The gift of the glove

What’s the promise of a new baseball glove bring? Characters from my work in progress “River Bottom” are unveiled in this latest writing exercise.

The following is the end product from a writing prompt as part of the Pen to Paper Live sessions hosted each week by the Charlotte Lit organization. The sessions are free and held Tuesday mornings. You can register here.

The Gift of the Glove

The smell may have been the first thing he noticed. The scent of rawhide leather escaped the package as he pulled the baseball glove from the box wrapped in red paper and green ribbon. 

Teague ran his fingers over the interlocking weave of leather, the stitches wound tight, strips of rawhide hanging loose like the leaves of the weeping willow that stood watch in the back corner over their 30-acre farm in the river bottoms.

The leather was stiff in his hands. Teague balled his hand into a fist and punched once, twice, three times into the pocket, seeking some give, yet the leather unforgiving. He knew the warmth of spring and summer and the sweat from his hands would loosen the rawhide; the glove bending, conforming to Teague’s 15-year-old fingers.

For nearly five years now, he’d used his father’s hand-me-down when he and the other boys gathered to play ball on summer afternoons, swinging and sliding until the western sky turned a burnt orange, chasing them from the field. It was a battered, dusty glove that had been duct taped together and had seen its fair share of ball games back when his daddy would knock baseballs 350 feet over the old strip of coal mine belt serving as an outfield fence. 

“Figured it was time for your own,” Big Robbie had said when he slid the box across the kitchen table earlier that morning. It was just the two of them now. Rains had fallen that summer and the corn grew tall and green, but money was still tight.

Snow was on the ground now. The field bare except for the rotting husks that dotted the back 30 acres like remnants from a Civil War battlefield, the stalks like the limbs of Confederate dead. 

Spring would come. And with it, warmer days and the sound of song birds. The ground would be broken, the plow leaving streams of rich, loamy, black soil in its wake, and there would be work. Lots of it for the seed needs to reach the ground.

Yet, in those few short moments before day turns to dark and the sun sets below the Ohio, there would be time. Time for a game of catch between a boy and his father, the rhythmic pop of the baseball hitting the pocket of the glove marking the seconds, minutes and hours.

Editor’s Note: The passage includes characters and settings from “River Bottom,” my work-in-progress novel that tells a story of a teenage boy living along the Ohio River bottom land in the summer of 1983.

‘The Climb’ to Ruby Falls during a year that wasn’t

Is there a certain memory that has stuck out in 2020?
For myself, it was a grueling hike up a mountain in the South Carolina Upstate.

In a year dominated by the pandemic, most writers have opted to not write about the virus that has killed thousands and led to even more division in our country. The reason may be simply because most writers prefer to use writing as an escape, says Paul Reali, one of the co-founders of the Charlotte Center for Literary Arts organization.

“It’s particularly hard to write about the pandemic, especially when we’re sitting in the middle of it,” Reali said during a Tuesday, Dec. 15 Pen to Paper Live writing session, which is a weekly gathering where writers are given a mini-lesson and writing prompt. The sessions, which will resume in January 2021, are free and preregistration is required.

Writing can lead to revelation, Reali says, noting that “we write to make meaning.”

Sometimes a subject — such as Covid-19 and as he calls 2020 “the year that wasn’t” — may seem way too big to tackle, Reali says. It is those times when a writer must “chip away” and document those things one has witnessed and felt over the past 12 months. These pandemic experiences can be documented through short vignettes similar to the recollections told in the New York Times Metropolitan Diary.

As part of the Pen to Paper Live session, Reali encouraged the nine participants to write a moment from their pandemic experience. The following is my story.

The Climb

We stop halfway up the mountain. The air is thinning as we’ve climbed another 1,000 feet and our lungs are burning and our legs heavy. It’s a quiet Thanksgiving Day afternoon. If we listen closely, we can hear the Middle Saluda far below, its water weaving around and over boulders draped with green, clingy moss.

“Do we continue on or just turn around,” my wife asks. 

She is in much better shape than I and has always had more energy and spirit. In a lot of ways, I feed off of her and love her for that. But here and now, my ankles hurt and there is a gnawing tug along my muddied and bloodied right calf. I’m close to calling it quits.

There’s been job loss, death and multitude of change in 2020. We had decided to flee to nature as we considered how to give thanks in a year of Covid-19 and had mostly hiked the 4-mile trail at Jones Gap State Park alone. 

As we sit trying to capture our breath and lower our heart rate, we see two hikers carefully picking their way among rocks and tree roots on the narrow trail to and from Ruby Falls. They are much younger and hipper and the couple pulls up their neck gaiters as they near. 

We step back off the trail and we’re enclosed by the rhododendron and mountain laurel, a near disappearing act. They see us, husband and wife, hands held and maskless.

“You’re nearly there,” he says.

“Trust me,” she says, “it’s totally worth all the pain.”

After they pass, we stand on the trail. We look upward, a steep stair stepper of unforgiving rock awaiting.

“You lead. I’ll follow,” my wife says.

I look at her and smile. I turn and then we climb together.

Getting creative with Pen to Paper: Jelly and whiskey in the Mississippi Delta

Stuck in your creative work? Why not try Charlotte Lit’s Pen to Paper Live!
I ended up with “Jelly and Whiskey in the Mississippi Delta.”

Tuesday morning, Dec. 8, I took part in a Pen to Paper Live! creative program offered by the Charlotte Center for Literary Arts, commonly known as Charlotte Lit.

The free weekly sessions offer a mini-lesson and and present a writing prompt. Though I have been a member of Charlotte Lit and its Author’s Lab for the past year, this was the first opportunity I had to participate in one of the writing-in-community sessions, which are usually held in person but were moved online with the pandemic and social distancing restrictions. This one was attended by 14 other writers.

I thoroughly enjoyed the hour-long meet-up and would highly recommend it for those creative sorts who are currently uninspired or stuck. Preregistration is required. For this non-coffee-drinking guy who can sleepwalk through the hours before noon, Pen to Paper Live! gave me a spark and led to me writing this blog and continuing work on my novel.

This week’s session was on Cento. Kathie Collins, executive director and one of the founders of Charlotte Lit, led Tuesday’s session and came up with the writing prompt from a recent article in the New York Times. You can read the article to learn more, but basically Cento is a sort of “collage poem” crafted from lines, words, phrases from other sources and then patching together those lines to create a poem.

It’s a way of allowing you to express some subconscious needs through someone else’s work, Collins said. “Consider it another tool for your toolbox,” she said.

I am far from a poet, as the following selection will absolutely prove, but I did find it a fun, creative exercise. For my assignment, I chose to pull from the writings of author Hank Burdine and his story collection “Dust in the Road: Recollections of a Delta Boy.” The story “The ‘Britchesless’ Bachelor” is one of my favorites, especially hearing Hank read it in person with his Delta drawl and his deep baritone acquired via healthy amounts of good whiskey.

Below is my first attempt at Cento. Let’s call it:

Jelly and Whiskey in the Delta

White-coated valets and 15 blue-haired little ladies

Gather for sundry debutante parties in Beulah in the Delta

Me, a member of the Bachelor’s Club, a pool for the Delta Debs

Made haste to Dossett Plantation in my black two-door Pontiac Grand Prix 

I arrived in a hand-me-down tuxedo with cummerbund

Yet, about to pass out because my britches were too tight

My date, Blanche Shackleford, fled to the slough unencumbered

As the Budweiser had filled her holding tank, quite a site.

Meanwhile, my unhitched pants fell to my knees

And I’d forgotten to put my car in park

Blanche emerged from the slough and the trees, 

And so, Blanche gave chase, shaking and boogying

So fierce, her left bosom shimmied out of her dress

And there it remained, quivering like jelly.

“Blanche, my Gawd” the little ladies shouted

Upon which, she tucked it right back into the top of her gown

And I, on a quest to drink good whiskey

found Mr. Dixon Dossett where we told tall tales in his gunroom until dawn.

Compiled from “The Britchesless Batchelor.” A story from “Dust in the Road: Recollections of a Delta Boy” by Mississippi author Hank Burdine.

Flight of the hummingbirds

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.”

Mike Leonowicz and Keith Camburn work to secure another hummingbird as hummingbird researcher Susan Campbell collected, measured, weighed and banded hummingbirds Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden on South New Hope Road.
[Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

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.

Hummingbird researcher Susan Campbell collected, measured, weighed and banded hummingbirds Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden.
[Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

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.”

Hummingbird researcher Susan Campbell places a banded hummingbird in the hand of 4-year-old Aristotle Christopher on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden on South New Hope Road.
[Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

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.”

A hummingbird flies about in front of the trap Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden on South New Hope Road.
[Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

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.”

Hummingbird researcher Susan Campbell collected, measured, weighed and banded hummingbirds Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden.
[Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

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.”

A hummingbird flies about Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden.
[Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

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.

Keith Camburn keeps his eye on the trap Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden. [Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

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.

A hummingbird flies Saturday, August 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden.
[Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

Flavor, flair of Argentina arrives with new Grand Bohemian Charlotte

The newest hotel in Charlotte offers something not seen before in the Queen City.
Come along with me and take a peek inside of the 16-story boutique hotel that celebrates the culture of Argentina and a Bohemian lifestyle.
It is the Grand Bohemian Charlotte.

Just a few short steps from the corner of Trade and Church streets in Uptown Charlotte, one can now quickly find themselves immersed in the culture of a South American country.

The Kessler Collection unveiled their newest boutique hotel, the Grand Bohemian Charlotte, on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The 254-room hotel is the newest addition to Mariott’s Autograph Collection, which feature captivating hotels, inspired dining, art galleries and signature spas.

Each of Kessler’s hotels, which now number 10, are artfully unique in their own way and feature a Bohemian twist. Other Kessler properties are the Beaver Creek (Colo.) Lodge; Bohemian Hotel Celebration in Orlando, Fla.; Bohemian Hotel Savannah (Ga.) Riverfront; Casa Monica Resort and Spa in St. Augustine, Fla.; Grand Bohemian Hotel Asheville (N.C.); Grand Boheman Hotel Charleston (S.C.); Grand Bohemian Hotel Mountain Brook (Ala.); Grand Bohemian Hotel (Fla.); and the Mission on Forsyth Park in Savannah.

In Charlotte, that Bohemian twist is Argentinian. The South American country’s influence can be seen in the tapestries, the colors and the many pieces of art that adorn the walls of the boutique hotel.

There are two restaurants with dishes full of the exotic flavors of a South American country. Mico offers twists on Argentinian classics and is open for lunch and dinner. A favorite on the dinner menu is pan-roasted black grouper ($36) or the Lomo, an eight-ounce beef filet ($42), paired with a side of truffle roasted mushrooms and smashed sweet plaintains and coconut ($8 each) and complemented with a red wine, such as the Justin Paso Robles ($18 per glass).

The Bohemian Garden is currently open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. The Mezze Bowl — with grilled skirt steak, pita chips, hummus, sweet pepper muhammara, salt-cured olives, charred cauliflower, toasted pumpkin seeds and vincotto — goes for $17. Pair that with a Bohemian Lemonade ($11) of Stoli vodka, sweet lemon tea and Bold Rock cider while you sit at your table in the private park and garden bar.

A Starbucks is located on the ground floor of the hotel as well and will offer breakfast from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.

The Buho bar will be a place to be seen once it opens later this summer. Located on the 16th floor of the hotel, the bar will offer views of Uptown and an open-air lounge to go with specially crafted cocktails. Buho is Spanish for Owl and this will be a perfect place for the Night Owls of the Queen City to gather as dark descends.

There is a Poseidon Spa offering tranquility and healing with an after-work massage or a romantic couples getaway. A fitness center is also available with free weights, Peloton bikes and cardio machines.

Here are some of the features that set the Grand Bohemian Charlotte apart from other hotels in the Queen City.

The entrance to the Grand Bohemian Charlotte off Trade Street is a tribute to the Vienna Secession Building in Austria. The three faces above the entrance represent painting, architecture and sculpture. {Photo by Michael Banks}
Valet parking awaits at the entrance to the hotel. Light fixtures in the “Kessler red” offer a mix of the traditional and new, a bit of “funkiness” once a guest steps from their vehicle. {Photo by Michael Banks}
The Buho Bar on the 16th floor at Grand Bohemian Charlotte. They hope to open the bar within the next month. {Photo by Michael Banks}
The wine cellar at Buho Bar, as well as the views, are something to see. {Photo by Michael Banks}
The interior of The Buho Bar. {Photo by Michael Banks}
An outside deck area at The Buho Bar includes fire pits. {Photo by Michael Banks}
Guests will be treated to a view of the northwest section of uptown Charlotte from the 16th floor of the Grand Bohemian Charlotte. {Photo by Michael Banks}

A painting you see once exiting the elevator on the 16th floor at Grand Bohemian Charlotte.

The details of the outdoor seating area at the Buho Bar on the 16th floor of the Grand Bohemian Charlotte. {Photo by Michael Banks}
A seated area outside the Poseidon Spa will offer guests open air and views of Uptown Charlotte. {Photo by Michael Banks}

The 4,000-square-foot palace ballroom at the Grand Bohemian Charlotte features authentic Murano chandeliers.

The 20-foot-long Venetian chandelier outside the grand ballroom. Nearby are hand-carved marble eggs and mannequins.

Grand Bohemian Hotels are known for their art and their pieces are thoughtfully chosen to pair with the architecture and hotel theme. In Charlotte, most of the artwork featured is by Argentinian artists.

Andrea Carreras is an artist from Buenos Aires, Argentina, and her artwork (of which three paintings are shown above) is featured throughout the hotel. She plays with the theme of the ancient and contemporary, creating a time dynamic where the old mixes with the new.

The bar area at Mico, the first-floor restaurant at Grand Bohemian Charlotte. Mico is Spanish for monkey. “It’s all about monkey business and having some fun at the bar,” said Diana Kessler, the creative director for the Kessler Collection, in a recent Facebook Live video. The chandelier was handmade in Italy. {Photo by Michael Banks}
Dinner menu at Mico.
Lounge menu at Mico.

The Ojo De Bife, a 14-ounce ribeye, that is wood-grilled over oak and served with chimichurri, charred pearl onions, roasted garlic and 7 Spice. The steak ($39) can be found on the dinner menu at Mico. {Photo by Michael Banks}

The Pampas ($15) at Mico is flourless dark chocolate cake with dark chocolate cremeux, dark chocolate chili sauce and vanilla fleur de sel ice cream. And it is absolutely delicious. All of the desserts at Mico are named for landmarks in Argentina.

{Photo by Michael Banks}

The Bohemian Garden restaurant offers an outdoor seating area for guests to enjoy a quick lunch or cocktail.

The Delta Bohemian Garden is a greenspace gift to the city of Charlotte where people can enjoy a lunch outdoors. At the end of the garden is a sculpture from owner Richard Kessler’s personal collection.

The 16-story Grand Bohemian Charlotte sits at the corner of Trade and Church street in Uptown Charlotte. The hotel opened for business on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. {Photo by Michael Banks}

The reunion of knuckleheads in Upstate South Carolina

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 issue of 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.

* * *

Bud Blair, president of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America’s Legends Chapter in Chesnee. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter.

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.”

* * *

Legendary motorcycle drag racer Pete Hill. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter.

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.”

* * *

Rose and Richard Owen, members of the Christian Motorcyclists Association’s Warriors For Christ Chapter in Gaffney, S.C. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter.

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.”

Ralph Coggins, road captain for the Spartanburg, S.C.-based Jabez Riders chapter of the CMA. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter.

* * *

Mike Bruso on his 1939 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead that he’ll ride in the Cross Country Chase in 2020. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter.

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.

Louie Hale, an Augusta, Ga., resident who collects and restores antique motorcycles, including the 1920 Harley- Davidson model that he rode in the Chesnee, S.C., bike games competition. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter

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.

***

Longtime Chesnee, S.C., City Administrator Becki Hood. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter

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 a difference-maker

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.” 

Kermit Davis coaches during the Ole Miss men’s basketball game vs Vanderbilt on Feb. 29th, 2020, at The Pavilion in Oxford, Ms.
Photo by Joshua McCoy / Ole Miss Athletics

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.

Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis is shown during a Feb. 29, 2020, game vs. Vanderbilt at The Pavilion in Oxford, Ms. Photo by Joshua McCoy / Ole Miss Athletics

Surreal silence at track for one NASCAR crew member

“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.

Scott Denton

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.

Alex Bowman (88) makes a pit stop during the NASCAR Cup Series auto race Sunday, May 17, 2020, in Darlington, S.C.
(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

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.

Alex Bowman, driver of the #88 Cincinnati Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 01, 2020 in Fontana, California.
(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

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.”

A general view of the pace car leading the field prior to the NASCAR Cup Series The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway on May 17, 2020 in Darlington, South Carolina.
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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.

The No. 88 race team hauler.

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.”

Scott Denton with his wife, Christyn, and their 6-year-old son, Jack.

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.

The No. 88 race hauler is shown at the track.

“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.

Scott Denton

“I enjoy racing. I enjoy going to victory lane. It’s pretty awesome.”

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.