Saturday, December 24, 2011

Finding the lightness on this day

Today's Observer column. Merry Christmas, everyone:

Eight mornings before Christmas, a man walked into the Kmart on Freedom Drive and asked to see a manager. He wanted to pay off some customers’ layaway accounts.

The man had seen stories recently about people receiving that gift – in Indiana, he thinks, but possibly somewhere else. Layaway payoffs have become a heartening trend – with people walking into stores here and across the country to settle an account or two, to surprise someone with a gift from a stranger, to remind us of the spirit this season is supposed to bring.

This man, who lives in Charlotte, wanted to do the same but more. He thought he might pay off $2,000 worth of layaways. He is not a rich man, so this was a gift that would leave a mark on him, as well.

That Kmart that Saturday was crowded and harried and not a particularly joyful place to be – a little like our lives this time of year. It seems harder to find the quiet in Christmas these days, for so many reasons. For some, it’s the battle of managing the message, of accepting that Santa is a big part of it all but hoping to at least keep him away from the manger. For all of us, faithful or not, it’s a struggle to manage everything else – the lists, the time, the heaviness of expectations that are laid upon the season.

Those expectations are more daunting for some in this economy, and it’s those people the man wanted to help. And so he found Kmart store manager Stephanie Williams, who told him she would do whatever he wanted.

He decided on three criteria in paying off layaways: First, the accounts needed to be weeks old, to show that someone was planning and paying off a balance bit by bit. He also wanted no layaways with big ticket items like big-screen TVs, and he wanted to see something in each account that showed purchases for children.

Williams found 19 layaways fairly easily, totaling about $1,700. Processing each took time – the store’s system was set up for commerce, not charity – so our giver went to run an errand, thought about it all, then came back. Let’s do more, he told Williams, and they did, stopping finally at 49 accounts. The new total: just under $5,000.

He left again, this time to find a dollar store, where he bought Christmas cards, one for each of the layaways he had paid. He sat in his car, and on each of the 49 cards he wrote a message: “This Christmas, be kind to strangers, be kind to family, and be kind to yourself.”

It’s that last part – “be kind to yourself” – that he thinks about now.

“I sort of imagine what it would feel like to want to give my family something and have to plan six weeks ahead to pay – and to feel like that was in jeopardy,” he says. “That would feel heavy and painful. It seems exactly the opposite of what Christmas is supposed to feel like.”

This week, Williams has seen her customers come into Kmart and discover their layaways have been paid off. “They have been overjoyed,” she says. What Christmas is supposed to feel like.

It’s something we all can offer, our giver thinks. Not necessarily with money, but with a kind word, with a hand on the shoulder, with time. It’s about making someone feel better, he says. Or perhaps this: Making someone feel lighter. There’s a word for that we share on this day, whether you look gratefully to the heavens, or in wonder at what’s around us: Peace.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

At Harding, a protest rings familiar

Shortly before last week's election, a group of Harding High School parents met with Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board chair Eric Davis about concerns they had with their school. The group was small - just a few parents, Davis says - but they came carrying worries from the larger Harding community.

Those concerns touched on safety issues this school year, the first since Harding's magnet program was eliminated while hundreds of students were added from now-closed Waddell High. But the parents' primary worry was academic - many of those new students, who come from low-income minority homes, were below grade level, demanding attention from teachers that inevitably held back the progress of Harding's traditionally higher-achieving students.

The concerns mirrored those that many Harding parents have voiced since CMS contemplated the change to Harding a year ago. Those parents, almost all of them black, predicted then that academics would suffer, and they are rightfully worried now.

And if they were white, they would be called racist for saying so.

For more than 40 years, CMS has struggled with the gap between its best and worst performing students, and for all that time the tug between the two has been splayed against the backdrop of race. It's suburban whites not wanting their kids in classrooms with urban blacks, people say. It's west Charlotte vs. south Charlotte.

But the worries that you hear at Harding? They're the same that many parents expressed when Charlotte decided to bus schoolchildren across town to achieve integration in the 1960s and beyond, and they're the same we've heard each time school officials have considered redrawing districts.

Did some white parents simply not want their child in a school with blacks? Certainly, especially 40 years ago. But for most, and more recently, it's been a simple calculation: their children might suffer from being in schools where students didn't perform as well. When given a choice of a classroom that was surging ahead or one that was catching up, which do you think most parents preferred?

Racist, they've been called.

Can we stop that now?

Harding's parents might argue that their case is different. CMS, they say, has gutted an historically strong program that was a model of how low-income and minority students could thrive. But the argument rings familiar, no matter the color of the anger: We had a good thing going. Then you forced new kids on us.

Know this: The goal here isn't to play gotcha with Harding's parents. They are justifiably mournful about a very real loss, and they rightfully want their children in a place that offers the best chance to excel.

In that, they share common ground with parents across our county - an understanding that children need help to overcome the socioeconomic disadvantages forced upon them, but an awareness that providing that help often comes with consequences to others.

It's not racist - at Harding or anywhere - to worry about those consequences. Is it selfish? Of course. But every good parent is - at least a little.

Last week, voters elected two new members to the CMS school board, including Ericka Ellis-Stewart, who also was one of the parents in that meeting with board chair Davis. Ellis-Stewart, whose son transferred from Harding to the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics, did not return a call last week.

The new board will face the same challenges as the last - providing the best education to all its students, with resources that aren't growing as fast as the student population, and with that achievement gap still glaring back at them.

The differences are real, and the challenges are formidable. Perhaps we can ask together what we're going to do about it.

And maybe this time, at least, we can do so without the labels.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

What happens after we send the illegal immigrants away?

For years, we’ve been told how much better our lives would be after we truly cracked down on illegal immigration. There’d be more jobs for Americans, fewer classrooms bogged down by non-English speakers. Our emergency rooms would be free of burden. We wouldn’t have to punch “1” so much for calls in English. A better life, if only we could send the illegals home.

Now we know.

Here’s what you get when you get the Mexicans to leave: Rotting crops, businesses closing, concerned police, children missing school. And, of course, families torn apart.

But at least the lawbreakers are leaving, right?

This is what we’re seeing in Alabama, which this month began enforcing the most rigorous immigration law in the country. There, it’s illegal to knowingly employ, assist or house an undocumented immigrant. The law also compels schools and police to verify the status of immigrants – or at least those who look like one – although a circuit court temporarily blocked the schools provision late Friday.

Georgia and Arizona lawmakers have passed similar laws, and North Carolina is prepping the soil by forming a new legislative committee on immigration issues. Its goal: make North Carolina “unwelcome for any illegal alien,” said Republican Rep. Frank Iler, a co-chair, to a Wilmington reporter last week.

Now we have a preview of what comes next. In Alabama, the new law has jarred cities and rattled communities where Latinos long ago put down roots while tending crops and working in poultry plants. Church pews are emptying. Businesses are scrambling to replace workers. Police are fretting about when and when not to check papers. Superintendents are pleading with Latino parents, assuring them they won’t be grabbed for deportation when they pick up their child. It’s not working – parents have pulled the kids, many of them U.S. citizens, and kept them home.

Above all, immigrants are leaving – some to other states that might be more welcoming, some back to their homeland.

To which many of you out there would say: Great.

Immigration opponents have long declared – with some real justification – that illegal immigrants strain our emergency rooms, slow our classrooms with ESL students, and cost our cities and towns millions in services. And once they’re gone, the thinking goes, more jobs will be available for unemployed American workers.

Except: In Alabama and Georgia, farmers say the law is killing them. The farmers, most of whom live in rural, conservative counties, say the U.S. Guest Worker program is woefully inadequate in supplying workers to tend their fields. What about all those locals needing jobs? “You’re out there in the sun and the rain,” an Alabama farmers representative told the Washington Post. “It’s just not attractive to Americans.”

So crops are going unharvested, with more than half rotting in some places. Farms are floundering, and prices surely will rise. Another casualty: Businesses that serve immigrant communities are suffering and closing their doors. That’s money that helps rev our economies – and jobs going away when we need them most.

It’s why the send-them-home solution has long been antiquated. Our cities and towns have settled into commerce that includes immigrant communities, their labor force, and their dollars. A better solution includes a combination of tightening borders, penalizing illegal immigrants with back taxes and fines, and perhaps making them take English lessons to help them assimilate – all in exchange for a path to U.S. citizenship.

That basic framework happens to be what President George Bush proposed five years ago, but those ideas were trounced in the Senate. Still, his attempt offered more than President Barack Obama and Congress, who occasionally talk immigration – but never risk the danger of an actual proposal.

The reason, of course, is that poll after poll show passionate disapproval of illegal immigrants. But another survey, conducted this year by Raleigh’s Public Policy Polling, showed that 69 percent of Americans were in favor of a solution similar to Bush’s, with both penalties and a path to citizenship. That support included 80 percent of Republicans and 62 percent of Democrats. Surely, numbers like those might help regrow some spines in Washington.

Because what we have otherwise is Alabama and Arizona and, soon enough, North Carolina.

Here’s what we get from those laws: U.S. citizens carrying identification papers because they look a little brown. Legal Latinos going back to their homeland, too, because they rightfully feel unwelcome. We get, most of all, another shameful chapter of Americans struggling to welcome someone different from those already living among them.

That’s OK, some say, so long as the lawbreakers are leaving.

But where is it leaving us?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

An enemy's death - and neighbor's loss

What should we say to the Khan family?

They live in northeast Charlotte, in a middle class community, and in the five years before my family moved last year, they were my neighbors. They lived down the road and around the bend, and they had a son who played basketball in the street. I probably drove by him, and I’m sure I’ve waved at his parents driving by my home, but I don’t remember.

In fact, I never had occasion to meet the Khans until a few years back, when I walked down the street to knock on their door and ask, as a newspaper reporter, why their son hated the United States.

They didn’t answer the door then, and they have since been quiet until last week, when they released a statement after Samir Khan was killed Sept. 30 along with radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki by a U.S. drone in Yemen.

Samir Khan was 25 years old, a former Central Piedmont Community College student who started writing a radical blog in the basement of his family’s home. By several accounts, his father and others tried to convince him his radicalism was misguided, but Khan moved to Yemen after newspaper reports about that blog. There he produced the al-Qaida magazine “Inspire,” in which he wrote: “I am proud to be a traitor to America.”

So if you’re expecting a defense of Samir Khan here, know this: He declared himself an enemy of the United States, and he died riding in a car with another sworn enemy. We can allow ourselves at least a portion of the satisfaction he would’ve taken if our country were to be attacked again.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t questions we should ask. What should we say to the Khan family, which was contacted by the U.S. government last week only after the family noted in the statement that no U.S. official had called about Samir Khan’s remains, nor offered any condolences? How do we respond when the Khans point to their son’s death, then to the Fifth Amendment, which promises due process to American citizens?

Constitutional scholars have been divided when asked to reconcile the two. Khan’s death sets a precedent in which the U.S. president can authorize the assassination of a U.S. citizen without a formal charge or trial – and without, essentially, any substantial outside checks on the decision. Even if we think this president made no error with this decision, do we move forward believing every president will make the same, right choice for the right reasons, unchecked and in secrecy? If you were troubled by the constitutional overreaches of the post-?9/11 Bush administration, you should be just as unsettled now.

Many won’t be, of course, just as many have responded to the Khan family statement with the predictably shrill voices that paint Samir Khan as representative of the Muslim American population. Some of us, too, struggle with a subtler and quieter discomfort. It’s that anxiety that’s stirred whenever we see a turban on a plane, and although we fight that urge, in difficult moments we give in. We look the other way when we learn that there’s one less terrorist that can threaten us. We don’t admonish our government for being shamed into acknowledging a family’s pain.

We are 10 years past 9/11, and the stain keeps reappearing. Not the extremists who protest mosques and prattle about Sharia law. Not the intolerant who will find fear no matter the color of its skin. It’s the reasonable among us who lose that reason, in subtle and significant ways, then promise we are and will be better than that.

So what do we say to the Khans, our neighbors, who lost a son last week after losing him years ago? Perhaps there’s not anything we can say, but we can start with this:

We’re sorry.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

When the risk-takers run out of risks

That house on Camilla Drive is finally off the market.

You may have seen it driving through South Charlotte – or in an Observer column I wrote late last year. It’s a six-bedroom, seven-bathroom, 6,977-square-foot palace near South Park, a home that has a little Charleston, a little Dilworth, and a lot of made-you-look going on.

It is, depending on your perspective, a spectacularly unusual house in a city where even the mansions are afflicted with sameness – or it’s a self-indulgent castle unwisely plunked in a neighborhood of smaller and plainer 1970s and 80s homes.

This much we know: 4823 Camilla Drive was on the market for more than eight years, longer than any home that Realtors across Charlotte could recall. Most told us they couldn’t think of another home that came close to hanging on the rack that long.

But now the house has occupants, who have signed a lease-purchase agreement allowing them to pay monthly rent that goes toward a purchase down the road, if they decide they want to own. So although the house is off the market, it technically has not been sold.

Which means it can torment its owner a little while longer.

“Nothing about this house,” says Eric Markel, “has been easy.”

You might remember Markel. He is the cocky president of a New York property management company who moved to Charlotte 13 years ago. He decided to build a few luxury homes here, none more extravagant than Camilla, but he chose to put that house in a neighborhood with properties worth a fifth of his home’s $2.45 million asking price.

It was a bold choice in a city where boldness usually paid off handsomely. But although people were dazzled by 4823 Camilla when it hit the market in 2003, no one bought it. Then, the recession arrived.

By the time he gave me a tour last December, he was understandably miffed. Along with touting the Brazilian hardwood on the deck and the custom cherry kitchen cabinets, he had some less-than-laudatory things to say about real estate agents and Charlotte in general.

“People don’t understand it,” he said of 4823 Camilla.

And: “They’re living in their own little Charlotte world.”

Charlotte, as you might imagine, had some suggestions on what Markel might do with those Brazilian planks.

Markel laughs now at the comments – his and other’s – although he still thinks Charlotte didn’t fully appreciate his creation. He does, however, have this to say about his homebuilding career: “It’s done.”

That would be a shame, because even if it comes bundled in brashness, Markel has a point about Camilla and Charlotte. When he built the house eight years ago, our city was beginning to do things out of the ordinary architecturally. Markel saw Camilla as the antithesis of the new luxury homes that populated Charlotte, the brick mansions with all the same bells and whistles that builders knew would attract buyers.

Charlotte has historically been much like those builders – checking off all the amenities that newcomers might like. We’re clean and pretty, and we have museums and pro teams, all of which is why people like Eric Markel came here and stayed.

That’s helped us thrive enough that something special was beginning: We were accommodating the uncommon, the independent businesses and funkier neighborhoods that give a city more texture and soul.

Then the economy squeezed most everything, including Markel, who’s doing fine now, in case you’re wondering. He’s made enough money elsewhere to survive the financial blows, but he says: “I can only imagine the bigger guys that really got hit.”

He believes prosperity will return here, and he’s already seeing glimpses of it in small ways – busier nights at restaurants and the mall. Bigger investment will come, he says, for all the reasons Charlotte thrived before.

But the risk-takers, the people who wanted to build one unusual house, open one unusual business? Those are the ones who have the least amount of resources – and the least amount of will – to risk it all again. In some ways, with our biggest businesses among our most uncertain, the smallest are the ones we need more than ever.

Maybe so, Eric Markel says, although it won’t be him. “My day has passed,” he says.

Then he pauses.

“But,” he says, “human beings have short memories.”

Friday, September 16, 2011

A wedding, and all that we bring to it

Bobby is unsure about his wedding. He’s thinking that intimate might be the way to go – family and some close friends in a small celebration. Or maybe a bigger bash with everyone they know, a chance to look out on all those faces smiling back at you.

He’s the last in our family who’s unmarried. My sister was the first to take the plunge, more than 20 years ago in New Hampshire. A little more than a decade later, I brought everyone south to my bride’s Alabama church.

Now Bobby, my older brother, is thinking of having us join him in New York, where lawmakers voted this summer to legalize same-sex marriage.

This week, N.C. legislators dug in harder on keeping the wedding day away from gays, approving a constitutional amendment outlawing homosexual marriage that will go before voters next May. Our state already has a law against gay marriage, of course, but a consititutional amendment is harder to change than a simple law. Gay marriage opponents know it’s their best chance at defending an institution they believe is under attack.

That’s a word – attack – that sneaks often into this gay marriage debate. And also this word: agenda. It’s how those who fear homosexuality separate gays from the rest of us, by painting them as “others,” as an occupying force that wants to diminish the things we hold important.

Some of us, maybe most of us, know something different – that gays are our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. They grew up in the same households we did, grounded in the same values and appreciating the same institutions, then keeping or discarding those lessons as we all do when we move into adulthood. There is no gay filter through which they process all of life’s issues. It’s part, not the entirety, of who they are.

In my house, those values and institutions were brought to us by parents who are approaching 50 years together, with the delights and bumpiness that so many marriages traverse. Now, says Bobby, he looks around and is sometimes troubled that marriage isn’t valued the way he thinks it should be. That might surprise you if you believe, as many do, that gays don’t bring the same depth of commitment to their relationships. But Bobby, who’s been with his partner for 15 years, wants to participate in marriage for the same reason others don’t want him to – because it says something important.

He understands, too, that such importance is what tangles marriage with legislation. As much as homosexuals and their advocates would like a clean break between our laws and our religion, our laws are a reflection of our values, and those values are often grounded in faith.

And this is where I confess. I’ve long struggled with what my Bible says about my brother. I know Leviticus, along with the other Scripture spread before us as evidence against homosexuality. But scholars I respect tell me the Bible isn’t as certain about gays as some think. They also tell me to be cautious about selective literalism – holding up the passage condemning homesexuality yet ignoring the one that says it’s shameful for a woman to speak at church.

What they don’t have to tell me is this: We should all think hard before declaring ourselves God’s proxy on determining what makes for a big sin – and who is a sinner.

Yes, that’s an easier spot to land intellectually when you have a brother who’s gay, but polls are showing that time is bringing more of us to the same place. We live in a country that moves slowly in allowing rights to its minorities, but eventually it gets there, and eventually we will.

That’s a good thing not only for the oft-stated and significant reasons – that gay marriage laws discriminate and fuel hostility, and that gays deserve the rights and benefits that come with marriage. It’s good because my brother and Osvaldo, and all our brothers and sisters, get to do the same thing we did – stand in front of a large or intimate gathering, wear a tux or a dress or a ring or none of those, but announce a commitment we believe will endure.

Bobby isn’t sure about his wedding’s particulars, but with it he’ll get to appreciate all those things big and small. In time, that’s coming here, too, no matter what happened last week or happens in May. It’s coming not because we’re finally willing to accept people who are different, but because we understand that they’re not.

Friday, July 29, 2011

I'm moving. (Sort of.)

I'm packing and hauling - across the newsroom. I'm honored to be taking a position on the Observer's editorial board.

I'll continue to do columns - at least weekly - that tell our stories and talk about issues, so keep sending me your thoughts and ideas. Those columns will appear in this blog, so online readers won't notice much of a difference moving forward. In print, the columns will appear in our Opinion section instead of the Local section.

I'll also be participating in the editorial process, and I'm excited to share my perspective with editorial board members, who are among the most thoughtful people I know. Regular readers of this column know that I land center-right on many issues, especially fiscal. But not all.

As I wrote in my first metro column a year ago:

I’m 45, a husband, a dad. I’m about to become the third smartest person in my house, behind my wife who was ahead of me all along – and my 9-year-old son, who is gaining fast. I attend church each week. I like sports. I write beer reviews. I grill.

....I’ve been writing news and features and sports for almost 20 years, long enough to understand that you rarely peg folks based on first impressions, or even third impressions.

Here’s an example: If I tell you I voted for Barack Obama in 2008, which I did, some of you will get to work taping up that ideological box we like to put people in. But what if I tell you I voted for George Bush in 2000? And that I’m not entirely comfortable with the way either decided to spend my tax dollars?
Regular readers also know I welcome your thoughts and won't hesitate to discuss the topics I write about in the comments that follow. That won't change with the new gig.

I'll start on Monday. Talk with you soon.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

From one gesture, a larger harvest comes

Bill Crowder lives on 20 acres near the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He’s farmed some of that land, but he’s thought recently that he’d like to use it better. Earlier this month, his sister called with an idea that she got from reading the Sunday newspaper.

Gaye Dimmick read the same thing – a column I wrote about Chris Yost, who earlier this year invited Bhutanese refugees to turn her half-acre east Charlotte backyard into a farm. The refugees, who were farmers long ago, once again had land to tend and find worth in.

Dimmick, who has more than a dozen raised beds at her home off Central Avenue, decided she wanted to do the same for refugees. Crowder says he could plow a patch in his land if refugee families wanted to plant and harvest. There are others, too, more than a half dozen people from Mooresville to Mint Hill, making the extraordinary offer to let strangers use what’s theirs.

One of the satisfactions of writing for a newspaper is the benevolence we often see. Write about someone who’s trying to overcome hardship, and readers will hold out their hands, with kindness that can swell your heart.

But this story, and the response to it, might be about more than kindness.

For Gaye Dimmick, it is. She and her partner, Jean Wesselman, started their urban garden a few years back when Jean lost her job. They sold their harvest at farmers markets for extra income, but Jean got a job last year, and the garden became less of a priority. When Gaye read about Chris Yost, she saw an opportunity to keep her land purposeful.

There’s also this: Gaye just turned 50. “I thought, ‘Let me live my next 50 years a lot better than I lived my first.’ ”

Bill Crowder grows corn and beans and peas on his land in northeast Charlotte. Last year, his sister told him about her church starting a community garden to give food to Charlotte shelters, and he considered helping out this year. When he heard about Chris Yost, he thought of the refugees and his land. “They would get more good out of it than I will,” Bill says.

Patrice Ognodo nods at this. He’s the founder of the Neighborhood Good Samaritan Center, which for six years has helped refugees assimilate to their new home in Charlotte. Patrice is from Togo in west Africa, and he spent three years in a refugee camp before coming to the United States. Once an attorney in Togo, he drove a cab in Charlotte before one of his fares helped him start a career – and a new life – selling insurance.

Now he is seeing a different and profound kind of generosity. “We have been waiting for something like this,” he says.

Patrice has spent the last two weeks joyfully visiting backyards and other patches of land, then arranging for refugee families to come. He knows what will happen next, because it’s happening now in Chris Yost’s backyard. In that land, the refugees reclaim a small part of their lives, a part he’s heard them talking about, while they farm. He calls them their “Once upon a time” stories.

Here’s another: Once upon a time, many of us saw our land and possessions differently. We accumulated what we needed, but not necessarily all that we wanted. Now, in these hard years that follow prosperity, more of us are re-evaluating what we use and what we waste. “People are rethinking their values,” says Gaye Dimmick. Maybe these backyard farms, these unusual loans, are a product of that.

Or maybe it’s simply the generosity of some good people. That’s OK, too.

At Chris Yost’s house, by the way, the farm is flourishing. “Holy cow,” she says. “Everything’s coming up.” This past week, her refugee friends picked three bulging bags of eggplant and okra, snap peas and peppers. As usual, they knocked on her front door to share some of the bounty.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

With Charlotte Knights, commission makes an error

Four years ago, Mecklenburg County commissioners participated in a complex exchange of parcels and buildings with the city of Charlotte and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The big swap was largely for the benefit of a minor league baseball team – one that couldn’t fill half its stadium in South Carolina and wasn’t required to provide much assurance that it could afford a new center-city home.

But it was Charlotte, and it was early 2007, and back then we dealt in a prosperity that made risks seem hardly risky.

In the four years since, however, we’ve endured a recession and its suffocating residue. Some of our tax-supported risks have turned out worse than expected: The NASCAR Hall of Fame gets a third of its original attendance projections. The U.S. Whitewater Center makes money only if it doesn’t have to pay its debt.

As for the Class AAA Charlotte Knights – they’re no closer to getting the funds they need to build and live uptown.

So why is our county commission behaving like it’s still 2007?

Commissioners voted 7-2 Tuesday to take the next step toward extending the Knights lease agreement on an uptown plot of land for another year. The extension comes with a few new conditions – such as $100,000 in earnest money – that are designed to make the commission look tougher this time around. But it’s essentially the same deal – except better for the ballclub.
This time, commissioners decided to waive an important safeguard requiring the team to show its long-term financial viability within 10 days of signing the lease.

That clause was a part of two original agreements that gave a sweet deal to the Knights. The team got a patch of uptown land worth millions, plus some more millions worth of infrastructure work. It had “sole discretion” about any loans and financing it would use, and it didn’t have to provide details upfront about sponsorship and naming rights, which can account for up to half of a ballclub’s financing package.

That means the team got everything it needed for an uptown stadium, without having to prove it could actually build one and survive in it.

In Charlotte 2007, that wasn’t such an outrageous proposition. Uptown had decided that minor league baseball would improve its curb appeal, and when center city’s power brokers historically gave the nod to that type of venture, the money eventually followed.

The recession changed all that – not only for the Knights, but for the city. We’ve spent the past few years thinking smaller, not bigger. We’re reevaluating budget priorities. We’re looking harder at the risks we want to take with our money.

Or at least we should. But instead of requiring the Knights to provide signed agreements upfront for naming rights and two top-tier sponsorships, the county now proposes allowing the Knights to buy their way out of that mandate by paying another $100,000 to escrow. (Which might seem like a lot until you consider the team has been collecting years of parking revenue off that uptown parcel.) And instead of requiring the Knights to prove with audited financials that they could weather attendance falling short or costs swelling, the county is again leaving that requirement vague.

Commission chair Jennifer Roberts, among the seven who voted this week to move toward a final vote next month, says the lease extension is appropriate. The land won’t be used in the next year anyway, she says, so why not give the Knights another year to figure things out. If they do, it would be a good thing for uptown.

The thing is, she’s right. It’s not difficult to picture walking to a Third Ward ballpark after work, watching some quality baseball, looking out to see uptown’s skyscrapers draped over the outfield walls. But as we’ve learned, attendance isn’t always what we think it will be. Revenues fall short. Bills still have to be paid. If the Knights find uptown wasn’t their cure after all, they’ll likely come asking for public help, no matter how clearly a lease agreement says the county has put its wallet away. Will the commissioners choose a big, empty ballpark then?

Better to get assurances now, instead of getting caught up in how good uptown baseball might be, which is what the commission did this week, all over again. In 2007, that might have been the visionary thing to do. Now it’s just irresponsible.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A new insight takes flight

Clay Presley is at 2,700 feet when he radios in. “One mile east,” he tells the air traffic near the Rock Hill airport. The sky is clear. “We’re going to be doing a power out,” he says.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and the single-engine Cessna he’s flying sways in the warm Carolina crosswinds. Presley is working on some final flight training before he takes what’s called a “check ride” in two days. If that ride goes as he hopes, he’ll get his pilot’s license.

But first, there are some maneuvers to work on, including this one, the power out – a simulated emergency landing. “We’re practicing what you do if you lose your motor one day,” says Troy Fleming, the instructor.

Presley has piloted this landing before, but not with anyone in the back seat, changing the weight near the tail. That’s what you have to deal with in planes – the unanticipated, big and small. Clay Presley knows about the big kind.

Two years ago, he was a passenger on Flight 1549, which lost its power above New York City before Capt. Chesley Chelsey Sullenberger skimmed it safely on the Hudson River. Presley thought he was going to die that January day. Then he needed to understand why he didn’t.

And so he’s here, 2,700 feet in the sky above Rock Hill, where he flicks a switch to make the engine go quiet, and he begins to dive toward the ground again.


On the afternoon of Jan. 15, 2009, Clay Presley boarded his flight to Charlotte from New York, where he and a business associate had been exploring an acquisition. Presley owns Carolina Pad, a Charlotte company that designs school and office products. His work put him on planes regularly, maybe three or four times a month, enough that he hardly felt the bumps and sways that make other fliers jumpy.

Presley was in seat 15D on the 2:45 flight. He read the newspaper instead of listening to the flight attendant’s safety talk. He hardly noticed the takeoff – thrust, lift, smooth as usual.
Then, an explosion. “It felt as if the plane just stopped in midair,” he remembers. “As many times as I’ve flown, I’ve never experienced that kind of thing.”

His first thought: “A bomb.” Then, moments later, he remembered a colleague telling him a similar explosion that week caused by birds hitting an engine in another New York-to-Charlotte flight. Was that it? He didn’t have time to ponder. A haze – and a terrible smell – spread through the cabin.

Soon, Sullenberger was on the intercom telling the passengers to brace for impact. “I was scared to death,” Presley says, but he also found himself oddly calm. He counted rows between his and the exit row. He saw the Hudson River and coached himself to take a deep breath on impact. It was, he says now, a semi-euphoric feeling. But he was a realist, too: He grabbed his Blackberry and sent his wife, Carol, a simple email: “I love you.”

Flight 1549 hit the Hudson tail first, then front. The impact threw people against their seat restraints – “like a hard car accident,” Presley says. It was quiet for a moment as everyone absorbed that the worst hadn’t happened. Then somebody said, “Open the doors,” and when someone did, it wasn’t water that came pouring through, but light.

“Heavenly light,” Presley says.


One day later, he was on a plane again. After 1549, he and his colleague had talked about driving back to Charlotte instead of flying, but they decided to sit on a flight before takeoff and see how it felt. Flight attendants wanted to hear their story, and talking about it made the prospect of flying again a little easier.

From there, he flew at about the same pace he had before 1549. But the emotional trauma from that flight had rooted deep in him, and it surfaced when he got on other planes. He grew anxious quickly. Turbulence sent his heart drumming. He understood why some of the 1549 passengers hadn’t been on a plane since, but his business left him with little choice.

On one business trip that June, he called Sullenberger in San Francisco and met with him for a quick hello. They talked about the flight, of course, and at one point, Sully said: “How was it in the back of the plane?” Presley responded, almost sarcastically, “We were only about 40 feet apart.”

But when he thought about it later, he realized what the pilot was asking: What was it like, not knowing what was happening?

Last September, Presley flew to Wisconsin for a television documentary about 1549. There, 1549’s first officer Jeff Skiles took him up in a 1935 ?Waco biplane. Presley had flown in single-engine planes before, with his son, Brad, who has a license. This time, Skiles talked to Presley about the technical part of flying – what was happening in front of the plane. By the time Presley left for Charlotte, he knew how he could overcome the trauma.

On Oct. 2, with Troy Fleming in the right seat, Presley taxied the Cessna to the Rock Hill runway for his first flight. Fleming told him to do the takeoff. A frightened Presley said, “If you insist,” and did just that. “I was all over the place,” he says.

This time, with Fleming’s help, he understood what was happening. He learned about planes inside and out, and why they do what they do, good and bad. “I started to understand from a very elementary position what was happening that day on 1549,” he says. “How could we stay up as long as we did? What were the scenarios he was going through? I began to get it.”

Fleming has had only a handful of students who’ve decided that learning to fly is the best path to conquering their fears. “They do a lesson or two,” he says. “One guy was afraid of horses and airplanes. He flew for an hour. That was enough. Nobody has gone all the way to getting his license.”


At 2,700 feet, Presley and Fleming are tour guides. They point down to the Catawba River, the Sun City development. On a clear day, you can see Asheville from here. On this Wednesday, we settle for a spectacular view of Charlotte.

“The ability to fly around and look and see what’s here is phenomenal,” Presley says. But like any pilot, he loves the last part most. “A smooth landing – there’s not a better feeling in the world,” he says.

The Cessna crosses the river at a pace that would be serene – if it weren’t accompanied by bumps and jolts. Those, explains Fleming, are thermals. Hot air rises at a different speed coming off trees than it does water, or buildings, or asphalt. Presley nods. “The first time you say ‘Oh, my gosh, what’s going on?’ ” he says. “Eventually you don’t notice it.”

Now, he says, he has gone from being intimidated by planes to respecting them. Fleming says his student is at the level where the regular flying stuff is second nature. Now they practice the things you don’t expect. A short runway to land on. An engine outage.

That’s what’s next today. The key to power out landings, says Fleming, is managing the path of the descent. Go down too steep and you’ll arrive at your target traveling too fast. Not steep enough and your airspeed will be too slow.

A mile from the runway, the engine goes quietly to idle. Presley banks to the left, toward the airport, and begins to glide...

He thinks often about when Sully banked toward the Hudson that day, two years ago. If he knew then what he knows now, he would’ve understood better what was going on. Would he still have been scared? Of course. But knowing, even now, changes things. “It helps me deal emotionally with what happened,” he says.

At 1,500 feet, he circles toward the runway. “That’s your picture – it’s perfect,” Fleming says, looking at the monitor. “Yep,” Presley says ...

He is still sorting through it all – not just the flying part, but how 1549 will edit the chapters to come in his life. He’s always thought of himself as a positive person, he says, and he’s long tried to find a healthy mix of family, charity and business. Now he is more purposeful with the things he can control, more grateful that he has that opportunity. It’s what brought him here, to another plane, and to the license he’ll earn two days from this landing.

He takes a sharp turn toward runway 20. “Short final two zero,” he says, indicating his final approach to the runway. He comes in with the nose of the plane turned slightly right – a “crab” approach to compensate for a crosswind. He touches, left wheels first.

“Very nice,” says Fleming. Presley would’ve liked it a little smoother, but it was fine, he says. He thinks of that other power out landing, two years ago. “Sully called it an emergency landing,” he says. “The passengers called it a crash landing.” Now he understands the difference, and he laughs at that, safely on the ground, and gets ready to go up again.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

In one backyard, a growing gift

When Chris Yost moved into her east Charlotte home four years ago, she downsized in most every way. Her square footage was smaller. Her mortgage, too. Pretty much everything, she says, but the yard behind the house.

It's just under a half-acre back there, with a mix of natural growth and grass. Chris initially wasn't excited about having to mow all of that land every week, so she worked weekends until she had a better grass-to-natural ratio.

But one Saturday earlier this year, she found herself instead at a local agency, pressed into duty to teach an English class for refugees. Chris had never thought much about the plights of people like the students in front of her, until she accompanied a friend a couple weeks before to hand out backpacks to refugee children at a nearby apartment complex. She decided then she might could do a little more. Giving can sometimes hook you that way.

As she talked to her English students that day, they told her their stories. Some were from Bhutan, a small, land-locked kingdom at the eastern heel of the Himalayas in South Asia. One of the Bhutanese was the best English speaker in the class, Damaru Baral.

Damaru told Chris he was a farmer, like many of the refugees from the agriculture-heavy country. He once had 125 acres of crops, and he sold the harvest at his small farm store until ethnic cleansing forced him from his land and country. He spent two decades in refugee camps before being granted asylum and allowed into the United States, and he was happy to be in his Charlotte apartment complex with his family.

But like the others, Damaru was a farmer with no land.

Chris felt dismay. She thought of her sizable lot.

"Would you like to use my backyard?" she said.

A few days later, in March, three elderly refugee women showed up at her house with hoes and claws. They squatted and began to dig. Grass turned to dirt, and dirt turned to soil. Soon, more refugees arrived - men and women, carving dozens of trenches in the backyard, planting row upon row of vegetables, stretching to the corners and the back of her lot.

They come at least a few days a week now, four families worth of workers, heading straight for the backyard. Early on, a neighbor called the police when he saw one refugee in front of Chris' house, but now everyone knows about the backyard, and there has been no trouble from anyone. "They are very polite," Chris says. "They are very thankful. I can't understand them."

But she understands this: They are farmers, and they are farming.

"These are potatoes," says Damaru, in sandals and shorts and a blue print short-sleeve shirt. "They come up in month." He walks from row to row, pointing proudly to the cabbage spreading its leaves, the purple buds of eggplants, the squash talking over a couple rows, as squash likes to do.

He stops at one stretch of plants. "Coriander," he says, nodding at the feathery leaves. "We eat a lot of this in Bhutan."

Patrice Ognodo stands nearby, a hoe in his hand. Ognodo runs a Charlotte ministry that helps refugees assimilate here. The challenge he faces is not only finding them a place to live, or helping them learn the language, or helping them be a little less homesick. It also is helping them find worth, especially the older adults, who wonder if their best days have been taken along with their homes. "They need to experience what they have done better in their lives," he says.

That's happening here, with buds and leaves, in row upon row, on this half-acre that's fuller than Chris Yost could have imagined. "I'm just amazed," she says. And: "It's an honor."

Damaru Baral, standing between the lettuce and green beans, talks about the crops he grew on his farm back home. Corn and potatoes and vegetables. "Just like this," he says, sweeping his arm across the backyard. "We are glad," he says. And: "We are happy to have ..." He searches a moment for the words. "Our place."

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Stuff our dads said - and didn't

Happy Father's Day, everyone. Here's Sunday's Observer column...


The Look. You sons and daughters know about this. It’s the tilt of the head you got when you misbehaved. The flash of the eyes. The lips clenched shut.

I’ve been a father for 10 years now, and my Look doesn’t come close to my dad’s Look. His was versatile, with variations for different levels of transgression. There was head-to-the-right, eyebrows raised for basic bad behavior. If that didn’t work, the head got tiltier, the glare meltier.

And for the bigger things, it was different – not so much a harsh stare, but disappointed that I didn’t get the wrongness of what I was doing, or maybe that he hadn’t taught me to get it.
That was the look I hated most.

Today is Father’s Day, of course, and in our Carolina Living section, we honor dads by having readers tell us about the best advice their fathers have given them. I peeked this week at those submissions – and at some we didn’t have room to print. There were quips and wisdom and combinations of both.

“Don’t worry about your reputation, work on your character,” said one dad. Said another: “If you can figure out a way to get into jail, you can figure out a way to get out of jail.”

Then I came upon Debbie Bateman. “The best stuff my dad says is without words,” she wrote of her father, Stephen Smith.

My father, Bob, like Debbie’s father and many of their generation, is not the kind of man who feels like he has to say something. We talk, sure, at least once a week about what’s happening with him and my mother in New Hampshire, with me and my family in Charlotte. But advice? He’ll tell me what to do with my leaky water heater, and even the bigger stuff, if I ask. Most times, I don’t have to.

He owns a carpet store in New Hampshire, and when I was growing up, I’d get to go out with him to measure houses and meet customers. I watched, like many sons and daughters, how he treated people at work and at home, what he said about them, and what he didn’t say.

I learned that you show up five minutes early to every appointment. You don’t take advantage of people. If you make a mistake, you acknowledge it and make it as right as you can. And if a Boston sports team is winning, you never call him before the game is over and say, “Looks like we got this.”

I forgot about that last one recently. I could almost see The Look coming through the phone.

Debbie Bateman knows about this, too. Her father, Stephen, is a quiet man, she says. He asks questions instead of offering answers, but she’s never had difficulty knowing what’s important to him. And on those occasions she forgot, he had a Look, too. “It’s hard to describe it,” she says, laughing. “But you know what it means.”

Eventually, yes. My dad coached me one year when I played Little League in my small New Hampshire town. The town field had little fencing, so if you hit the ball to the bushes that marked the end of the outfield grass, it was a home run. I’d never come close to those bushes, until I caught hold of a pitch one day when I was 12. My dad, who was doing double duty as an umpire in the outfield, didn’t turn in time to see the ball land past the grass. But he had to make a call. Double, he said.

Not long into my protesting the injustice, he met me with a look. Not the one for misbehaving, or the one for really misbehaving. It was that last look, the one that wondered why I didn’t get it. And right then, I did: There was no other call he felt he could make.

That understanding didn’t come from some big cloud break of perceptiveness. It was because I knew enough about my father, that even if he didn’t get everything right, trying to do so was important to him. Pretty much everything flows from there with him.

So today, we officially remember and celebrate and appreciate. “I treasure his wisdom,” Debbie Bateman says of her father, and if we’re lucky, we get to feel the same, whether it’s the dads who tell us what we need to know, or quietly remind us that we already do.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Uptown's safety image facing an uphill fight

By dusk, the place changes. The workday crowd has come and gone from the Charlotte Transportation Center, filing on buses to be taken out of uptown. A new crowd has replaced it, coming off those same buses to hang out with a menacing, and growing, group.

Nooooo,” says Christina Cannie, standing with a coworker. “I don’t like to come here later.”
She is waiting for a bus to take her home from a shift at Showmars. She is here most weekdays, usually before dusk but occasionally later. That, Christina says, “is when people just start acting crazier.”

We’re talking about uptown safety again this week, and once again, our lens is pointing toward the transportation center. This time, it’s because of a Memorial Day weekend disturbance that ended with more than 70 arrests and one fatal shooting that Charlotte-Mecklenburg police say appeared gang-related.

City officials, including Police Chief Rodney Monroe and Mayor Anthony Foxx, have tried hard this past week to find the right combination of acknowledging the problem and assuring us it’s not really a problem. The situation was never out of control, they’ve said, and uptown ultimately remains a safe place.

It’s a tricky sell, but it’s important to center city. No one believes uptown is crime-free, but businesses need people to have enough comfort to visit restaurants and museums. For most of us, that comfort comes in knowing where – and where not – to be.

That’s how it works with the places we live. People most uncomfortable with Center City Charlotte are often those who rarely visit and see a unfamiliar, perilous landscape. People who work uptown or live nearby know it’s not nearly that threatening, with the exception of a few places at the wrong times. And even in those places and at those times, people learn what to avoid.

“You just stay in here,” says Christian Stephney, at one of the 20 bays in the open-air transit center. Christian has lived in New York and Philly and says it’s much safer in Charlotte, but when she’s waiting for a bus, she stays far from that crowd of young men outside the center’s northeast corner. “It’s better here,” she says.

Lately, however, the predictable has been less so. Across uptown, Johnson & Wales students were victims of three armed robberies next to campus this spring. Complaints are coming in, too, about safety on light rail trains and stops.

And last Saturday, the unrest that was concentrated around the transit center also spread blocks away. Visitors told stories of having to run – and not knowing where exactly to go. Suddenly, there was no place to be comfortable.

We’re hearing more of those uptown stories, it seems – and seeing more of them in scary Internet videos. CMPD statistics, however, show that safety is getting better, not worse, since 2007 at the transit center and in uptown, which continues to boast some of the lowest raw crime numbers in the county.

And yet we have last weekend’s melee, along with a similar incident five years ago, each of which bleeds into the perception that uptown is turning bad on regular nights, too. And with all of it comes the prospect of more people concluding that, you know, there are some pretty good restaurants in South Park, too.

What’s the answer for uptown? Some officials are talking about strengthening a toothless curfew law that fines parents whose children are out late. Foxx talked this week about parents, ministers and neighbors needing to step up – a sentiment that may be true, but sadly has proven more wishful than probable.

Others would like to move the transportation center and its problems elsewhere, which might satisfy center city business but leaves us facing another question: Are you OK with crime so long as we know that it’s that’s it not where you plan to be? It’s one more uncomfortable thing to consider in an uptown that’s suddenly full of them.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

In CMS, a makeover and a mess

Earlier this spring, nine corporate and nonprofit executives gathered around a table at Shamrock Gardens Elementary School to ask Margaret Hollar about her media center.

That’s what we call our school libraries now that they have computers and cameras and media specialists, which is what Hollar has been at Shamrock for the past four years. She’s Ms. Hollar to everyone, and she’s a very good librarian, and that’s why executives from Target and Heart for America wanted to talk to her.

Ms. Hollar’s library is a smallish and ragged kind of place, with dated furniture and few comfortable spots for children to tuck themselves away with a book. And so, Shamrock applied last year – and again this year – for a Target Library Makeover, awarded to about 40 U.S. schools. Those winners get modern furniture, carpet and shelving, all of which would make
Shamrock’s media center look as good as Ms. Hollar already makes it feel.

Like many libraries, Shamrock’s is a nerve center for the school. It hosts the morning TV announcements, and it serves as a workroom for the science projects and research that comes from classrooms throughout the building. At its core, though, it’s a place where kids learn to love books, and that’s where Ms. Hollar comes in.

She’s spent most of her 24 years in education teaching theater and arts, so when she reads to her young students, she does it with a thespian’s flair. She sings. She dresses up. She makes books inviting – and while many kids don’t need much convincing, there are always some who do.

Shamrock, located east of Plaza Midwood, is like a lot of schools that have lower-income populations – with more kids who don’t get read to at home, more who struggle in the structure of a classroom. Libraries give children opportunities to learn in different ways. “It gives them a reason to want to go to school,” Hollar says.

That’s what she told the Target folks that day in March. She told them also about the good things happening at her library – the fourth-graders doing film projects and presentations, and the plan she had to offer the media center to Shamrock parents who need a computer to help with job searches and research.

The executives seemed to especially like that, and they already were familiar with Shamrock from last year’s contest. This time, it took them just a few hours to issue a judgment: Ms. Hollar’s media center was a winner.

“We’re very proud of the things we’ve done,” she said Thursday morning, driving to the school that has since eliminated her job.

Earlier this month, Hollar was called to a meeting that included Shamrock’s principal, Duane Wilson, and a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools human resources officer. Because of budget cuts, Wilson, like other CMS schools, was given the difficult choice of eliminating one of three positions – media specialist, counselor or literacy facilitator.

At Shamrock, it was the media specialist. The librarian.

A caveat here: It’s easy these days to make a strong case against anyone or any program getting cut, especially when previous cuts have left us with only the most critical positions. So as we look hard at the county and schools programs we want to keep, we should at least make sure they’re as valuable as the librarians and counselors and teachers we’re sending away.

Hollar, by the way, was offered another position within CMS – teaching theater and arts in Cornelius. “I know I’m lucky to still have a job,” she says. There’s a possibility, too, that the state or county will give CMS enough money to restore some positions. But in the unlikely occurrence that the Shamrock media specialist job reappears, Hollar will have to apply for it with everyone else.

Wilson, the principal, was not available for comment. He was in Washington for part of the week, accepting the honor from Target and the Heart of America Foundation. Shamrock, the only N.C. school to win, will still get its makeover. Its library will change from shabby to showy, but without the woman who made it shine.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

On homosexuality, a discussion that's different than others

On a rainy afternoon in Charlotte this past week, two friends got together to discuss why the other was wrong about homosexuality.

Kate Murphy and Robert Austell have had this conversation before – usually over the coffee they enjoy each week while catching up on their work and lives. But this time, they chose to disagree in front of 500 or so of their colleagues – ministers and church elders of the Charlotte Presbytery.

Kate is the pastor at Hickory Grove Presbyterian Church, and she is in favor of Amendment 10-A, which changes her denomination’s constitution and allows for gays and lesbians to be ordained ministers and elders. Robert is pastor at Good Shepherd Presbyterian church, and he is against the amendment, which the seven-county Charlotte Presbytery voted on Tuesday afternoon.

Going into that vote, the amendment already had been backed by a majority of presbyteries across the country, so Tuesday’s vote might have been considered merely symbolic. But as Kate and Robert know, discussions about homosexuality are anything but.

It’s a debate that not only has divided their denomination, but their community and their country. It’s also a debate that we’ve largely ceded to the extremes among us, to the shouters pointing at each other from across the road, to the pedophiles and bigots, if you believe what each side says so loudly.

Which is why Robert wanted to have one more conversation.

On Tuesday afternoon, he and Kate sat in the front of the shell-shaped sanctuary at Albemarle Road Presbyterian. They were scheduled to speak first, before those in attendance were invited to line up at the microphones on opposite sides of the room – left side for those in favor of 10-A, right side for those against.

A couple months back, while they were doing some work for the Presbytery, Robert had asked Kate if she would speak on this day. Kate initially said no – she already had talked about ordaining homosexuals at a similar meeting two years ago. But Robert wanted them to discuss not only what they believed about homosexuality, but about each other.

“She loves Jesus Christ and the Church,” he told the audience Tuesday, speaking first. He said he and Kate were friends who had much in common. “I would have her as my pastor,” he said.

Said Kate of Robert: “He has great integrity.” And: “I greatly appreciate the way he interprets Scripture.” And this: “I commend to you to listen deeply to what he has to say.”

Each also made their case eloquently. Kate challenged the nine Bible passages commonly used in the condemnation of homosexuality. Some passages, she said, were about lust, not sexual orientation, and none applied to people in committed, monogamous relationships. Robert urged that Christians not turn their backs on homosexuals, but he said that Kate’s challenges ultimately didn’t answer all of the questions the Bible presented about sin and sexual boundaries.

All of which wasn’t very different than the arguments others have made for and against homosexuality. But what they wanted to get across, said Robert, was this: “We really want you to listen to the other person, because we respect that person.”

And when they were done, they sat together again as others spoke for and against Amendment 10-A, which eventually passed, 162-154. It was a passionate and polite debate – perhaps because Kate and Robert had set a tone, but also because of something else they want their community to know: that good, smart, faithful people on both sides are struggling and sorting through this debate.

One conversation. A different conversation. It’s not that hard to have, if you’re humble enough to understand you might not be right. Which, by the way, Kate and Robert each know. And so they talk. And they listen.

“I think everybody is trying to be faithful,” says Kate. “I think the trick is to be loving.”

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Is having a photo in the paper still a big deal?

In June 1977, I was starting pitcher for the Windham (N.H.) Babe Ruth All-Star team in a regional tournament game against the town next door, Salem. It was (ahem) a solidly pitched ballgame on both sides, but Salem won with a late-inning rally. I was 13 then – and crushed.

But a few days later, my parents opened the weekly newspaper that covered my town. There, on the front of the sports section, was a centerpiece photo of Peter St. Onge, Windham pitcher. The picture caught me mid-pitch and in full, early-teen awkwardness, complete with braces and bottle-thick brown glasses.

“It was a great picture,” remembers my mother, who is contractually obligated to reach that conclusion.

It was also a big deal. My parents bought extra copies and dutifully sent them to family. One copy was folded and placed among our boxes of family keepsakes. All of which is what you do when your picture is in the paper.

Today, the Observer celebrates its 125th birthday with a special commemorative section. You’ll read about our history – good and bad – and about the people who’ve led and written in and delivered the O. One story, which I had the privilege of writing, is about readers who’ve had their photos in our newspaper and saved them 30, 50, even 80 years.

An Observer photo, some told me, was an important moment in their lives.

Is it still? Is having your picture in the paper a big deal today, wherever that paper may be?

I asked friends this week, most of them non-journalists, and most say yes. But, said one, it’s different now. Quainter.

Part of that is technology. If young Peter pitches in an All-Star game today, family and friends can read about it on Facebook, see his photos on Flickr, maybe even watch a video of highlights in Dropbox. We’re our own publishers and photographers now, and for better or worse, having our lives available for public consumption just isn’t as unusual.

A bigger part of the change, maybe, is societal. Talk to those older readers who had their photos in the Observer, and they’ll tell you it wasn’t only the picture that was a big deal – it was who took that photo and told their story. The newspaper was a pillar of the community – an institution. But we’ve come to view our institutions more skeptically now.

Lots of folks point to the Watergate burglary and its political aftermath as the time when society began to tilt toward cynicism. Not only did Woodward & Bernstein give Americans reason to lose confidence in government officials, they ushered in an era of journalism where all the pillars – doctors and bankers and elected leaders – were fair game for suspicion.

And newspapers? Used to be we were content to have a mostly one-sided relationship with you. We’d bring you the news, and we’d tell you stories about you, but we did it all from our spot on the hill with the other community leaders. Now we invite you to help us learn what’s happening, and we give you more places to say what you think about our decisions and our flaws. And boy, do you.

But there also are days when an issue roils our city, or Osama bin Laden is killed, and we’re reminded how many of you turn to us – more than ever in print and online. And still, I get calls from people asking if I can grab extra copies of their story, their photo in the paper.

Is it still a big deal, that photo? You’re surely expecting the newspaper guy to say “yes.”

Let’s say this: It’s a different deal, for sure. We’re more fragmented now, technologically and ideologically. We trust each other less. But in a community, a newspaper is still one of the few places where you’ll find not only your 13-year-old ballplayer, but your neighbors’. It’s where our individual big deals are still brought together, still shared, each day, 125 years later.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Do's and don'ts in the land of the Free

In Tim Newman's world, you can put away that wallet. The tickets are comped and the drinks are free. Somebody always picks up the check.

It’s a world of corporate tents and arena suites, a world some of us get to see sometimes, if a friend of a friend shoots us an invite. But it’s fun when it happens, because who doesn’t like getting stuff for nothing?

Free is the fuel that revs the hospitality world. It’s what clients expect in the tents at big events. It’s what event organizers expect from the cities that woo them. And it’s where Newman, head of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, excels.

Newman is tasked with bringing visitors and events to the arenas and convention centers the CRVA runs. And while some might debate how much our city wants or needs showpieces like the NASCAR Hall of Fame or 2012 Democratic National Convention, this much is true: Newman gets Charlotte things that other cities want.

He does it, in part, because he knows the power of Free. Take a peek at the CRVA’s expenses, and you’ll see some fine wooing – concert tickets and lavish parties for people who might help steer something to Charlotte someday.

It’s a necessary but sometimes unseemly endeavor, which is why some cities set up their CVRAs as private nonprofits, which have looser rules and harder-to-find financial statements. In Charlotte, however, the CVRA is public, and right now it’s a public mess.

The Observer, in recent weeks, has told you about some ethical iffiness at the tax-supported CRVA, including most recently how Newman has graced dozens of Charlotte business leaders, public employees and CRVA board members with gifts. Among the eyebrow raisers: $4,600 worth of tickets to see the New York Yankees.

Newman defends those gifts, saying they help people in Charlotte get enthused about Charlotte, and that’s good for everyone.

That’s the problem with Free – it’s easy to rationalize. Sure, it’s Public Employee 101 that you don’t take gifts from people who want to influence your decisions. But what if those freebies are coming from the chief of a public body, who just wants to say attaboy?

And if you’re a CRVA board member, what’s the harm in using the CRVA suite for a Bobcats game or concert? Board member Anthony Lindsey did so out of duty. He told the Observer he wanted to see how the arena worked, and he did some thorough investigating, using 44 tickets in two years.

Now, board members have concluded it might be a good idea to look at exactly how things work at the operation they oversee. They’ve hired a consultant – PricewaterhouseCoopers – for $25,000 plus expenses to report on how CRVA compares with everybody else operating out there in the Wild West of hospitality.

“We’ve got to know what the rules are,” said board member Geoff Durboraw on Wednesday, at a CRVA operations committee meeting. “We can’t come to you and tell you that you broke a rule if we don’t know what it is.”

Might that be something the board would want to know, say, back in 2004, when the CRVA was formed?

The board will provide PricewaterhouseCoopers with everything from financial statements and code of ethics to the employee newsletter. PricewaterhouseCoopers will get back to the board in mid-June, a remarkable turnaround for a critical report, which might make you wonder if this is one more check that shouldn’t have been written.

Because the CRVA already should know what it shouldn’t be doing.

You don’t offer public officials and employees gifts for doing something that’s part of their job.

You don’t allow board members to accept freebies from the people they need to supervise and, perhaps, discipline.

What you do is remove the temptation of Free. Because in Tim Newman’s world, someone actually is picking up the check.

That somebody is us.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

With verdict, a mother gets her daughter back

Johnnie Mae could sing. Lord, she could sing. Gospel or blues or whatever came into her head and crossed those lips. “Didn’t matter what it was,” says her mother.

In fact, Edna Shine says proudly, a teacher once told her that music and Johnnie Mae always went together beautifully.

Then, with a small smile only a mother is allowed, she adds: “But she didn’t believe in doing much homework.”

Edna got her daughter back this past week. After 10 years of waiting for police to find and arrest
Johnnie Mae’s killer. After one year of waiting for a murder trial, then one week of having to relive Johnnie Mae’s addiction and stabbing. Finally, on Wednesday, Tyrone Johnson was convicted in Charlotte and sent to prison for life.

And all of it ended the week leading up to Mother’s Day.

Johnnie Mae “Coochie” Shine was the first of seven girls Edna raised in Charlotte. She gave each the same foundation, took them all to church every Sunday. But like any parent, she came to know that they may be our children, but they become their own people, often so different than each other – and us. “You just never know why,” Edna says.

Coochie was different, for sure. Edna knew it from the time she looked over and saw her 6-month-old dancing to the music in the room. Even when six other sisters filled the house, it was Coochie who stood out. “She was the oldest, the smallest, the shortest,” Edna says. “Everything you say about Coochie, you just put an ‘est’ on it, and that’s about right.”

It was in her 20s that Coochie started to get high. She would go on binges and stop eating, and her family would pray. She would come out of it, start eating again, and give her family hope. And always, she lit up a room, still singing and dancing, still generous and impulsive. “God protects the fools and babies,” she liked to say.

Early in the morning of May 29, 2000, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police found the body of Johnnie Mae Shine, 40, near her Plaza Midwood home. Police immediately had a suspect in Johnson, but it wasn’t until years later that the department’s cold case unit was able to link him to the murder through DNA obtained from a 2006 arrest in South Carolina. Last May, they made an arrest.

At the trial, Johnson described the same Johnnie Mae Edna knew – the one who made everyone laugh. But he also described them smoking crack together, and prosecutors told the jury that he chased her to a neighbor’s porch and stabbed her 10 times. “They showed that tiny body with all them holes in it,” Edna says, and she covers her mouth and turns her head from the thought of it.

Edna decided not to go to the final day of the trial Wednesday, but shortly before noon, her daughter Clarissa called and said, “Mama, we got him.” Then Shirley called, then all the others, and everybody got to crying.

Edna Shine did, too, because now Coochie could rest. She cried because she loved Coochie like all of her daughters, six of them with good lives and families. That’s what mothers do, which made Edna cry for one more person.

“I felt sad for his mama,” she says of Tyrone Johnson.

“It’s her child. And you love your children.”

Friday, May 6, 2011

A bell finally rings for death - and life

A dozen years ago, Ken and Estela Ross found a bell at a flea market while vacationing near Washington, D.C.

Actually, it was Ken who found the bell, which was iron and about a foot tall. Estela wasn’t so sure about it. But her husband had long wanted to hang one from their west Charlotte house, so home the bell came, where it sat in storage until Sept. 11, 2001.

After the World Trade Center buildings fell, Ken found the bell and painted it red, white and blue. He fabricated a bracket and hung the bell on the back left corner of their house. Ken wasn’t an overtly patriotic man, but the country swelled with such sentiment then, and Ken told Estela that they wouldn’t ring the bell until Osama bin Laden had been captured.

And so the bell had been silent when Ken died of organ failure in 2003.

Last Sunday evening, Estela went to bed before President Barack Obama told a nationwide television audience that U.S. special operations forces had killed bin Laden in Pakistan. She is remarried now, and her husband, Ralph Breckle, woke up Monday and went out front to get the paper. He told Estela the news.

The bell, she thought.

Ralph had thought of it, too, so he went outside and oiled the joints, then attached a rope to the handle and gave it a test tug. At first, it didn’t want to move, but as he worked with it, the bell remembered what it was here for, and Ralph was ready.

There’s been some discussion this week about how we should acknowledge the death of Osama. We’ve celebrated, both publicly and privately, then wondered if a few of those celebrations were too much. Some have talked about finding closure by seeing photos of the dead terrorist, and some have recoiled at the thought of needing that.

What should you do when you’ve killed your greatest enemy?

Maybe this is about right:

About 2:30 on Monday afternoon, Estela came outside, and Ralph took a picture of the bell – and Estela with it. He said a prayer for all the souls that were set free when the Twin Towers fell.
He asked that we might be able to put aside the past and begin a new era of peace and understanding. He rang the bell.

Estela cried – for those souls and the one she misses. Then she told Ralph his prayer was good, and she got ready to go to work.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

After tragedy, a message in the music

By 7 p.m., the choir is robed, and Jimmy Jones goes over some last-moment details. Always, there are details – who will sit where, when their voices will rise in unison, when harmony will deliver their message.

In 30 minutes, they will be performing John Rutter’s Requiem, one of eight Holy Week services through Easter Sunday at Myers Park United Methodist Church. “This is a mass for the dead,” says Jones, the church’s director of music. “It’s kind of a singing someone to heaven.”

It’s something he doesn’t often reflect on during the bustle of his busiest week. But now, yes.

Last Saturday afternoon, as Jones was driving back from Winston-Salem, his phone began ringing with calls from Lee County, where he was born and raised. It’s where his family still lives – parents and sister, aunts and uncles and cousins, all within a mile or two of each other in an unincorporated farming community southeast of Raleigh.

Some of them had watched minutes before as a tornado destroyed his sister Susie’s house and a cousin’s home next door. Susie and her family thankfully weren’t home, but his cousin, Mike Hunter, was pulled from his house and dropped in the woods nearby. He was 42 years old, a lover of the outdoors, and now, one of 22 fatalities from Saturday’s storms.

“They’re still in shock,” Jones says. “We’ve never had a tragedy like this.”

He drove back home, of course, to the community that’s about half the size of his congregation here. It was where his mom would take him to choir practice, where he fell in love with sacred music and the organ that made it. He was the baby of the family, a prodigy on the electronic organ his parents eventually bought for their basement.

Now, they picked through the rubble of his sister’s house. They cut up fallen trees in the yards. They mourned.

“Hold that note,” he says Thursday, back in Charlotte with his choir. The church is filling. The choir is rehearsing, one more time, pieces of the requiem to come.

Jones, who is 28, came back Wednesday night, after his cousin’s wake, to prepare for all the services this week. In a way, he says, it’s been good to busy himself with the usual worries about tempo and timing.

But this year, he also has noticed the requiem’s plaintive cello – “an anguished kind of sound,” he says. The voices and the songs are a warm hand on his shoulder. “I hear it and I conduct it differently,” he says.

And the message? He remembered this week a sermon at his last church, in Greensboro, where his pastor talked about the 23rd Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” We don’t just walk into that valley, the pastor told him. “There is another side,” Jones says.

In moments, his 45-member choir will sing those words in the requiem. And no, the music doesn’t provide the answers to his questions – why this tragedy happened, how God allows you to mourn a cousin but be thankful about a sister. But it is a reminder this holy week of what he does believe. “A strengthening,” he says.

And this is what he tells his choir. “A requiem,” he reminds them, “is a Mass for the dead. It’s not happy. But in the end, there is hope.” Then he leads them to the sanctuary, and he leads them in song, blending in harmony and rising in unison. Grant them rest eternal, Lord our God, we pray to thee.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

After tornado comes roar of attention

In each of Lowe’s 1,725 home improvement stores, managers and staff are trained for catastrophes. During hurricanes, for example, managers complete preparedness checklists that include items such as boarding up store windows.

For tornadoes, that checklist can be boiled down to this: Get everyone in the store to a safe place, pronto.

Three days after accomplishing just that, Mike Hollowell is a little stunned at the celebrity that comes with doing what you’re supposed to do.

Hollowell is manager of the Lowe’s in Sanford destroyed Saturday by a tornado that was among several storms claiming 22 lives in North Carolina. None of the deaths was at the Sanford Lowe’s, however, and Hollowell has since received hugs and thank-yous from customers and co-workers, along with dozens of interview requests and one phone call, Monday afternoon, from the president of the United States.

“Man,” he said Tuesday, “it’s been amazing.”

On Tuesday afternoon, while Lowe’s honored the Sanford staff by announcing a $250,000 donation to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, Hollowell tended to his own relief efforts. He, along with Lowe’s officials, transferred each Sanford employee to one of four nearby stores, and employees also were offered trauma counseling.

He’s relived the tornado hundreds of times, he says, especially in the immediate hours following, when rescue workers combed the piles of metal and broken glass that were once his store. “I thought we got everyone to a safe place,” he said. “But there were one or two that I wondered, ‘Did they listen to me and go?’ ”

Hours before, it was a normal Saturday, with the lighter crowd of do-it-yourselfers that comes with a rainy forecast. Near 3 p.m., about 10 minutes before the tornado struck, an employee told him of a tornado warning in Lee County, home of Sanford, about 40 miles southwest of Raleigh. Minutes later, he saw employees and customers running.

“I looked over and there it was,” he said. “It was so massive; it didn’t look like a tornado.”

He and other managers immediately began herding 100 or so customers and staffers to a safe room with no windows, while another manager got on the microphone to do the same. When Hollowell finally made his way toward the room, he looked back and saw the store’s roof peeling off.

Now, he tells everyone the same thing: It wasn’t just he who saved people. It was the staff. Of course, the public likes a face on its heroism, so the 30-year-old Hollowell has stood before cameras and notebooks and taken phone calls, including one Monday on his cell that showed up as “Unknown.”

When he answered, he was asked to hold, which he did until a woman picked up and said, “This is the secretary of the president of the United States.”

“Um,” Mike Hollowell replied, “this is Mike Hollowell.”

Moments later, Barack Obama said “Hello, Michael,” then thanked him for Saturday.

“Unbelievable,” said Hollowell by phone Tuesday, but he wonders, still humbly, why everyone is making a big deal about doing what his training told him to do. In a way, though, he understands. He has since watched a YouTube video at the store taken after the tornado hit. The video showed his staff helping customers out of the building.

Single file, Hollowell notes proudly. At their best in the worst kind of moment.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The price we pay for our mistakes

Caleb Allen seems like a decent guy, a polite and well-spoken guy, sitting on his mother’s couch in a middle-class Huntersville neighbhorhood. But heroin, we know, takes the decent kids, too.

It first grabbed Caleb four years ago. He went from casual user to heavy user to jail, where he rediscovered God and has started the slow path to a clean life. It could be a moving story, if you believe in it.

You may have read about Caleb, 25, and his mother Diana. Caleb was arrested in February in a south Charlotte break-in, and Diana didn’t believe it. She called people from records she’d kept when her son was using drugs. When one man gave her a tip, she staked out and chased a red Jeep like the one police say was the getaway car in that crime and several others.

The duo she led police to have been arrested in South Carolina. Charges against her son have been dropped.

The response to the story fell into two camps. The police screwed up, some said, enthusiastically. Others noted that Caleb Allen contributed to his mess. “We’re not talking about a saint,” said one commenter.

Allen has read those comments.

“I’m definitely not a saint,” he says.

This is what he is: An addict. It began, he says, after high school. He had moved from South Carolina to Charlotte, where he’d lived most of his life. He worked the club scene, where temptations were plenty and he was willing. Alcohol and pot turned into ecstasy and prescription pills. Then one day, a friend of a friend introduced him to heroin.

“For a while, it was a once-a-month thing,” he says, but heroin was a hot, available drug in Charlotte. Allen began to use it every weekend, then every other day. He was busted for possession after a traffic stop, but that didn’t slow him down.

Then last November, he was charged for something worse: possessing and selling heroin. The reality, he says, is less sinister – in the addicts’ world, you get someone this if he can get you that. But the charges were real, and he found himself in Mecklenburg County jail. “I kind of just gave up,” he says.

Eventually, he traded his food tray to a fellow inmate, who had some books to read. Allen got “A Purpose Driven Life,” the spiritual bestseller by Rick Warren. Caleb had grown up a church-goer, a believer, and reading the book brought him an overwhelming peace. “I’ve never felt anything like that before,” he says.

The feeling stayed with him. He started going to church again, he says, and he showed up for the counseling and drug tests set up by Mecklenburg’s Drug Court program. He says he’s been clean since August, and he’s thought that once he’s ready, he could use his story to help others avoid his mistakes. “I told him, Caleb, this can be your gift,’” says his mother.

But on Feb. 16, police came to his house, cuffed him and took him downtown. His mug made it to the TV news. He was booted immediately from Drug Court.

He’s not sure why police paid little heed to his mother’s calls. Maybe they already had a drug addict with a red Jeep and thought A plus B equals C. But CMPD, coming off high-profile detective errors in a police shooting case last year, can and should be better.

No apologies have come, Allen says. In fact, the opposite – papers dismissing the charges say that police said they couldn’t prove that Allen wasn’t involved with the pair eventually arrested – but that they couldn’t prove he wasn’t.

But Caleb Allen isn’t bitter. Even some family members are skeptical, he says, and he understands. This is another struggle of the road he’s just beginning. The price you pay isn’t just time served, but that for a long while, people will assume the worst of you.

“I don’t have any credibility right now,” he says, on a Friday in Huntersville. Right now, what he has is the next clean day, and God willing, the next.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

CMS 'field tests' our patience

A one-question test on testing in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools:

How many hours does a typical fourth-grader spend on tests in a year?

We’re talking assessment tests – End of Grade tests, National Assessment of Educational Progress tests – also known as the only tests kids tend to like more than parents.

Kids like the tests because they’re not graded, and because their teachers often don’t assign homework the night before so students can be test-fresh. Parents, however, range from fretful to impatient that the emphasis on these tests seem to be leaving less room on the chalkboard each year for other kinds of learning.

This week, some of those parents – along with many CMS teachers – are spitting paper clips with the administering of 52 new “field tests,” which are part of a program that eventually will supply another measure of how well teachers are contributing to student progress.

Parents threatened to pull students from the tests. Teachers complained about the time spent on them. Even some test-weary high school students threatened to muck things up by filling in wrong answers.

Enough, everyone seems to be saying.

But is it?

The field tests, called Summatives, will be given in subjects that are not covered by N.C. End-of-Grade and End-of-Course tests, CMS says, which means that teachers can be better evaluated in most every class, not just the current 10 percent.

Plus, officials say, those tests will add only one to three hours of testing time per year for students – depending on grade.

Which brings us back to your one-question test: How many hours a year does a fourth-grader spend filling in the bubbles and such?

That number is 17, says CMS. Out of 1,035 instructional hours. That’s less time test-taking than some of us fourth-graders spent reading Sports Illustrated inside our textbook. (Sorry, Mrs. Berry.)

Except that 17 hours isn’t really what students lose to testing.

“It’s not even close,” says Jenn O’Kane Fenk, a teacher at Ardrey Kell High School and mother of a CMS elementary student.

What the 17 hours doesn’t include are those homework-less nights before and during testing days – or the intentionally light workload students get during testing days. It doesn’t include how some schools pretty much take the month of May to prepare for End of Grade tests – often at the expense of other subjects and topics.

It also doesn’t include the annual exhale near the end of the school year – the weeks of field trips and movies that fill the time after EOGs, when there isn’t a test to teach to anymore. I’m still trying to determine the educational significance my third-grader received from watching “Stuart Little” – twice – after EOGs were through.

Add to all that the new Summatives. “It pretty much kills your whole spring,” says Fenk.

Superintendent Peter Gorman and his staff say the numbers gained from the new tests are worth it – that they provide more precise insight into teacher performance. They have credibility here – the less talked-about CMS story this week is that the system again is a finalist for the Broad Prize, which rewards innovative, measurable achievement in urban school districts.

But Gorman and his staff also are data-driven people – and data-driven people almost always believe that more numbers are better than fewer numbers.

The rest of us? We appreciate the value of numbers, if they provide a sound and clear understanding of performance. But we know that even accurate numbers don’t measure all the other kinds of successes that come during a school year – a teacher’s well-timed nudge, the warm encouragement during a difficult moment. We worry that the more tests we have, the more evaluations are pushed toward uptown and away from the schools and principals, the teachers and parents.

CMS needs to make a better case of how more numbers will complement the classroom, instead of merely measuring it. Because the problem with numbers is that when you rely too much on them, a number is all our children seem to be.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Our oldest and youngest readers?


The Observer is about to celebrate its 125th anniversary, and we'll be publishing some stories acknowledging the milestone. Part of that will be profiles of some of our oldest subscribers and readers - as well as some of our youngest.

First, we have to find them.

If you know of someone who has been reading the Observer a loooong time - or a youngster who already has developed a newspaper habit - let us know at or 704-358-5029. And yes, online counts.



Saturday, April 2, 2011

A proposal: Give yourself something to remember

A little more than a decade ago, I drove up to Greensboro on a Thursday night to have dinner with my girlfriend. We were planning a fishing trip that weekend, so I brought an old green tackle box we shared. I told her I had a new lure to show her.

She opened the box. There, among the hooks and rubber worms, was a diamond engagement ring.

We’ll pause while the men out there nod admiringly.

You can guess the rest. My wife-to-be gasped, I grinned, and we had ourselves one of the best kinds of currency – a fun story to remember.

The Observer’s Elizabeth Leland told you another one of those this past week – about Patrick Allen and Josalyn Lowrance of Charlotte. Not long ago, Patrick decided to propose to Josalyn, and when he told her parents and friends, they wished wistfully that they could see her reaction.

That got Patrick thinking. He hired a photographer for a tricky assignment: shoot the proposal without Josalyn realizing what was happening. The photos are terrific. The smiles catch the light like jewels. The story made it on the Observer’s front page.


Heather Bryson hears these kinds of stories occasionally. She’s a partner and wedding planner at Carolina Wedding Design, so she’ll have a hand in some of the ceremonies we’ll see spilling out of Charlotte’s churches in the coming months.

She tells her clients often to slow down, to remember to be in love. And this: “Don’t look back and say I don’t remember a thing.”

She says she’s heard amazing proposal stories and funny proposal stories. One client took his fiancĂ©e-to-be to New York, where he had flown in her friends for the big moment. Another convinced the sellers of the house they were going to buy together to let him propose in the living room they would soon share.

Not bad. But it’s no tackle box…

It is, however, a reminder about memories – that we should give ourselves as many as we can, big and small ones, gasps and grins. Life will deliver plenty that aren’t so easy, of course. Not only the harshest challenges – the job that’s taken away, the bad diagnosis – but all the usuals that overfill our days and make us wonder if our lives don’t really belong to us.

And in that crunch, we can sometimes lose the better moments – no, not lose, but tuck too far away. At least until a story like Patrick and Josalyn comes along and reminds us about living room proposals and tackle boxes.

Actually, the lure/ring wasn’t the best part of that story. After I heard “yes” that night, we went out to a nice dinner, and I promptly was overcome with nausea from a bad meal I’d had earlier that day. It was food poisoning, but my wife still raises an eyebrow and wonders if it was remorse. Of course not, I say, each time we remember.

Friday, April 1, 2011

On Skeens' biggest basketball day, humility

Be humble, she’s told her children. On good days and on challenging days. Because both will come.

Stay humble, Jackie Skeen says to each of the four, but especially lately to her son, Jamie.

He is a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, the best basketball player on a team that has made an unlikely run to Saturday’s NCAA Final Four in Houston. His week has been a swirl of interviews and autographs and attention like he’s never known.

It is, says Jackie, wonderful to see her son rewarded for his talent and work. But she and her husband, Eric, also have told him to remain the Jamie that they know, no matter what happens this weekend.

It’s the lesson they’ve stressed forever in the Skeen house, after school and after church. But humility isn’t always the easiest concept to explain. How do you show your child what that means, when you already live in humble surroundings?

This is how:

Jackie Skeen is a preschool staff member at Gateway Academy in the University area of north Charlotte. Her husband, Eric, is a cable technician, and her mother, Rosa, was a schoolteacher. "She also taught children how to sew and how to sing," Jackie remembers. "She loved the energy from young people when they learned."

Jackie and Eric’s four children were raised to consider education important. In 2005, when their oldest, Angelica, was about to graduate from North Mecklenburg High School, Jackie was tutoring students there. The next year, Angelica attended Western Carolina with the help of academic scholarships.

Then Jamie, a star basketball player who won a state championship at North Meck, earned a full ride at Wake Forest. Jackie and Eric, who had expected to take out loans and help pay for their children’s college education, found themselves unexpectedly without that burden.

It was, Jackie says, a blessing - and with that surprise they decided to bless others. They started a scholarship fund, giving one North Mecklenburg student $500 to attend college. The next year, with the help of their church, New Birth Charlotte, they funded two.

They’ve since kept the scholarships going with fundraisers - car washes, raffles, attic sales. This year has been difficult, with everyone’s budgets strained, but the Skeens are pushing forward. They’ll be holding a basketball camp soon, with Jamie helping as always.

Except this year, he’ll be Jamie Skeen, Final Four participant - or better.

"This week has been crazy," says Jackie, beaming. Her phone is buzzing constantly. She has dozens of Facebook messages that she will answer as soon as she figures out how to use Facebook.

It’s also a joy for her to see Jamie and his team everywhere - in newspapers, on TV - because he has had his ups and downs. From being a top national high school player to learning that Wake Forest wasn’t a fit academically or socially - to now.

They talked to Jamie before everyone left for Houston. They wished him luck, then Jackie reminded him that the rest of the school year awaits. "She’s very special to me because she keeps me level-headed," Jamie told the Observer this week, "and she keeps me grounded."

This is what humility is, Jackie knows. Not something you decide on when you’ve found your best moment, but an acknowledgement that you don’t always control those highs - or how long you can hold onto them.

Be humble. Jackie nods. "That’s who Jamie is," she says. The star recruit who didn’t hold a press conference when he chose a college to play ball. The young man who will be home soon, blowing a whistle at a basketball camp, giving like his mom and dad, no different on the best week of their lives than any other.