A gift of home for former homeless mother of one

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.

Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in the May 17, 2020, version of The Gaston Gazette newspaper in Gastonia, N.C.

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.”

Thomasina Williams gets a hug from Phyllis Lowery as several vehicles from Risa’s Special Delivery loaded with furniture and household items pull into the parking lot of The Oaks apartment complex in Gastonia, N.C., on Saturday afternoon, May 9, 2020. [Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

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.”

Thomasina Williams gives a hug to Florence Eury, left, after several vehicles from Risa’s Special Delivery arrived at her home at The Oaks apartment complex in Gastonia, N.C., on Saturday afternoon, May 9, 2020. [Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

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.”

Perry and Florence Eury help carry furniture and household goods as Risa’s Special Delivery made a delivery to Thomasina Williams’ apartment.
[Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

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.”

Meet the man who handcuffed the Centennial Olympic Park bomber

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.”

Murphy Police Officer Jeff Postell is shown in Murphy, N.C., Sunday, June 1, 2003 .(AP Photo/Alan Marler, File)

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!’”

In this June 2, 2003 file photo, Eric Robert Rudolph, center, is escorted from the sheriff’s department in Murphy, N.C. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)

“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

Whirlwind

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.

Eric Robert Rudolph is led to a waiting police car by U.S. marshals as he leaves the Jefferson County Jail for a hearing in Birmingham, Ala., Wednesday, April 13, 2005. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Forever linked

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.”

Security guard Richard Jewell, the Olympic bombing hero and FBI suspect, gets into his attorney’s automobile in Atlanta, in this Aug. 6, 1996, file photo. Jewell was later cleared and Eric Rudolph was convicted in the bombing. (AP Photo/Ric Feld)

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.

Moving on

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.

Hooked on fly fishing

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.

The author casts his line along the Burrell’s Ford section of the Chattooga River during the summer of 2019. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter.

*  * *

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.”

Fly fishing guide Karl Ekberg is shown on the Chattooga River. (Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter)

*  * *

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.

He grins.

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.’”

Ekberg offers some tips to the author while catching a respite on the Chattooga. (Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter)

*  * *

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.”

Fishing along the Chattooga River, which serves as the boundary between North Carolina and Georgia. (Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter)

*  * *

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.

The author and Ekberg head out after their day on the Chattooga. (Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter)

 

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:

Chattooga River Fly Shop

6832A Highlands Highway

Mountain Rest, SC 29664

864-638-2806

 

Dodson Fishing Company

533 N. Highway 25

Travelers Rest, SC 29690

864-610-2140

 

River Blade Knife and Fly Shop

1398 Boiling Springs Road, Suite 1

Spartanburg, SC 29303

864-699-9433

 

Southern Outlaw Adventures

141 N. Little River Road

Salem, SC 29676

864-614-1019

Karl Ekberg ties fly fishing ties at his Chattooga River Fly Shop in Mountain Rest, S.C. (Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter)

 

Provider of fishes

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.

Scott Poore, left, and Damon Wilber clean two of the raceways that hold trout at the Walhalla State Fish Hatchery near Mountain Rest, S.C. (Photo by Michael Banks)

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.”

Scott Poore is the manager of the Walhalla State Fish Hatchery near Mountain Rest, S.C. He has been there for the past 12 years. (Photo by Michael Banks)

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.”

Finding heaven along South Carolina’s Highway 11

Looking for a road trip to experience the colorful palate of nature? Well, a drive down South Carolina’s Highway 11 will provide you with plenty of inspiration and memorable moments.

Seven state parks offer the best of fall for those seeking solace, color

Editor’s Note: An edited version of this story appeared in the September 2019 issue of South Carolina Living magazine.

By Michael Banks

Following a path traversed by the Cherokee and bordered by the Blue Ridge Mountains, South Carolina Highway 11 has become a favored route of those sightseers seeking solace and beauty. 

Seven South Carolina state parks straddle the approximate 120-mile long roadway — also known as the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway — and offer everything from hiking to fishing to boating.

With visitors flocking to the Upstate to view autumn’s colorful palate, here are some things not to miss and some tips on how to get the most out of your visit.

There are numerous paved campsites for RV and/or tent camping along the shores of Lake Hartwell near Fair Play, S.C.
(Photo courtesy of South Carolina State Parks)

Lake Hartwell State Park

Address: 19138 S. Highway 11, Fair Play, SC 29643

Contact: 864-972-3352

https://southcarolinaparks.com/lake-hartwell

Known for:

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.

Insider tips:

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.

A Civilian Conservation Corps monument at Oconee State Park in Mountain Rest, S.C., honors the 3-million plus people who served in the CCC between 1933 and 1942.
(Photo courtesy of South Carolina State Parks)

Oconee State Park

Address: 624 State Park Road, Mountain Rest, SC 29664

Contact: 864-638-5353

https://southcarolinaparks.com/oconee

Known for:

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.

Insider tips:

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.

As dusk falls, the colors of a late autumn sky make for a breath-taking display along the shores of Lake Jocassee in the Devils Fork State Park in Salem, S.C.
(Photo by Michael Banks)

Devils Fork State Park

Address: 161 Holcombe Circle, Salem, SC 29676

Contact: 864-944-2639

https://southcarolinaparks.com/devils-fork

Known for:

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.

Insider tips:

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.”

Keowee-Toxaway State Park in Sunset, S.C., offers access to the 18,500-acre Lake Keowee. It is a favorite of kayakers and canoeists, as well as fishermen.
(Photo courtesy of South Carolina State Parks)

Keowee-Toxaway State Park

Address: 108 Residence Drive, Sunset, SC 29685

Contact: 864-868-2605

https://southcarolinaparks.com/keowee-toxaway

Known for:

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.

Insider tips:

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.

November’s fall colors are on display near the Visitor’s Center at the Table Rock State Park near Pickens, S.C., as Table Rock looms large in the background.
(Photo by Michael Banks)

Table Rock State Park

Address:158 Ellison Lane, Pickens, SC 29671

Contact: 864-878-9813

https://southcarolinaparks.com/table-rock

Known for:

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.

Insider tips:

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.”

From the overlook atop Caesers Head State Park near Cleveland, S.C., one can see portions of neighboring North Carolina and Georgia.
(Photo courtesy of South Carolina State Parks)

Caesers Head State Park

Address: 8155 Geer Highway, Cleveland, SC 29635

Contact: 864-836-6115

https://southcarolinaparks.com/caesars-head

Known for:

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.

Insider tips:

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.

A portion of the Middle Saluda River runs through the Jones Gap State Park near Marietta, S.C. Some of the best trout fishing in the state can be found in its waters.
(Photo courtesy of South Carolina State Parks)

Jones Gap State Park

Address: 303 Jones Gap Road, Marietta, SC 29661

Contact: 864-836-3647

https://southcarolinaparks.com/jones-gap

Known for:

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. 

Insider tips:

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

Getting to know South Carolina’s shark whisperer

The man who does battle with man-eating sharks admits he’s “not a crazy jump-out-of-airplanes kind of guy.”
He enjoys playing golf and tennis, but he’s no adrenaline junkie.
“I’m pretty boring. I live a pretty simple life,” says Chip Michalove.
However, he’s quick to admit he gets more than a little nervous when he enters the ocean and the waves hit against his waist.
“I’ve just seen too many of them out there and I can’t relax. If I go chest-high, I’m going to have a coronary,” Michalove says.

Chip Michalove guides his boat off the coast near Hilton Head Island, S.C., on a recent day. In these waters, Michalove has gained the reputation of ‘the shark whisperer.’
Photo by Milton Morris.

By Michael Banks

(This article appears in the August 2019 issue of South Carolina Living magazine.)

Other than doing battle on the open sea with 3,500-pound great white sharks, Chip Michalove claims he’s a rather boring guy.

“I live a pretty simple life,” says the 5-foot-9, 160-pound angler who earned the nickname of “the shark whisperer” by reeling in great whites measuring up to 16 feet long.

His love of fishing was cast early. Michalove was 5 and his family vacationed on the South Carolina coast. His parents booked a charter with legendary fishing guide Fuzzy Davis and, on that first trip out, they caught a six-foot shark.

“I thought it was just the coolest thing in the world,” he says. “I became obsessed.”

The family later moved to Hilton Head Island and at the age of 22, Michalove bought his first boat and went into business as a fishing guide. Before catching his first great white, Michalove was just like everyone else of generation Jaws—scared to death of the giants. But as he’s caught more and more great whites, his respect for the animals has grown.

“It’s the smartest fish I’ve ever seen,” he says. “I’ve never seen an animal that will come up behind a boat and if they sense something’s not right, they leave. They’re not the maniacs that you see on TV that come in and crash into the place. There’s actually a methodical, thinking process.”

Michalove, who operates the Outcast Sport Fishing charter business, says he is grateful for the life fishing and sharks have provided.

“Great whites have absolutely changed my life,” he says. “They’ve given me a new truck, a new house. It’s been so beneficial, and I owe them everything. If I can help protect these guys, I’ll do everything I can.”

Getting to know Chip Michalove

AGE: 43.
HOME TURF: 
Hilton Head Island.

CLAIM TO FAME: Fishing guide dubbed “the shark whisperer” after catching 50 great white sharks over the past four years, including an unheard-of seven great whites in one day.
A MATTER OF SCIENCE: Michalove attaches satellite tracking tags to many of the sharks he and his charter customers reel in so scientists can track shark movements along the Atlantic coast.

ONSHORE: Enjoys golf and tennis in his free time.
CO-OP AFFILIATION: 
Member of Palmetto Electric Cooperative.

Author Greg Iles’ roots are in the Mississippi mud

Mississippi author Greg Iles has written numerous best-sellers and even had one of his novels made into a film.
Yet, Iles quickly admits he’s yet to write that “one great book.” And he is perfectly fine with that.

“Cemetery Road” latest for writer whose had 15 books appear on NY Times’ best-sellers list.

(This article first appeared in the March 6, 2019, issue of The Clarksdale (MS) Press Register newspaper.)

By Michael Banks

Greg Iles has had 15 books appear on the New York Times best-sellers list, including one that reached number one. The Mississippi-raised author has had one of his novels made into a film and his work’s been published in more than 35 countries.

Yet, he readily admits, he’s still to write that “one great book.”

And Iles is perfectly fine with that.

 “I’ve tried to walk the line between entertaining people and really saying some things that really help people. Maybe the day will come where I write that one. Maybe not. But as long as you can sleep at night, it’s good enough,” said the 58-year-old. “I’m alright where I’m at right now.”

And where Liles is at right now is on the cusp of another appearance on the best-sellers list as his newest novel — “Cemetery Road” – was released March 5, 2019. Liles was in Clarksdale, Ms., on Friday, March 8, 2019, for an appearance and book signing at the Cutrer Mansion as part of the Carnegie Public Library’s Community Book Talks lecture series.

Iles attributes his success to the ability to “mine your own experiences and touch people.”

And that’s something he’s been doing since his first novel, “Spandau Phoenix,” was released in 1993.

Yet, the path to success has been filled with long hours spent away from family and a tragedy that nearly took his life.

In 2011, Iles was seriously injured in a car wreck on Highway 61 near Natchez, MS. He sustained life-threatening injuries, including a ruptured aorta. He was put into an induced coma for eight days, and lost his right leg below the knee.

 It was during his three-year recovery when he wrote the Penn Cage trilogy — “Natchez Burning,” “The Bone Tree” and “Mississippi Blood.” The series follows the life of a fictional Mississippi prosecutor turned author.

He said while everyone is on “pins and needles” wondering where “Cemetery Road” is going to debut on the New York Times best-seller list, he’s fine with his station in life.

“On one hand, do I care? Yes, I do, as it certainly affects my future career. On the other hand? No, man, nothing. None of that matters.

“What matters? Are you still vertical, are you healthy, are your kids OK? And nothing else, nothing else, matters,” he said. “You got to get a little bit old to figure that out. Sadly.”

Author Greg Iles. (Photograph by Michael Banks)

One of the hardest things in writing “Cemetery Road,” according to Iles, was having to write about a character who had a terrible relationship with his dad. That wasn’t the case with Iles and his father, Jerry, who was a well-respected physician for nearly 50 years in Natchez, where Iles grew up.

“My dad was Tom Cage. I didn’t have to make anything up,” he said of the character from his books who is Penn’s father and a revered physician in Natchez.

“Cemetery Road” has been described as an electrifying tale of friendship, betrayal and shattering secrets that threaten to destroy a small Mississippi town.

A review by the Washington Post said the book is “an ambitious stand-alone thriller that is both an absorbing crime story and an in-depth exploration of grief, betrayal and corruption. Iles’ latest calls to mind the late, great Southern novelist Pat Conroy. Like Conroy, Iles writes with passion, intensity and absolute commitment.”

Iles believes the second book he wrote, “Black Cross,” which was set in World War II, was the best book he’s written.

“I wrote that book in three frantic months… I’m really proud of that one,” said Iles, who was born in 1960 in Germany as his father ran the U.S. Embassy Medical Clinic at the height of the Cold War.

The book, which is his only work to not reach the New York Times best- seller list, did provide the author some personal satisfaction.

“My father called me and said his partner from Washington, D.C., had called him and said, ‘There’s a bookstore in the United States where they sell you and they don’t sell John Grisham,’” Liles told the large group, which burst out in laughter.

It was at the museum book store at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington.

“That was a really high bar for me to make, in terms of research and writing and things like that,” Liles said. “Those are those small moments you get that you never forget. So, that book is special to me.”

The two books he wrote from a female perspective – “Blood Memory” and “Dead Sleep” – are also among his favorites.

But with all his books, Liles said, “I just don’t write those books. I live those books, every one of them.”

The act of researching and writing a book is “an intense experience,” he said. But once he’s written and completed the book, he’s on to the next one.

“I’ll go as long as I can without writing a single word,” Iles said of his writing process. “For me, the writing is the easy part. It’s the drudgery, the slavery. It’s just something I could always do. It’s the story, the working out the emotion, the psychology and the facts and the research is something else.

“When I start, it’s just bursting to get out. I say, ‘It’s like a pregnant woman when her water breaks.’ This story’s coming,” he said to a roomful of laughs.

At that point, Iles races to his recliner and starts the process, working about 12 hours a day. That moves up to about 16 hours per day and, near the end, he’ll stay up 24 hours, 30 hours until he’s finished.

“I don’t sit there on page one and agonize. I’m going on instinct the whole time,” he said. “I’m living the story with characters. I’m not someone who cries easily, but I’ve found that I’m sitting in the chair and my face is covered with tears because I’m going through it.”

Yet, to have that success, Iles admits a price has to be paid.

“That writing process is not good for your health, not good for your family life. It’s putting work above all things and working 18 hours a day, month after month after month after month,” said Liles, who admits to not having a vacation in 10 years. “You get successful, but you pay a high price.”

Iles lives in Natchez with his wife and three children.

“You just blink and your whole life’s gone. That’s just the way it happens,” he said. “You figure out where you get to where I am now, none of this matters.”

As far as television and movies, Iles had one of his books, “24 Hours,” made into a movie, “Trapped,” which was released in 2002.

With his success, the author now has the luxury of handpicking his future television projects.

“I’m successful enough now, where I don’t have to go, ‘Oh my god, I’m getting a TV show.’ At this point, I don’t want to have just a TV show. I want to have ‘the’ TV show… or at least I want it to be what it should be,” he said. “I’ll just sit tight, be cool.”

Let me tell you a story …

Words have always been a constant in my life — from my days of growing up among the corn fields and coal mines of western Kentucky to various newspapers around the South.

Growing up amidst the corn fields and coal mines of rural western Kentucky in the 1970s and early 1980s, my mind was oftentimes 1,000 miles away.

You see, I’ve always had quite the imagination — something that comes in quite handy when growing up “out in the country” where playmates were limited and trips “to town” were considered a luxury.

Often, I could be found roaming the woods and creeks that lined our property. Imaginary playmates have often been by my side, whether we were doing battle against “those damn Yankees” in Civil War times or I was on the mound of Game 7 of the World Series, pitching for my beloved Los Angeles Dodgers against, once again, “those damn Yankees.”

The Banks family in the mid 1970s. I am shown with my mother, Linda, and my sister, Stacie, on our way to somewhere important, I’m guessing, judging by our special Sunday church clothes. (Photo courtesy of the Banks family)

That imagination, I imagine, was fueled by the numerous books I read via bookmobile or those times I got to go “to town” and spend an afternoon in the Morganfield Public Library. My grandparents got the Evansville (Ind.) Courier-Press each day and I’d read columnist Joe Aaron and scour the sports pages. And when the dad of my neighborhood buddies — the Woodrings — allowed me to read all of his old copies of The Sporting News, that was the greatest thing ever — boxscores of every major league baseball game, even the West Coast teams?

All that reading and love of sports led me to work on the newspaper and yearbook staff at Union County High School and eventually on to Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, where I learned plenty of life lessons and lots of journalism.

My first job was in January 1990 when I was hired as the sports editor of a small weekly newspaper, the McLean County News, in Calhoun, Ky., on the banks of the Green River. That was followed by two stints as the editor of my hometown paper, the Union County Advocate, sandwiched around a term at the daily Murray (Ky.) Ledger and Times.

In October 1999, I made the leap to a much-bigger newspaper and town when I put everything in a Ryder moving van and came to North Carolina to work at the Gaston Gazette in Gastonia. For 19 years, I worked as part of an award-winning team of journalists in putting out one of the state’s finest daily newspapers.

A victim of staff cutbacks in September 2018, I flirted with the idea of becoming a court reporter and even began training for the work until I was offered the chance to get back into newspapers in March 2019 as the publisher/editor of the Clarksdale (Ms.) Press Register.

For a little over a year, I learned a lot about publishing a weekly community newspaper in the Mississippi Delta and also rediscovered my love of writing and photography. I was pleased with our work as the newspaper was recognized by the state press association with a General Excellence award in the Better Newspaper Contest.

Me and my wife, Danette, on our wedding day, Sept. 22, 2017, at Kure Beach, NC.

Today, me and my wife, Danette, have returned back to our beloved home on Woodbend in Belmont, NC, where I continue to write on a freelance basis for a number of clients.

My story is one that is being written and rewritten with each passing day.

— Michael Banks

July 17, 2019

All hail the Kingfish

Riding a wave of popularity from the recent release of his first album and appearances in the Netflix series “Luke Cage,” young blues musician Christone “Kingfish” Ingram reflects upon his days growing up in Mississippi and the musical influences shown in his work.

No longer a babe Bluesman, Clarksdale’s own gentle giant lands on the big stage.

This article first appeared in the April 11, 2018, issue of The Clarksdale (Ms.) Press Register.

By Michael Banks

Some scoff when they see not-even-20-year-old Christone Ingram enter the stage. What does this baby-faced kid know about the blues?

But that tune soon changes when he adjusts the strings and his fingers start to dance and dangle, strum and stroll along the neck of his Fender Telecoustic.

And it’s his voice. Oh, that voice.

It’s not the high-pitched cry of a teenager who just recently celebrated his 19th birthday in January and still lives at home with his mother.

Rather, it’s the timbre and down-home drawl of a man who’s already been to nine countries, performed in festivals across the United States and is on the verge of releasing his first album.

“Even though I’m young, I’ve had some tough situations in my life,” says the man known as Kingfish.

Blues-speak?

“While I haven’t had a woman leave me,” he says with a chuckle, “I do know about heart break. Some people will say, ‘He doesn’t know the blues. He’s just 18 or 19.’ But I’m very mature for my age. I’ve always been that way. I’ve been around grownups all my life.”

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram is shown during a performance on Tuesday night, April 3, 2018, at the Hambone Music and Art Gallery in downtown Clarksdale, Ms.
(Photo by Michael Banks)

And it was his days spent in the Oakhurst area in Clarksdale, Ms., where Ingram got his first exposure to blues music. Next door was a blues band that would see the likes of famed musicians Joshua “Razorblade” Stewart, Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, Dr. Mike and Terry “Big T” Williams.

“They were all the time having house parties and such, and they’d let me come in and watch them as they played. I’d just go and soak it all in,” he said.

Another of his earliest musical influences came from gospel music, in particular, the gospel tape by The Canton Spirituals titled “Living the Dream. Live in D.C.” Listening to that tape is where, Ingram says with a laugh, “I got my gospel chops.”

“That’s one of my favorite gospel albums and one I listen to on a daily basis,” said Ingram, who recalls parts of his childhood at Faith Temple Word of Faith Christian Church in Tutwiler, Ms., and the St. Peters Missionary Baptist Church in Sardis, Ms.

Combine that gospel background with the next door house parties and that love of music only grew with Ingram, who found himself wanting to learn more and more.

A cousin of county music star Charlie Pride, Ingram would enroll in the Delta Blues Museum’s arts and education program where he would fall under the tutelage of Daddy Rich and Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry.

At the age of 6, he began playing the drums. Three years later, he took up the bass guitar. And by the age of 13, he was playing the lead guitar.

And not only did he gain that musical education and confidence, but he would also come away with the nickname Kingfish. The moniker was handed down by Perry, who believed Ingram looked like the character “Kingfish” from the “Amos and Andy” show, one of television’s first black sitcoms.

“At first, I didn’t like it,” Ingram recalls. “But then I’d be walking around at school and there’d be these kids that I didn’t think knew me and they would yell out, ‘Hey Kingfish. What’s going on?’ Then, I started to like it.”

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, right, speaks with musician Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, left, and Stan Street, the owner of the Hambone Music and Art Gallery in downtown Clarksdale, Ms., during a break in his performance on Tuesday night, April 3, 2018.
(Photo by Michael Banks)

Another thing to like was the popularity that soon followed. He has shared the stage with musical greats such as Bob Margolin, Eric Gales, Rick Derringer, Guitar Short and Buddy Guy. He’s been a guest on “The Rachel Ray Show” and comedian Steve Harvey’s show “Steve.” And he even performed at the White House for First Lady Michelle Obama.

“I’m trying to not let it go to my head,” he said. “I’m just riding the wave, man, riding the wave.”

His mother, Princess Pride, acts as his manager and handles all his bookings.

The presence of his mother at all of his shows, as well as talks with his father, Christopher Ingram, and other family members have helped keep him grounded.

But still, Ingram knows more awaits him.

“No matter how good you are, there is always somebody out there better than you,” he said. “And that’s always grounded me and pushed me.”

He’s on the verge of releasing his first album, “Been Here Before.” The 12-song album features all original tracks and should be out by the end of April or May, Ingram said, as he finalizes a distributor.

In addition to that, Ingram and his bandmates — drummer Christopher Black and bassist Shaun Reddic — have a full schedule this spring and summer that includes trips to the Beale Street Music Festival in May in Memphis, Tenn.; the Chicago Blues Festival in June; and festivals in Colorado, Utah and California.

Still, he says there’s something special about coming back to Clarksdale.

“It’s always good to play here when I get the opportunity,” said Ingram, who will be performing as a solo act in his fifth Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale this weekend. On Saturday at noon, he’ll perform a set on the Mr. Tater Memorial Stage (350 Issaquena Ave.) before taking the main stage at 8 p.m. Saturday at The Bank (123 E. Second St.).

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram says “it’s been a lot of sweat and tears” and he’s “still paying my dues.” He is shown performing on Tuesday, April 3, 2018, at the Hambone Music and Art Gallery in Clarksdale, Ms. (Photo by Michael Banks)

“I’m not lying. It’s been a lot of sweat and tears. And I’m still paying my dues. I have a lot more to put in,” he said.

As one who has been presented with numerous rising star awards, Ingram believes the genre is alive and well thanks to the efforts of himself and other young top blues musicians such as Marquise Knox of St. Louis and Georgia’s Jontavious Willis.

The young songwriter compares blues music to the roots of a tree. You may chop off a limb, but as long as you have the roots, that tree is going to survive.

“It’s not going anywhere. Blues is the roots. It’s the roots for everything you hear.”

Best little newspaper in Mississippi

A short time after beginning my time as publisher/editor of The Clarksdale (Ms.) Press Register, I picked up a single second-place award given out by the Mississippi Press Association for work done by the newspaper in 2017.

At that time, in June 2018, I silently set a goal in my mind that we’d exceed that number – that lone second-place award – with our work in 2018.

Exceed it, we did.

On Saturday, during a gathering of the state’s journalists in Biloxi at the summer convention of the Mississippi Press Association, the Clarksdale Press Register was honored with 26 awards in the association’s Better Newspaper Contest, including a General Excellence, marking it as the top newspaper in its class.

The awards were a culmination of a nine-month period, from our arrival in mid-March to the end of the contest period in December, in which the newspaper staff and contributors took on the challenge of making it one of Mississippi’s best newspapers and one that the community would be glad to call its own.

There were longer hours, more work asked of everyone and a call to do things a different way.

In the end, those efforts were recognized by members of the Kansas Press Association, which judged the annual contest, as well as the community with an increase in our readership and circulation numbers.

According to judges, the Press Register had, in addition to the overall General Excellence award, the best Lifestyles section and Magazine/Periodical (Coahoma Living) in its category, consisting of other weekly newspapers across Mississippi. The paper also received second-place awards for its design and Editorial Page, while our Women in Business special section received a third-place honor.

Staff writer Josh Troy received five awards, including a first-place award for best magazine story with his feature on Roger Stolle, owner of the Cathead music store in Clarksdale.

My talented wife – and unpaid volunteer writer – Danette Banks received a third-place award in the Feature Story category with her profile on local musician John Mohead. And the two of us combined to win the entry for Best News/Feature Package with her story and my photos and layout of a profile on another Clarksdale musician, LaLa Craig.

I was lucky enough to beat out some talented journalists and receive 15 awards. Included in that number were four first-place awards: the before-mentioned News/Feature Package; best Business Story with a profile on Mary Williams and what prompted her to start an urgent-care medical facility in Clarksdale; top Commentary Column with my entry of three columns addressing such things as crime and apathy in Clarksdale; and first place in Feature Photo with the photo linked to this post that shows children enjoying a concert on the lawn of the Cutrer Mansion in Clarksdale.

I knew that we had done good work during our time in Clarksdale and Coahoma County, but was still surprised by the sheer number of honors thrown our way. Secretly, I was hoping we’d win six to seven awards and then reach middle figures the next year and continue to build on our success.

These awards and turnaround in a very short time only reinforce the effort and talents of the limited number of folks who were able to put out an award-winning product in the Mississippi Delta and show what can be accomplished with initiative, hard work, talent and a bit of sacrifice.

I sincerely appreciate everyone who played a part in The Press Register’s success.