Pictured: Grandfather Mountain mourns the loss of Winston Church, pictured here with Mildred the Bear. Photos by Hugh Morton | Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation
There are men, and there are mountains.
With the late Winston Church, however, any difference between the two was practically indistinguishable.
Church, who served as Grandfather Mountain’s retail director, park operations manager, maintenance manager and all-around jack of all trades, passed away June 5, 2021, at the age of 80. Church had worked at Grandfather Mountain from 1962 to 2002.
“Winston was a great mentor to me early in my career,” said Jesse Pope, president and executive director of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates the Linville, N.C., nature park. “Whether he was hiking to the top of the mountain in a snow storm to record the daily weather, helping Mildred the Bear adopt orphan bear cubs or ensuring that our gift shops were fully stocked and staffed to welcome our guests on a daily basis, Winston did his job at the highest level.”
Church, however, often went above and beyond that level. As Pope noted, he would record weather from the park’s National Weather Service recording station, at the time located atop the park’s old Top Shop near the Mile High Swinging Bridge.
No matter the weather, Church, of his own volition, would personally see to it that the measurements were recorded, even when the mountain was at its coldest, windiest or snowiest.
In one instance, Pope recounted, Church found himself stranded on the Top Shop roof during a particularly harsh winter storm, after wind had toppled his ladder. With the park closed and having no means of communication — this being before the age of cell phones — Church, a military veteran, had to rely on his paratrooper skills by jumping to the surface and landing with a roll. The next day, he was back on the roof, unfazed, recording the weather.
“Winston was (the late Grandfather Mountain founder and steward) Hugh Morton’s most trusted adviser,” Grandfather Mountain spokesman Harris Prevost said. “He had a way of figuring out how to do just about anything, and if he was asked to give his opinion on what to do in a situation, you could count on it being the right thing to do.”
This includes the time Morton rescued two black bear cubs, with the intention of having Mildred — Grandfather Mountain’s first resident black bear and mascot — adopt them. Mildred was willing, Prevost said, but she and the cubs had difficulty nursing.
Enter Winston Church, who, in a true example of “grin and bear it,” lent a hand and was able to train Mildred and the cubs to successfully nurse.
“Winston did just about everything imaginable here on the mountain — and some things you couldn’t imagine,” Prevost said.
Needless to say, Church had a way with bears, and Morton would often seek his advice and assistance in staging photographs. One of the most famous Hugh Morton photographs that Church helped facilitate features a black bear, named Hobo, standing atop a massive boulder in the bear habitat.
Hobo had to traverse two ladders to reach the top, but in order to do so, Church needed to literally sweeten the deal.
“It turned out that Hobo liked to climb ladders,” Prevost said. “He went right up … after enjoying a little honey on each rung.”
Church proceeded to put honey on each end of the boulder, and Hobo would walk from one spot to another in perfect profile.
“People said Mr. Morton was ‘lucky’ to get such an incredible photo,” Prevost said. “How about being patient and smart instead?”
There was, however, a slight hitch. “Hobo liked climb up ladders, but he wouldn’t go down one,” Prevost said.
Hobo, being the gentle and cooperative bear he was, allowed Church and the park’s maintenance crew to fit him with a halter and rope, which they used to gently lower him off the rock.
“Once safely down, they unlatched the halter, and Hobo walked off like nothing had happened,” Prevost said.
Church approached every position he held at Grandfather Mountain with mile-high determination — even when it came to ordering inventory in the park’s gift shops.
Catherine Morton, daughter of Hugh Morton and board secretary for the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, fondly remembers some of Church’s retail quirks.
“Winston tended to order the same souvenir lines year after year, to the point that even his wife, Carolyn, would roll her eyes about how he carried the most old-fashioned products,” Morton said. “But Winston was loyal to Blair Cedar’s salt shakers and Bible verses lacquered onto wooden plaques.”
Salt shakers aside, Church had an unwavering loyalty for Grandfather Mountain. Even after retirement, he would donate the official Grandfather Mountain Christmas tree — grown on his own farm — every holiday season.
“Winston will always be remembered by all of his friends here at Grandfather Mountain,” Pope said. “His kind nature and soft-spoken demeanor will be sorely missed. He was a true mountain of a man.”
The nonprofit Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation strives to inspire conservation of the natural world by helping guests explore, understand and value the wonders of Grandfather Mountain. For more information, call 800-468-7325, or visit www.grandfather.com to book a trip.