I Almost Got Frostbite On My Birthday

Sandhill Cranes Over the Platte River, Nebraska: Evening Light, Winging Home

Pastel, Sandhill Cranes Over the Platte River: Evening Light, Winging Home

I celebrated my 50th birthday by shivering in a duck blind in Nebraska in the 10 degree weather before dawn.  I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes.  I remember looking at my sister Jane – This was her idea of a birthday trip?!!

Jane’s bucket list is all about seeing “The Earth’s Ten Great Animal Migrations.”  This includes whales, wildebeests, monarch butterflies and – the reason why I was freezing in Nebraska – Sandhill Cranes.

Sandhill Crane In Flight, drawing in charcoal, art by Ann Litrel

Sandhill Crane In Flight, a wingspan of six feet

The Sandhill Crane migration through the Great Plains was timed perfectly just before my birthday, Jane assured me. A half million birds flying together, resting each night in the wetlands of Nebraska’s Platte River, was reputedly a Natural Wonder, a sight not to be missed.  And so in March we flew to Omaha, drove across Nebraska to the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary on the Platte River. And we woke before dawn in freezing weather just to see a bunch of birds.

And even though it annoyed me for just a moment to be shivering next to my earnest sister with that wide eyed joy on her face, I must confess: watching the Sand Hill Cranes was absolutely magical.

A half million cranes rose up with a resounding cry at dawn, in a shadowy explosion of wings against the sky. Prehistoric creatures with giant wing spans six feet across, they flew in widening circles over the water, wheeling and returning for many minutes, calling to each other in low haunting trills so distinctive I shall never forget them. They scattered to feed in the surrounding fields, fueling their flight to the Arctic. Some would fly as far as Siberia, we learned, where they would nest, and raise their young, returning in the fall to their winter homes in the south.

I came back to Georgia inspired by my Nature Encounter – the cranes, the lonely wetlands, the arching skies.  I began painting.  Visitors to my studio were intrigued.  Several started planning their own trip next spring to Nebraska right on the spot.

Then came the buzz kill. My friend Jan Parrish arrived with her golf buddy, Joey Peeples, both wearing wide smiles as they listened to my adventure about braving the freezing wetlands.

“You know,” Jan told me, “you can see the cranes right here in Georgia.”

“Yeah,” Joey chimed in.  “We see them every spring when we’re out golfing.”

I didn’t believe them until Joey proceeded to imitate the exact warbling cry I had heard from the cranes in Nebraska.

We enjoyed a good laugh. I consulted the internet when I got home. Sure enough, an eastern population of Sandhills – distinct from the Great Plains group – does indeed fly right over Woodstock, migrating north from Florida to Canada.

And one quiet morning last spring as I sipped my early morning coffee, I heard the cries of the migrating cranes, far overhead. I looked outside and saw them flying high over my own backyard, these beautiful winged creatures moving forward in life on their long journey home.

And their song brought tears to my eyes.

Sandhill Cranes on Platte River at Night

The Secret of the Fall

Painting of Eastern Towhee Searching for food in fallen leaves,

Eastern Towhee In the Leaves

When I was a kid, I liked everything about the fall leaves.

I liked stomping. I liked raking. I liked jumping.

Wading down the sidewalk, I kicked up a splash of leaves with every step. CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH, four blocks to school every morning, four blocks home in the afternoon. Watching out for the prettiest leaf. This one? Or this one? Comparing. Look, see this red and orange? Mine is prettiest.

Raking was fun, too. A teetering mound, as high as your head. Pile it up, go at a run, a flying leap – DIVE IN! Buried – up to your eyes in rustling fall leaves.

Then the musty earth smell, the roar in your ears, the little bits of leaves, everywhere – in your hair, on your clothes, in your socks.

The only part that was no fun came at the end. The bagging. The bigger the pile, the longer it took.

After a few years, leaves didn’t seem so fun anymore. And maybe that’s the end of childhood,when you can see the work of bagging – before you even start the fun of jumping.

It ruins fall leaves. And a whole lot of other things, too.

But I have a secret, a secret which has brought back the fun of fall yardwork. And I am willing to share this secret, a secret that has earned me 2 (count them, two) Yards of the Month.

 

You DO NOT Have To Bag Your Leaves

As an artist and a gardener, I can tell you that getting rid of leaves is one of those suburban things that just doesn’t make sense.

Salamanders are s sign of a healthy eco-system in your yard

Salamanders Love Hiding In Moist Leafves

From a gardener’s perspective, leaves are healthy. They make great compost. They have nutrients in them that the trees draw up from deep in the soil. WHY would we throw them out?

From an artist’s perspective, leaves are no problem. They’re brown, just like mulch. They look great in your beds, around your shrubs. If your leaves look “too big,” just run them over a few times with a mower or put them in a shredder before you blow them into your shrubbery beds.

The entire trick to mulching with leaves is this: edges. Keep the edges of your beds neat. Take a few bags of brown mulch. Mound the mulch along the edges of the beds. Six inches in, let it thin out. Take a few handfuls and scatter it into the bed so the mulch blends into the natural shredded leaves.

Take it from an artist – the human eye is mysteriously attracted to neat edges, and for some reason will ignore all kinds of messiness – if only the edges are neat.

Save money on mulch. Save money on fertilizer. Leave the Leaves.

 Finally, Be Kind to Small Animals In Your Yard

Leaves make a healthier yard.

Leaves are healthy for all the little creatures who live in our yards. Creatures most of us stopped noticing once we got all grown up. Snails, fireflies, lizards, birds, turtles, salamanders… leaf litter sustains insects and the many, many small animals who eat them.

They all depend on the nutrients of leaf litter to sustain the base, the foundation of their food chain.

Snails and Other Small Creatures Thrive In Leaf Litter

Snails and Other Small Creatures Thrive In Leaf Litter

So be healthy. Be kind to small animals. And remember the secret to having fun again in the fall –

Leave the Leaves.

Mexican Migrants In My Backyard: Monarch Butterfly Migration

Art of a Monarch butterfly Garden, Watercolor by Ann Litrel

Now that my boys are grown and gone, I sometimes feel like the only kid left outside in our neighborhood. When I see a turtle, I run out to take a picture and give it a name. (So far I’ve named eight.) When my husband finds a cool bug like a writing spider or praying mantis, he knows to send me a picture because it makes me happy.

And in September every year, I go out in my garden to look for monarch caterpillars in my milkweed.

Passing neighbors no doubt wonder what I’m doing – a middle aged lady with sketchbook and camera, crouching down to stare at something no one else can see. That’s okay. As the world becomes more developed, I’m interested in what small animals, bugs and critters can survive in my yard – a tiny oasis of wild plants and flowers in the middle of a big subdivision.

Who Feeds Them?

When I was a kid, every first grade classroom had a glass fish tank for hatching monarch butterflies. Every kid got to see the caterpillar form a chrysalis and hatch two weeks later into a grown butterfly.

Nowadays, the monarch butterfly’s annual flight to and from Mexico appears in innumerable documentaries. It’s named one of the world’s “ten great animal migrations.” What you might not know is that the entire migration takes four generations to complete. The female butterfly that flies north from Mexico in spring to mate, lay her eggs, and die, is the great grandmother of the butterfly that makes its way back south in the fall to hibernate. He or she will roost sleeping with millions of its fellow monarchs, and then fly north in the spring to mate and start the cycle all over again.

Fifty years ago, milkweed was common along roads and in fields. It’s the only plant that monarch caterpillars will eat. In my small hometown in the Midwest, we could always find a stand of milkweed – with caterpillars – to bring to class for the annual hatching.

This was not true for my sons. In the manicured subdivision where we live now, anything that vaguely resembles a natural field is sprayed or mowed down to create the appearance of conforming green. Outside subdivisions in rural areas, most farms use herbicides, killing the strips of wildflowers between fields that used to feed and host butterflies in their migrations.

Home Owners Form a Grassroots Rescue Operation

Across the country, many people have joined together to fill the gap, swelling into a grassroots movement to plant Monarch waystations in their own gardens. These small plots and patio pots include nectar flowers for butterflies, and host plants for caterpillars to eat. In an amazing feat of species survival, even a tiny spot of asters can call a monarch down from the sky to feed, and lay their eggs if they are so fortunate to find a milkweed.

As I write this article, I take a break every few hours to watch a baby monarch caterpillar eat milkweed I’ve placed in a jar. By the time this magazine appears, the caterpillar will have made its chrysalis and hatched. And hopefully, I will see it spread its wings and take off on its flight for a long winter’s sleep in Mexico.

Plant a Monarch Waystation This Fall for Next Spring

Nectar Flowers for Adult Butterflies

  • magenta Echinacea
  • purple Liatris
  • gold Black-Eyed Susan
  • pink Joe-Pye Weed
  • yellow Sneezeweed

Host Plants for Monarch Caterpillars

  • Common milkweed
  • Butterfly weed

Online sources for native plants:

www.easywildflowers.com
www.nichegardens.com

 

Monarch caterpillar feeding on a milkweed leaf in this Georgia suburbs garden.

Just hatched: a baby monarch caterpillar feeds on a milkweed leaf in my Atlanta suburban garden.

Seeing Anew

click on painting for enlarged detail and color

click on painting for enlarged detail and color

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

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

Painting Melissa was a pleasure – she has an intense expression and clear features that make for interesting portrait work. For this painting, I couldn’t help but think of Da Vinci’s female portraits. Melissa’s enigmatic expression, the classical draped neckline, and the waves of her hair, all recalled to me DaVinci’s subjects – a modern day Mona Lisa, or his Madonna of the Rocks, with her smooth face and rippling hair.

The color palette, on the other hand, is contemporary with the Impressionists or later. It’s a high key palette that emphasizes the morning light bathing the flowers and plants. The aerial perspective references DaVinci again, but is an urban setting -the kind of community space that Melissa so often designs for.

To read more about Melissa’s story, visit the blog post under “Community: History and Visions.”

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.

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.

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.