Paul Wesley Yount Jr., a retired church administrator who spent his life trying to help heal the world, died August 23 at 96.
Raised during the Great Depression in Hickory and Charlotte, North Carolina, and briefly in Washington, D.C., Paul was the son of a postal worker, Paul W. Yount Sr., and a homemaker, Bertha Cline Yount, and brother to younger sister, Sue Yount (later Durham). As a teenager, Paul dabbled in journalism, crossing the city to cover high-school sports for The Charlotte Observer. While his teachers encouraged him to become an English professor, he aspired to be a Methodist minister, due to the influence of the most educated figure he knew in his community.
Paul ended up majoring in English as well as Theology and Ethics at Duke University on a U.S. Navy scholarship, but World War II ended before he graduated. He later entered Yale Divinity School, completing his Master of Divinity after a three-year leave teaching English in Japan, helping contribute to international reconciliation efforts with the war-torn nation.
Paul then served briefly in various churches in Connecticut, North and South Carolina, one as founding pastor at Providence United Methodist Church in Charlotte. Troubled by life in the Jim Crow South, he clashed with certain church leaders who said he was “wrong on the race issue.” And he made ripples by preaching in praise of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling against school segregation. In that time, he also met Jean Penny, a Greensboro College voice major who was running the youth ministry at Charlotte’s Dilworth Methodist. They married in 1955 and moved to New York City, where Paul worked for the Methodist Board of Missions.
Living in Stuyvesant Town in the East Village, they took full advantage of the city’s cultural life and soon began a family, eventually raising four daughters and moving to Leonia, New Jersey, then to Stony Point, in New York’s Hudson River Valley. There, Paul served twelve years as director of the Missionary Orientation Center, where he prepared new missionaries for social-gospel work overseas, bringing life-changing, multidimensional cultural approaches to their training. He always said his time in Stony Point was the happiest and most fulfilling of his career. After the Center closed, he moved his family to Louisville, Kentucky, where he led an ecumenical service organization—St. Matthews Area Ministries—for a few years, before returning to New York. Paul then joined the staff of Church World Service of the National Council of Churches, where he directed overseas personnel for nearly two decades.
He traveled the world for his work. On one foreign trip, a man being removed from a plane by military authorities claimed they had the wrong person and pointed to Paul, saying he was CIA; he certainly was not. Another time, in New York, a stranger mistook him for Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, expressing relief he was in the U.S. With his full face and trademark goatee, Paul did resemble him.
Paul’s love of international travel shaped his life and his family’s, beginning with an epic yearlong odyssey in 1966-67 that took them to three continents, with extended stays in Switzerland and India. They left India amid riots and arrived back in a U.S. gripped by violence and protest. Paul’s commitment to progressive politics led to his participation in the Civil Rights movement, including the landmark 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He also involved his family in community-service activities in Spanish Harlem among other neighborhoods.
In 1994, Paul retired, and he and Jean moved to Hendersonville, North Carolina, to ‘build their house, chop their wood, and make their garden grow’ near the Blue Ridge Mountains they both loved. As president of the Friends of the Library there, he had a special way of pricing books at the fundraising sales: Those he thought people should read were priced low; those he disliked, including those with narrow views of Christianity or written by conservative politicians, were more expensive.
Paul led the local chapter of Civitan International, a global-service organization, while continuing to travel and attend concerts regularly in Asheville, Brevard, and Hendersonville. He preached occasionally, particularly in the chapel at Lake Pointe Landing, the retirement community where he and Jean settled happily. Over the years, he also officiated the weddings of three of his daughters plus many other relatives and friends.
Through his bumper stickers for President Barack Obama, the Nature Conservancy, and universities he and his grandchildren attended, as well as his collection of NPR tote bags and mugs, Paul publicly displayed some of his values. His four daughters also reflect those of a man devoted to the arts and public service: Michele Yount Thomas became a novelist; Noel Yount, a children’s librarian; Sylvia Yount, a curator who now heads the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Caroline Yount, a lawyer who works on behalf of people in need. Paul’s infectious love for all kinds of art, music, books, film, and international cuisine was joyfully passed on to his children and grandchildren.
Besides Jean and his daughters, he is survived by sons-in-law Scott Thomas, Tom Genetta, and Geoff Mulvihill; as well as grandchildren Colette Thomas, Tristan Genetta, and Sophie and Katie Mulvihill, who knew him as “Daddy Paul.”
A memorial service will be held at First United Methodist Church in Hendersonville, NC on Saturday, November 20, 2021 at 3:00PM with Rev. Karen Easter-Bayne officiating.
In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Civitan Foundation of Hendersonville, P.O. Box 762, Hendersonville, NC 28792.
Peace, my heart,
let the time for parting be sweet.
Let it not be a death
Let love melt into memory
and pain into songs.
–Rabindranath Tagore, The Gardener (1913)
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