This was the kind of Oscar night everyone really should care about.
On May 3, the Daniel Boone Council of the Boy Scouts of America held its Distinguished Citizen Award Dinner honoring Oscar Wong, the founder of Highland Brewing and the “godfather” of Asheville’s craft brewing scene. Billed as “Oscar Night,” it generated a record turnout for the event, with more than 400 people in attendance at the Asheville Crowne Plaza Hotel to honor Wong and support the scouts.
Wong also received a richly deserved “Order of the Long Leaf Pine” award from the state of North Carolina, the governor’s highest civilian honor, which was presented by former Asheville Mayor and Wong’s longtime friend Lou Bissette. Dana Stonestreet, executive chairman of HomeTrust Bank, organized the night and spearheaded the awards, while another of Wong’s longtime friends, Richard Hurley, emceed.
To top it off, Stonestreet announced the topper: A bronze plaque commemorating Wong as the founder of Highland Brewing and the “godfather” of the Asheville beer scene will be unveiled at 4 p.m. May 16 at Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria. The 28-by-28-inch plaque will hang on the front of the building, just steps away from the basement in back where Highland got its start.
It was all a well-deserved tribute.
I’ve known Oscar for more than 25 years and remember first finding him for an interview in that dingy basement beneath Barley’s on Biltmore Avenue. While Highland has grown into a regional craft beer powerhouse, with two locations in Asheville and distribution in the Carolinas, Tennessee and Georgia, Wong has remained the same humble, generous, lovable man he was when slinging around bags of grain in Barley’s unglamorous lower level.
Not bowed by his battle with cancer
In accepting the awards and accolades, Wong, 82, was as humble — and humorous — as ever.
“Let me say, very few people get their eulogy before their time,” Wong said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
For those who know Wong well, the crack had another level to it, though. While I’ve often teased Oscar for looking decades younger than his 82 years, he is facing his own mortality these days.
Last June, Wong was diagnosed with appendiceal cancer, and he told me in a separate interview that he figured at that time he had six months to a couple of years. Wong had a round of treatment, and part of another that was a bit too much, causing him to suspend it.
Now he’s monitored every six weeks and gets a scan every three months. The tumor that started in his appendix has remained stable, and Wong hopes that two-year time frame is more accurate.
“But who knows?” Wong told me. “And I’m OK with that. Hell, I’m 82 and I’ve lived a full-ass life. No complaints. I’ve had a damn good time. I’ve been fortunate as all get-out. I’m grateful for all of that. Not that I’m ready to leave the scene, but I can’t complain with how things have turned out.”
In his acceptance speech, Wong said his personal good fortune has been centered on his wife of 55 years, Anna, and their two daughters, Nicole “Missy” Wong, and Leah Wong Ashburn, who is now the CEO at Highland Brewing. By the way, Ashburn announced another accolade: Highland will be serving a new beer through the month, in honor of her dad, called “Long Leaf Lager.”
(At one point during the night, another friend of Oscar Wong’s, Rick Devereux, told a story about encouraging Wong to name a beer after himself. “He said, ‘Rick, no one would drink the Wong Beer.’ ”)
Another friend of Wong’s, former Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Rick Lutovsky, entertained the crowd with a few “Wong-isms” that are worth sharing.
— “A balanced diet is a beer in both hands.”
— “Twenty-four hours in a day, 24 beers in a case — Coincidence?”
— “Who is this ‘Moderation’ that everyone wants me to drink with?”
In seriousness, Lutovsky said, “We don’t think there’s a kinder, more generous soul” than Oscar Wong.
Wong, who had a Highland beer in hand a good bit of Wednesday night, half-jokingly referred to his wife as his “personal HR director,” because she keeps him straight and vets his friends. He said when Hurley first called him about the award night, he ran it by Anna first, before deciding to accept all the hubbub.
“It reminds me of her favorite saying, ‘Behind every successful man is a surprised woman,’” Wong said, drawing copious laughter from the crowd. “That really is the truth.”
Wong went on to thank the crowd for coming out.
“I’m pleased to know the community is proud of us,” Wong said. “I have a family that is fantastic. I have a staff that makes things go. I have a community that means everything to me. So many of you could be up here.”
‘The Asian Ted Lasso’
Leah Wong Ashburn said her Dad’s life centers around positivity and precision, and around making his community better. She mentioned the TV show “Ted Lasso” and how when Lasso, an upbeat America helming a British soccer club, takes a seat in the stadium, the seat changes color. Then the other seats change colors when they’re pulled down around him.
“Like he has planted something that grows, right?” Wong said. “To me, it’s this infectious positive positivity that Oscar Wong has. So, he is the Asian Ted Lasso.”
She also joked that when he started Highland, her dad was running around the Carolinas and Tennessee selling beer, likely the only Chinese guy in the business. Being the first brewery in the area also helped the success of the business.
Ashburn told the audience she consulted with her mom to get the real scoop on her dad, though.
“The secret that mom so clearly stated — and she’s absolutely right — is that Oscar Wong loves people,” Ashburn said. “So many comments tonight have been about how much he has given to you. You’ve been so kind and generous and lovely. But know that everyone in here has given to him, and that has given him so much joy.”
“I think that’s the truly special thing about him — that he draws joy and energy from other people,” Ashburn continued. “He’s interested in everyone. He values everyone. And I think it’s part of the reason so many people showed up tonight.”
Wong just couldn’t retire
Oscar and Anna Wong bought a place in Asheville in 1992 and moved here permanently two years later. A native of Jamaica, Wong graduated from the University of Notre Dame.
He has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a master’s in structural engineering, and he spent his career working in the nuclear industry, ultimately selling a company that worked in the nuclear fuel waste processing sector.
Terrible at retirement, Wong started Highland Brewing in April 1994. While it was the first brewery founded in the city since Prohibition, it was not an immediate hit. It took Wong eight years to turn a profit.
Wong also began a long association with local nonprofits, civic organizations and schools. A longtime Rotarian, Wong has made eight trips to Honduras to help with safe drinking water.
He’s worked Honor Air flights, welcoming veterans home from trips to Washington, D.C. He served two terms as a trustee at UNC Asheville, and he serves as board president of the ARC of Buncombe County, which serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The Wongs’ younger daughter, Missy, has special needs, and part of the reason the family moved here is because the ARC is so active and could help in finding her a place to live.
Wong on other breweries: ‘The more the better’
Perhaps the most entertaining part of the night came before the speeches and awards, when the crowd assembled to toast Oscar Wong. It ranged from poignant and heartwarming to laugh-out-loud funny.
Hotelier Alex Fraga told Oscar, “You are what we look up to in this town,” he said.
Stonestreet noted that when California-based mega-craft brewer Sierra Nevada was looking to locate its East Coast brewery in the area, a company official called Oscar to ask about the beer scene, and if they would hurt it by locating here.
“Oscar Wong said, ‘The more the better. Y’all come on. We’ll all do well together,’ ” Stonestreet said.
Liza Cremeens, the financial controller at Highland, said she started there 16 years ago as a college intern, noting, “Oscar took a chance on me as a young college intern and quickly promoted me to controller, which I was not qualified for. But he believed in me, which is a very Oscar thing to do.”
“When I would get really stressed at work, Oscar would say, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not life or death. It’s just beer,’ ” Cremeens said. “What matters is how we treat people and what we give back to the community.”
That is truly what Oscar Wong is about. Well, that and sleeping during daytime.
“Oscar also taught me the importance of daytime naps, which he does with astounding frequency,” Cremeens said. “And I’m honored to call you my boss, my mentor and my friend. Cheers to Oscar.”
Derek Allen, a craft beer attorney in Asheville — and let’s pause to note that this job title wouldn’t exist around here without Oscar Wong — noted that, “Oscar and the folks at Highland have been outrunning North Carolina’s laws that govern craft beer for as long as he’s been making it.”
In seriousness, he said Wong has “changed craft beer in North Carolina and here in Asheville.”
That’s no joke.
Clark Duncan, executive director of the Economic Development Coalition for Asheville & Buncombe County, said not even the most optimistic economic prediction in 1994 “would have predicted the billion dollar impact that Highland Brewing has now catalyzed in Western North Carolina.”
“(The beer industry) is the second largest manufacturing employer in the four counties of the Asheville metro region,” Duncan said. “That is an astonishing accomplishment, and you planted those seeds.”
He did indeed, and we all benefit from it.
The best toast, hands down, came from Brock Ashburn, Leah’s husband and Oscar Wong’s son-in-law. When he drove up from Charlotte more than a decade ago to ask Oscar for Leah’s hand, Brock Ashburn said he was nervous and taking a while to get to the point.
Oscar, whom Ashburn described as a bit of a poet, too, cut to the chase.
“Finally, he just looked me straight in the eye and he said, ‘Brock, you can have her if you can feed her,’” Brock Ashburn said. “I kid you not … So I do — I feed her every day.”
Blown away by the love
On Friday, Anna Wong said the night was just “mind-blowing and heartwarming.”
“I keep telling everybody I talk to about it, looking out at that sea of people — and people didn’t leave. They stayed for the entire thing — it just blew me away,” Anna Wong said. “The tribute and the love it shows, that was beyond anything I imagined.”
She and Oscar live in Givens Estates south of town now, but he still makes appearances at Highland, in East Asheville. While Oscar realizes his time here is waning, he’s not morbid or downbeat about any of it.
In fact, after last Wednesday night, he’s a little in awe of his community, and he plans to enjoy any remaining time he has to the utmost. Nobody gets out of life alive, so it’s important to make the most of the days, and the friends we have, Wong says.
“With my friends and family, oh my gosh — it buoys me up and just keeps me going,” Wong said. “Whatever is, is. In the meantime, I’m going to continue to have my beer and my martinis and enjoy it.”
They’re richly deserved, my friend. On the beer front, may I suggest a Long Leaf Lager?
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at email@example.com