A Global Ministry With Community Roots

A Burning Vision

A Burning Vision: Dr. Johnny Hunt – oil on canvas, 14” x 11”

(For a custom portrait contact me, or visit my Etsy shop online for details.)

 

Local Pastor Focuses on Small Things and Grows a Ministry That Spans Continents

Dr. Johnny Hunt is senior pastor of First Baptist Church Woodstock, serving a congregation of 17,000. Former President of the Southern Baptist Convention and author of numerous books and lecture series, Dr. Hunt is a leader in national and worldwide ministry efforts.

This story is part of a series featuring local leaders, volunteers and visionaries who have had an impact on the community. For more on the Dr. Hunt’s story and the accompanying portrait, visit www.annlitrel.com  

___________________

I never did anything big –

it was the little things.

Dr. Johnny Hunt sits at his desk signing stacks of his books – gifts to church youth, he explains. His hair is silver, but his eyes glow with the energy of a young man. He listens graciously as I explain the purpose of the interview – I am interested in visionary leaders and the stories behind their impact on community.

“I’ve led the Southern Baptist Convention, and I’ve been honored with some big positions,” he explains. “But I didn’t set out to have a big church. I never did anything big. It was the little things.

“I get a hospital list every morning, so those folks are uppermost in my mind when I walk through the halls on Sunday. Maybe I know your mom is in the hospital and I pass you in the hall on my way to give the sermon. I’ll stop and ask how your mother is, and we’ll pray together right there on the spot. I’m preaching to 5,000 people that morning, but praying with you might be the most important thing I do all day.

“I like to say, ‘I may do more ministry on the way to the pulpit that I do in the pulpit.’”

He gives an example of what he calls “small touches,” – for example, attending a dinner for over a hundred widows, when he made it his mission to make a personal contact with each of them. He explains that as he made the rounds of each table, laying hands and saying hello to them, that each woman had a story to tell. And so often a woman would say, “When my husband died, my social life fell apart.”

Dr. Huntsays that funerals are a priority – often the time of people’s greatest need. “I will move heaven and earth to be at a funeral. So often a congreagation member has never asked me for anything personally. I want to be there when they most need me.”

How do you explain your influence?

“You can’t lead people unless they know you’re serving them. You’re mobilizing the people to reach their potential. I’m a commander of a large army, and I need to lead them to conquer. But the conquering is, Let’s feed this community. Let’s clothe this community.

“The past year I’ve traveled around the country to mentor other pastors. I’ve met with Christian leaders in Cuba, in Istanbul… In Iraq, it’s estimated there are over a million Christians practicing underground. But I can travel like this only because of the strength of our platform here.

“I will preach here 45 out of 52 Sundays a year – I don’t fly out until after I preach on Sunday.”

How do you decide where to put your efforts?

“It’s not hard – you just listen. People will tell you what they need.

“For example, I’m very burdened and concerned with foster care. So I made it my business to get to know the folks at the DFACS office [Department of Family and Children’s Services] in Canton and find out what they need. We sent in bookkeepers and CPAs, got them a whole new bookkeeping and filing system.

“The meeting rooms for foster parents were so depressing, they’d discourage anyone from fostering a child. So we knocked out some walls, opened them up with light and windows – just made it a nice place to be.

“The waiting rooms were very noisy – families who come often have a lot of kids. DFACS said, ‘we need a playground for these kids’ – and it’s MAGNOMINOUS what we built them.” Pastor Johnny grins over his coined word.

What drives you?

“I have these little life statements that I assimilated over 30 years ago, and they really haven’t changed.

“I want to reach my own God-given potential. Charles Spurgeon, a preacher in the 1850s, said, ‘The average human has misjudged their capacity for God.’”

As I leave Pastor Johnny’s office, I feel inspired. I can’t help but notice I’ve joined the many who have received a personal gift from this man – a vision of service.

Suburban Pioneers

Suburban Pioneers

click on painting for enlarged detail and color

Suburban Pioneers – oil on canvas, 18” x 14”

For a custom portrait contact me, or visit my Etsy shop online for details.

When I was a small child, I drew constantly, and it was people I drew more than any other subject. But by the time I reached middle school years, I had stopped looking at my fellow man as a subject. I escaped into the quiet and peace of painting landscapes and still life almost exclusively. Aside from four years of foundational figure drawing in college, I dropped people and the human figure in my paintings for almost forty years.

Then as I entered my fourth decade of life, I became engaged in community projects. And when I returned to painting, I found, to my complete surprise, that I was interested in people once again as a subject in my art.

These are the questions that fly in at me when I engage in painting a person’s portrait:

What makes the person tick? What gets them up in the morning and guides their life actions? How much of that can be “read” in their face? How do I best show that in the painting?

Part of the portrait process is discerning the essence of the person you are painting. It really is a spiritual process as much as a physical one. Any time you seek to bring out the particular beauty that is inherent in a person, you are engaged in a kind of truth-seeking that goes beyond just the physical appearance. Instinctively we all know that beauty is about more than physical features. It’s why we can perceive a physically beautiful person as “ugly”after we became acquainted with them. And why the homeliest person who has shown us love and kindness somehow takes on the look of beauty in our eyes.

This double portrait of Brian and Jennifer accompanied an article I wrote about their shared efforts in a community project, a bike and pedestrian trail they helped establish. For the published painting, I chose to pose them in front of the wooded trail, with the sunlight casting a kind of glow around them. The dynamic brushstrokes create an informal and contemporary style suited to their authentic and low-key personalities. The focus and detail are concentrated in their faces, for this happy and informal double portrait, alight with the couple’s shared joy in their efforts.

Chasing Trail

Suburban Pioneers – oil on canvas, 18” x 14”

(For a custom portrait contact me, or visit my Etsy shop online for details.)

 

Woodstock Couple Help Give Birth to a Community Bike and Pedestrian Trail

Brian and Jennifer Stockton are husband-and-wife advocates for the Greenprints Trail, a 60 mile network of bike and walking trails planned for the city of Woodstock and south Cherokee County. The Greenprints Plan was initiated by Mayor Henriques and the Council, adopted in 2008, and awarded $5 million dollars by the County in 2010 to construct the first 4-5 trail segments. Brian Stockton served as Project Leader for the Steering Committee that developed the plan; Jennifer is volunteer Executive Director of the nonprofit organization, Greenprints Alliance, founded to raise public awareness and funding for the trail.

This story is part of a series featuring local leaders, volunteers and visionaries, some behind the scenes, who have had an impact on the community. For more on the Stocktons’ story and the accompanying portrait, visit www.annlitrel.com

___________________

Brian Stockton doesn’t like media attention. It takes several e-mails and a call to his wife Jennifer before he agrees to this interview, with the understanding that it’s to raise awareness for the Greenprints Trail. The three of us meet in downtown Woodstock on the new outdoor stage of the Elm Street Green. Brian wears a shirt that says “Chasing Trail.” His dry manner is flavored with an undercurrent of humor, and forms a counterpoint to Jennifer’s more obvious warmth.

Bordering the Event Green is the new “Town to Creek” trail segment. The official ribbon cutting is in three days, May 3, kicking off the fifth annual Trailfest, an all-day concert and fundraiser for Greenprints. As we speak, a steady stream of people walking by makes it apparent that the new trail has already been discovered.

How did the idea for the Greenprints Trail come about?

Brian explains that the Council and Mayor [Henriques] convened a committee to work on a Master Plan for green space in 2007. “The Steering Committee included staff and some outside consultants, including someone from Atlanta’s PATH Foundation. We met for about nine months. I think it was only the first or second meeting when the committee figured out we didn’t need more ball parks. We needed ‘connectivity’ – how do you get from one place to another without hopping in your car? There was a need for open, unstructured green spaces that could be used for several different purposes.”

Brian states that the Greenprints trail runs mostly through the City or around the city limits, but segments are located at probable connections with other trail networks, like Cobb County or Acworth.

How did you end up taking the lead?

“I was City Planner at the time. The whole process of designing a trail for public use intrigued me. So I asked Richard [then Community Development Director Richard McLeod] if I could be the Project Manager, and he said ‘yes.’”

How did you discover City planning as a career?

“When I was a kid, I really liked building and mapping. ‘Lincoln Logs’ were a big favorite. My mom used to draw a city map for me, and I would spend hours planning and drawing out shopping centers, and roads and parks. I had a hard time finding the right major in college because I didn’t know the name for what I was doing. My undergrad degree was in finance. I went into human resources and hated it. In speaking with architects, they suggested I try public planning. I finally got a Master’s degree in City and Regional Planning, concentrated in urban and public space design.”

I turn to Jennifer. So how did you get involved?

“Brian went back to school in 2007. Listening to him talk about city planning had me thinking about things you don’t normally, like streets and tree placement.”  She laughs and points to the three large trees towering over us. “These trees are a good example. The Trail was originally supposed to follow Dupree Road. Elm Street would have turned into a regular grid street, and these trees would have had to come down. So the Trail was moved here to save the trees.

“We bought our house in 2009 – it’s right by the Trail. That’s when it became personal. The whole plan is about the community, and I wanted to help make it happen. Greenprints needed an executive director, so I volunteered.”

As the interview ends, I begin to think about posing Brian and Jenn for their double portrait. We move next to the Trail, where the sun forms a kind of halo through the green kaleidoscope of leaves. The trees tower behind them. It’s the right backdrop for this portrait, which in my mind, is about more than just this husband-wife team. It’s about an effort that embraces a whole community – people and green living spaces.

The Lord God Made Them All

Portrait of Jake

For pet portraits, call or visit my shop on Etsy.

I never met Jake. He died when he was young, only twelve years old. His family was devastated.

Jake was a chocolate lab. Jake’s owners said he had been with him since before the birth of their two children. They admitted Jake was, in fact, like a child to them.

The husband called me first. A bit hesitatingly, he asked if I “do” pet portraits. He explained that Jake had died rather rapidly of an unexpected illness, that Jake was a real character – and “a part of our family.” He said his wife had gone into mourning as though they had lost a child. And he thought maybe a portrait of Jake would be a wonderful gift to commemorate how very special Jake was to them. Would I be willing to do a painting of Jake?

I have always said I don’t do pet portraits. I’ll admit right up front: there is an element of snobbery there. An assumption that a pet is not an important enough subject for art – or, at least, my art. (This may also have something to do with the fact that our childhood family schnauzer, Poppy, always seemed a bit more interested in table scraps than in our affections.)

But the caller’s story pulled at me. The thought flitted through my mind, “What makes painting a portrait of this animal less worthy than any other subject?”

Some people argue that an animal doesn’t have a soul. That the gift of a soul is the birthright of Homo sapiens alone.

But those who have known an animal intimately know the truth. The spark of the Creator that shines in each of us exists just as surely in all His living creatures, great and small.  For all who are willing to see, it seems self-evident that God manifests Himself in every sparrow and lily in His Creation.

The British veterinarian and writer James Herriot wrote about the love shared between humans and animals in a series of books, the titles of which were based on the words of this beautiful old Anglican hymn:

“All things bright and beautiful,

All creatures great and small,

All things wide and wonderful –

The Lord God made them all.”

Painting a portrait is about more than capturing a physical likeness. The portrait channels and communicates what the painter can discern about the essence – the true nature – of the subject.

For Jake, it seemed to be his laughing mouth, his soulful eyes, and above all, those expressive eyebrows, so like ours, it’s as though we are looking into a human face. For this final glimpse of Jake, he looks up at those he loves, and he smiles amidst the wide green fields and tall blue skies of Heaven.

Fire and Water

Fire and Water med Ann's rev (2)

“Fire and Water” – click on painting for enlarged detail and color

Purchase a print online through Fine Art America. Range of sizes and frame options.

 
For a canvas print with a hand painted brush texture simulating the original, contact the artist.
In the studio, 36″ x 24″  signed print, $325.

 

Fire and Water

Oil on canvas, 36” x 24”
Private collection

It’s safe to say the Gresham Mill at Sixes Road has been the subject of more paintings and photographs than any other landmark in Cherokee County. In high summer, 2003, I added my own version. I visited the mill in early morning, and captured the mists and morning sunlight that softened the heavy blanket of green that Georgia wears in the summer.

But autumn is my favorite season in Georgia, so I was thrilled when I was approached by a couple celebrating their fortieth anniversary: they wanted a painting of the mill in autumn.

pen and ink finished revIt was still early summer when I visited the Mill once again to make preliminary black and white sketches, as I do for major works. Working on the play of lights and shadows without the distraction of color, I can examine the “bones” of the scene. I sat outside for a while watching the early morning light move across the eastern face of the mill. I tried to discern how the scene made me feel—what is was “communicating.” This is one of the most important but perhaps least understood aspects of what an artist does. The undercurrents of emotion that a scene evokes are the submerged text that must be manifested in the painting. This is what separates the art from a photo.

As fall came to Georgia and the colors reached their height, I returned twice to the scene. The transformation wrought by color heightened what I had seen in summer—the mill was almost shrouded by trees, cast in shadow and embedded in the hillside. The movement of the bright foliage around it was like sheets of fire cascading down the hillside, finally extinguishing themselves on the rocks amongst the cool shadows of the stream. I made a color study in pastels.

Mill pastel studyIn looking at the final painting, you can see how the artist’s vision differs from the initial color rendering. The final work of art matches the vision in my mind’s eye:, where it seemed to me as I looked upon this scene, I was seeing the last glowing flames of life warming the Mill before the slumber of cold winter.

 

Footloose Artists and Trappist Monks: Kindred Spirits?

monk at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit

“Beside the Still Waters” – painting, 9″ x 12″

Footloose Artists and Trappist Monks: Kindred Spirits

My friend and fellow artist Marsha Savage called me on Monday night. She was headed for an outdoor “paint out” for artists, invitation only, at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit this week. They’d had a last minute cancellation. Was I interested?

I’m stuck.

Two thoughts immediately popped into my head and began doing battle. Yes: I have been wanting to visit this Catholic Monastery for years. It is well known for its bonsai collection and as a retreat on 2300 acres of bucolic land just east of Atlanta. I would love to see the monastery – of course.

No: I’m scared. I’m not a regular outdoors (plein air) painter. Plein air is French for “open air.” But painters who fit the term are no French salon sissies – they are the cowboys of the artist world. A rugged bunch, they paint and finish their work, usually in a few hours, entirely in the elements of the Great Outdoors. I, on the other hand, love to take my time inside the air conditioned comfort of my studio, massaging the edges of painted shapes until they melt into perfectly distilled space. I’d dabbled in plein air painting. But now I felt a nagging undercurrent of insecurity. Could I measure up?

Against my better judgment, I go with Yes.

My van packed with paint and blank canvases, I barreled down the highway through Atlanta and then east on I-20, slowing as I left the city and turned into the old farm roads. As the traffic thinned, I felt my heart and pulse slow. Reaching the Monastery entrance, I called Brother Callistus, the monk in charge of public relations for The Monastery. I found myself surprised – how could a monk be in “Public Relations?”

I knew that Brother Callistus had organized the “Paint Out,” inviting select artists to stay for seven days and paint. The resulting art works would be featured in an “Art Collectors Gala and Wet Paint Sale” at the end of the week, to benefit the Monastery. I could only stay for two days. I worried, Will I will be able to contribute something worthy?

Surprises

Brother Callistus drove up the wide green lawn in a golf cart. He is a tall slim man with bronze skin, and he wore traditional monk’s garb, hood pulled back. I would later discover that Brother Callistus, in his younger days, worked on Wall Street. But his first words of greeting revealed only his passion for the nature of monastic life. “I read your artist’s statement on your website. You are a true contemplative,” he enthused in a lilting Caribbean accent. “The words are beautiful.”

I was pleased and surprised. My artist’s statement is my raison d’etre. It’s held a quiet spot on my website since 2006, but since that time, to my knowledge, only one other person in the world has read or commented on it. Ironically, earlier in the week I had decided it was too “airy-fairy,” and had edited it out of the biography Brother Callistus had requested after I accepted Marsha’s invitation.

It was as thought I had been recognized by an old friend. And I was suddenly pierced with the feeling we experience too seldom:  I have come Home.

I’ve believed for quite some time that being an artist is not just a calling with a spiritual side, but that it’s a calling that is entirely spiritual. One thing an artist quickly learns  –  when people have money to spend, a couch wins out over a painting nine times out of ten.

I don’t blame anyone. I own a couch myself, my first purchase out of college, as a matter of fact. Money is for the needs of this world – and art has nothing to do with our worldly existence. Art does not feed the body. It does not clothe the body. It does not shelter the body. It does not carry the body around on four wheels with leather seats in an air conditioned box.

Money, money, money

So artists do not choose to paint because they want to get rich (although a few do). But if we agree on that, then what exactly so powerfully compels a sane person to desert the more logical vocational choices?

I’ve arrived just in time for lunch, and this is the question that Brother Callistus wants to talk about.  Because obviously monks, too, have a calling that is not about money.  Is there a common bond? Are these monks, constrained in their monastic lives to vows of obedience and stability – never leaving – akin to artists, famously footloose free spirits who often ascribe to no established religion at all?

Plein Air artists at The Monastery Paint-Out in the Guest House

Artists and Monks Share Wine and Fellowship

Brother Callistus and I take a seat at a table with a half dozen other artists. I’m pleased that somehow I know many of them – from various studio tours, or odd days painting together on informal outings. They range from mostly middle-aged to outright gray-haired. Maybe I will fit in, after all.

Brother Callistus speaks about the contemplative spirit that is the basis of monastic life. He says that in leaving behind the world, a monk learns to discern the spiritual nature that permeates all living things. He says that as you grow this perception, you learn to see beneath the surface of things to a spiritual truth. You look beyond the physical appearance of a person to their eternal nature. You are looking at the soul.

All the artists seem to speak up in agreement. Yes, creating art is like that. When you paint, you are not simply painting what you see on the surface. You are looking for – perceiving – the unique voice that inhabits each subject. Otherwise, you could simply take a snapshot and be done with it.

Brother Callistus nods and smiles. “Yes, perceiving the spiritual is the nature of a monk’s contemplative life. That is what we are all here for.”

As lunch ends, I head outside with the other artists. We acknowledge the challenges of the physical world with our umbrellas, our bottles of sunscreen and bug repellent. But we are full of hope – that we will see something Wonderful. That we may produce a painting that will capture – dimly, or miraculously, with glorious vividness – the Eternal Truth that inhabits every tree, stone, and human being her on earth.

 

paintings by Ann Litrel of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit

Two works from the Monastery, the Belltower and the Cloisters – “Lift Thine Eyes”, and “Morning Illumination”

 

Morning on the Platte River

Morning on the Platte River

Morning on the Platte River

pastel on board, 12″ x 9″
$295.

This original pastel captures the morning light on Nebraska’s Platte River at Rowe Sanctuary Audubon Center, during the height of the Sandhill Crane Migration. You can see a small group flying in the distance as they make their way to the fields to feed during the day. In this work, I wanted to capture the waterside view at the sanctuary, and the warm light of the rising sun on the trees at the water’s edge. The Rowe Sanctuary is a resting place and feeding ground for the thousands of migratory water birds that fly north each spring.

For the many human pilgrims, who like us, come to the River to witness a wonder of nature, the calls of the cranes are haunting and awe-inspiring.

Nebraska 2

left – Cranes Calling At Dusk

pastel on board, 7″ x 5″   $195.

right – Evening Light, Winging Home

pastel on board, 7″ x 5″   $195.

Wearing a Hard Hat

Marguerite Cline, former superintendant of Cherokee County Schools

Life Perspective – oil on canvas, 14” x 11”

(For a custom portrait contact me, or visit my Etsy shop online for details.)

 

Former Cherokee Schools Superintendant Marguerite Cline Steered the County Through the First Years of Explosive Growth

 Marguerite Cline was Superintendant of Cherokee County Schools from 1984-1992, an explosive period of growth when the county’s population leaped from 62,000 to 101,000. In 1992, Cline was named Georgia School Superintendant of the Year by the Georgia Association of School Superintendants. Since then Cline has worked as a motivational speaker, columnist, TV producer and host, and has served on multiple boards of directors and won numerous awards. She was the first woman Chairperson of Cherokee Chamber, and the first woman mayor of Waleska, serving seven successive terms.

This story is part of a series featuring local leaders and visionaries, some behind the scenes, who have had an impact on the community. 

___________________

“I spent a lot of time at construction sites wearing a hard hat.’”

Marguerite Cline is referring to the challenges of leading the county’s public school system during her two terms as Superintendant. One of the first things I notice about Marguerite is that she doesn’t rush to blurt out responses. She is warm, but she has the composure of one who is used to the public spotlight.

You started your professional life as an elementary school teacher. How did you make the leap to Superintendant?

“After twenty years teaching, I moved to administration, and then to Assistant Superintendant. I found I enjoyed it very much. I like people. I enjoyed participating in the planning, helping to select the curriculum. Then the Superintendant unexpectedly decided to step down.

“I realized, ‘This is the only time I’ll be able to run for that job without campaigning against my boss.’

“Before I decided to run, I placed calls to twenty men who were leaders in the county. I said, “I am not asking for your vote – yet. My question to you is, ‘Do you believe I have a chance of being elected Superintendant?’ Eighteen said ‘yes.’ One of the other two said, ‘yes,’ but that he didn’t want to see people writing bad things about me in the paper.” She smiles. “And the other told me ‘no.’ He said, ‘No woman can be expected to oversee that many employees or manage that much money.’

“I decided to run. Three weeks before the election that one ‘no’ called me back. He said, ‘I was wrong. You’re going to win by a landslide – and I want to help you do it.’” She chuckles. “He sent me a $50 campaign contribution.”

How did you know to reach out and make those calls?

”The people around you are usually going to tell you ’yes,’ And you can get this feeling that the whole world is, without realizing it’s the same fifteen people every day. I needed a perspective from outside my group.

“I won 74% of the vote.”

What were the challenges of the job?

“The major challenge was space. The student population in the county was always larger than the available classroom space – even though the entire time I was in office we had a new school under construction  – one every one or two years. I spent many hours in architect meetings looking at blueprints. I spent a lot of time at construction sites in a hard hat.

“Sex Ed was another challenge. We had to let parents know it was going to be more than, ‘Chickens lay eggs and they hatch.’ We decided to implement the program with an RN. Rita Anderson went with me to every community, inviting parents and staff to see the teaching materials we planned to use. Rita was a very flexible person. If parents had objections, she would say, ‘This has to be taught. How can we do this?’

“At the churches, Rita and I had a rule: We would not use the word ‘sex’ or ‘intercourse’ until someone in the congregation said it first. After that, it was fine for us to say it.

Cline mentions the controversial splitting of the middle schools from the elementary schools as another difficult challenge, a move which divided the county’s popular elementary school basketball teams.  But when I ask her the accomplishment she’s most proud of, she surprises me.

“I became a widow when my three children were very young,” she begins. She stayed in Waleska, continued teaching, and employed a housekeeper. “I couldn’t have done it without my husband’s family and the church. And If God had said to me, ’You’re going to be a young widow,’ I couldn’t have chosen a better grandmother for my children than Grandma Cline.

“My children and their accomplishments are the thing I’m most proud of. And we are all Christians. That’s a real joy, too.”

Marguerite Cline has a wall full of awards – and a lifetime of perspective.

Street Names and History Books

Juanita Hughes color corrected

The Story Teller – pastel on board, 11” x 14”

(For a custom portrait contact me, or visit my Etsy shop online for details.)

 

Woodstock’s Official Historian Searches the Past For Her Father While She Unearths the Family Tree For an Entire Community

Juanita Hughes is an author of multiple books, columnist with the Cherokee Tribune, and retired Branch Manager of the Woodstock Library, where she worked for twenty years. Named Woodstock’s official historian in 2006, her ongoing influence pervades the town, including the collections of the Woodstock Visitors Center, a dozen new street names, and in collaborations like Elm Street’s recent theater production, “Mizz Edna Drives on Main.”

This story is part of a series featuring local leaders and visionaries, some behind the scenes, who have had an impact on the community. An edited version of this story appeared in the March issue of the AroundAbout magazines.  The setting of Juanita’s portrait shows her among the collections at the Woodstock Visitors Center.

_____

“Can we make the interview Thursday?” she says when I call. “I strongly resemble Albert Einstein until after my Wednesday appointments at the hairdresser.”

Juanita Hughes defies the stereotypes of humorless, gray-haired librarians. Her blue eyes twinkling, she dives into our interview with a question connected to the biggest mystery of her past. “Are you going to ask me things I know the answer to?” I answer yes. “Well, let me tell you a story,” she says. “Years ago I did an interview on a local Canton TV station with Marguerite Cline. I wasn’t too nervous about it – because I knew nobody in Woodstock would be able to watch it. Marguerite promised she wouldn’t ask anything I didn’t know.

“So her first question was, ‘Tell me about your mother and father.’ Well. My father left our family when I was two. Back then when people asked about my father, my pat answer was, ‘We didn’t have no daddy, ‘cause we was too poor.’ But this didn’t seem like the right thing to say for TV, so I stammered and stuttered on my very first interview question. Marguerite was embarrassed. She apologized afterward for asking me a question she thought anybody would be able to answer.”

Juanita relates she’s made three trips to her father’s birthplace in Pennsylvania looking for more information about him, a journey she’s shared with readers in her weekly column. “There were so many things we hadn’t known. He had another wife and a family.  When I was little, he had sent me a few penny postcards with a few stories and drawings. That’s all I had from him growing up. It makes me wonder what will happen to this generation. They only have electronic notes. Those get erased – and then there’s nothing.”

I’m surprised to find out Woodstock’s historian wasn’t born here. “I was born in Denver and grew up in Dalton, my mother’s hometown. Homer [Juanita’s husband] and I moved thirteen times before we settled down here in 1965 for his job. When we came, Woodstock had a population of 750. You knew everyone. You could walk to the grocery store, to the library with your children. It was just a perfect little town – ‘nobody here but us chickens,’” she quips.

Juanita tells the story of one particular night when there was a community sing.

“There was a full moon that night. Back then the moon explorations were going on, and the news said our astronauts were orbiting the back side of the moon. They were up there. We were all gathered outside together singing together in the moonlight. The moon was so bright. I remember we were all looking up, knowing there was someone up there – and it was just spine-tingling. It was magical.”

But Juanita doesn’t linger on the memory. She hastens to say there are plenty of nice new people too, which make Woodstock still a nice place to live, and who have “made Woodstock what it is today.” She comments that she likes the studio space where we are conducting the interview, and that the shop below us, now Outspokin’ Bicycles, was once the town’s grocery store.

“Back then the library was in a storefront – where LKT Sports is now. When I started working there, we were only open 15 hours a week, and people stayed mad with us all the time. Everybody in Woodstock came from somewhere else – where the libraries were perfect,” Juanita says dryly. “That was in the 1980s, when my different interests kind of came together – the history, the library, and also the writing.” She mentions her first newspaper column, and authoring the history of First Baptist Church Woodstock, Set Apart, which she describes as an almost overwhelming task.

“You know, I never had a formal education. I learned to write by reading.

“The project was huge – it was really too big for me. But I strongly felt the presence of the Holy Spirit as I worked on it, because things would happen – like, a person would show up at the library with an article about the exact thing I was looking for – a piece I needed about a certain family. It happened again and again.

“Somebody said I lived a ‘charmed life.’ I became known as ‘lucky’ because things seemed to fall into my lap – like when we did programming for the library. One time I had Jeff Foxworthy’s father, who had written a cookbook. I had a lot of good people like that. But there was no charm to it. What I learned at the library was that when you want something, all you have to do is ask.

“In 1995, with the Woodstock Centennial approaching, a group of us thought we should do something about that. I wasn’t in charge, but I was the person they asked to go in front of City Council to make the request – for a big city celebration. Smith Johnston, Jr., was actually the person instrumental in getting us started – he commissioned a book on the City’s history. The city celebration included a Gala, and parade with fireworks. They commissioned the mural, too.”

When did you get connected with the Woodstock Visitors Center?

“I began collecting history files at home when I was working on Set Apart. Later they went to the Visitors Center. The City named me ‘Woodstock’s Official Historian,’ ” she laughs, “because they got tired of not knowing answers to people’s questions. They just sent them to me.”

She waves her hand in the direction of the large new buildings of Woodstock Downtown. “When the new development was going on, I started thinking about those generic street names they use like ‘Oak’ or ‘Magnolia.’ The section they were developing was where the black community used to live, ‘way back when. It seemed a shame for that to be gone and for us to have no memory of what was there before.

“So I just e-mailed the developer, Pam Sessions, and said, can we have some input into what you name the streets?  She came and met with me right away – for two hours.  She was an amazing person. I showed her my list of Woodstock people and why they were important. ‘Evelyn Chambers was the first and only female Mayor. Bailey was the first black Councilman….’”

I nod as she speaks, but she looks at me and utters with the certainty of one who has seen much of life:

“The longer you live, the more interested you will be.”

Whether it’s the history of her father or her adopted hometown, Juanita tells the stories – and keeps asking the questions.

Midwinter Visitors

Tufted Titmouse is one in a flock of midwinter foragers

The Tufted Titmouse is one in a flock of midwinter foragers.

Today as ice fell from the white-gray sky, I remembered a bitter day a decade ago. The February morning was cold, and my two sons Tyler and Joseph and I stayed inside. Subdued in our post-holiday routines, the hours passed slowly. But around midmorning, an unfamiliar sound outside became noticeable. Barely audible at first, it grew, seeming to draw nearer, until it became a distinct twittering and chirping, a swelling of voices – birds singing!

“Mommy, come see!” My five-year old Joseph was pressed against the window. Tyler and I followed. The sky was alive – electrified – with birds. Flitting from tree to tree – birds, and more birds, circling tree trunks, probing bark, poking through the leaves.

Scores of chickadees and titmice filled the yard, along with birds I had never seen – small brisk woodpeckers, a nuthatch with a brown head, a little warbler with a flash of yellow at its tail. Tyler brought forth the bird guide, and we repeated each name for Joseph as we found it: Downy Woodpecker! Brown-headed Nuthatch! Yellow-rumped Warbler!

But our visitors moved on long before we tired of the show. The yard emptied like a sieve, leaking life and song. For hours the boys talked about the birds. Why had they come? Where had they gone? And they lamented – why did they leave so soon?

A field guide dispelled the mystery:  “…Continuing throughout fall and winter into early spring, mixed foraging flocks patrol forests and fields…mostly insectivorous species…A forest will appear empty of birds in winter, only to suddenly have the trees swarming with vocalizing chickadees, titmice, and other species.”

All our feeders filled with seed, all the fruiting shrubs planted just for birds – and our visitors were after plain old insects. I couldn’t help but laugh.

The birds never returned. Yet they sang in my memory all winter long, a bright song in that dark season. And one day as I sadly looked upon my cold silent yard it came to me – their visit was not just a memory; it was a promise – a promise that even in the cold of winter, Life would endure, a promise that one spring morning the silence would end and we would hear the songs once more.

How do birds survive the winter? Many small birds have an average body temperature of 107 degrees, and can forage with no apparent discomfort. The typical chickadee has 2000 feathers, with muscular control over all of them. It “fluffs” these feathers to gain better insulation. Some species actually roost together in tree cavities to conserve heat. These include the Brown Creeper, the Winter Wren, the White-breasted Nuthatch, and the Eastern Bluebird.

Drawing birds closerTo attract foraging birds, you can try making a thin “pssh pssh” sound or kissing the back of your hand – sounds which mimic distress calls.

A good nature guide for reading: John Krichner’s Ecology of Eastern Forests, of the Peterson Field Guide series.