Appalachian author Verna Mae Slone dies at 94

At a point in life when most people slow down, Verna Mae Slone found her voice.

She was a quilter, a dollmaker and the mother of five sons. But after Slone found her voice, she also became the author of six books, the best known of which was her first, What My Heart Wants to Tell.

In simple language, Slone wrote about life and the importance of family, community and the fast-disappearing culture of her beloved Eastern Kentucky mountains.

On Monday, her voice fell silent. She was 94 and had lived almost all of her life in the Knott County community of Pippa Passes.

“I often referred to her as the Grandma Moses of the mountains,” said Mike Mullins, longtime director of the Hindman Settlement School. “She loved to expound on the virtues and values of people from the hills in a very positive light.”

“She had a great sense of tradition and family … and a natural, wonderful way of expressing herself,” said Loyal Jones, retired director of the Appalachian Center at Berea College.

“Verna Mae Slone was a gracious, dignified, intelligent woman,” said New Jersey photographer Barbara Beirne, whose 1993 portrait of Slone became the centerpiece of her exhibit Women of Appalachia at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

“What I especially remember about Verna Mae is her pride in being Appalachian,” Beirne said Monday. “Everyone who views her photograph seems aware that they have been introduced to a very special person.”

Slone was born Oct. 9, 1914, in Knott County. Her mother died when she was 6 weeks old and she was raised by her father, Isom “Kitten Eye” Slone.

She married Willie Slone and had five sons, whom she cared for alone during the week while her husband was off supporting the family. He drove a bulldozer all over Appalachia, carving roads through the mountains to lay natural gas pipelines. He died in 1989.

Their oldest son, Milburn, said his mother completed eighth grade but didn’t move on to high school until he was old enough to go. They were in the same class until she became pregnant with his youngest brother, who was 13 years behind the other four.

Slone, 71, said his mother had a photographic memory and a lifelong love of reading she passed on to her children. Her hands were always busy, making thousands of cloth dolls she gave away and more than 1,800 quilts, many of her own design. Fifteen of those quilts decorate the walls of the main hall at Hindman Settlement School.

“Making a quilt is a lot like living,” Slone once wrote. “When we are born we are given a bundle of scraps; the way we put them together is left up to us.”

Mullins said he met Slone in 1972 when he was directing an oral history project at Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes. “It seemed like every time we had a topic, she would give us an unbelievable interview,” he said.

As the interviews were transcribed, Mullins gave Slone copies. Those interviews sparked her interest in writing, and she wove them into a book about her father and the joys and hardships of old-time mountain life. She had 100 copies printed to give away to family members.

Somehow, Mullins said, a copy of the book found its way to a writer, who read excerpts on National Public Radio. New Republic Books published the book in 1979 under the title What My Heart Wants to Tell, and it has sold widely ever since.

Milburn Slone said his mother received fan letters from around the world about that book, but the one that meant the most to her came from a leper colony on an island off the coast of Africa. A copy of the book had made it there. “They said that book, second to the Bible, gave them a reason to live,” he said. “It told how you could survive under any circumstances.”

Slone went on to write five other books, including the novel Rennie’s Way and a book about Appalachian language called How We Talked. For many years, she wrote a column called Now and Then for a local newspaper, the Troublesome Creek Times.

Mullins said Slone’s home was a regular stop for visitors seeking to learn about mountain culture: “There were literally thousands of people who sat at the feet of Verna Mae and listened to her talk about life in these hills.”

Slone’s health began declining after a fall six months ago, but she was alert until 15 minutes before she died, her son said.

Mullins last visited Slone on Dec. 23. She was in bed, breathing with the help of an oxygen tank, but she recited a long poem she had written.

“She encompassed love of family, love of the hills, love of the values and traditions, and she had the ability to translate that through her crafts and her writing,” Mullins said. “Just to look into her eyes and have her look at you with that smile on her face was one of the most inspiring things.”