25 Charlotteans who inspired us in 2020

25 Charlotteans who inspired us in 2020
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For years, all we did was look up. To the lights on the tall buildings. To the cranes adding the next story. To the jagged skyscraper outline of our great city’s success — we are the 15th largest in the country, you know?

But in spring 2020, the elevators in those buildings stopped. The parking decks under them were all just rows of slanted concrete, cold and empty.

Of all the things 2020 did to hurt us, it was a recalibration year, too. It made us appreciate things more, people more. Doctors and nurses, for sure. Bus drivers and hotdog vendors, tour guides and waitresses, houseless people and police officers, protesters and clergy.

It forced us to look around at the world down here, instead of constantly gazing up.

In April, I wrote the script for a video from the Panthers called, “A Message of Hope for the Carolinas.” It was, at its core, meant to be an inspirational video, one that reminded people who live here just how resilient this place is, and always has been.

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What’s become most clear in the months since then is that buildings don’t define a city’s resilience. People do.

Here’s to those who made us better in 2020:

Front-line workers

In a recent survey of Agenda readers, nobody received more general mentions than they did.

Atrium Mobile Covid screening

Medical professionals screen patients at Atrium Health’s Mobile Testing Center at the Stratford YMCA on West Boulevard.

Why them: The global Google searches beginning with the word “why” were higher than ever this year. And of course, one of the most searched words was, “coronavirus.”

Imagine how many times, then, our doctors heard from us: “I read on the internet that …”

Medical professionals were heroes in lots of ways this year, especially in patience.

How on earth do they always seem to do it with a smile? Through the theories and misinformation, they swabbed our noses and eased our minds and risked their lives.

They just kept doing it. Over and over and over.

Special thanks 1: To Dr. Katie Passaretti, Atrium’s Medical Director for Infection Prevention, who told us on March 5, plainly, “It won’t be that long before we see cases in the Charlotte area.” She was right. And she was at the forefront of the county’s response and messaging throughout the year, all the way to the end, when she was the first person in North Carolina to receive the Covid vaccine.

Special thanks 2: And to the administrators, custodial staff members, and behind the scenes workers who kept the buildings going, and put themselves in the virus’s way each day.

Bianca Cassidy, aka the woman playing checkers in our special report on tent city from this summer

What inspired us: “When I get out, I’m not coming back,” Bianca told me and Travis Dove one evening this summer. She was sitting at a table playing checkers near her tent in the homeless encampment.

Bianca, we’d learned by then, had a college degree from N.C. Central, and she’d had a successful career. She didn’t want to talk about the circumstances surrounding her arrival in tent city, but she said it could happen to anyone.

One day, someone from the Hearts Beat As One Foundation helped her update her LinkedIn profile and connected her with an employer. They helped her find a place to stay, too. Now she’s working full-time. Now she doesn’t mind her name being used. In fact, she used it this fall, when she graced the cover of Pride magazine and shared it for this excellent story on her from writer Angela Lindsay.

As long as I’m alive, I’ll never forget her explanation of homelessness, and why it’s so hard for people who live in encampments to find their way into secure living and working situations. She used the checkerboard to help:

“If I move here, he’s going to jump me,” she said. “So before we make this move, we say what are his next two moves? If he goes back to the hotel for a week, he’s just going to go right back to the tent. You have to think two or three moves ahead when you take them off the street.”

Marco LaVecchia

A life-saver at the Hiddenite Family Campground

Marco LaVecchia and flood

2013 Charlotte Catholic graduate Marco LaVecchia was in his camper along the South Yadkin River when the historic rainstorm of November 12 settled on the region. 

His story: He wanted to be out on his own. Marco, a 2013 Charlotte Catholic graduate with autism, moved out of his family home and to the Hiddenite Family campground in Alexander County in June. He lived in a camper with two lean-to sheds attached, and made fast friends. He worked on the haunted trails and gave kids a good scare on Halloween.

On November 12, his neighbors banged on his door at 5 a.m.

The water, they said.

It was up to his deck. And more was falling.

He gathered his clothes and ran next door to be with his neighbors. By then one of his sheds was floating away. Then the neighbors’ camper got soppy on the floor. They put two dogs and two cats in crates.

They climbed into the bed of Marco’s Nissan truck. But the river kept growing. They moved to the truck’s roof, Marco and his neighbors and their four animals. They let go of the cages and held the animals.

It’s blurry after that. But he remembers seeing the cats on an air conditioner. He swam and put them in a higher spot. Then he saw his neighbors flailing in the water. He swam toward them and helped them onto a camper they’d floated toward. The camper floated then, too. Finally it hit a tree. Finally a rescue boat came.

Five people died that day at the Hiddenite Family Campground, including a 1-year-old. But there’s no doubt that number could’ve been worse if Marco hadn’t been there.

Cris Rojas Agurcia

Owner of Batch House, for carrying on after the flood

Why her: They call her “the Batchmaker.” Her bakery was destroyed in the same November storm, but she’s still baking. And still smiling. She has a workspace inside City Kitch and is selling her beloved baked goods in pre-ordered boxes. They go fast so follow her on Instagram to secure the next one.

batchhouse 700

The Batch House opened on Bryant Street in October 2019. Thirteen months later, the creek that runs behind it, Irwin, rose over its banks.

Casey Crawford

Co-founder, Movement Mortgage

Casey Crawford, CEO and co-founder of Movement Mortgage

Casey Crawford co-founded Movement Mortgage in 2008. The company now employs more than 4,500. (Photo courtesy Movement Mortgage)

Why him: When the former Carolina Panther co-founded Movement Mortgage in 2008, he wanted it to do more than make money. His team started a nonprofit foundation — the Movement Foundation — to oversee the company. And each year the foundation would take the dividend and put it toward a network of charter schools.

In the past few years, that number has grown as business has grown.

In 2019, it was $22 million. That was cause for great celebration. The foundation would use the money, they said then, to finish up a charter school at Eastland and build a new one on Freedom.

In 2020, though, the dividend is breathtaking: $200 million.

With it, the foundation will develop at least 10 new Movement charter schools in Charlotte and elsewhere.

Movement Schools Casey Crawford

At the announcement for the Movement School on Freedom Drive in January. (Photo, taken pre-Covid, is courtesy of Movement Mortgage)

Patrick Williams

Former West Charlotte High basketball star, drafted No. 4 overall by the Chicago Bulls

Patrick Williams West Charlotte to NBA

What inspired us: The last time a graduate from a Charlotte high school went on to become a Top 10 pick was in the 2009 draft, when Steph Curry went 7th overall. 

What we love about Williams goes beyond the court. His friends respect him. His former teachers adored him. And the world fell for him on draft night, when ESPN brought cameras to the Double Oaks neighborhood to show off the flower shop his mother, Janie, has owned for years.

Patrick grew up delivering arrangements, and says he sees similarities between growing flowers and growing up today.

“There’s a lot of things in the world that can stop you from growing,” he once told WSOC. “With the flowers, it’ll be heat, not enough water, things of that nature. With the world, it could be drugs.”

Election poll workers

And all other volunteers who helped with the 2020 election

Election Day 2020

The Arellano family distributed coffee and hand warmers at Precinct 22 on Election Day.

Why: Historically, poll workers have been retired people with spare time. But this year, with people over the age of 65 being the most vulnerable to the coronavirus, a new wave of young people stepped in to fill the void.

It could’ve been chaos, this election year. But it wasn’t. Even when presented with some of the most difficult circumstances, the people who worked there made sure it all stayed free and fair.

Ronnie Long

Free now, after being wrongfully convicted in 1976 and serving 44 years in jail 

Ronnie Long leaving jail

Ronnie Long, walking out of jail after 44 years. (Photo courtesy of Ashleigh Long)

What would you wear? What would you say? Who would you hug? What would you eat?

If a white woman had been raped and people blamed you, a young Black man. If police collected 43 fingerprints from the scene that weren’t yours, and never told a soul about them. If an all-white jury said you did it, and put you away. If you spent the next 44 years, 3 months, and 17 days of your life in prison, and now, the guard was opening the gate for you because the state admitted it was wrong.

Ronnie Long wore a red vest, a red tie, and a dark suit with a fedora when he walked out of the Albemarle Correction Institute on August 27 at 5:13 p.m. He hugged his wife, whom he met while in jail and who led the charge to get him out. Family swarmed him.

And then he looked at a gaggle of reporters and said what you might say, if you were 65 years old, and you couldn’t go back, and the courts couldn’t take it back. He looked forward, away from the prison fence, and said, according to the Observer:

“They will never … they will never, ever, ever lock me up again.”

Greg and Subrina Collier

Owners, Leah & Louise, Yolk

leahlouise-campnorthend the colliers greg subrina

Greg and Subrina Collier

Why them: They’re funny. They’re in love. They make unbelievable food. They’re all about lifting up others.

I’ve been a fan of Subrina and Greg since the first time I met them back when their breakfast spot, The Yolk, was out near I-485. That doesn’t make me special. Everyone is a fan of Subrina and Greg the first time they meet them.

The wild thing about them, though, is that they continue to impress. Probably my most vivid memory of Greg, in fact, is from two days before Thanksgiving 2019, when I walked into a kitchen at the Salvation Army Center for Women & Children. And there he was, cooking up a dozen 20-pound turkeys, 120 pounds of chicken, “and so much mac and cheese I can’t count,” as part of Heal Charlotte’s Thanksgiving dinner. Not for money. Not for attention. Just because.

When they announced that they’d be opening their dream restaurant, Leah & Louise, at Camp North End in March 2020, the city couldn’t wait.

Maybe you know what else came along in March 2020.

They could’ve fallen into the pit of woes, but they didn’t. They muscled up and made more food. They set up takeout. They kept cooking, kept smiling, kept loving, kept lifting.

And late in the year, Leah & Louise stood at the center of the country’s culinary conversation as Esquire’s No. 2 Best New Restaurant of 2020 in America. This week Emma said they were Agenda’s No. 1 Best New Restaurant in Charlotte. They’re the new faces of Charlotte’s culinary scene, and you’d have to search hard and long to find someone who’d argue that.

And speaking of Gregs and Heal Charlotte …

Greg Jackson

Founder, Heal Charlotte 

Greg Jackson and Greg Collier Thanksgiving 2019

Greg Jackson and Greg Collier, serving Thanksgiving dinner at the Salvation Army Center for Women and Children in 2019.

Why this year: If you’ve heard Jackson talk, you know his passion. Jackson’s organization grew again this year, and in August he unveiled a bold proposal to purchase a hotel and turn it into affordable housing for people who come through his program.

He’s still early in the fundraising, but the idea clearly has potential. Roof Above secured funding to purchase and renovate a hotel on Clanton Road this fall.

In a city where the biggest issue is affordable housing, we needed new ideas like these.

Speaking of those …

Mark Ethridge

Partner, Ascent Real Estate Capital

Mark Ethridge

Mark Ethridge

How he inspired us: This year Mark spearheaded an effort to launch a $58 million a fund to preserve naturally occurring affordable housing (NOAH), which includes older, no-frills apartment complexes. Around Charlotte, NOAHs are disappearing as out-of-town developers buy them up. Leaders like Ethridge see NOAH preservation as a key factor in providing affordable housing around town.

The goal of the Housing Impact Fund, which Ethridge started with a number of investors including Erskine Bowles and Nelson Schwab, is to buy existing apartments and place deed restrictions on them to keep them affordable.

Ric Elias

Red Ventures CEO

Ric Elias

Ric Elias (Photo courtesy Red Ventures)

Why him: He’s a machine. He drives success. He’s one of those rare CEOs who makes you think he’s everywhere all at once, and intensely involved in every employee’s lives, even if he oversees thousands of them.

He’s friends with pro athletes. He’s got gobs of money, but connects with everyone. Red Ventures purchased more than half-a-billion in media brands this year alone.

But he’s also building out one of the greatest talent-development networks in Charlotte. It’s called Road to Hire, and it’s taking young people who show talent but might not want to go to college, and it’s putting them through six months of intensive training, after which they come out as software developers and engineers, being recruited to take high-paying jobs at Charlotte’s biggest companies.

And on top of that, this year, he and his team led the way on coronavirus response. Red Ventures was one of the first big local companies to announce in August that its offices would remain closed for the rest of the year. (Last month, the company told its employees they won’t be required to come into the office at all in 2021).

In a recent survey, we asked readers who inspired them this year. Eight people mentioned Elias. One reader with initials K.M. wrote, “Ric Elias, my husband’s CEO. … He’s trusting his people to work remotely and be accountable. And he’s an incredible motivator who keeps it real.”

The Black Lives Matter mural artists

Why: On a warm morning in June, while the world was raging, they came together to do something simple. They painted letters. Individually, those letters were beautiful and thoughtful art — together they were something bigger.

Participating artists: Dammit Wesley, Dakotah Aiyanna, Matthew Clayburn, Abel Jackson, Garrison Gist, Owl & Arko, Kyle Mosher, Franklin Kernes, Kiana Mui, Marcus Kiser, Georgie Nakima, Zach McLean, Frankie Zombie, CHD:WCK!, John Hairston, and Dari Calamari. Artists are being paid $500 for each letter, and all supplies were included.

Jay and Miketa Davis

Lulu’s Maryland-style Chicken and Seafood

lulus owners

Photo by Alvin C. Jacobs

Why them: I’ve probably written enough words about them, here and here.

They cleared seven figures in their first year in business, during Covid-19, while losing Jay’s son to gun violence. And now they’re opening a new location on Central Avenue.

The city loves them. And they love the city back. Can’t wait to see where they go from here.

Deborah Woolard

Founder, Block Love CLT

Deborah Woolard, Block Love CLT

Deborah Woolard, Block Love CLT

Why her: Woolard has worked in the community for years, mostly with domestic violence victims and serving people who are hungry.

This year, when Covid-19 hit, she went down to the homeless encampment and started handing out food and blankets.

Block Love CLT has now had a presence there for 291 consecutive days.

And some reader choices …

More than 3,000 people responded to our recent coronavirus survey. It included the question, “Who in Charlotte inspired you in 2020?” Answers ranged from personal to global. Here are a few you named.

Jeff Jackson, state senator. He received far more nominations than anyone else with 38. Well, actually, 37. “Jeff Jackson’s wife,” wrote a reader whose initials are M.L. Marisa Jackson took over Jeff’s social media while he was deployed with his Army Reserves unit in the fall.

Cozzie Watkins, activist. Or, as she became known to one reader with initials L.M., The lady who spoke for NC in the Democratic convention state roll call!!! She was the bomb!!!!”

Katie Levans, Agenda co-founder. She received 16 mentions in our survey. “You’re still the Queen.” — K.J.

Queen City Nerve. Publisher Justin LaFrancois had four people write his name down. “His unending coverage of the protests in Charlotte after George Floyd’s murder was courageous and inspiring. I found myself kneeling with the marchers (albeit in my living room) with tears flowing down my cheeks.” — A.N.

queen city nerve delivery

Queen City Nerve publisher Justin LaFrancois (driving) and editor Ryan Pitkin deliver papers.

Liz Clasen-Kelly, CEO of Roof Above: “Inspires me every day. Liz’s commitment and leadership in the fight to end homelessness is admirable. She leads by example, and truly cares about our homeless population, and her actions prove this.” — A.M.

Joe Bruno, WSOC reporter: He dyes his hair, loves Creed, and can be shy and awkward. But he’s a hell of a reporter. Or, as a reader wrote, “the guy is unstoppable. If you see him coming in your direction, I hope you’re not in trouble.” — J.M.

Joe Bruno and Liz Egan with their dog Dansby

Joe and Liz, with Dansby, from our feature story on them earlier this month.

Pat McCrory, former governor and Charlotte mayor: Eight people nominated him in our survey, including one anonymous submission from someone who said it was “for shedding light on the PC police.”

Sil Ganzo, founder, ourBRIDGE. She received three nominations, including one who said, “She works tirelessly to help immigrant families.”

A little more personal…

“Teachers and health care workers. My son and daughter-in-law who got married in June. They showed the true meaning of a wedding day/marriage despite having re-scheduled their reception twice. If it weren’t for the large deposit down with the caterer they would be perfectly happy to forgo the big party and remember all the love they felt from those who watched virtually and sent video messages. — L.

“All the people who socially distanced and wore masks.” — P.R.

“My friend, Josh Brown. He’s a really good guitar player and I’d already been learning because of him, but I’ve had the time to really ramp it up this year.” — R.S.

“My manager at work, Jen. She has encouraged our team during the hard times, kept us informed of the ever-changing work processes throughout the COVID pandemic, and still helped us have fun every single day.” — M.T.

“My wife. She just kept on going, even when things went from bad to worse.” — J.C.

“Meggie Williams of Skiptown — launching the new South End location in the middle of a pandemic with everyone suddenly staying home can not have been easy.” — B.D.

“My friend Cynthia Rowell. She had to out her dog down; she & her husband both had Covid. He was hospitalized 10 days & back in. Her mom also passed (from other health issues) and yet she continues to keep her faith & takes care of her grandchildren & still works.” — T.R.

“All four of my CLT grandchildren adjusted quickly after school closures and quarantining, without much grumbling.” — D.H.

“Ron Rivera. Left with dignity.” — L.M.

“James Murphy, he started a manufacturing operation from the ground up this year. Bought $2.5 million warehouse in Statesville, worked with local contractors to rehab the building… and created 85 jobs in the area… and already is setup to make 8 figures in revenue in next 12 months.” — A.H.

“Michael Bowling with his perseverance and positive attitude.” — R.S.

“My pastor, Alex Kennedy at Carmel Baptist Church.” — B.M.

“Rev. Ben Boswell – Myers Park Baptist Church.” — S.C.

“My parents and their ability to keep their restaurants a float in the midst of these hard times.” — K.C.

“Pastor Derwin Gray.” — B.J.

“My niece who is a nurse at Atrium main. She’s worked on the Infectious Disease floor as well as the Emergency Department. Her attitude is amazing through it all.” — K.O.

“My wife, who is a nurse.” — Anonymous

“My family.” — C.B.

Here’s to 2021.

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"It's good. I promise." - Emma   Emma Way