Julian Price was a man of many — and sometimes contradictory — qualities. Born into wealth, he spent much of his adulthood exploring how to define himself in relation to and separate from his fortune. He opted out of the top-rung social status he was born into, preferring to live simply and invest his money in social change. Married at 26, Price had a daughter at 27. He and his wife divorced five years later, but fatherhood proved a good fit, especially for a world-class listener: Price knew how to give his full attention to his daughter and to others he loved. He married again soon after moving to Asheville. And as he gave to his new home, it gave back to him: he became more comfortable with his financial position and resumed a life-long passion for golf, which brought with it the male buddies he always wanted. Price found ways to be generous without a spotlight and enjoyed a small circle of friends who understood his vision, his character, and his gentle humor. In choosing Asheville for his last home, he’d made a hole-in-one.
Julian Price: The Person Behind the Work
Few people who knew Julian Price glimpsed the whole of him. Monroe Gilmour, who worked with Price on social justice issues, says that Price reminded him of the story of three blind men and an elephant. One man felt the elephant’s trunk and said this animal is like a snake, another felt its legs and said it’s a column, another felt its ear and said it’s a leaf.
“Some of us had a limited perspective about the vastness of Julian’s activities–I was just [feeling] the elephant’s ear,” says Gilmour. Price’s revelations of his inner life were like that as well: every glimpse authentic but rarely a complete composite.
The Building Pieces
Price seldom spoke about his childhood. His grandfather, also named Julian Price, made his fortune as president of Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Company in Greensboro, North Carolina. When the grandfather died in a car accident, Julian’s father, Ralph, took over the company for four years. But Ralph’s interests lay elsewhere. “Julian told me that his dad was a quiet dreamer and that he went around the world to convince world leaders–Indira Gandhi was one–not to use the atom bomb,” says Meg MacLeod, Price’s second wife.
A template of gentleness, Ralph shared that quality with his son. “Ralph was a very sweet man,” says Price’s daughter, Rachel Price. “And I think he was probably not a businessman.”
Price’s mother, Martha, was a sterner figure, often critical of Price. When Price lived in San Rafael, he and a friend wrote a Q&A column called “Question Man.” The pair posed questions to strangers on the street, and Price added his answers to the mix. To the question, “Have you ever been betrayed?” Price replies, “Yes. Shortly after I was born my mother turned on me. Well, not exactly turned on me; more like she didn’t accept me for who I was: this incredibly curious, adorable and loving child. Her unconscious plan was to turn me into the person she wanted my father to be. Of course her plan backfired…”
Karen Ramshaw, Vice President of Public Interest Projects (PIP), founded by Price and Pat Whalen, recalls a telling moment. Ramshaw often took her infant daughter, Emma, to the PIP office: “One day, I was kissing her on the head. Julian looked over and said, ‘You know, if my mom had kissed me on the head like that, I would be a different person.’”
Price’s mother had plans for Price, like taking over the insurance company, says Rachel: “His mother wanted him to be friends with a certain strata of Greensboro society, and he was friends with who he wanted to be friends with.”
When Julian and his younger sister, Louise, were young adults, their older brother, Clay–ebullient, funny, the golden boy– died from a brain aneurysm, and shortly afterwards, Price’s mother died in a car accident. His father remarried, never returning to the 1940s Myrtle Beach house where the family spent part of every summer. Price did not have a good relationship with his stepmother, writing, “She talks a sweet line, but watch out.” His stepmother was 20 years younger than Ralph, and Price always believed that she married Ralph for his money. When his father was incapacitated by a stroke, Price learned that his stepmother refused to set up a retirement plan for their cook who had worked for the family for forty years. Price paid for the cook’s plan himself.
Money’s Not Funny
Monied is not what Price wanted to be. He inherited the bulk of his fortune from his grandfather and more when his father died. “But it’s not like he inherited the money in a graceful manner,” says Rachel. “It was almost as if he won the lottery in a way. Once his mother and brother died, he didn’t know what the expectations for him were. A lot of people who inherit money get some help, but he didn’t get any help at all.”
Price rarely spoke about his wealth, but he made an exception with a similarly wealthy friend he made in California. With other young heirs, Obie Benz had founded The Vanguard Foundation, which offered social justice grants. In the mid-70s, several years after the Foundation opened, a white envelope arrived with nothing inside but a check for $100,000. The only identification was Price’s signature on the check and his return address on the envelope’s left corner. “It was a shock,” says Benz, noting that $100,000 would be $440,000 in today’s dollars. “We weren’t even sure the check would clear.”
Benz located Price, and the pair found they had a lot in common. “Julian didn’t want to be defined by his money in the same way that people don’t want to be defined by their parents’ accomplishments,” says Benz. “He wanted to be treated as a regular everyday guy. My guess is that his living in California was part of that. I may have been the only person there who knew he had inherited money.”
Certainly, his dress and possessions didn’t give his wealth away. “He could have collected sports cars or lived in a giant house,” says Ramshaw. “But he lived pretty simply. He rented an apartment. He had books and some artwork but nothing ostentatious. If you saw Julian walking down the street you would have no clue that he had money.”
By the time Price moved to Asheville, he had given most of his fortune away, although he had millions left. “The money was a burden to him, and he didn’t want that burden,” says Whalen. “He had no need to impress people with money.”
Eventually, Price’s drive to rid himself of wealth lessened. “He learned to enjoy his money a bit more,” says Rachel. “He was an ideal person to have money because he was very generous with his friends, but he also knew that his friends wanted to spend time with him because of him.”
A Father with Focus
Price married at 26 and became a father at 27. Price and his wife divorced when Rachel was five, but fatherhood was a good fit, and he was as thoughtful and unconventional about parenting as he was about nearly everything else.
Although Rachel’s mom had custody, Rachel lived with her dad in San Rafael during Rachel’s high-school years. The pair hiked and often went to the movies, says Rachel, now an archivist who manages a non-profit video preservation and digitization organization. “We definitely shared that interest.”
Price’s mindful focus is the quality that Rachel most prized in her father: “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have his undivided attention. And I think a lot of people thought that. He was a world-class listener.”
Rachel also admired her father’s intelligent thoughtfulness: “I liked his mind. He was very open-minded and always questioning things.”
Price was also protective of Rachel, particularly regarding money. He wanted to shield her from the struggles he had had with inherited wealth, says Benz: “His insistence on total anonymity may have not just been for himself but also for her.”
Like her father, Rachel initially seemed uncertain of her path: “My father was supportive, but he was concerned when I was just doing internships or low- paying jobs that didn’t [lead in] a clear direction. [Taking his money] was awkward. At times, I felt I was mooching.” Still, Rachel credits her father for teaching her how to live with money, the lesson his parents had not taught him.
A Steady Partner
Price met Meg MacLeod shortly after he moved to Asheville, and she fell in love almost immediately: “He had this mischievous twinkle in his eyes and this very quick sense of humor. From the first moment, I could tell he was fun and kind and smart and thoughtful, without an everyday perspective. He would come up with [ideas], and I would think, ‘Is he really dumb or extremely smart?’”
But Price broke off the relationship several times without explanation. Finally MacLeod insisted on knowing what was wrong, saying that if he couldn’t explain, this time she would be the one to end the relationship. Price met her entreaty with silence. As MacLeod started to leave, Price moved toward her, tears in his eyes.“He said, ‘I can’t be with you because my mother would not approve of you.” says MacLeod. “I’m really excited about my life here, and this is a good place to do the things I’ve been dreaming of. You’re the third good thing that’s happened to me here in Asheville and three good things are too many. But I’ll try.’” From then on, every time Price criticized MacLeod, he would say, “I’m only telling you this because you said you would leave me if I didn’t.”
Some time later, MacLeod read a book about building better relationships. She said, “I nagged Julian to read it until he finally declared, ‘I’m not going to read that book, and you want to know why? Because then we will have to read another relationship book. We have a great relationship, and sometimes we have troubles, but we will muddle through them. And it’s okay to muddle through.”
Says MacLeod, “He helped me lighten up.”
Finally, One of the Boys
Price gave to Asheville, but it reciprocated. Here, he found purpose and became someone he’d always wanted to be: a man’s man. In “Question Man,” to the query “What did you finally give up on?” Price writes: “Liking sports. I never watch sports on TV like most guys. For a while I thought it was something I could learn to do, you know, like becoming a man by liking sports. I used to play golf and watch it on TV, but now I don’t do that. I quit skiing after an injury. I guess I’ll just accept this. I do like to walk. Is that a sport?”
He didn’t share the kind of work-a-day life that most other men had. At one point, when he tried his hand at construction, he bought an old truck to drive to the site, eager to blend in. “He felt he couldn’t share his troubles,” says Rachel. “He would say that he couldn’t go into a bar and say what an asshole his boss was.”
In California, Price’s two best friends were women he’d known in Greensboro. “I’ve been here 20 years and I know two people, both from my hometown,” he complained to William Holliday, who first became friends with Clay Price, then Julian, in the mid-’50s. “He said that he wanted a city that would mean something to him culturally and intellectually, and he wanted to refurbish it,” adds Holliday. Holliday suggested a move to Asheville, which Price initially dismissed.
But Price did move to Asheville–and as he stepped into himself, he also found the pals he hoped for. He partnered with Pat Whalen to develop Public Interest Projects, and the two became close. “Julian was more like a big brother because we shared so much of the same perspective,” says Whalen. “We shared our goals. And we laughed about how we were two very neurotic people who fit together.”
Price also found a friend in Clark Tibbits, a strategic planner whom he met through Holliday and who eventually consulted for PIP. Tibbits once confided in Price about an uncomfortable situation. “I said, ‘I need to tell you this rather than have you hear about it.’ [After the revelation], Julian said, ‘Oh Clark, that makes me think even more highly of you. You were too perfect before.’”
Key to his new buddied life was golf. He resumed the sport, comfortable enough now to shed earlier worries that it was a rich man’s game. Still, he wasn’t showy about his renewed passion, content to play on public as well as private courses.
Price met one golf buddy, Bill Branyon, in the Alternative Reading Room Price had created at the back of what became the Laughing Seed Cafe. They talked about a Gulf War teach-in Branyon and others were organizing at UNCA, and Branyon mentioned that they needed money for a newspaper ad. Price wrote Branyon a check for $600. “I didn’t know who he was,” says Branyon. “I just told him about the situation, and he immediately solved it.“
Several years later, Branyon ran into Price again, and Price mentioned golf. “The next thing I knew we were golfing a lot,” says Branyon. As a friend, Price was unassuming and generous, sometimes springing for Branyon’s $100 guest fee at the Country Club of Asheville. When Branyon, then a writer for Mountain Xpress, wanted to write a piece about Tiger Woods, he knew a golf feature would be a hard sell. “But I think Julian put in a word there.”
Branyon was also impressed with Price’s game–and the rakish fun they had. “He played ‘gravity golf’: he let the golf club do the swing and put energy into it. Every shot was straight–no hooks or slices. We talked a lot of male bonding stuff. He would say things like ‘Babe alert, three o’clock.’”
Price found another golfing friend when he met professional golfer Art Booth one day at Max & Rosie’s, a now closed cafe on Lexington Avenue. Once, when the pair were playing, they came to a par three hole, 190 yards over a ravine, the 17th hole at the Country Club of Asheville. “I hit first, and the ball rolled past the hole two to three feet,” says Booth. “I said,’Let’s see you beat that.’ And HE DID: He got a hole-in-one–his second one at that hole. In typical Julian-fashion, he said, ‘Don’t tell anyone I did that.’ He appreciated a little bit of acknowledgement from me, but he didn’t want [the news] spread around. If Julie is listening, I’m sorry, but I just told.”
Close to Price’s death, Booth sat with him at his apartment. “I said, ‘Julie, do you have any last words of wisdom?’ He said, ‘Hit it down the middle, knock it on the green, roll it in the hole.”
Reserve with a Funny Bone
In Asheville, Price seemed to step into the person he hoped to be. The journey had not been easy. Who was he, he wanted to learn, besides a person who had inherited money? In 1991 in the Asheville Citizen Times, Price wrote: “Learning to live with [inherited] money is a lifelong process….I used to wish I didn’t have this money but not anymore, now that I’m making good use of it. People use whatever resources they have to work social changes and help the community. I use money, other people use their brains or their aggressiveness.”
But he didn’t burden others with the details of his sometimes arduous path. Instead, he presented himself as a gentleman, a close listener, an unconventional thinker, and a humorist who often shared a childlike and mischievous glee.
“Julian had beautiful manners,” says Ramshaw. “But he was also wickedly funny.” His humor could be physical, released in spontaneous jigs. “He’d do this spiffy hop in the air and shuffle, especially when he made a good putt, ”says Booth. And he’d sing, belting out songs from the 1950s like “Love Potion Number Nine.” “He had a good voice–unpretentious,” says Booth. “And he loved to get into it: He’d croon with a big smile.”
Despite his shyness, Price had a gregarious side, says Benz, noting the warmth that emanated from Price’s eyes and character. “He’d just talk to anyone because he had that kind of welcome to him.” Price even had a sense of humor about his height–and the obstacle it presented to going unnoticed. In “Question Man,” he answers: “What did you Finally Give Up On?” with “Being shorter. I always wanted to be 6 foot 2 instead of the 6 foot 5 that I am. Lately, I realized that I just wanted to be less visible, to blend in more. But I’m also glad that I’m not 6 foot 8, because then I’d have to duck going through every door. I hit my head enough now as it is.”
His humor, often mischievous, opened the door to others’ practical jokes. Ramshaw recalls a time when the PIP office needed a new rug. By then Price had learned how very frugal Pat Whalen could be, not a quality Price shared. So Whalen, a bit of a prankster himself, placed a sample of a hideous orange, brown, and gold rug on his desk when he next met with Price. “Julian’s eyes kept cutting over to the carpet,” says Ramshaw. “Finally, he said, ‘What is this?’ Pat said, ‘It’s only 98 cents a yard.’ Price said, ‘I’m going to have to put my foot down.’ Pat just started laughing.’”
Even when Price knew he was dying of pancreatic cancer, his humor remained intact. Booth went to visit Price at Duke University Hospital dressed as a woman in a red dress, turban, and cat-eye glasses. “The scary thing is that I got wolf whistles,” says Booth. “I went into Julie’s room and Rachel came in–we had never met–and Julie is lying there with a grin on his face. Rachel goes ‘Oh my, oh dad, this is a side of you I’ve never seen.’”
If humor was one forte, reserve was another. He eschewed the spotlight like a kid facing down spinach. Whalen recalls the year the Community Foundation awarded Price Philanthropist of the Year. The person ahead of Julian, Volunteer of the Year, gave a 20-minute speech. “When the executive director announced Julian’s name, Julian–who was sitting near the rear of the room–just raised his hand and nodded,” says Whalen. “He wasn’t going to the lectern. The director said his name again and then started toward him. He met her halfway, gracious as he was.”
Unearned intimacy was another no-no. When Price decided to check out Jubilee Community Church, it happened to be Good Samaritan Day. The pastor announced that members would be passing out bowls of water, and every other person would wash the feet of his neighbor. “Julian got up and walked out of the church,” says Whalen. “He was way too private to have someone wash his feet or to wash someone else’s.”
And yet, with people he trusted, he let loose. Many summers, he’d invite as many as 10 friends to the huge Myrtle Beach house he inherited. “We didn’t have to be guests. We’d cook big meals, and it was just like a house party,” says Elizabeth Spinner, a childhood friend of Price’s sister and later a close friend of Price’s in California. “[Those weeks] were the highlight of my life.”
In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain writes, “Soft power is quiet persistence.” It’s a good description of Price. Unfailingly courteous, he nonetheless rarely heard “No” as “No.” One day, Price had met with the Asheville Public Works director about pedestrian safety– and handed the director a set of related handouts. As Price walked home, he remembered that he’d left his umbrella in the director’s office. When he returned, he saw that the director had thrown the handouts into his wastebasket. “But it didn’t matter to Julian if he could get others to help or not,” says Whalen. “He could be frustrated, but he didn’t give up. He’d say, ‘It’s unfortunate that we can’t get X to help us, but we’ll do it, and it will be fine.’”
Price did get the last word: CityWatch magazine was listed in the Whole Earth Catalog, a renowned counterculture magazine and products catalog published from the late ‘60s to the late ‘90s and was also honored in the Utne Reader. The public works director was later fired, partly due to Julian’s activism, continually pointing out problems which the director did not resolve.
Because of his wealth and standing, Price could have wielded power in an aggressive way. But he chose not to. If he wanted to tackle something, he read–stacks of books filled his apartment–or hired himself out as an apprentice. Interested in radio as a young man, he managed his father’s radio station, turning it into a classical music and news station. He wanted to learn about photography, so he worked for a photo developer for $3 an hour. He wanted to learn to build houses so he apprenticed himself to a builder. He saw the big picture but understood that perfection lay in the details.
The quality showed up consistently, even in his time as an acupuncture patient. “Julian would take any information you gave him and evaluate it,” says Cissy Majebe, an Asheville acupuncturist who also became Price’s friend over seven years of treatment. “He had a deep, questioning mind about everything. So, you can imagine how many questions [I fielded from him] about Chinese medicine back in 1994.” Although he took acupuncture seriously–and it did help relieve his abdominal pain– he’d also laugh about it with Majebe. She’d say, “Yeah, it’s voodoo, but it sure makes you feel better.”
Majebe counts her friendship with Price as “one of the blessings” of her life, and she notes how much his work continues to affect those now flocking to Asheville: “He could see what needed a little lift up so that people could create a vibrant life for themselves.”
Price also understood and accepted risk. Whalen worried when a project wasn’t going well. Price would reassure him, saying, “The worst thing that could happen is we’ll lose all the money. Oh well.” He wasn’t cavalier but he knew how to keep things in perspective.
“Julian was always a step ahead and always looking forward,” says Benz. “It was ingrained in his character to care about what was going on, and he saw intrinsically mechanisms to make things better.”
Price had soft power and quiet determination. He was a beloved man who also knew how to love. Price teased out the best in himself and others. Or as his buddy Art Booth says, “Julie was the berries.”