Guerilla Gardening

Melissa Casteel

Seeing Anew: Melissa Casteel – oil on canvas, 11” x 14”

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

 

Landscape architect creates gardens and events to seed a spontaneous arts community

Melissa Casteel is a landscape architect and Principal of Mondo Land Planning+Design. In 2012 she partnered with community advocate Pat Tanner to co-found GROW, a volunteer organization for enhancing the downtown area and promoting community arts and activity. Melissa serves on the board of Main Street, and is the site designer and donor for Elm Street Cultural Arts Village.

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I moved to Woodstock because we wanted to live … where I could make a difference.

Melissa Casteel speaks in measured tones, her voice often serious. At first she seems an unlikely advocate for arts and spontaneity. We sit at the Crossings in downtown Woodstock, where the morning sun illuminates her dark hair against the bright flowers all around us, fruits of GROW volunteer labor.

Ann: What is ‘landscape architecture’? How does it relate to GROW?

Melissa: One definition of landscape architecture could be ‘designing the human experience.’ It means people interact in a public space based on how it’s designed. People usually aren’t aware of that. A small example might be the color of these chairs.” She points to the bright periwinkle chairs outside PURE. “People don’t think much about the color. But it sends out a subliminal message. If these were plain wood, the space would feel more ordinary. A bright color says, This is urban, this has energy.

GROW stands for ‘Green Reaps Opportunity for Woodstock.’ The original impulse was to improve the downtown area. We do most of the plantings, and we coordinate the watering and adoption of the planters by the businesses.

A different GROW project made Woodstock one of the first two cities in Georgia to participate in International ‘Park(ing) Day.’ It’s a movement to take a piece of land the size of a parking space and transform it for one day into a public park.

The first year we created a public garden, but the second year we did a live re-enactment of the painting ‘Sunday Afternoon in the Park’ by Seurat. That got a lot of attention. Groups in other places have made parking spaces into free health clinics, built art installations, done free bike repair shops, even hosted a wedding. The vision of PARK(ing) Day is to challenge people’s ideas about public spaces and inspire them to participate in the civic processes that shape it.”

Ann: What do you envision for GROW in Woodstock’s future?

Melissa: My big wish list is urban art – murals and sculptures. Chattanooga has done a great job of that. The Beltline in Atlanta is another model. They have art and events that create a sense of community.

I’d like to experiment with guerilla gardening. You go into a public space at night, transform it with plants, art, whatever. People react in the morning by using the space in a totally different way. An example of a guerilla project might be to tape out a huge hop scotch grid on a street during the night.”

Ann: What GROW projects have received the most notice?

Melissa: The Christmas balls! These were huge, multi-colored balls we put up in the trees downtown. They had a Dr. Suess feel, and the trees came to life. The public response was overwhelming. People driving through were so excited, they would stop to tell us these were the most beautiful decorations they had ever seen.”

Ann: What do you want people to know about GROW?

Melissa: We’re not just a gardening group! We’re open to all ages, men and women. You can bring kids. There are social activities. The common interests of the group are garden enthusiasts, and public art.

I moved to Woodstock because we wanted to live in a small community where our daughter could walk to school, where I could make a difference.

 

In her quiet way, Melissa is shaping this town with a unique vision.

 

Waking Up With Nightmares

Pat Gold portrait final

A History in Delta’s Customer Service Drives the Founder of Riverfest In Organizing Two Art Festivals in Cherokee

Pat Gold had 15 years in customer service with Delta before she chaired Cherokee County’s first Riverfest, held in 1985. Pat is pictured in front of the Cherokee Arts Center, where from 2011-2012, she was also Chair of Canton Festival of the Arts, held annually the third weekend in May. In the past decade, she has served in numerous community endeavors, including the Tourism and Main Street programs in Canton, as well as the Canton Planning Commission.

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 Gold’s story and the accompanying portrait, visit www.annlitrel.com

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If I have any creativity, this is it. You know, I don’t create art – but I can organize it.

Pat Gold offers this snippet about her part in Cherokee County’s first Riverfest, now approaching its 30th anniversary. The arts and crafts festival was conceived by her as a fundraiser for the County’s Junior Service League, a group whose mission is to help needy children and their families with direct aid and scholarships. Riverfest takes place every September in Canton’s Boling Park on the Etowah River, drawing attendees from across metro Atlanta and north Georgia.

Exuding brisk cheer and an air of capability, Pat escorts me into an empty classroom at the Cherokee Arts Center for our interview, offering more than once to help carry my bags, microphone and lights. She explains that her “current baby” is the Canton Festival of the Arts, a juried spring artist fair at the Arts Center, fast approaching the weekend of May 17 and 18.

Tell me about your role in Riverfest.

“Riverfest was started in the early 80’s,” she says. “Back then, craft fairs were fairly new but gaining in popularity. One horrible rainy morning, I got the idea of launching a crafts fair in the County as the Service League’s fundraiser. Judy Bishop and I took the idea to the board, and they gave us the green light.”

What were some of the challenges?

“It was a huge undertaking. We worked for two years to develop the first Riverfest.” She names the divisions of labor: the artist’s market, the children’s area, concessions, entertainment, advertising and PR. Each was organized by one of the core committee members, whom Pat lists as herself, Judy Bishop, Rebecca Johnston, Debra Goodwin, Lila Stevens, and Ann Rupel.

“Recruiting artists was a critical element,” she continues. “If you’re starting from scratch, you have to convince them that you are going to be successful.” She names local potter Ron Cooper as being “instrumental” in recruiting artists and getting the word out in the arts community.

Did you have any organizing experience before this?

“I had been working at Delta almost 15 years as an in-flight service coordinator. I grew up with Delta, and they taught me everything I know about customer service. Making a successful arts festival is all about customer service – helping the artists unpack, getting their things to their space, babysitting their booth when they want to take a break…everything to make it a good experience so they’ll come back next year. Without them, we don’t have a festival.”

How did Riverfest measure up to your vision?

“It was even better than we had hoped. Boling Park was a perfect setting. The Riverfest name was my husband’s suggestion – and it stuck.” She smiles. “The first year, we had 107 artists, 10,000 people came through the gates, and we earned a profit of almost $10,000. Of course, it’s grown since then.” [In 2013, the 28th annual Riverfest included 151 exhibitors, and earned over $70,000.]

Pat adds a personal remembrance. “As the opening day got close,” this organizer admits,” I was waking up with nightmares, imagining a festival that no one came to. I really didn’t relax until that first morning.” She shakes her head.

“When the first wave of people came down that hill, it was like a dream come true.”

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  

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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.

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

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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.

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. 

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“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.

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“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.

Digging Up Sweet Potatoes

Reinhardt Vice President JoEllen Wilson

Lit Up – oil on canvas, 11” x 14”

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

 

Reinhardt Fundraiser and Vice President JoEllen Wilson Cultivates the Surprising Touches That Win Hearts for this University

JoEllen Wilson is Vice President for Advancement at Cherokee County’s Reinhardt University, where for the past twenty years she has served in positions of increasing responsibility, eventually becoming the school’s first female Vice President. Beginning in 1997, Wilson became Special Assistant to the President, serving as the “familiar face” for many alumni and donors in a critical time of transition, as a succession of four men rotated through the office, culminating with Dr. Isherwood arriving in 2002. Currently she oversees donor relations, marketing and fundraising for the university.

 This story is part of a series featuring local leaders and visionaries, some behind the scenes, who have had an impact on the community. When Ms. Wilson began working at Reinhardt, it was a two-year school which offered one Associate’s degree in Liberal Arts, serving 400 students. Reinhardt is now a post-graduate institution with 41 undergraduate degree programs and six Master’s degrees, with a student population of 1,200.

 Ms. Wilson is pictured here on the stage of the Falany Performing Arts Center. 

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“I told the President, ‘If I have to plan one more Homecoming, I will DIE.’ ”

I suspect it’s an unusual statement for JoEllen Wilson. A half an hour into our interview, I have already mentally designated her as one of those rare people with inexhaustible reserves of energy and good will toward their fellow man.

Wilson is referring to her first job at Reinhardt, a part-time position in Alumni Relations. “I’m a people person, so that job was perfect for me. My sons had started high school, and I was ready to get back into the workforce.

“Fundraising and alumni relations aren’t about what people think; it’s not about asking people for money. It’s about the relationships. My job in Alumni Relations eventually became full-time, and I loved it! But after five years, there was a point when I felt like I just couldn’t plan another Alumni Weekend or Homecoming. I was burned out.” At this point, she confesses about her threat to “die” if she has to plan one more Homecoming. “I knew that might be the end of me working here,” Wilson adds.

“But fortunately, the president had another job for me.

“Dr. Falany had just found out he would need to retire, for health reasons. To prepare for this change, he brought me on as Special Assistant to the President. I would be helping to transition him out of the office, and the next President transition in. I would make introductions, maintain relationships with donors and alumni, and staff. As it happened, two more presidents came through before Dr. Isherwood arrived in 2002. It was an amazing opportunity and growing time for me. I learned something new from every one of those men, almost every day.”

I ask Ms. Wilson how she first made the connection with Reinhardt.

“Since I was a girl!’ she exclaims. “My grandmother was a house mother and a nurse on campus. I used to visit Big Mama here, and I always thought I would come here so I could become a teacher. While I was earning my two-year degree, I met my husband John here, and we married. We had twin sons, and THEY both came here, and met THEIR wives here. That happens at a lot of schools. But there’s a saying we have at Reinhardt about our students and their spouses: We’re like a shoe factory – we put people out in pairs. ”

What part of your story do you think people relate to most? The smile disappears for a rare moment as she pauses thoughtfully. “I think it’s when people hear I finished my college degree and my masters’ while I went back to work here. People will tell me they were encouraged when they hear that, and they think, ‘Maybe I can do that, too.’

“This is a people-oriented place, and even though we’ve grown, we haven’t lost that. I’m so pleased that even after adding a football team, we still have a culture of caring and respect. Those young men have been trained by our excellent coach to be ambassadors for the university. We’re a people place.

“I’ll tell you something funny. Dr. Falany and I once visited a longtime supporter who was extremely wealthy – she probably could afford whatever she wanted, anything. But what she really wanted was sweet potatoes from Dr. Falany’s garden. So whenever we went to visit her, we first had to drive over to Dr. Falany’s garden and dig up those sweet potatoes, so she could have some!

“I think that the personal attention at Reinhardt can’t be contained in 600 acres. It goes out into the community.”

The same could be said for JoEllen Wilson.

 

The Mile High View

George McClure portrait by Ann Litrel

The Mile High View – pastel on board, 12” x 9”

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

 

Pilot and Developer George McClure Looks at the Teamwork That Built a Regional Airport

George McClure is a former Chairman of the Cherokee County Airport Authority, and has served on the Authority board since the mid 1980’s. As one of the original developers of Towne Lake and also a Cherokee County native, he has seen the airport runway grow from 3,400 feet to its current 5,000 feet, accommodating the aviation community and a growing number of corporate jets. The Cherokee County Airport is located on Airport Drive at 575 and Exit 24.  

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

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“I drag-raced on the runway as a teenager. I knew it was here, you see.”

George McClure smiles as he shares this rare snapshot from his past. He’s seated in the second-story conference room at Cherokee County’s regional airport terminal. Wall-to-wall windows showcase a spectacular view of the runway under blue October skies. McClure shifts often in his chair, his tall form constantly in motion. I ask him to talk about his connection to the airport. But he is not interested in telling his personal story. He has shown up with a thick file of notes: he wants to make sure we recognize the many people who built the airport, and how it’s grown.

“This airport is here because of a whole team of people,” he says. “It was the Canton Jaycees that got it built, in 1966. Norman Sosebee was part of that group.” He looks through his file for the names. “Also Bud Chambers, Lee Winn, and N.J. Wilbanks – Wilbanks’ dad actually gave some of the land. They built the first hangar and the runway. In 1968 the Airport Authority Board was created – Norman Sosebee served on the board for forty years.”

Knowing McClure is a County native, I ask if he got interested in flying when he saw the airport being built. He smiles and mentions his drag-racing on the runway as a teen. He also confides that he and a buddy dreamed of owning a plane. “Flying was always on my bucket list.”

He leapfrogs over large chunks of his past to get back to the airport story. “But I went to school and studied accounting. I worked in the corporate world for a while, and I rose to the VP position. When I left, I got into building, as a developer. In the mid-1980’s I was doing a project off Bells Ferry. That’s when Gene Hobgood – the County Chairman – re-activated the Airport Authority Board. The airport hadn’t changed too much since the 60’s.

“I was a pilot by that time, so I knew the aviation side.”

McClure glosses over this to focus on the players. “I understood how to do big projects, how to push dirt. Gene asked me and Don Stevens to serve on the board. Don’s also a developer. Also Bill Johnson, an Atlanta commercial developer, and Homer Gold – ‘Nugget,’  a Canton physician. He was the Chairman then. I was Chairman for years after that, and Don Stevens is the current one.

“We’ve all played a part, you see,” he looks at me to emphasize the point. “But it was Bill Johnson who had the vision. I want to say that.

“Bill had the idea of putting together a business plan. We had been getting funding from the FAA in small doses, $100,000 here, $200,000 there. Bill had us go to the FAA with a business plan for a 5,000 foot runway and this new terminal. The County would put up half the money if the FAA would put up the other half.

“It was a paradigm shift from how we were operating.”

I ask if this work on the airport has been a paid position. “No,” he says emphatically. “The airport authority is prohibited from making money. It’s part of the charter.

“I like the jazz of doing it – it’s the challenge. And the airport helps the whole community. It brings in business. The thing I’m proudest of is that we’ve had one hundred per cent support of every elected official since we started. We’re one hundred per cent transparent. I’m very proud of that.”

I ask him if there is a connection between flying and the other things he’s done in his life.

“Flying is real helpful when you’re a developer. Flying gives you the mile-high view – you get a whole different perspective at 5,000 feet.”

It’s the perspective McClure seems to keep, no matter his elevation.

The Art of Building Cities

Richard McLeod version 3 final

A Man of Vision – pastel on board, 20” x 16”

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

 

Artist and Dancer Richard McLeod Brings a Creative Touch To Community Development

Richard McLeod is the former Director of Community Development for the City of Woodstock. When McLeod began working for the city, Woodstock was a sleepy town with two or three blocks of aging retail stores along a state highway. During his tenure from 2002-2012, McLeod helped usher in the 26- acre development now known as “Woodstock Downtown,” a compact development of commercial retail space and restaurants, crowned by four stories of condo units over retail shops and backstopped with multiple “pocket parks” and tall urban-style homes.

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

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“I sometimes had to picture the Mayor and Council in their underwear.”

The eyebrow-raising statement comes from Richard McLeod as he compares the position of Community Development Director to his first career in his twenties, when he was, surprisingly, a professional dancer with the San Francisco Ballet. He says some elements from his career as a performer carried over into his job with the City in unexpected ways. He grins and explains.

“When you’re in Community Development, sometimes you’re going to do things that are unpopular. I was working with private developers to help get their projects done. So part of my job was being able to stand in front of a room full of people who were angry at me and not be afraid to keep communicating…Back when I was a dancer, one of the things they used to tell us was to picture the audience in their underwear, so we’d be less nervous.”

“Well, when I came to Woodstock, that just meant sometimes I had to picture Mayor Henriques or Bill Dewrell in their underwear when situations got tense.”

I ask McLeod to name the job description for “Director of Community Development.” He gestures toward the modern skyline of Downtown Woodstock behind him. White triangles of canvas shade the second-story patio at “PURE.” Private balconies hang from the brown brick face of the five story building. Shops line the street level, with its wide, tree-shaded sidewalks.

 “I didn’t build anything, I didn’t engineer, I didn’t make any laws. My job was just to make sure all the right people stayed in the room. The developer had a spectacular vision, but it didn’t go with what was being done in Cherokee County at the time. Everybody else was building subdivisions with cul-de-sacs, and multi-car garages.”

“This project needed a champion, and I guess I was that champion.”

The developer wanted one thing, the elected officials wanted another, Public Works wanted something else. It was my job to bring the artistic and regulatory sides together in a way that would allow a great creative project to happen. Part of my job description would have to include the word ‘artist.’ The dominant side to it has to be creative. So it’s recognizing the difference between a really good development and one that’s not so good.”

“Building good cities is a lost art.”

“Technically, some of what we did here went against the code. And it went against ‘Industry Standards.’ For example, we made the streets more narrow to slow down the cars. We took little things like the street drains, and used a type that didn’t give the appearance of being able to swallow small children. Some of what makes me different is that I am willing to dig into those kinds of items, that are normally handled on the Public Works side.”

“A great city is made of a million tiny details – where does the sun come from during certain times of the day? What is the color of the streetlights shining into the retail shops? I’ve been known to visit Savannah and walk around with a tape measure, measuring alleys and garages and houses and buildings. I’m always trying to figure out, What is the DNA that makes a city so distinctive?”

 

I ask McLeod if there are other connections between his career as a dancer and what he does now. He nods.

“When I was a dancer, we used to travel all over Europe, where the cities are hundreds, even thousands, of years old. Their cities are old and beautiful, and they still work. Over here, we’re lucky if our houses outlast our roofs. I would come back to Atlanta even then and think, Why can’t we build cities like that?”

 

It’s an art that Richard McLeod is apparently dedicated to reviving.