Award-winning writer Patty Jo Sawvel was not born in Kernersville, N.C., but she certainly grew up here. Arriving in 1995 with her husband, Don, and their three children, Sawvel fulfilled a life long dream when her first story was published in the local newspaper—the Kernersville News.
One year later, in 1996, the North Carolina Press Association awarded Patty Jo Sawvel First Place in Investigative Reporting for a “Drugs in Schools” summer series that featured the raw voices of students, parents, and the greater community. Simultaneously, the Kernersville News was awarded the highest honor—the Community Service Award—for the same body of work.
This endeavor led to a 15-year involvement with what soon was named Kernersville Cares for Kids. Along the way, Patty Jo Sawvel picked up a second award from the North Carolina Press Association—again for Investigative Reporting.
According to Sawvel, “I came by my writing quite naturally. I was a very sickly child and had extremely poor eyesight. So while my brothers and sisters were outside riding around on go-karts or horses with our cousins, I was inside sitting on my daddy’s knee being carried away by the stories of grown-ups’.”
It seems that from the time Patty Jo (Bailey) Sawvel could write she started winning ribbons and awards. And by the time she graduated from Genesee High School in Michigan, she been awarded First Place in a writing contest sponsored by the Detroit News in the division of Light Verse Poetry and several writing contests including American Legion/Historical Fiction.
While receiving a full-paid college scholarship from the University of Michigan, Sawvel only attended briefly, fearing that college would institutionalize her style and alter her authentic voice. Instead, Sawvel’s training occurred on the job as a free lance journalist with the Kernersville News—under the gracious mentoring of editor John Staples. In 1997, Sawvel began a 13-year stint as a regular columnist for the High Point Enterprise.
However, according to Sawvel, her greatest growth as a writer must be credited to Ed Friedenberg. At the time of their meeting, Friedenberg, former business editor at the Winston Salem Journal, was a skilled and seasoned free lance writer in his 70s.
Supported by a grant from The Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County and the North Carolina Arts Council, Friedenberg was hired as Sawvel’s personal editor and mentor.
As Sawvel reflected, “Ed was like “The Horse Whisperer” for writers. And when the money ran out for our project, he worked for free. As a matter of fact, he was reviewing a chapter for my book the week he passed away in 2006.”
Thankfully, his good friend and age-mate Carl Clarke—a colorful and qualified actor, orator, English teacher, and coach—took the reins and helped Sawvel for another five years to the completion of her book.
“Carl wanted this book completed before he died,” Sawvel said with a laugh, “so he really kept me on track.”
Additionally, in 2001, Sawvel received a grant to attend and graduate from the Wake Forest University Addiction Studies Program for Journalist.
“This program profoundly changed my understanding of drug and alcohol addiction,” Sawvel explained, “because they put us in front of real research, real scientists, and real recovered addicts.”
November 1, 2011 Patty Jo Sawvel released her new non-fiction narrative Under the Influence: The Town That Listened to its Kids. Based on the award-winning news stories from 1996 and continuing through 2011, this book demonstrates the power of one town that stopped waiting for the government to do something. Instead they took their students out of the back seat and put them in the drivers seat to tackle the student drug problem.
“This has been a fascinating journey,” Sawvel said graciously. “It gives readers a chance to hear the stories of students, parents, principals, and police as they grapple with the problem. Readers take away a true understanding of the issues and the discover the actions that work.”
While it may seem that Sawvel’s sole attention has been on students and drugs, she has created an even larger body of work in the form of Legacy Writing (personal histories recorded during the subjects’ lifetime) and Honorary Tributes (typically 500-word biographical sketches written immediately upon death and included in a Memorial Brochures at the funeral).
“It all goes back to my daddy’s knee,” Sawvel said with a smile. “There’s no better way to honor people than to hear their story, frame it, and give it back to them. It is a gift that rewards the giver and the receiver beyond their lifetimes.”
Sawvel’s author/editor books include: