10 people who made Chatham better, more interesting in 2021


There are more than 76,000 people who live in Chatham, according to 2020 Census results, and all of them contribute to making Chatham the place that it is — parents, children, teachers, students, government employees, elected officials, healthcare staff, Mountaire workers, school bus drivers and custodians alike.

If we only wrote stories on the special people of Chatham week in and week out for the rest of the News + Record’s existence, it’s not an exaggeration to say we’d never run out of good stories.

That said, we’ve compiled 10 of our favorite feature stories from 2021 — from Hubert West, the first Black head coach at UNC-Chapel Hill, to “Deadlock” film’s Kelly Reiter, who made her major studio debut alongside Bruce Willis. We hope you enjoy revisiting some of our favorite stories with us, sorted in alphabetical order.

Tiana Brooks: one of 35 students featured in statewide art exhibit

Jordan-Matthews Senior Tiana Brooks with her mixed-media piece, ‘Say Their Names.’ The piece was selected to be displayed at this year’s virtual Emerging Artists Invitational – Brooks is one of 35 students in the state to be featured.

The summer before her senior year at Jordan-Matthews High School, Tiana Brooks learned of George Floyd’s death and decided to paint something to help her process yet another Black person killed by police officers.

The resulting mixed-media piece, “Say Their Names,” features the names of Black women killed by police, to honor their lives and bring awareness to the issue.

Last spring, her piece was featured in the virtual Emerging Artists Invitational — an annual exhibition for high school artists sponsored by the Sechrest Gallery of Art and the High Point University School of Art and Design. She was one of just 35 artists selected across the state for the exhibition.

“I always knew I wanted this piece in an art show or gallery, just to shine light on this piece and the meaning that it held,” Brooks said. “When I saw that it was in the Emerging Artists (Invitational), I knew right there — now’s a chance to shine a light on this art piece and to show the story behind it.

“I’m just grateful that I finally get to do that.”

Jamaria Faucette: former Northwood student and athlete

Jamaria Faucette poses with her mother Myranda Crump (left) and her legal guardian Shuranda Smith (right) before being honored at Northwood's Jan. 15, 2021, senior night. / Staff photo by James Kiefer

Nearly five years ago, Jamaria Faucette took a leap of faith when she joined the Northwood JV women’s basketball team as a freshman. And early on, she regretted it.

When Faucette subbed into games, opposing teams’ fans latched onto her. More specifically, they latched onto belittling her amniotic band syndrome, a rare disability that affects her fingers and toes.

“When I got to high school, it really got worse for me,” Faucette told the News + Record last January. “I became depressed about it. Parents would call out stuff about me: ‘She can’t dribble!’ ‘Look at her hands!’ It would affect me.”

It doesn’t anymore.

Faucette, 17 at the time, was a senior reserve on the Northwood varsity roster. She speaks comfortably about those tough days in 2017 and what they taught her: about herself, about her disability and about what really mattered in the long run.

Spoiler alert: the nagging naysayers did not.

“All you have to do is put your mind to it,” Faucette said. “You can’t let your pride get to you. You can’t let what other people say about you get you down. You’ve got to use the negativity to push harder to do what you want to do — and be great at it.”

Ronnie Gilmore: retired CCS bus driver and custodian

Ronnie Gilmore, pictured here, was honored by Pittsboro Elementary School community members Nov. 6 for his 22 years working at the school as a custodian and bus driver.

Five mornings a week for 22 years, Ronnie Gilmore woke up at 4:30 to start his day as a beloved custodian and bus driver at Perry Harrison Elementary.

Now, after retiring earlier this year, he gets a little more sleep.

“I get up a little later now,” he said with a big laugh, then more seriously: “I gave them 22 years. I gave the best I could and I thought it was time to move on.”

Gilmore, 58, started working at Perry Harrison in 1999. Over the years, he saw principals, teachers and students come and go, worked under new superintendents and faced the myriad challenges that come with being employed in a school during a pandemic.

Known for his boisterous voice, welcoming hugs and as “a great ambassador for goodness” among the Perry Harrison community, Gilmore also impacted many people during his years at the school. On Nov. 6, the school’s PTA commended Gilmore’s service to the school with a ceremony dedicating a tree planted in front of the school to honor him.

Now that he’s retired from the school job, Gilmore spends most days working part-time with his son, Quentin Gilmore, who lives in Winston-Salem and works as a truck driver.

Still, these days he makes more time to watch TV, and hopes the future includes a lot of traveling to see the mountains and “some of the big cities” with his wife, Doris Gilmore, once she also retires.

“It’s been good, but I miss the kids at Perry Harrison,” he said of retired life. “But I’m not sitting at home every day, I’m out there with my son.”

Wesley Hart: French Legion of Honor recipient

Wesley Hart shows off his Bronze Star award, given for his exemplary service during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. Knowing about the Bronze Star encouraged his daughters agree to a friend's suggestion that Hart, 102, agree to a request to apply for the French Legion of Honor. /Staff photo by Simon Barbre

At 102 years of age, Chatham County resident Wesley Hart is in rare company — one of just a relative handful of surviving centenarians from among the 16 million U.S. servicemen who fought in World War II.

On Aug. 12, he joined an even more exclusive club — being awarded the French Legion of Honor for his meritorious service in France during World War II.

It’s the highest French decoration of distinction for those in military and civilian life in France, tracing its history to Napoleon Bonaparte, who established it in 1802. There are only about 92,000 Legion of Honor members, mostly French nationals, but 300 or so foreigners are recognized with the honor each year. You can’t seek Legion of Honor recognition for yourself; French ministers identify potential recipients, who are in turn invited to apply.

Hart, who achieved the rank of Captain while in the Army, received the Bronze Star Medal for his service during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-45. Knowing about his Bronze Star, given for heroic achievement or meritorious service in a combat zone, daughters Kathy Wakeman and Lynne Dyer agreed their father might be a good candidate. Two years after applying, the sisters heard their dad would be a recipient.

“...All the ways we knew him as a dad growing up, I can visualize that in him as a soldier, and as a younger man,” Dyers said. “So I think that’s kind of what this means to us — it brings it all together, and it’s so appropriate, because this is our dad, and who he is, and who he was at that time and what he meant to everyone around him.”

Corbie Hill: runner and cancer survivor

Pittsboro runner and chronic lymphocytic leukemia survivor Corbie Hill poses near CCCC’s Pittsboro campus, where he begins most of his near-daily running workouts. Hill’s leukemia reappeared in May. / Staff photo by Kim Hawks

There was a time in his life, just four short years ago, when Corbie Hill would have found it difficult to envision himself as a runner — much less a fast one.

But the 39-year-old Pittsboro resident is definitely that, and a racer, too. And if you’re around the Chatham Community Library around 7 most weekday mornings, and you spot a lean, tattooed man striding by with a receding hairline and two fashionable earrings, rest assured that it’s Hill.

And as of last June, he’s something else: a two-time leukemia survivor.

Hill, who had the lean build of a serious runner before he became one, works as a staff writer for Duke Magazine, the official alumni magazine of Duke University. He’s well known around Pittsboro, where he lives, for his writing skills — he worked as a freelancer for years before getting the Duke gig — and for gigs of another kind: as a songwriter and guitarist and vocalist, performing in local bands and working as a music producer.

He didn’t start racing until his initial cancer diagnosis more than four years ago. And as of this summer, he’s running again, despite harsh treatment that meant he wasn’t running for a while.

“I was like, this is actually fun,” Hill said of his foray into running. “And I got hooked.”

Oliver Mitchum: musician at N.C. State

Oliver Mitchum started playing piano when he was 7. Now, the Jordan-Matthews graduate is a junior at N.C. State and member of the marching band and basketball pep band. / Staff photo by Peyton Sickles

Oliver Mitchum started playing the piano when he was just 7 years old.

More than a decade — and hundreds of hours of practice — later, Mitchum doesn’t just understand how to read and play music. He’s become an artist. He started composing his own piano pieces when he was 10 years old, played piano at his church growing up and also picked up the saxophone — an instrument he earned honors for playing during his time at Jordan-Matthews High School.

Now a junior at N.C. State studying mechanical engineering, Mitchum is in his school’s marching band — “The Power Sound of the South” — along with the basketball team pep band. Last summer, he ticked off another music accomplishment: playing his first solo concert, at his home church, Brown’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Pittsboro. Mitchum’s excited for the opportunity, but it wasn’t his idea. He said a longtime family friend and fellow church member, Robin Brady, proposed the idea to him.

“Whenever I go and play, I’ve been asked probably hundreds of times, ‘Hey, you’re gonna keep playing the piano in college, right?’” Mitchum said. “‘Yes, I’m gonna keep doing that.’ Because I don’t think they would let me stop if I ever quit. But really, I just enjoy it so much myself that I would not want to quit. It’s a big part of my life.”

Kelly Reiter: ‘Deadlock’ actor

Chatham County native Kelly Reiter is in the cast of the film 'Deadlock,' which stars Bruce Willis (pictured) and Patrick Muldoon. The film was released Dec. 3. / Courtesy of Saban Films

Chatham native Kelly Reiter, now 23, moved to Los Angeles when she was 18 looking to jumpstart her acting career.

Despite initial setbacks, she decided she’d stay in California to pursue a career, and in short order found herself working on small independent films while working various side jobs to ensure she had enough money to pay her rent — all the while waiting for the proverbial big break.

Thanks to COVID-19, she got it. And last month, she made her major studio debut alongside one of Hollywood’s most well-known actors — Bruce Willis — in the film “Deadlock,” where she plays the role of Amy Rakestraw.

“I can always show this movie to my kids, and just to say ‘I did that’ — it makes everything worth it to me,” she said. “I know that if I never work again, I will always have this movie.”

Ella Sullivan: UNC student

Ella Sullivan / Submitted photo

A month after graduating from Northwood High School, Ella Sullivan wasn’t taking a vacation.

Instead, she was completing her Girl Scout Gold Award project, which explores the history of Chatham County through 11 notable figures from Chatham’s past.

The project — “A Look Into Chatham’s Past,” completed by Sullivan at the end of July — focuses on promoting community identity.

“I’m always interested in local history. I’ve grown up in Chatham since I was born, and my family’s from around here, too. So I wanted to look into that,” Sullivan told the News + Record. “The issue that I was addressing was loss of community identity in Chatham County, due to new people moving in and not having easy access to resources for culture and history.”

A first year at UNC-Chapel Hill studying journalism, Sullivan wanted to incorporate both history and storytelling in her project, which was the culmination of her 13-year Girl Scout career. The Girl Scout Gold Award — received upon successfully completing a project — is the highest honor a Girl Scout can earn, and the project aims to emphasize a recipient’s betterment of self and ability to improve the world.

The completion of Sullivan’s project lined up with Chatham County’s Chatham 250 year-long celebration commemorating the county’s sestercentennial anniversary. Last summer, Sullivan worked as the communications intern with Chatham 250. The group promoted Sullivan’s project upon its completion, linking to it on their site and co-hosting an Aug. 10 presentation on her project.

After more than 80 hours of research, writing, recording, podcast editing and web design later, Sullivan is proud of her work. Now, she hopes people will continue to learn from it.

“I hope they learn at least a little bit about Chatham’s history and maybe one person in specific,” she said. “And also realize that there are resources online to learn about your local community. It’s definitely harder to learn about the local community, but I think that ‘A Look Into Chatham’s Past’ and other local organizations are a great resource for learning about local history.”

Vicky Tobar: interpreter at Jordan-Matthews

Vicky Tobar is an interpreter at Jordan-Matthews High School. / Submitted photo

Growing up, Virginia “Vicky” Tobar had always wanted to be a school nurse. She’d even started studying to be one in the early 2000s, too — at least until Jordan-Matthews High School got in the way.

“Of course, in a good way,” she added with a laugh.

In 2004, Tobar joined Jordan-Matthews as a Spanish interpreter after applying on a whim. Seventeen years later, she’s still there, faithfully serving J-M’s Spanish-speaking families — a service record that education associations have recently recognized in Chatham County and throughout North Carolina.

For her work and dedication, the Chatham County Association of Educators named Tobar their Educational Support Professional (ESP) of the Year in late 2020; shortly after the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) Education Support Professionals Council also named her 2021’s Education Support Professional of the Year in mid-January.

Last February, Tobar was the only school interpreter at J-M, which serves about 870 students, most of whom are Hispanic. She’s not the only Spanish speaker, though; the school also employs Spanish teachers, ESL teachers and a bilingual secretary, who Tobar called her “partner-in-crime.”

As an interpreter, Tobar works with families, students, administration and teachers. Though she appreciates others’ recognitions, Tobar said last year the best reward has been seeing that many Hispanic families in Siler City now feel comfortable enough to reach out to her and trust her with what’s going on in their lives.

“It’s not just interpreting, you know what I mean?” she said. “Like, you have to have just that willingness to want to help people, the passion to say, ‘You know what — I love my job, and I love what I do. I just have to help the best way I can.’”

Hubert West: CCS teaching assistant and UNC’s first Black head coach

Hubert West, shown here at Margaret B. Pollard Middle School, was the first Black head coach at UNC-Chapel Hill. Now a teaching assistant, West led UNC's track and field program from 1981-1983. / Staff photo by Peyton Sickles

Last April, Hubert Davis replaced Roy Williams as the head coach for UNC-Chapel Hill’s men’s basketball team, becoming the program’s first Black head coach and fourth overall in any program at the school.

But it was another Hubert — Hubert West Jr. — who made history as the first Black head coach at UNC, for the school’s track and field program in 1981-83. The next Black head coach at UNC wasn’t named until 2011.

Today, West, 70, is a teacher at Chatham County Schools, but track and field is still “a very prominent part” of his life. Hearing about Davis’ historic hiring brought all his UNC memories back — where he was not only the first head coach of his race, but also the first Black student to receive a track scholarship when he attended in the early 1970s.

“Yeah, it’s very exciting,” West said, “because it brings back memories of the groundbreaking in being the first African American to sign a track scholarship and then the first African American coach at UNC. … Regardless of what goes on, that first is still behind your name.”

With all his firsts, and athletic and academic feats — he was inducted into the Davie County High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 2006 and named Chatham County Schools Instructional Assistant of the Year three times — West doesn’t jump to brag about his accomplishments, though he’s happy to share should someone ask.

All these years after first coaching, he’s focused on the same thing: helping students recognize their potential and achieve their goals.

“That is one of the main things that I thoroughly enjoy now,” he said. “With this COVID it hasn’t been as easy, but still being able to give back to the young people, and try to let them see that there is a higher achieving goal that they can set their sights on.”

Honorable mention: Two Chatham County Schools educators who died in 2021 made an indelible impact on the lives of those who loved them, including many Chatham students and staff. Those educators — Karen Heilman, known for her positivity, love of sports and her great hair, and Mike Williams, characterized as the “GOAT (Greatest of All Time)” by many students — changed Chatham in myriad ways and are still missed by those who knew them.

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.


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