We all could learn a little something from Henry Darby.
He spends his days as the principal of a high school in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.
At night, he stocks shelves at an area Walmart. His pay goes to help needy students and families.
Editor’s Note: An edited version of this story appeared as a SC Stories feature in the April issue of South Carolina Living magazine, which is distributed monthly by the South Carolina Cooperative Electric Association.
Students at North Charleston High School in the Lowcountry of South Carolina often gaze at the wall of awards principal Henry Darby has amassed over the past 40 years. He’ll ask them what they believe is the greatest honor among the stack of plaques. They never pick the starched white shirt hanging in a box.
“it reminds me of my humble beginnings,” said the North Charleston native. “It’s not the height that you reach, it’s the depth that you come from.”
The shirt came from cloth his mother gathered from an area dump. Florence Darby took the fabric home, boiled it in a kettle in the back yard and made the material into a shirt. He wore that shirt to school two to three days a week for the next four years.
Darby knows poverty, but also the value of education and willingness to work.
He recalled a day when he was 10 years old and his mother was given food stamps.
“My mother put both her hands upon my shoulders, pulled me near to her and tore up the food stamps in my face. Her words were, ‘Boy, you’re going to learn to stand on your own two feet.’ I have never forgotten that lesson.”
And he also knows there are times when others need help.
“I know what it feels like to live in poverty and it’s not a good feeling,” he said. “I just do my best to help those I can help to get out of poverty.”
“I know what it feels like to live in poverty and it’s not a good feeling. I just do my best to help those I can help to get out of poverty.”
Henry Darby, principal of North Charleston (SC) High School
In addition to his full-time duties as principal, Darby works the 10 to 7 overnight shift on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays at a local Walmart. His pay goes to help North Charleston students and their families struggling to buy groceries and clothing, pay rent and keep the lights on.
“The first six weeks or so it was pretty rough,” he said of his job as a stocker. “Just standing, standing, standing. Muscles I hadn’t been using before. Feet swollen, knees swollen. But I’m not a quitter. I’m one of those Vince Lombardi guys. ‘Quitters never win and winners never quit.’”
His story has garnered state and national attention and there’s been a spike in donations. That’s been heartening, Darby said.
“Americans came together to support a cause to help children. It’s almost as if we want to forget about our differences… It’s a beautiful example of how Americans can help Americans.”
Some of his friends, worried about his age, have urged him to slow down. He proudly points to the 40 pounds he’s lost over the past seven months and said he has no plans to stop.
“Whenever I can’t teach or can’t help someone, I’m just gonna say, ‘Swing low, sweet chariot. You can carry me home now.’ I just love helping people.”
Getting to know Henry Darby
Age: Born on Nov. 28, 1954, Darby is 66 years young.
Occupation: Principal of North Charleston (SC) High School; 17 years as councilman for Charleston County (SC); associate at Walmart since August 2020
Book smart: A collector of rare historical books, his favorites include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” and a first edition copy of “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” by Jefferson Davis.
Music to the ears: He’s been playing the piano for the past 40 years and has been recognized several times for his talent. He loves to listen to jazz composer Charlie Parker.
The GOAT: There was a time he had a herd of domestic goats. “Goats will keep your yard clean, manicured. And since I was working three or four jobs at a time, I didn’t have time to cut my own grass. I loved my goats.”
Hummingbirds travel great distances twice a year between the United States and Canada south to Mexico and other Central and South American locales.
One of their rest stops is a botanical garden in North Carolina.
North Carolina botanical garden a rest stop for the birds on their annual trips north and south
NOTE: An edited version of this story appeared in the Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, edition of The Gaston Gazette newspaper in Gastonia, NC.
Similar to a fisherman on the banks of the Catawba River, Keith Camburn patiently held his string taut Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, waiting to spring the trap and reel in the mighty beast weighing all of a dime.
Camburn, a Gastonia, NC, resident, and Michael Leonowicz, who makes his home in Charlotte, were two of those responsible for capturing hummingbirds at the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden near Belmont, NC. They were each seated in chairs watching a feeder inside a cage, which was constantly circled by a gang of hummingbirds.
The task wasn’t as easy as it seemed. A hummingbird can reach a speed of up to 49 mph when it dives and beats its wings, on average, 53 times per second. So, it’s not like you’re catching a turtle.
“It’s like fishing,” said Leonowicz, who has been helping to band birds for the past 15 years. “The birds have gotten smarter.”
As of mid-morning Saturday, they’d captured five hummingbirds that had been delivered to researcher Susan Campbell, who identified and, with the skilled hands of a surgeon, had weighed, measured and applied bands to mark each of the birds.
“The habitat at the garden is excellent. There are plenty of things planted at the garden that are good hummingbird plants,” said Campbell, an Apex, NC, resident whose been holding the program at Stowe Botanical for the past 15 years.
The hummingbird banding program, which was held Saturday and Sunday, is one of the most popular at the garden, usually attracting anywhere from 800 to 900 people, said Jim Hoffman, the interim executive director at Stowe Botanical.
Lake Wylie, SC, residents Eric and Allison Schaff are members of the garden and attended Saturday’s program with their sons, Noah, 14, and Benjamin, 9. Both brothers got to hold newly-banded hummingbirds in their hands before the birds flew off.
“I felt a very small vibrating because it was breathing,” Benjamin said. “I could see its eyes blinking. It was very neat.”
Did you know?
The hummingbirds you see in your own garden may very well be repeat guests?
“It could very well be,” said Raleigh resident Steve Schultz, who was assisting Campbell during Saturday’s program. “They do have the ability to return to the same specific spot.”
Hummingbirds spend their winters in Mexico and South America, migrating to the United States each spring, where they’ll mate, build their nests and raise their young. In the fall, they return south.
Saturday at the garden, there was the rare experience of one of the birds they captured having already been banded. Schultz said the female bird, which was at least 3 years old, had likely been captured years ago at Stowe Botanical.
“That bird has flown to Central America and back, Central America and back. That bird’s got more frequent flyer miles than I do,” Schultz said. “This bird traveled thousands of miles. It’s amazing something that small can navigate that distance.”
When will you commonly see hummingbirds at your feeder?
The hummingbirds usually arrive in early April and most have departed by the end of September.
Daily, you’ll usually see them at the feeder when they get hungry, which is typically in the morning and evening. During the day, they’re often snacking on insects, such as the gnats that linger near crepe myrtles, Schultz said.
“One of the myths is that they just drink nectar. In fact, they’re fly catchers. They mostly eat insects, which makes sense because they need protein, especially when they’re nesting,” he said. “And during the day, there’s tons of insects out.”
Which hummingbird are you seeing?
Most likely, in this part of North Carolina, you are seeing a female ruby-throated hummingbird. The male will have the red marking on its throat. They don’t stick around as long as the female, who is tasked with maintaining a nest and raising the young.
“I’ve been helping here five years and I’ve never caught a male,” Camburn said. “They just do their stuff and take off.”
Nix the red?
Another helpful hint: Forego buying the red-dyed hummingbird mix at the store. Instead, make your own mixture with four parts of water to one part sugar. It’s much healthier for the birds and cheaper for the birder, Schultz said.
How many different types of hummingbirds are there?
Camburn said he’s been “chasing birds” for the past 40 years.
“I’m trying to see all the hummingbirds in the world,” he said of a list that has expanded to include 345 different species. “It’s never going to happen but I got to try.”
He’s seen all 11 of the species recorded in North Carolina. Only 17 of the species have been spotted in the United States.
“When I moved here 30 years ago, there were two hummers in the state,” Camburn said. “Now, I’ve seen 11 species, which is just nuts. I’m guessing Susan banded just about all of them.”
A horticulture volunteer at the garden, which means doing a lot of weeding, trimming and planting, Camburn also has taken on filling and cleaning the five hummingbird feeders at the garden.
Each summer, a small South Carolina town is overrun by thousands of motorcycles.
And the town of Chesnee is happy to have them as they host the Antique Bikes On Main that brings in antique motorcycles from around the Southeastern United States.
Each summer, antique motorcycle lovers flock to Chesnee via their two wheels
Editor’s Note: An edited version of this story appeared in the July 2020 issueof South Carolina Living, a magazine produced by the South Carolina Electric Cooperative.
By Michael Banks
For one weekend each summer, the South Carolina town of Chesnee sees its population swell by 10 times its normal size.
While it may be the long line of antique motorcycles lining this small town’s main drag that transport visitors here, it is the city residents and bike enthusiasts who make the event a success and has the visitors from all walks of life returning each July.
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The Antique Motorcycle Club of America’s Legends Chapter, which is located in Chesnee, plays a key role in helping to set up and run the festival.
The chapter, which started in 2015, includes about 100 members, ranging in age from 16 to 84 with the majority of them living in the Carolinas. The group is dedicated to telling the history and sharing their love of antique motorcycles.
“A lot of people will see them on a T-shirt, but they never see one in person or get to hear it run. They get to see it, touch it, look at it, ask questions about it,” said Bud Blair, a Chesnee resident and president of the Legends Chapter who owns three bikes — a 1997 Harley-Davidson Heritage Springer, a 1947 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead and a 1942 Knucklehead.
“My love is my older bikes,” said the 57-year-old Blair, whose been riding bikes since he was 9 years old. “It’s just the coolest. It’s like an old pair of blue jeans that’s your favorite. I’m not knocking new bikes, but I’m just an antique kind of guy.”
And it’s not just men who are fans of the older bikes. Amy Jackson is one of about 20 female club members and is treasurer of the AMCA Legends Chapter. She owns a 2009 Harley-Davidson and a 1938 Harley-Davidson Flathead.
A resident of Cliffside, N.C., Jackson has been riding for the past 10 years. Retired from banking, she’ll get on her bike and ride some 100 miles a day on the roads of the rural Upstate. She didn’t discover motorcycles until she was 47.
“I was running from teenagers,” she said with a laugh. “I bought a motorcycle with one seat so I didn’t have to take a teenager with me.”
* * *
It’s rare to catch Pete Hill sitting still.
The Greenville, S.C., native has always been on the go, often at record-setting speeds, in a motorcycle racing career that piled up wins on tracks all over the United States and Canada, as well as Europe and Australia.
The winner of multiple drag racing championships, Hill’s recognized as the “world’s fastest knucklehead” and is a member of numerous racing halls of fame.
At the same time as he was setting records on the track, Hill continued to run his motorcycle shop, Pete Hill Motorcycles in Greenville, which he’s done for the past 47 years. The four-person shop, which includes his son, Tommy, does a little bit of everything, from welding to building engines and other machine work.
When he was growing up, Hill spent summers working in a machine shop and would advance to working for various auto body shops, including his time in the Air Force during the Korean War. He built his first motorcycle, a 45-cubic-inch engine, in 1946.
“It was an old piece of junk. I could go from my house to my buddy’s house and then leave it there for two weeks until I could scare up enough money to buy a part and fix the one that I broke before I could get it back home,” Hill said with a laugh.
He said the business is what drove him to racing as it served as a testing ground for his ground-breaking mechanical designs.
“I had ideas that were a lot different from the competition and I wanted to try my ideas. That’s what I wanted to get out of racing,” Hill said. “If you win, it proves your ideas were correct. I was so far out of the norm with what I was doing that when it did work out, I was dominant for a number of years.”
He was running motorcycles powered with super-charged nitromethane fuel, reaching speeds up to 190 mph over a quarter-mile track.
In 1981, Hill won his first International Drag Bike Association championship. That year, he also won the American Motorcycle Association Drag Bike Top Fuel title aboard a modified 1947 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead. He would go on to win four more IDBA titles and four championships with the American Motorcycle Racing Association before retiring from racing in 1994.
Through it all, his wife, Jackie, has been by his side, serving as a business partner, racing crew chief, author of his memoirs and confidante. They just recently celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary.
And even though he is now 84, Hill still has no hesitation to get on the back of a fast bike. Just last year, he topped 120 mph during a run at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
And he still has his South Carolina driver’s license and rides a street bike. Remarkably, the man who has driven motorcycles at speeds close to 200 mph, has never gotten a speeding ticket. He admits that he’s been pulled over a few times, but never been ticketed.
“I’d say that’s just because the way I look, an old man with gray hair who looks like he’s gonna be in a nursing home in a couple weeks.”
During the Chesnee festival, a steady stream of well-wishers came by to shake Hill’s hand or say hello to. The fame still bewilders Hill.
“I know who I am and I’m not that guy. It (the fame) just comes with the years and years of doing things nationally. I got a lot of coverage and, therefore, people think I’m really something. But I’m not. I’m just the guy who works every day on the winch, building motors in my shop.”
* * *
When Rose and Richard Owen were recently involved in an interstate wreck in the metro Charlotte area, there was no hesitation when deciding who they would call for help.
They were heading to Massachusetts to visit family, driving their truck and pulling behind a toy hauler with their motorcycles when they went to change lanes near a construction zone. The next thing they knew, the camper was rolling and they were in serious trouble.
“God had his arms around us because we hit a cement wall and never felt a thing and ended up on four tires. We were physically fine,” recalled Rose Owen.
However, their truck was totaled and the hauler a disaster.
The couple, who moved to Blacksburg, S.C., about 18 months ago and are members of the Broad River Electric Cooperative, belong to the Warriors For Christ chapter of the CMA. Rose said she knew immediately who to call, reaching their area rep, who drove two hours north to assist them.
“They are our family here,” Rose Owen said of the Gaffney, S.C., chapter. “I know that they are the people we can count on on an every-day basis. We were welcomed here phenomenally. I can’t believe the love that we got from the chapter.”
That mission was exemplified during the 10th annual Prayer Ride conducted by members of the Christian Motorcyclists Association attending Chesnee’s Antique Bikes On Main event.
About 50 riders traveled to churches in Spartanburg County (S.C.), collecting prayer requests before returning to Chesnee for a gathering and pray for those listed on the gathered requests.
“We are there for any reason – a biker down somewhere that needs our help, hospital visits. We help bikers that are in need of anything,” said Ralph Coggins, road captain for the Spartanburg, S.C.-based Jabez Riders chapter of the CMA.
The CMA is an international ministry numbering more than 200,000 members with chapters in all 50 states and 41 foreign countries. South Carolina has 13 chapters.
Coggins, who is now retired after working 20 years for the Spartanburg County 911 emergency call center and 23 years in the U.S. Army, said the group’s primary purpose remains “carrying the gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost and dying world. We do that by riding motorcycles and speaking the name of Jesus to people who need to hear it. Everything we do is all about Jesus.”
The Cowpens, S.C., resident has a favorite gospel verse, John 14:6, that reads “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
* * *
Among the 17 motorcycles that sit in Mike Bruso’s shop in Forest City, N.C., is a 2018 Indian that “absolutely rides beautiful” with a 3,000-watt stereo, heated seats and an adjustable windshield.
However, he says, “It never gets moved. It just sits in my garage.”
Bruso says he honestly has more fun riding his older motorcycles, especially his 1939 Harley Davidson Knucklehead.
“The new bikes are like a new car. You get in, they’re fuel-injected, you touch them, there’s no squeaks, no rattles. There’s nothing to do. You just drive it.”
That’s not the case with the older models. As an example, he points to his 1926 Harley-Davidson JD that doesn’t use recirculating oil and offers little brakes, a different throttle control and the various loose bolts and screws that come with being nearly a century old.
“There’s always something to think about,” said the 41-year-old Bruso, who makes his living as a mechanical engineer for Facebook. “You’ve got to be prepared to fix something while you’re parked on the side of the road. It’s just a lot more interactive than a new bike.”
And Bruso has no qualms about riding his older bikes over long distances.
In September, he’ll be on his 1939 Knucklehead in the 2,600-mile Cross Country Chase that runs over nine days from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., to Key West, Fla.
The race will be a warmup for the 2020 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run that will stretch over 17 days. Bruno will be among only 120 select riders traveling over 4,000 miles from Sault St. Marie to South Padre Island, Texas. Bruso, who had been trying to get selected to the Cannonball race, which runs every two years, since 2014, will be riding his 1926 Harley-Davidson JD.
“A lot of people think I’m crazy for riding something that barely has brakes and you gotta hand shift,” he says.
However, motorcycles have always been a part of Bruso’s life. A native of northern New York, Bruso was only 3 years old when he got his first three-wheeler. Now, he can be found on and around the roads of the Upstate as he’s a member of the AMCA Legends Chapter. He’s attended the Bikes On Main event every year.
“I’ve never not had bikes, ever,” Bruso said.
That’s a similar comment shared by Louie Hale, an Augusta, Ga., resident who has attended four of the Bikes On Main gatherings.
As he often does at antique motorcycle shows, Hale was competing in field events that test a rider’s balance, dexterity and control of the bike. He ended up winning the Chesnee competition that required him to place a tennis ball atop a line of pylons while riding his 1920 Harley-Davidson model. It was the first time the Chesnee festival had held a games competition.
Hale collects and restores antiques and he has about 20 different motorcycles, including a 1916 Indian and a 1916 Miami Power Bicycle. His favorite is a 1925 Excelsior Super X with its original paint job that was produced by the Excelsior Motor and Manufacturing Company before it went out of business in 1931.
Hale, who is retired after a career as an electrical engineer, said he enjoys collecting unusual bikes. And if it features the original paint and is not “all clean and shiny” it’s even better.
“That’s just like how it came out of the factory, 99 years ago,” he said, pointing to his brown- and bronze-tinted 1920s Harley-Davidson.
There was no hesitation by Chesnee city officials some 10 years ago when they were approached by the Antique Bikes On Main organizers to see if they had an interest in teaming up. And that could have been because two of the longtime leaders – Mayor Max Cash and City Administrator Becki Hood – were familiar with motorcycles.
Cash, who has served as the town’s mayor for the past 30 years, had a Harley-Davidson that he rode for years until he decided to sell it two years ago.
He said the city, which dates back to 1911, had held several festivals in the past – including the Poke Sallet Festival that celebrated pokeweed – before hitting a home run by holding its Chesnee City Fest in conjunction with the Antique Bikes On Main.
Hood, who has ridden on motorcycles owned by her two sons, says there have been estimates of up to 10,000 people coming into Chesnee over the three-day weekend.
“We get a lot of tourists in for the bike rally. They come from California and everywhere,” Hood said. “We have people from all walks of life. We have lawyers, we have doctors, we have professional people and we have just plain people that ride bikes. Most of them are very nice.”
And those visitors bring cash, benefitting the town’s merchants, along with paying a 2 percent city hospitality tax that’s added to restaurant bills. Hood estimated the tax generates about $15,000 each month for the city’s coffers.
That money goes a long way in what is South Carolina’s smallest city, which occupies a little over a square mile and numbers 868 residents, according to the 2010 census. The city employs just 10 people and there is a small tax base.
Hood said the city agreed to allot $50,000 of the hospitality tax money this year to help with the Antique Bikes On Main and the Chesnee City Fest. That money allows the city to offer free carnival rides for children and keeps vendor fees low.
There is no alcohol sold at the event that is geared toward not only motorcycle enthusiasts, but also families with children.
“We had the Hells Angels here in the past. No problem whatsoever,” said Hood, who could recall only one arrest – that for public intoxication — in the last 10 years. “It goes along like clockwork.”
And, according to Hood, that hospitable, friendly atmosphere goes hand-in-hand with what Chesnee stands for – its small-town atmosphere and the wonderful people who call it home.
“The kids grow up, they move away, gets jobs in big cities. But you have the people here that love the small-town ambiance. I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” said Hood, who has lived in her home for the past 37 years.
“It’s just that hometown feel,” she said. “If somebody hurts, we all hurt. It’s this thing of ‘You’re my brother. Can I help you?’ And that’s what I like about it. I love the people. It’s just home.”
Ole Miss basketball coach Kermit Davis has always been a difference-maker.
On Thursday, June 25, he was among 46 coaches and administrators from Mississippi universities who met with government officials at the state capitol in an attempt to get the state flag changed.
Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in the Oct. 17, 2018, edition of The Clarksdale (Ms.) Press Register newspaper.
As a visiting coach, Kermit Davis always had an appreciation for the atmosphere one feels when they enter The Pavilion on the Ole Miss campus.
The 9,500-seat arena, sporting a price tag of $96.5 million, has proved to be a dungeon of horrors for visiting teams since its opening in January 2016, including some games where Davis stalked the sidelines.
Now, Davis will be calling The Pavilion his home for the forseable future as he attempts to resurrect the Rebel basketball program.
He comes in with lofty laurels as Davis is an eight-time conference Coach of the Year and ranks 34th among Division I coaches with 403 wins in a career that’s included 15 years as the head coach at Middle Tennessee and head coaching jobs at Idaho (1997, 1989-90) and Texas A&M (1991). He ranks 11th nationally in winning percentage over the last three years and 13th over the last seven.
Davis told members of the Clarksdale Rotary Club during an Oct. 9, 2018, appearance that he wasn’t looking to make a move from Murfreesboro, Tenn., where he had built Middle Tennessee State University into a name on the college basketball scene and had grown a fan base numbering some 150 to 200 fans when he first arrived in 2003 to more than 10,000 who make up Blue Raider nation.
But when Ole Miss came calling last spring, the Leakesville, Ms., native couldn’t resist the opportunity to become the Rebels’ 22nd head coach.
“It was the right fit for me,” Davis said. “It’s been a great six months in Oxford.”
The son of longtime Mississippi State coach Kermit Davis Sr., the younger Davis played for the Bulldogs, graduating in 1982, and started his coaching career in Starkville, Ms., as a graduate assistant.
And while he admits there will be a challenge in his first season in Oxford, Ms., Davis believes he has the facilities and program that will attract the nation’s top players.
“You need for nothing” at Ole Miss, Davis said, pointing to the campus and athletic facilities, topped off by The Pavilion.
“It’s the nicest on-campus arena in college basketball,” said Davis, who was the guest of Rotarian and local attorney Ed Peacock, who has had Ole Miss season tickets since 1974.
“We’re going to create a product they really want to see play,” he said. “We’re trying to create that winning culture.”
Yet, it won’t be easy as Davis predicts the Southeastern Conference will be “the best it’s ever been” when you look at the depth and the recruits the conference’s schools have brought in. He believes the SEC could send nine or 10 teams to the NCAA Tournament this year.
“There’s been a total commitment to basketball,” Davis said of the SEC schools.
And that’s also true at Ole Miss where he pulled in the nation’s 35th-ranked recruiting class despite being on campus for just a few months. He anticipates three or four of the freshmen class seeing significant time this season.
“We’re going to try to create a national brand. And to do that, you’ve got to beat national teams on a national stage,” Davis said. “Can we do that in basketball?”
The Rebels open the season on Saturday, Nov. 10 when they host Western Michigan. There are dates against Butler, Baylor, Iowa State and Middle Tennessee on the schedule, as well as the usual SEC slate featuring powerhouses Kentucky and Florida.
(Editor’s Note: In his first season as coach at Ole Miss, Davis led one of the biggest turnaround seasons in the nation. The Rebels posted a 20-13 record to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years. In the last 2019-20 season, Ole Miss finished with a 15-17 record, including a 6-12 mark in the SEC.)
The Oct. 6 stop was Davis’ first in Clarksdale, but he has fond memories of the area. Out of high school, he first attended Phillips Junior College in neighboring Helena, Ark., for two years. It was there where he met his wife, Betty. The couple have two daughters, Ally and Claire.
“It’s nice to be back in this area,” Davis said. “Northern Mississippi basketball fans are unbelievable. There are a lot of knowledgeable fans around here.”
And it’s a fan base he will attempt to energize and bring back to The Pavilion in droves.
For he wants to make it his home for now and the future.
“It was strange, surreal.”
Those were the words of Scott Denton, a member of the No. 88 race team, said when asked about NASCAR’s return to racing on Sunday, May 17 in Darlington, S.C.
Racing resumes without fans, life goes on for one member of Hendrick’s No. 88 race team
Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in the Saturday, May 23, 2020, edition of The Gaston Gazette newspaper in Gastonia, N.C.
After two months of being pitted under the yellow flag version of coronavirus, NASCAR’s race teams have returned to green flag racing, one of the first professional sports leagues to resume operation.
Scott Denton, 54, has been involved in auto racing for the past 17 years. He’s spent the last 10 working for Hendrick Motorsports as a member of race teams featuring drivers Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
He’s currently a member of Hendrick’s No. 88 team that’s led by driver Alex Bowman and crew chief Greg Ives. Denton is the backup driver for the No. 88 race team hauler, but also is a part of the pit crew on race day.
As a member of the support crew, he’s responsible for throwing the rear air hose and catching the gas can during adrenaline-pumping pit stops that last less than 15 seconds.
Prior to NASCAR stopping racing in mid-March, the 88 team had been on a roll as they were coming off a win March 1 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. The win was the second career victory for the 27-year-old Bowman, who is in his third full season driving for HMS.
And once racing resumed, the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet made another strong showing, finishing second in the May 17 race at Darlington (S.C.) Speedway.
“Sunday was awesome, but it was also different,” Helton said Wednesday, May 20. “It was strange, surreal, but it went well because everybody there did what NASCAR asked us to do.”
All of the race team members had to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They had their temperature checked before entering the race track and had to wear a mask and practice social distancing once inside.
“We had to follow all the protocols that NASCAR wanted and HMS wanted,” Helton said. “Pretty much all day you had a mask on and gloves and you were six feet apart to keep your distance. It was different because you usually mingle and say ’Hi’ to guys, but all you could do basically was just wave at them instead of high-fiving and stuff like that.”
The big difference was the quiet and emptiness of the track’s grandstands.
“You miss the fans because of the screaming and yelling,” Helton said. “When I’m doing my duty, you don’t really think about it, but yeah, we miss the fans.”
On a typical race week, Denton works Monday through Thursday at the Hendrick Motorsports shop in Concord. He spends his time “turning the tool box around” and “turning the trailer around”, which basically means he’s going through a six-page checklist and making sure the equipment used on race day is serviced, in place and ready for use.
He’s normally off work on Fridays and Saturdays and then flies out to the race track with members of the race team on Sunday. After assisting the pit crew during the race, he drives the hauler back to its shop in Concord.
While they weren’t in the shop from mid-March through early May with social distancing restrictions, Denton’s days were filled with plenty of video conference meetings through the Microsoft Teams software. Sometimes, there’d be three meetings per day.
He also devoted a large amount of time to mountain biking and doing workout videos at home. With the physical demands of working as part of the pit crew, it was important for the 6-foot-1-inch, 194-pound Denton to stay in shape. The work paid off as he dropped 10 pounds while social distancing.
A 1983 graduate of Ashbrook High School, Denton makes his home in Belmont with his wife, Christyn, and their 6-year-old son, Jack. One benefit of the downtime has been the chance to be at home, Denton said.
“That’s a blessing in itself to be able to be home with the family,” he said. “It’s been a lot of family time.”
While currently serving as a backup hauler driver, when he started at Hendrick Motorsports, Denton was the primary driver for Gordon’s colorful DuPont transporter and Junior’s Mountain Dew-splashed tractor-trailer. He made the switch to a backup driver after he got married in order to spend more time at home.
“When I’m on the road, I’ll do a lot of Facetiming, especially on the West Coast trips,” Denton said of races at Sonoma, Calif., Las Vegas and Phoenix.
The 2,800-mile drive to Sonoma from Concord runs more than 40 hours each way, he said, while Phoenix takes 34 hours.
The drivers follow Department of Transportation regulations that limit them to 11 hours of driving per shift. On the long trips, he and the other driver will often rotate, switching out every 10 hours.
“When you’re driving the truck, it’s the open road, it’s like freedom,” said Denton, who says Interstate 10 through southern Arizona is his favorite stretch of road. “It’s unbelievable. There are beautiful mountains and scenery you just don’t expect to see. If you didn’t leave Gastonia or Belmont, you wouldn’t think something like that exists.”
Racing has long been in Denton’s blood. He started out racing super late-model cars at Cherokee Raceway in Gaffney, S.C., with his grandfather, Toy Bolton.
“I love racing in general,” Denton said. “I grew up in racing and I was always a race fan growing up. I used to watch those transporters go by and I used to tell my granddad, ’Hey man, I’m going to drive one of those one of these days.’ He said, ’Oh, it’s a lot of work.’”
Denton’s longtime friend, Mark “Hollywood” Armstrong, who was working in auto racing and now works for JR Motorsports, suggested Denton, who was working part-time at FedEx and attending Gaston College, get his commercial driver’s license and he would help him land with a race team.
After obtaining his CDL, Denton started out driving a motorhome for race team owner Chip Ganassi and then worked his way up through the ranks, culminating with the offer from Hendrick Motorsports in 2010.
This weekend’s trip to Charlotte Motor Speedway is their shortest trip of the year, as it’s almost literally across the street from their race shop. The Concord track and race week is a special time for Denton.
“I can bring my family. My son and wife can come to the garage and see what I actually do for a living,” he said. “Charlotte’s always been special because of that.”
However, Charlotte will also be without fans as NASCAR’s social distancing restrictions remain in place. Denton will miss having his family there beside him.
He says the fellowship among the racing community is what he likes best about his job.
“I enjoy racing. I enjoy going to victory lane. It’s pretty awesome.”
Thirty-four-year-old Thomasina Williams, who lived out of her car in the past, can count on one hand the number of places that were her own.
Through the generosity of one group and thanks to a coronavirus stimulus check, she now has a furnished home for she and her 5-year-old daughter.
Thomasina Williams has been homeless before and knows what it’s like to live out of your car and have all your earthly possessions in your backseat.
After the death of her mother when Williams was just 16 years old, she’d spent the past 18 years bouncing from one family member’s home to another, from Virginia to North Carolina, searching for a permanent landing spot.
“It was tough,” she said. “I can count on how many places I had (to call home) on my hand. It was three. Three places that were my own.”
Williams had moved in with her brother and other family members in their Gastonia, N.C., home in September 20109, but was facing the very real possibility of being without a home again earlier this year. The family was moving to a smaller place and there wasn’t room for Williams and her 5-year-old daughter, Miacayla.
Williams was determined to not put her daughter through the turmoil she’d endured. She needed stability in her life.
“I’m just a person that don’t bother people unless I really need help,” Williams said. “It (being without a home) didn’t really bother me that much when I was young. It didn’t bother me until now when I’m getting older and wiser and I have a child.”
She and Miacayla had a home before in Virginia. But Williams said they lost both the home and her vehicle.
“I was struggling. My job wasn’t paying enough, I had a car note, taking care of her, her father was in and out of her life,” she said.
In March 2020, Williams landed a job as a custodian with the Gaston County public school system. Around that same time, she and Miacayla found a temporary home at the Gaston Inn, paying on a weekly basis.
Each weekday at 6 a.m., she and Miacayla left their room at the hotel on East Franklin Boulevard and walked five blocks to the bus stop at the Eastridge Mall. Miacayla was dropped off at daycare and Williams at the Gaston County School District office, where she was taken to whatever school she was working at that day. In the afternoon, the process would reverse itself with Williams and Miacayla walking back into their hotel room 12 hours later.
While blessed to have a job, Williams, who was without a car and had little money, was going to need a minor miracle and an angel.
Who knew the minor miracle would be linked to the coronavirus COVID-19 that has caused financial hardship, sickness and death to so many? Economic Impact Payments distributed by the federal government in April provided an unexpected boost to Williams’ bank account.
The stimulus check was a blessing, Williams said. The $1,700 she received for herself and Miacayla provided the security deposit and first month’s rent for an apartment at The Oaks at Edgemont apartment complex in Gastonia.
“This is the time to step out and try,” Williams recalled thinking as she held the check in her hands. “And when I tried, God opened that door.”
Phyllis Lowery, who has been a bus driver for the city of Gastonia Transit System for the past four years, remembers seeing Williams walking along the street.
“I used to see her walking a lot and one day we had Free Friday,” Lowery recalled. “I stopped and told her, ’You know, the bus is free all day today. You can ride anywhere you need to go.’”
That initial conversation would stem more talks and Lowery would come to learn that the woman she saw each of those cold mornings was out searching for a job.
“I started learning a lot about her,” Lowery said. “It had got to the point where she was in tears. She just didn’t know what to do and she felt like giving up.”
Williams told Lowery she had found an apartment, but didn’t have anything else other than she and her daughter’s few belongings. That’s when Lowery decided to act.
Lowery has been a member of Risa’s Special Delivery since its formation in January 2018. Over the past two years, the non-profit organization has made numerous donations to families and individuals in need. Lowery said she enjoys being a member of a group that’s devoted to helping people.
“Right now, everybody’s basically paycheck to paycheck,” Lowery said. “When we all come together to help and support each other, it makes it special.”
Lowery contacted Florence Eury, the founder of Risa’s Special Delivery, and told her of Williams’ plight. The story resonated with Eury.
“I’ve never been homeless, but as a single mother it touched my heart,” Eury said. “I could never imagine being homeless with my children.”
On Saturday, May 9, 2020, about 20 members with Risa’s Special Delivery went up and down the apartment complex stairs carrying items into Williams’ home. They were cleaning, helping to build bed frames and arranging furniture.
Eury said it was fitting that the delivery was made the day before Mother’s Day.
“It was planned for next Saturday, but I told them, ’I dare not have her stay in here with nothing on Mother’s Day. This is her Mother’s Day gift,” she said.
In just three days after asking for help on the group Facebook page, Eury said they were flooded with donations.
“Stuff just started coming in,” she said. “They got nice things and she had nothing. This is the first time we’ve done a complete makeover. It’s just a blessing.”
On Friday, May 8, 2020, Williams and her daughter entered their own apartment for the first time. On Saturday night, they sat in a fully-furnished apartment, surrounded by new couches, beds, lamps, television and plants with a full refrigerator and microwave.
“I don’t think it’s going to hit me until later,” Williams said. “It’s just been so long. Five years for my daughter… it’s a big blessing. This is the first time I’ve ever had someone come in and help me.”
She believes having their own home can change both her and her daughter’s life.
“I just want to tell everybody to ’keep your head up and keep on pushing, just keep pushing,’” Williams said. “This right here changed my life.”
Jeff Postell was a rookie cop in his first few months on the job when he captured Eric Rudolph, the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bomber and one of America’s Most Wanted.
Read his story and his thoughts on the man who has the coldest eyes of any man he’s met in his life.
Better than Barney Fife! Jeff Postell captured Eric Rudolph in a small mountain town in North Carolina on May 31, 2003
Note: An edited version of this story first appeared in the Friday, Dec. 13, 2019, edition of The Gaston Gazette newspaper in Gastonia, N.C.
By Michael Banks
Though he now patrols a college campus and makes his home in the Northeast, the man who put the handcuffs on Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph says North Carolina will always remain a part of who he is.
On the walls of Jeff Postell’s office at the Boston College Police Department are FBI wanted posters, one of them “the size of a Volkswagen bug,” showing Rudolph, who in the spring and summer of 2003, was one of America’s 10 most wanted criminals after being identified in 1998 as the person responsible for the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympics. Two people would die from the blast and 111 were injured.
“Richard Jewell,” a film that debuted Friday, Dec. 13, 2019, tells the story of Jewell, a Centennial Olympic Park security guard who came under FBI suspicion for involvement in the crime, becoming the prime suspect and an international news story.
Also hanging on those same walls in Postell’s office are limited-edition sketches of one of his favorite television programs, “The Andy Griffith Show” depicting scenes from the fictitious town of Mayberry that was similar in so many ways to the North Carolina mountain towns where he grew up and achieved worldwide fame.
Postell, who is now 38, is quick to name off some of his favorite “Andy Griffith” episodes – the time a goat swallowed dynamite and diminutive deputy Barney Fife’s attempt to join the state police – as he grew up watching the show with his grandparents, who adopted and raised him and are the people he refers to as mom and dad.
“It really taught you about being a good person, being humble and being an individual who is willing to take care of people and help people with their problems and doing the right thing.”
He is quick with a loud laugh when asked if Barney Fife would have ever been capable of catching one of America’s most wanted.
“If you’re comparing me to Barney Fife, I might take offense to that,” he said laughing. “Do I think Barney could have done it? Perhaps. He had a niche for stumbling upon things very similar to what I did, I guess.”
But Postell, who was a 21-year-old rookie cop 10 months into his first job when he made his most famous arrest, is quick to point out he was out there just doing his job that fateful night.
“The one thing that really irritates me over the years is when people say that I got lucky,” he said. “You only need luck when you go to a casino.
“I think the arrest of Eric Rudolph had nothing to do with luck. It was being vigilant, it was being responsible, being in the field, being on the job, doing what people expected me to do, what people hired me to do.”
I think the arrest of Eric Rudolph had nothing to do with luck. It was being vigilant, it was being responsible, being in the field, being on the job, doing what people expected me to do, what people hired me to do.”
— Jeff Postell
Encounter of a lifetime
Postell credits the training he received in the police academy and field training program for preparing him for his encounter with Rudolph, who in May 2003 was a subject of a nationwide manhunt and was believed to be hiding in the Appalachian wilderness.
“Louis Pasteur said ‘chance favors a prepared mind,’” Postell said of the motto that was ingrained in him by his field training officer. “Always be prepared for what you may engage in, be ready, always know where you’re at.”
In keeping with his training, Postell had been changing up his routine during his first few months on the job with the Murphy Police Department.
“I never had a set pattern and routine, there was no trend he could follow,” Postell said of Rudolph, who, as investigators would later find out, was monitoring police movements from atop his perch on a nearby mountain.
Rudolph would even mention later to police that Postell had nearly caught him a few months prior, thanks to his altered patrols and never following the same routine. Rudolph told investigators that things might have gone differently that night as he had a gun.
It was around 3:30 in the morning on May 31, 2003, when Postell was making his usual patrol as he was the only officer on duty within the town limits at that time of day.
Driving around the back of a Sav-A-Lot located in a strip mall, the rookie officer noticed an individual near a trash bin behind the building. When he spotted the police car, the person then tried to run and Postell noticed the subject had a long, dark object that he thought could be a gun, but which later proved to be a flashlight.
“I knew there was something definitely drastic that was going on,” Postell recalled. “I had no idea who he was.”
Postell was able to corner the man behind some milk crates and then get him onto the ground and handcuff him. The man told Postell he was homeless and that he had hitchhiked from Ohio. He had no identification, saying he had never had the need for a Social Security number, and then gave a fictitious name.
“That raised a red flag in my mind,” Postell said.
He said a deputy sheriff, who was one of the backup units that had arrived, had known Rudolph from many years prior when they attended school together. Upon seeing the man handcuffed, he pulled Postell to the side and said, “You know, he kind of has a weird resemblance to Eric Rudolph.”
Postell didn’t believe it.
“I was like, ‘Ha, you’re being funny.’ No way.’”
It was only when they had taken the man to jail and then pulled up a wanted poster on the FBI website that things began to become clear. While the person before them had little resemblance to the sketch provided by the FBI, a physical description of Rudolph was provided.
“I’m getting the hair color right, I’m getting the eye color right, I’m getting the attached ear lobes,” Postell said. “And then on the FBI poster, it said there was a little scar on his chin.”
He peered closely at the man who sat across from him in the jail cell.
“His head was tilted back and he was kind of staring at the ceiling and the scar on his chin was staring me right in the eye,” Postell recalled. “That’s when the butterflies in my stomach really started churning.”
The officers printed out the pictures and walked over and surrounded the man. They held the pictures behind his head so he couldn’t really see what they were looking at, comparing the pictures and the man before them.
They asked him to tell them who he was. The man didn’t reply. They asked him again.
“And he says, ‘What does that paper say,’” Postell recalled. “I remember one of the officers said, ‘Listen, that’s not what you were asked. Tell us who you are.’ And that’s when he kind of laughed a little bit and in the darkest, deepest, coldest tone he said, ‘I’m Eric Robert Rudolph and you’ve got me.’”
Postell and the other officers were stunned.
“My knees knocked so much that I answered them,” he said. “The hair on the back of my neck stood straight up and I said, ‘Oh, boy!’”
“I can remember being very nervous and very anxious to see him. Eric Rudolph had the coldest eyes I’ve ever seen in an individual. His eyes were so cold and so dark,”
— Jeff Postell
The next hours and days would be a whirlwind of activity for Postell and the town of Murphy.
Media descended on the area, seeking the story of how a rookie cop and a small town police force, numbering just 10 full-time officers, had captured the man who had eluded the FBI for seven years.
There were interviews and fan mail. People magazine made him one of its 25 hottest bachelors of 2003. He was getting recognized everywhere.
“It was just crazy,” recalls Postell.
But through it all, he was able to remain who he was – a humble, down-to-earth guy.
“If it did anything, it made me even more humble,” he said. “I am just Jeff Postell.”
Postell credits his upbringing for staying true to himself.
“I did nothing special, I was just doing my job,” he said, crediting the other officers who assisted him that night after he had handcuffed and brought in Rudolph.
“It wasn’t about Jeff Postell. This was hundreds of people, thousands of people who had been impacted by his acts. Having that opportunity to help close that chapter and help provide them a sense of comfort and closure. To me, that’s what was important.”
There was a $1 million reward offered for information leading up to the arrest of Rudolph. And while the mayor of Murphy pushed for Postell to receive the reward, he never received a dime.
“If you’ve ever met a screwed-out-of-a-million-dollar guy, then I’m the guy. I say that jokingly,” he said. “If I had a nickel for every time somebody asked me about the million dollar reward, that million dollars would be pocket change.”
Postell says he never feels he was entitled to the reward.
“I was on duty, acting in my capacity as a police officer doing the job I was hired to do,” he said. “The million dollar award never crossed my mind. That money was not worth it to me.”
Postell said had he got the reward he would have donated it to charity, the city of Murphy and the police department.
Postell admits that he’ll forever be connected with Rudolph, but it’s something that he never brings up, only responding when questioned about it.
He would have a few interactions with Rudolph over the days and years following his arrest. He would lead the convoy to take Rudolph to the airport where he would eventually be placed in the federal penitentiary system.
“I watched him come out of the jail. He saw me. I saw him,” he said of the glare he received from Rudolph.
And it would be during Rudolph’s trial in Birmingham, Ala., a few years later where they would have a final interaction.
“I can remember being very nervous and very anxious to see him. Eric Rudolph had the coldest eyes I’ve ever seen in an individual. His eyes were so cold and so dark,” Postell recalled.
“I believed that he wanted to intimidate me. I walked into that courtroom and I sat very close to where he was sitting and I did not take my eyes off of him. And I do not believe that he did not look at me once. And that said a lot to me about who he is as a person.”
In order to avoid the death penalty, Rudolph would accept a guilty plea for the murder of a police officer in 1998 during the bombing of an abortion clinic in Birmingham, as well as the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta and the bombing of a lesbian bar and an abortion clinic in Sandy Springs, Ga.
Rudolph, 53, is serving his life sentence at the federal Supermax prison in Colorado.
Postell did say he’d read the book that Rudolph published in 2013 titled “Between the Lines of Drift: The Memoirs of a Militant.”
“There was no surprise to me to what was included in the book. I would say it was not one of the New York Times’ best-sellers.”
Impact of “Richard Jewell”
With the debut of the movie “Richard Jewell,” Postell said there has been renewed interest in his story. There have been multiple interviews, including one with Fox News.
He planned to watch the movie Friday night with his family. He did not expect to see his name or role mentioned in the arrest of Rudolph as he was not consulted by the filmmakers.
“This movie is not about me,” Postell said. “This is about Richard Jewell, who was wrongfully accused and paid dearly for it.”
He said he believes the film will generate some questions and interest, but he worries about the impact on the families of those who were injured or killed in the explosions in Atlanta and Birmingham.
“I just hope the movie’s been done tastefully for the people who were impacted by the bombings,” Postell said. “When you witness something traumatic and you have a loved one that dies or get seriously injured, that does not ever go away.”
While he will forever be associated with Rudolph that does not define who Postell is.
After becoming assistant chief of the Murphy Police Department and serving as a campus resource officer in Jackson County, Postell made the move to Massachusetts after a visit in 2008.
Since 2009, he has worked with the Boston College Police Department, which keeps watch over some 14,500 students. He started out as an officer, became a sergeant in charge of community policing and, in 2014, was promoted to lieutenant in charge of a 40-officer patrol division.
He and his partner make their home in Taunton, Mass., a town of nearly 60,000 residents just south of Boston. They have an 18-year-old son, who they adopted when he was 13.
He was elected to the City Council in 2016 and is just finishing up his first term as the council president. He will be serving another two-year term starting in January after winning re-election in November.
While he’s embraced life in the Northeast, Postell says North Carolina will forever be his home.
“I’m very proud of my background and my heritage,” said Postell, who grew up in Andrews. “I think the people of North Carolina are wonderful, amazing people.
“If you venture out from North Carolina for any extended period of time, you start to miss it. You start to realize how important the people are, how important the values are there and just the way of life. It’s a different way of life.”
His last visit to Gaston County was in 2015 and he says he’ll always include stops at the Shrimp Boat and Tony’s Ice Cream during his trips here. He’s grateful for his family that includes his sister-in-law, Shirley Postell, who makes her home in Gastonia, as well as numerous cousins that live in Gaston and Cleveland counties.
“My entire family means so much to me. I’ve been blessed to have a great family, a supportive family and a family that I’ve been able to make proud,” Postell said.
From the first time this writer saw the movie “A River Runs Through It,” I’ve had a fascination with fly fishing.
In the summer of 2019 I had the opportunity to cast my first line in the mountains of western South Carolina.
I learned not only about fly fishing, but also a little bit about life.
As numbers rise, anglers find Chattooga River and Upstate South Carolina delivers
Editor’s Note: An edited version of this story first appeared in the October 2019 issue of South Carolina Living magazine. The publication is read in more than 595,000 homes and businesses and published monthly except in December by The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina.
By Michael Banks
There is a dirt path leading through the mountain laurel and rhododendron with their clusters of colorful flowers. Hemlocks and pines shoot straight into the blue sky. With hands holding fly rods and feet wrapped in wading boots, we make our way single file through the mountainous Sumter National Forest in Upstate South Carolina.
For I have come to fish the fresh waters. To fly fish, more precisely. And I have come to the Chattooga River. It is, as one resident claims, “a little slice of heaven in South Carolina” and both it and the nearby Chauga River are known as the prime fly-fishing spots in this part of the state.
As I descend a muddied, rock-strewn hillside that’s camouflaged in leafy green undergrowth, I am suddenly thrust upon the main stage. It’s the Burrell’s Ford section of the Chattooga River and I stop, turning in an 180-degree arc, to take in what I’ve come upon.
Long the land of the Cherokee, the Chattooga serves as a boundary between South Carolina and Georgia. A fishing license from either state allows you on the river that stretches 57 miles from its headwaters in the Blue Ridge Mountains south of Cashiers, N.C., to where it meets the Tallulah River at Lake Tugalo.
Here at Burrell’s Ford, the river — clear and a dark navy blue — is bathed in bright sunlight that bounces off the ripples of the current and rapids that carve their way through a jumble of boulders. The coolness of the mountain-fed waters soothe my sweaty feet as I step into the river. The call of nearby songbirds form a chorus with the sound of the running water.
It is, at once, an onslaught to my senses, yet a feeling of inner peace and calmness that slowly ascends, along with the sweet cooling relief from my water-covered limbs to sweat-covered brow, chilled by the breeze that comes from upriver.
This is what this angler has come in search of.
* * *
Before there’s even a thought to casting the first line, fishing guide Karl Ekberg is off and slogging through the water, eyes intent upon the bottom of the clear riverbed, feverish as he lifts one brown rock after another. If you weren’t upon the Chattooga and had employed his services, Ekberg’s mad scramble would make you think of the frenzied rush of children at a community Easter egg hunt, bursting from the starting line, baskets in hand, scouring each possible hidden cove for treasure.
And that’s exactly what Karl’s doing. For his prize are bugs. And on this day, he is in search of nymphs that lie beneath the silt-covered rocks that line the river bottom. These nymphs will eventually grow to become mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies that will rise from the river’s surface, creating a perfect storm consisting of a tasty morsel, fly-starved fish and the anglers who seek them.
“Bug in the water catches fish,” Karl says.
In these parts, Karl is known as “the bug guy.” While there is no entomology degree in his fly pack, Karl has put in the homework. Able to quickly identify the often-microscopic creature that flits across the rock’s surface, his enthusiasm is great this day as we’ve found “a monster stonefly.”
“If you have stoneflies in your river, it means you have very clear water,” Karl says.
This aptitude wasn’t always the case. Growing up in northern New Hampshire, Karl, 55, had fished with his father, but, as with most teenagers, he craved speed and action, and he discovered it on the nearby ski slopes as he became a standout downhill racer, even competing on the Olympic course at Lake Placid, N.Y.
It wasn’t until he received fly fishing gear and a fly-tying packet from his parents, as a present for his gaining acceptance into a hallowed culinary school, that the then 21-year-old Ekberg started to get serious about the sport. Yet, it didn’t come easy. There were many hours spent casting on the Pemigewasset River to no avail.
“It was, pretty much, the school of hard knocks,” Ekberg recalls.
It wasn’t until he heard and learned from the words whispered by wise fishermen that his skills improved. And it wasn’t until about two years into it when he took notice of the many insects that flew above the waters, landing upon the surface to be greedily gathered by the trout and bass.
For he soon learned the secret: Know your bugs.
“I really studied bugs. Because if you didn’t know what was going on, you weren’t catching,” he said of his earlier days spent on rivers that were populated by only wild fish instead of the mostly “put and take” hatchery-supported waters in South Carolina.
For most of his adult life, Ekberg used his culinary education in resorts and hotels in the Northeast. It was the warmer southern temps and the presence of family in Central that drew him here in the late ‘90s. He would spend the next 13 years working for Aramark, which provides food service to colleges and universities, while also spending time on the Upstream waters, perfecting his angling skills.
It would be his talents or, more so, his bragging about his fishing expertise that would catch the attention of one of his employees at the dining hall at Southern Wesleyan University in Central in the summer of 2007.
Karen Maddox had grown up in Virginia Beach, Va., but had lived in several areas of the country as “a Navy brat” before settling in South Carolina in 1972.
“He came in bragging about all of these fish he was catching. And I was like, ‘Dude, if you’re not going to invite me, I don’t want to hear about them.’ It was game-on after that,” said Karen, who would start taking lessons from Ekberg and come to enjoy the sport. Her third fish was a 24-inch brook trout caught along the Canadian border.
“What captured me was the first time that I went out there I realized that the river just has a way of capturing your soul and reworking it and giving it back to you before you leave the river. It’s not an explainable thing. It becomes very obsessive and you don’t even know that it’s happening.”
The two, according to Karen, “co-habitate” and their home and business is served by the Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative. They’ve been operating the Chattooga River Fly Shop for the past seven years, including the past four years at its location on Highway 28 in Mountain Rest. While Maddox operates the shop, selling merchandise and setting up trips, Karl is “the bug and fly guy, rods and equipment guy” who is on the river guiding groups.
While he has caught brown trout measuring 27 inches in length, Karl’s favorite fishing memory is that of one day in 2014 spent with his father, fly fishing the Burrell’s Ford section of the Chattooga. It was the last fishing trip his father, who was battling hip and knee pain, would make. In January 2019, Bill Ekberg would suffer a stroke and his kidney and lungs began to fail. The U.S. Navy veteran, who served on the second USS Juneau, would pass away in February at age 84.
“We caught a few fish that day, but that wasn’t what it was about,” Karl says. “It was his last trip and I’m glad it was here.”
* * *
This ambitious angler readily admits to a romantic image taken from the 1992 film “A River Runs Through It” and actor Brad Pitt, deftly handling his fly rod, the line, long and graceful in the air, as he whips and coaxes the fish to rise from the Montana rapids, that first drew my interest to fly fishing.
I ask Karl if it’s possible that I might go down the Chattooga, a big 24-inch rainbow hooked to my line, trying to reel him in as I deftly dodge boulders and waterfalls.
On this day, on this angler’s first foray into the river, I stand in knee-deep waters and more likely resemble the scarecrow from the “Wizard of Oz” with arms askew and the rigidity of my pose mirroring the tin man.
Karl, wise and knowing, introduces me to a roll cast in which I handle a 9-foot pole with my right hand, whipping the line out 90 degrees across from my shoulder to the fast-moving water some six to eight feet away. His words are reassuring and welcomed as he teaches me to fish by using the drift of the current.
“Let the river do the work. Keep your tip up. Now, slowly, let it down. Watch as it moves down the river. Very nice. Good work.”
“Uh, what do I do with my left hand?”
With the briefest of pause, Karl offers with that hint of New England accent, “Keep it waahhmm in your pocket.”
And, so, this is what I do. Cast upon cast, I try to remember to pause at the top before flinging my line at the fast-moving foam nearby, watching the red stretch of line near the end where the weighted fly that was knotted by Karl bounces along the river bottom near the Highway 28 bridge.
I try, again and again, the simple, quick flick of my wrist to set the hook, yet on a couple occasions, I resort to my days of pulling bluegill from a Kentucky farm pond and my fly goes “Bill Dancing” across the waters behind me. I can’t tell if it’s a rock or a fish that tugs on the end of the line, but my eyes stay locked and I nearly taste blood from biting my lower lip. I need to catch fish.
Through it all, Karl remains encouraging and helpful. I almost feel like a third-grader whose gotten an A on his math quiz when Karl tells me, “Fantastic job, Michael. Fantastic cast.”
There are worse things I could be doing on a Tuesday afternoon in early July.
“This is the escape from reality,” Ekberg says. “You see the beauty of the river. Catching fish is a bonus because you’re standing in God’s creation out here. I’m not a very religious person, but when you’re standing out here, you’re not attached to anything. There’s no phone call coming in. It’s the game. Let’s try and catch fish. And all of a sudden you look around and say, ‘Wow. This is something.’”
* * *
Within the past five years, there has been a substantial increase in the number of people interested in fly fishing, according to Maddox and Ekberg. He says about 70 percent of those on their guided trips are brand new to the sport with the others made up of those “who have been catching 10- to 14-inch fish and they’re looking for bigger.”
While so-called industry experts say there is also a rise in women fly-fishing, both Maddox and Ekberg say they haven’t seen a great increase.
On the flip side, the number of younger people becoming interested in fly fishing is taking off. Ekberg points to groups such as the Clemson University Fly Fishing Club, which is the third-largest in the nation, for helping to promote the sport.
And Ekberg believes the completion of the nearby Palmetto Trail – a planned 425-mile foot and bike trail connecting the South Carolina mountains to the coast — will only bring more visitors.
As a businessman, he is in favor of more visitors. As an angler, he is hesitant to see more fishermen in his prime spots. And there’s also the question of whether the infrastructure (improved roads, parking areas) is there to handle the increased traffic. Yet, Ekberg believes it’s possible to find a balance and walk the fine line separating the two.
“Because there’s so much (of the) river that’s not fished on a regular basis, the river can withstand more fishermen,” Ekberg said. “The river’s plenty big enough to stand having double or triple the amount of people out there, but the problem is getting to those areas.”
Both Ekberg and Maddox say the free-flowing, dam-free Chattooga River is the greatest resource in their part of the state and they remain committed to looking after its well-being. They, as well as numerous nearby Trout Unlimited chapters, subscribe to the practice of “leave no trace” on their trips to eliminate litter and keep the scenic river pristine.
“We made a pact in the very beginning that if anything we did affected the well-being of the river corridor, in any way, then we would no longer be doing what we’re doing,” Maddox said. “That’s how much we care about that. The hard part is needing and wanting the revenue to come to us, but (the river) is still to remain pristine. That’s going to be tough.”
* * *
In the end, this angler did not land his first fish. But my confidence is buoyed by the fact that Karl was also unable to reel in a catch before a low rumble of thunder and darkening skies chased us from the river late afternoon.
The heat of the summer had the trout lurking below, along the cooler, deeper waters of the Chattooga. Ideally, trout prefer water temperatures in the range of 45 to 55 degrees. On this early July day, as the outside temps exceeded 80 degrees, the water temperature was near 70. Ekberg told me not to be disappointed.
“Listening to some of the old-timers when I first got here, they would say, ‘If you can catch a fish on the Chattooga, you can catch a fish anywhere in the country,’ because it can be that fickle, day-to-day.”
Ekberg says, “A lot of folks come back here. It’s the challenge of this river. Tomorrow, we might come out and catch 40 fish from here to the bridge. And that’s the tough part about the Chattooga.”
Arriving back at Karl’s fly shop, I was greeted by the hot, humid wrap that is known as summer in the South. Harsh white light bounced off the pavement and my cell phone began to rang as I reached inside the overheated cab of my truck for my sunglasses.
It was a welcome-back-to-reality moment.
The water-laden socks beneath my wading boots were heavy. I felt the scrape along my knee where I’d unsuccessfully hurdled a limb blocking our path and the sting of the horse fly had left a nasty welp.
I raised my eyes to the north, to the green forested mountain range and imagined myself back on the Chattooga River, which now seemed days, not minutes, past. Its cool, clear waters and the fish who lurk beneath are still there.
And I, along with many others alike and unlike me, shall return.
Bitten by the fly fishing bug?
There are several businesses that cater to those wanting to learn more about the sport. From beginners to seasoned anglers, there are a number of options available with price per person ranging from $140 to $300 for half-day sessions to full-day trips on the area rivers costing anywhere from $250 to $350.
Most outfitters provide equipment (including waders, boots, fly rods/reels and flies). Those 16 and older will be required to have a South Carolina fishing license, which can be purchased online at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources or at several vendors across the state, who are listed on the SCDNR site.
The cost for a freshwater license for a South Carolina resident ranges from $5 (14 days) to $10 (annual) to $30 (three years).
Among the South Carolina-based businesses offering guide services are:
A small government facility hidden deep in a valley of the Upstate South Carolina is responsible for producing some half a million items each year.
Let it be known, the trout anglers of South Carolina are very grateful.
Walhalla State Fish Hatchery ensures that trout remain in South Carolina’s waterways
Editor’s Note: An edited version of this story appeared in the October 2019 issue of South Carolina Living magazine.
By Michael Banks
Nestled deep in a green valley in the mountainous Upstate near its borders with North Carolina and Georgia is a facility that is of critical importance to the trout that swim the area waters and the anglers who seek them.
The Walhalla State Fish Hatchery is one of five public fish hatcheries that are overseen by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources’ Freshwater Fisheries Management program, but it is the only one raising trout.
Because South Carolina is at “the southern-most extreme of suitable trout habitat, we’re really limited in the number of streams that we can stock. It is a unique fishery for being this far south,” says Scott Poore, the hatchery manager.
Currently, two trucks depart five days a week with an allotment of trout to stock streams and rivers in Oconee, Pickens and Greenville counties, as well as the tail waters of Lakes Hartwell, Jocassee and Murray and the lower Saluda River in Columbia.
There are some wild populations of all three species of trout in the waters of the Upstate, but the only trout native to the area is the brook trout. The Walhalla fish compound plays a central role in making sure trout remain.
“There are so many anglers that target trout, if we were not able to supplement the existing populations or where populations are very limited, I think you would see angling pressure possibly decimate the fishery in some streams,” Poore says. “I think eventually it would come to a point where angling for trout in South Carolina would become non-existent.”
On average, there is a request of 475,000 trout each year from the biologists overseeing the program in the Clemson office. In the 12 years Poore has been at the hatchery, they’ve met that number and often exceeded it.
In a typical season, they are producing 600,000 to 650,000 trout, Poore said. Of that number, the rainbow and brown species are the predominate ones as there will be some 225,000 to 240,000 of each species produced. The rest are brook trout.
Poore, who grew up in the Upstate and graduated from Clemson with degrees in wildlife and fisheries biology, has been working at the Walhalla facility for the past 12 years.
It’s a job he loves.
“I love being outside. To be in the mountains and see all the seasons, it’s just an enjoyable experience. I feel rich in those non-monetary things that we see,” says Poore, who lives adjacent to the hatchery in a stone house with his wife and two sons.
“For me, growing up and enjoying the outdoors, this is a place where I come to where I’m not confined by four walls in an office,” he said. “As long as I’m producing the fish that’s been requested, providing an outreach opportunity for the visitors that come here, and the anglers are happy, I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.”
Want to visit the hatchery?
An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 people visit the Walhalla State Fish Hatchery each year. The Mountain Rest facility, which dates back to the 1930s, is open to the public daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. There is no charge for admission and hatchery employees are available to answer questions.
“The kids love to come in and see all the varieties of fish,” says Scott Poore, hatchery manager. “During our peak time, we can easily have 1.2 million fish on hand.”
1. Outstanding fishing. The 56,000-acre Lake Hartwell is inhabited by striped and hybrid bass, largemouth, crappie, bream and catfish.
2. Camping. In addition to 115 paved campsites for RV or tent camping along the lake shore, the park is the only one in the state to offer unique, single-room camper cabins.
Looking to combine a room with a view along with your college football? Well, Lake Hartwell State Park may be the option for you as the park sees a large number of people setting up camp on Saturdays in the fall.
“A lot of people come in for Clemson football games,” says Brooks Garrett, who has served as the Lake Hartwell park ranger for the past three years. “They’ll bring their campers in, stay for the weekend and go tailgating.”
He also suggested that birdwatchers visit Lake Hartwell during the week when the park is less crowded.
“We get a lot of migratory birds, especially warblers, during the fall,” he said.
Oconee State Park
Address: 624 State Park Road, Mountain Rest, SC 29664
1. History. This park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and many of those structures can still be viewed. A CCC monument at the park honors the 3 million-plus people who served in the CCC between 1933 and 1942.
2. Wildlife. Black bear are sometimes seen and there is also a family of foxes who live at the park.
Bring a good pair of closed-toe shoes and some energy and you’ll be rewarded with an awesome view of a 60-foot waterfall.
Assistant park ranger Savanna Kelley, who has been at Oconee for the past five years, says a three-hour hike along the Hidden Falls Trail is a perfect outing for the fall.
“You can see the waterfall more in the fall than any other month with the leaves down,” she said.
Kelley also suggested renting a paddleboat or canoe.
“It’s gorgeous to take boats out on the lake with all the leaves changing,” she said.
1. Lake Jocassee. Four mountain streams and several waterfalls feed into the 7,565-acre lake, making it cooler than others and one of the state’s top trout fishing spots, as well as a fave of anglers seeking bass and crappie. The park offers the only public access to the lake.
2. Scuba diving. The clean and clear waters of Lake Jocassee make it a favorite for divers. Swimmers also delight in the cool waters.
Those looking for a unique study of leaf color can find it here, especially during the park’s peak viewing during the last two weeks of October and the first two weeks of November.
“Just get out on the lake and look at all the levels of color change,” said park ranger Kevin Evans, who has been the manager at Devils Fork for 12 years.
“To me, that’s one of the neatest parts. You can see the progression of fall by viewing the different elevations and the best way to do that is to get out on the lake itself.”
Evans also said Monday through Thursday is the best time to visit.
“You can have the entire lake to yourself. That’s just a great feeling, to have that feeling of being by yourself and that wonderment of really being immersed in the resource because there’s nobody else around.”
1. Lake Keowee. The 18,500-acre lake offers something for nearly every outdoor enthusiast surrounded by some of the most stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Those looking for an access point for their canoe or kayak should arrive early as there is a small parking lot.
2. Wildflowers are abundant at this state park, especially in the spring. Two rare species that can be found are Alleghany spurge and ginseng.
One of the smaller state parks in the area, visitors should get out of their vehicles to experience Keowee-Toxaway.
“It’s a pretty park, but you really have to get out on the hiking trails as far as the views,” says park ranger Kevin Blanton, who has managed the 1,000-acre site for the past 12 years.
He suggests the No. 3 trailside camping site for those seeking a neat experience.
“It’s located out on a finger of land surrounded by Lake Keowee. To spend the night out on the point out by the lake is really something,” Blanton said.
1. Table Rock. The towering mountain offers up breathtaking views and serves as an access point for hikers on the 80-mile Foothills Trail.
2. Bluegrass music. The “Music on the Mountain” program takes place from 2 to 6 p.m. the second Saturday of each month.
There’s something special about hiking three miles to the top of Table Rock and seeing a full moon disappear and watching the sun rise, says Scott Stegenga, interpretive ranger at the park for the past 29 years.
“To take in the transition from night to dawn is pretty special. It’s a long hike, but it’s worth it once you get up there. To sit and take in all the surrounding wilderness, watch the sky change, hear the birds awake, to witness the breaking of a new day. It’s just an exhilarating time.”
There is a $25 per person fee and those interested should call the park to register. The next hikes will be Sept. 22 and Oct. 19.
Autumn is a perfect time to visit, Stegenga says.
“You get the foliage peaking at the end of October. The air is cleaner and crisper, less humid. Altogether, it’s a better hiker-friendly atmosphere in the fall. It’s one of the special places in South Carolina that’s still preserved.”
1. Bird-watching, specifically hawks from September through November. During Hawk Watch, visitors can observe the raptors as they migrate to their South American feeding grounds. On one past September day, 11,048 birds passed through the park.
2. Sixty-plus miles of challenging hiking trails and trailside camping. Hike the Raven Cliff Falls Trail and see the tallest waterfall in the state.
Tim Lee has spent the past 19 years working as the interpretive ranger for the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, 13,000 acres of pristine southern mountain forest encompassing both the Caesers Head and Jones Gap state parks.
He has seen a lot of visitors and one of his favorite quotes was from a child as she stood atop the overlook at Caesers Head, which sits some 3,200 feet above sea level with a spectacular view that extends into North Carolina and Georgia.
“She said, ‘You can see the whole world from here.’ And I think that’s a great quote,” Lee said. “Through all our different eyes, you can see the whole world from there.”
And if visitors will look down at the ground, they’ll also be in for a treat.
“One of the things that people don’t think a lot about, but there are a lot of beautiful fall wildflowers that bloom along our trails,” said Lee, mentioning New England asters, various goldenrod species and the beautiful but toxic milk sick, which is also known as white snake root.
1. Beautiful waterfalls. At least five waterfalls can be viewed from this state park. Hikers can work up a sweat on the Rainbow Falls Trail and then cool off in the mist of the falls.
2. The Eastern Continental Divide. Rain falling on one side of this divide runs into streams that eventually end at the Atlantic Ocean, while rain falling on the other side ultimately runs into the Gulf of Mexico.
Some of the best fishing for wild trout in the state can be found on the Middle Saluda River, a designated scenic waterway that runs through the park.
Lee, who is a fishermen himself, said the state stopped stocking the river back in the 1970s and those fishermen seeking wild, natural-born trout come to the park.
“You get a true wilderness experience where you feel that you are the only person out there… it’s just you and the river,” Lee said. “It gives you an opportunity to reconnect with the natural world, the river, the forest. I’ve heard many people say how relaxing and calming the sounds of the river