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2 Asheville men given state's highest civilian honor
Wednesday, 01 December 2021 14:56

Two Asheville men recently were named to the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Gov. Roy Cooper and announced during a celebration ceremony at UNC Asheville on Oct. 18.

Honored were Gene Bell, retired executive director of the Asheville Housing Authority; and Al Whitesides, a member of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.

The award, begun in 1963, is presented in recognition of extraordinary service to the state.

The Oct. 18 celebration also recognized the opening of Asheville PEAK Academy, for which Bell serves as board chair. The tuition-free public charter school strives to close the achievement gap through personalized instruction and character education to ensure youth, regardless of income status or race, receive a quality educational experience that will allow them to achieve academic and lifelong success.

Whitesides, a long-time community activist and former banker, is the first African-American to serve as a commissioner for Buncombe County. He built a successful career of 40 years in banking with First Union National Bank in Asheville, Wachovia, and Mountain 1st Bank and Trust — "all the while he has never stopped fighting for justice and equality in his community, a role that started early in his life in Asheville," a UNCA press release stated. "While attending the segregated African-American Stephens Lee High School in the early 1960s, Whitesides joined the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality. ASCORE students boycotted and integrated the libraries, lunch counters, movie theaters, and more, for five years in Asheville.

"His passion for advocacy led him to a double major in political science and history from North Carolina College, now named North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina. As president of the student body, he continued to fight for civil rights by working with students from NCCU, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Duke Universities boycotting in downtown Durham for equal rights. He graduated from NCCU in 1969 during the height of the civil rights movement.

"Whitesides has a resume full of community service and volunteer roles. He has served on the Asheville City Board of Education, the board of his alma mater NC Central University, and as chair of the UNC Asheville Board of Trustees. Whitesides was chairman and board member of the YMI Cultural Center for 10 years and is currently serving as a Buncombe County Commissioner. In 2012, UNC Asheville honored Whitesides’ legacy with an honorary degree. In 2016, UNC Asheville renamed the academic building New Hall to Whitesides Hall in his honor," the release noted.

Meanwhile, Bell directed the Asheville Housing Authority for 14 years, with a 25-year career with the organization spanning from his first position as director of maintenance construction in 1994. As executive director, he oversaw the growth of the Housing Authority to serve 10 public housing developments.

Bell graduated from Xavier University in Cincinnati with a degree in business management. After a 20-year career with IBM, Bell bought a construction company in Charlotte, and later joined the Charlotte Housing Authority as the director of technical services, before moving to Asheville.

"Bell’s service to education, equity and advocacy can be marked by his volunteer work with numerous organizations," a UNCA press release stated.

Bell served as the chair of the Asheville Housing Authority Board of Commissioners, chair of Buncombe County Planning Board, and past president of the NC Housing Authority Directors Association. In support of better sustainable opportunities for children and families in public housing, Bell served as board chair of the Asheville City Schools. He also served on the Executive Committee for the United Way of Asheville and was past chair of the Asheville Civil Service Board. Bell serves as the Board Chair of Asheville PEAK Academy.


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