MARS HILL, N.C. —Neil St. Clair was very familiar with his new hometown when he left Brownwood and Howard Payne University in 2000 for Mars Hill College in the mountains of North Carolina. It’s where he had earned bachelor’s degrees in music and theater in the 1970s.
St. Clair served as director of theater at Howard Payne for 17 years, from 1983 to 2000, before he and his family moved east. Even though returning to Mars Hill meant a homecoming of sorts, he said he left Brownwood with mixed emotions.
“I love that place,” St. Clair said in a telephone interview from the Mars Hill campus near Asheville. “I miss the people. I still have some Howard Payne buddies.”
St. Clair draws numerous similarities between Mars Hill and Brownwood.
“There’s a lot of the same overall feel,” he said. “It’s a small liberal arts atmosphere, but of course the geography is different. It’s one of the reasons I like Howard Payne. To me, it’s like a ‘Mars Hill West,’ but nobody there understands that.”
Mars Hill, which became a university in 2013, and Howard Payne are both academic communities rooted in the Christian faith, St. Clair said, with a Baptist heritage. Mars Hill’s enrollment of 1,370 is similar to that of Howard Payne. But the towns in which they are located are not. Situated 20 miles from metropolitan Asheville and 11 miles from the Tennessee border, the historic town of Mars Hill has a population of approximately 1,800.
St. Clair has also served as chairman of the theater arts department at Mars Hill University, but he relinquished those duties to focus more on teaching and “the personal touch” of teaching. He has announced plans to retire as a full-time professor at the end of this semester.
“I’ve enjoyed teaching classes and being part of the plays and musicals here,” St. Clair said. “The university’s program is nationally accredited, by the National Association of Schools of Theatre.”
“I’m just teaching,” he said of his current role on campus. “After I retire, I want to teach part-time for a few years to ease into that phase of life.”
St. Clair has also served as production manager for the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre, or SART, which provides the region with major professional productions during the summer, usually at the university’s Owen Theatre.
His wife, Kay, has been head of library services at Carolina Day School, a private school in Asheville, for 14 years. Both have acted professionally.
When they were in Brownwood, both he and Kay were employed at Howard Payne. That’s one of the differences St. Clair cited between their life in Brownwood and in North Carolina. He and his wife are no longer working on the same campus.
“The main thing that’s different here, and sometimes I kind of missed, is the centralized life that you live in Brownwood,” St. Clair said. “You’re always seeing someone you know... The last two times we’ve been through Brownwood, people have recognized us at restaurants. People who live there don’t realize that. It’s comforting and interesting. You’re always a little part of that community.”
Things he likes about working in the North Carolina mountains include the experience of having four distinct seasons. In fact, the message on St. Clair’s office answering machine on the day of this interview indicated that rehearsal for an upcoming theater production schedule for the evening had been canceled due to snow.
“The girls got to experience those four seasons,” St. Clair said. “This area is considered one of the absolute best for color as the leaves change.”
He is also closer to his family, who live in Virginia.
The St. Clairs’ two daughters were young teenagers when they moved from Brownwood, and they thought if a move east was going to happen, it needed to happen when it did.
“It turned out great,” St. Clair said. “Our daughters thrived.”
Both of them live relatively near to their parents — at least by Texas standards, he said. Jessica is in Greenville, S.C., working as a videographer/photographer/editor, and Rachel is a graduate student in Spanish at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Both are married.
While living in Brownwood, St. Clair served as president of the Brownwood Rotary Club, and he continues to carry that club’s banner in North Carolina. In 2003, he helped organize the Rotary Club of Madison County, and served as its second president.
“It’s a great little club,” St. Clair said. “I’m happy to be back involved in Rotary here.”
St. Clair said he also “re-energized” his toy action figure and science fiction collection after relocating. But all of his “toys” aren’t tiny. He also owns two classic Pontiac automobiles.
St. Clair was asked to deliver the main address to Mars Hill University students at the opening convocation of the spring 2014 semester, and a story about his speech is featured on the university’s website. In those remarks, he urged students to make the most of their “Mars Hill journey,” including taking advantage of relationships with professors, staff members, coaches and fellow students.
“Embrace all that is around you,” he said during the Jan. 14 program. “Try new things, consider new ideas, take advantage of the vast array of classes, concerts, sporting events, plays, speakers, seminar, service opportunities and organizations offered by the university.”
Students would do well to heed such advice, especially when offered by someone who has experienced what the campus has to offer not only as an administrator and a professor, but also as a student.