick leave. To be exact, that amounted to 445 days of accrued time off that he never used. In fact, across three decades, Fletch took just one sick day off of work.
“He liked the airport, and he liked the people there,” said Nate. “And he liked to work. He gave one hundred percent every day.”
And he was especially generous person. Fletch, who also cut grass and did yard work as a side job, was once observed by a stranger while pumping gas at the local Ingles. Asked by a man at the adjacent pump if the lawn equipment in the back of his weathered pickup truck was owned and used by him, Fletch was handed the gift of a hundred dollar bill when he replied affirmatively.
“What’s this for?” Fletch asked the stranger. “I just like to see a man who does hard work,” he replied.
A few days later Fletch deposited the money in his bank account. At the same time, he made a donation for that amount — and more — to a local charity. “He was a good man,” said Nate.
Among all Fletch’s devotions, his passion for the natural world perhaps endured as his strongest. “He would go out in the woods on Saturdays when he was off work,” said Susan. “Nature is where he felt most comfortable. He didn’t have to interact with anyone. It was where he could go to just ‘look.’ ”
Fletch enjoyed several stomping grounds, but perhaps more so than any other place when he sought the outdoors, he was drawn to Bearwallow Mountain.
After all, as a boy he grew up in its shadow in the valley below. And he saw it from the runway, ever present on the horizon, every day during his entire career at the airport. “He loved Bearwallow,” said Susan.
“We started hiking up there 25 or 30 years ago,” Nate said. “That was back when the road wasn’t even paved up the mountain.”
In recent years, the three Wards would hike up to the summit together, lured by the stunning scenery at the top. It was also the place they would take visiting family and friends to show off the beauty of the region that was their home. “We liked to share it,” said Susan.
“It never occurred to us about needing to save it until development started getting close to it a few years ago,” she added. But soon the Wards’ fear — that their favorite destination in nature might be spoiled — turned into gratitude and relief.
“When we learned that the top had been protected by a conservation easement, we were all very happy about it,” Susan said.
Those sentiments were still close in mind upon Fletch’s death when Nate and Susan learned they had the huge responsibility of bestowing Fletch’s estate. They diligently pursued his wishes to donate his means to what he loved most — the natural world.
“Bearwallow was important to him,” said Susan. “And he loved everything in its natural state,” added Nate.
Nate and Susan researched the conservation and trail projects ongoing at Bearwallow Mountain and learned about the efforts of Hendersonville-based Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC).
The Wards ultimately bequeathed Fletch’s life savings — $75,000 — in support of CMLC’s continued work at Bearwallow Mountain.
The substantial gift mirrors Fletch’s personality. “Fletch didn’t talk much,” said Susan. “But when he did, it was important.”
Just like his few chosen words when he was living, the legacy he left for Bearwallow Mountain is important, too.
The funding will be utilized to expand protection of Bearwallow’s natural resources and charming character. CMLC is pursuing protection of an additional 300 acres along the high elevation ridgeline of Bearwallow Mountain in partnership with its compassionate landowners.
Fletch’s bequest will also help extend the hiking trail on Bearwallow, a path that enables visitors to enjoy the mountain and revel in its natural beauty. The summit is most-iconic destination within the budding Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trail.
This footpath, being constructed in segments, will eventually make accessible more of Bearwallow Mountain to the public as well as connect it by trail to nearby conserved lands like Little Bearwallow Mountain and CMLC’s Florence Nature Preserve. Once linked, the segments will form a continuous 15-mile loop trail among these protected lands.
Improvements to the public trailhead at Bearwallow Gap will also be supported by Fletch’s legacy. That trailhead serves as the starting point for two of the CMLC trail network’s most popular paths — the Bearwallow Mountain Trail and Trombatore Trail. CMLC seeks to increase parking capacity, enhance entry points to both trails, and improve safety for pedestrians and motorists.
Fletch’s gift appropriately reflects his generous spirit throughout his life, and honors his adoration of the mountain and its natural world that he enjoyed so fervently.
“He was very caring,” said Susan. “Fletch was always someone you could turn to.”
Now forever more at Bearwallow Mountain, you will still be able to turn to Fletch. His devotion will always be there.
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator
Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.