The Secret Lives of Faculty

UNC Asheville Professors Share their Personal Passions
The Secret Lives of Faculty- stories of five professors whose hobbies and sideline specialties might surprise you.

Teaching doesn’t leave a lot of time for off-campus interests, but some UNC Asheville faculty members still find ways to pursue their personal preoccupations. Here are the stories of five professors whose hobbies and sideline specialties might surprise you.

“Sure, a cake needs to be structurally sound, but it also needs to taste really, really good.”    —Sally WasileskiThe Cake Creator

When Sally Wasileski, an associate professor of chemistry, finished her Ph.D. nine years ago, she was sorely in need of a break from the rigors of academia. “Graduate school was so intense, so I went looking for a creative outlet,” she remembers.

Wasileski found that outlet in cake decorating. After taking a class at a craft store, where she learned the basic techniques, she’s spent years experimenting and perfecting her frosted creations.

“Cake decorating allows me to be very detail-oriented, which I like,” says Wasileski, who rarely makes the same cake design twice. “It’s a fun challenge for me.”

Some of her designs are nothing if not challenging. For a friend’s recent wedding, for example, she crafted a cake resembling a stack of antique books. It took her about 15 hours, she estimates, and she even brushed gold paint-looking food coloring on the edges of the “pages.”

Then there was a recent birthday cake for Wasileski’s 4-year-old daughter, who loves airplanes: It was shaped like a 747. Another was shaped like a teapot, and another like a xylophone.

“To me it’s about finding an inspiration—whether it’s my own or something that someone who I care about wants,” she says.

Asked if there’s any crossover between her university work and her passion for cakes, Wasileski quickly responds in the affirmative.

“As a chemist, I’m very interested in the chemical properties and the chemistry going on in cooking and baking, and I think that knowledge allows me to experiment a little more” she says. And that’s not all: “I teach a chemistry course for non-science majors based on the science of food,” she notes. “We make angel food cake, because that’s an example of protein interactions and how proteins unfold and bond with each other.”

Science aside, Wasileski stresses another important aspect of her cakes. “Sure, a cake needs to be structurally sound,” she says, “but it also needs to taste really, really good.

“It’s a good sort of corrective  to other things in life that I have  to rush through.”    —Sophie Mills

The Home Brewer

“Of course, Asheville is a great beer town—so there’s no great need for me to make my own,” notes Classics Professor Sophie Mills. “There’s obviously some other need that I have that this satisfies.”

Mills started brewing four years ago, after taking a course at Hops & Vines in West Asheville. Now she makes her own beer in five-gallon batches at what she calls a “nanobrewery” in her home.

“It’s huge fun, and very different from what I do for work,” says Mills, the current NEH Distinguished Professor in the Humanities. “I spend my days looking at texts and thinking about language and culture—it’s quite a mental occupation. Brewing is very physical, very hands on. And you know, the yeast takes the time that it takes—you can’t rush it, and it will be fermented when it’s done. So it’s a good sort of corrective to the other things in life that I have to rush through.”

Mills dubbed her beer-making operation The Five Felines, in homage to her five cats. “I name all the brews after the cats, so there’s Titus’ Tipple, Old Sour Puss, and Black Cat Porter,” she says. “I make a lovely, dark coffee porter, which is named after the rear end of one of my cats: It’s called Furry Buttocks.”

While Mills enjoys the making (and the drinking) of the beers, she’s also grown fond of sharing them with friends.

I give my beer away a lot,” she says. “And it’s very nice when people come over to the house and sometimes specifically ask for one that I’ve made.”

The Sailboat Racer 

“A lot of people I race against think I have secret knowledge that helps me to do well.”    —Chris Hennon

Perhaps it’s only fitting that Chris Hennon, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences, would love a sport that depends on gusts of wind. But the story of how he got into sailboat racing begins with affection of another sort.

“I met my wife, Paula, in grad school,” Hennon explains. “I had never even been around a boat or sailed before, but she was really into racing. And she basically said, ‘If you want to go out with me, you need to learn how to race a sailboat.’”

And so he did. “I was scared at first, but she taught me everything about how to sail and how to race a boat,” Hennon says. “And it pretty much snowballed from there.”

Now, the two are competitive racers who can be regularly spotted tacking across Lake Julian in one of their three small boats. They’re active members of the Asheville Sailing Club, where Hennon is the “vice commodore,” or second-in-command. He also was recently appointed president of the national association of Jet-14 sailboat racers.

Hennon says he loves the spirit of competition at races, but sailing also serves as a kind of anchor for his marriage. “That’s where our leisure activities overlap the most,” he says. “Sailing is where we intersect, and I think that’s really important, to have something in your relationship that you like to do together.”

You might wonder, does Hennon’s knowledge of atmospheric sciences give him a leg up on the lake?

“You would think I might have an advantage because I study the weather and the wind,” he says. “A lot of people I race against think I have secret knowledge that helps me to do well. But I don’t find that it helps much at all.” The mountain-area winds, he says, are just too unpredictable, even for a seasoned meteorologist.

The Dancer & Choreographer

“Everything feeds making dances, because you’re making dances about the human experience.”    —Ann DunnHumanities Lecturer Ann Dunn is teaching four classes this semester, to a total of about 100 students. On “the side,” she directs the Asheville Ballet and owns the Asheville Academy of Ballet and Contemporary Dance. And then there are her family obligations, which include helping to care for her five children and 10 grandchildren.

“I live in two different worlds, actually, more than that,” Dunn says. “The main two worlds are dance and academia, and I’m very committed to and involved in both. It’s not like one is a hobby and the other one isn’t.”

How does she do it all?

To begin with, “I get up early in the morning,” Dunn says. The first half of her day is immersed in the university. Then, she heads home for lunch—and a Sudoku puzzle and quick nap to clear her head. Then she shifts to her dance duties, which include teaching classes and choreographing and producing old and new works.

Dunn is quick to say she gets lots of help on that dance side. “I have a huge support system at the ballet,” she says. “There are many days when I do not even go to the studio.”

The real secret, she says, is noticing how her two worlds intersect and complement each other.

“I would almost not divide the areas of experience in my life,” Dunn explains. “I have to divide them in the scheduling of my days, but it’s not a matter of being spread too thin, it’s a question of how can I cram in another thing that’s so exciting to me. And these things feed each other: Everything feeds making dances, because you’re making dances about the human experience.”

Dunn’s students, she says, are usually surprised to find that she has a specialty outside of teaching the humanities. “But they’re surprised in a nice way,” she notes. “They realize, ‘Oh, she’s not just trying to open my head up and stuff information into it. She’s doing something with her own life, too.’”

The Baroque Musician 

“Reading Bach is like reading the most difficult Shakespeare you can imagine”  —Blake HobbyWhen Blake Hobby, an associate professor of literature, took a job at UNC Asheville in 2003, he was stunned to run into Charles McKnight, an associate professor of music. That’s because McKnight had taught Hobby music history and theory decades prior, when Hobby was a music major at Stetson University in Deland, Fla.

“I had no idea we’d wind up teaching at the same university,” Hobby recalls.

They wound up doing even more than that: Six years ago, Hobby and McKnight, along with fellow musician Gail Ann Schroeder, formed the Asheville Baroque Trio. The ensemble plays 18th-century music, with Hobby on the harpsichord, McKnight on the recorder, and Schroeder playing the viola da gamba, a bowed string instrument with frets.

“To return to playing with someone after many years, it’s a strange and neat experience, and a reminder of what goes into a great student-teacher relationship.”

And while Hobby teaches literature, not music, he says there’s plenty of connection between the two disciplines.

“For whatever reason, people who are really good with music are usually very good with language,” he says. “It’s the reading thing and the concentration thing. For example, I opened the concert the other night with a 10-minute Bach piece. Reading Bach is like reading the most difficult Shakespeare you can imagine.”

The trio performs at various venues in and around Asheville, but “our favorite place to play is on campus, where we’ve had a growing audience,” Hobby says. Attendance at the trio’s occasional on-campus performances, which used to draw about 30 people, is now up to about 100.