Chatham County is full of characters whose stories provide us with awe and wonder. The place we know and love is defined by the people who make it a welcoming county to live, work and play.
Talk to any given person in the county and they’ll have a story unlike any you’ve heard before. From building homes for the mentally ill to cooking up meals for thousands, the people in Chatham are truly extraordinary. Throughout 2022, the News + Record has captured some of their stories. While it’s impossible to highlight all the noteworthy people we wrote about in the past year, here are 18 who made 2022 especially memorable:
1. Sera Cuni: Chef at Root Cellar Cafe who starred on Food Network
Sera Cuni rarely meets a competition she doesn’t want to enter.
Whether it’s Strong Man matches around the state or Guy Fieri’s Grocery Games on the Food Network, Cuni will take her talents wherever she can compete.
Recently, Cuni made it to the grand finale of the 2022 N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association’s Chef Showdown, where she showcased her smoked barbecue rubbed porchetta, southern Panzanella salad, grilled peaches, watermelon, corn, pickled peanuts, cornbread croutons and chow chow. She didn’t win the top prize, but she does have the distinction of being the only female finalist among the savory chefs.
“The Chef Showdown was so much fun,” she told the News + Record back in August. “It was wonderful to see friends from all over the state who came out to cheer for me and to taste my food.”
Cuni, co-owner and chef of The Root Cellar Cafe & Catering in Chapel Hill and the Café Root Cellar, a sister restaurant in Pittsboro, was also one of two Triangle area chefs to make it to the finals.
2. Bob Hagemann: Chatham County Attorney who was the secret weapon behind VinFast, Wolfspeed
What do Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium, Fujifilm, VinFast and Wolfspeed all have in common?
The legal work on these massive N.C. economic development projects was overseen by one man: Bob Hagemann.
Hagemann, an attorney at Poyner Spruill in Raleigh, is now in his third year as the attorney for Chatham County’s governmental operations, and in that short span, he’s already made a huge impact — playing an instrumental role in bringing more than $9 billion and 9,000 jobs in economic development to the county this year and helping set the stage for decades of growth and change.
His peers would describe him as laid-back, humble. The kind of guy you’d enjoying catching up with over a glass of wine. But underneath Hagemann’s easygoing exterior is someone who knows how to get the job done, and whose skilled approach to the tasks at hand earned him the nickname — assigned by Michael Smith, the president of Chatham’s economic development office — “Billion-Dollar Bob.”
3. Michael Smith: President of Chatham Economic Development Corporation who helped bring VinFast and Wolfspeed here
In an age where landing even a $50 million economic development project is considered a major win, Michael Smith sheepishly admits the numbers generated in Chatham County during 2022 were almost “cartoonish” in scope.
Smith, the president of Chatham’s Economic Development Corporation, is the chief internal engineer of the county’s industrial development efforts. It all got started last March with VinFast — at the time, with $4 billion in investment and 7,500 new jobs, the biggest industrial announcement in N.C. history. The Vietnamese company is now more than a third finished with site preparation work on its land at Triangle Innovation Point, near Moncure, the future home of its massive electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing plant set to roll out EVs in the summer of 2024. (Plant construction will begin early this year.)
Add in semiconductor maker Wolfspeed’s $5 billion, 1,700-job announcement for the Chatham-Siler City Advanced Manufacturing site in September, and FedEx’s April shipping hub launch near the VinFast site, and Smith acknowledges something truly unprecedented here: more than $9 billion in investment and 9,000 new jobs coming to rural, potential-laden Chatham, all announced within the span of a few months.
Which is to say: even after landing the two largest economic development projects in state history, Chatham County isn’t finished yet. The county still has more megasite property available than any county in the state. So even after an extraordinarily busy 2022, Smith’s 2023 calendar could be just as full.
4 & 5. Mary Nettles & Bob Pearson: Community Remembrance Coalition-Chatham leaders who made a mark(er)
Mary Nettles was raised in Pittsboro and still lives there. Bob Pearson grew up on a farm in Tennessee, then got a law degree and served in the Foreign Service, working under six presidents in more than 50 counties before retiring in Fearrington Village. She’s Black; he’s white.
In 2022, their four-year collaboration — through local branches of the NAACP and the help from fellow members of the Community Remembrance Coalition-Chatham, which they help found together — culminated in the placing in September of a historical marker in Pittsboro remembering the legacy of Chatham County’s six lynching victims.
The work began in 2018, and when the marker was unveiled and dedicated near the courthouse in Pittsboro, Pearson reminded everyone of what preceded the unveiling.
“We are here today because history requires that this story be told,” Pearson said. “Others now and in the future can read this marker and learn and be inspired by it to continue to bring justice to our community.”
He said justice cannot be achieved without truth, and that the work of Nettles and the rest of the CRC-C was meant to reconcile Black history in the county and seek a progressive way forward.
The unveiling came just days after Nettles, Pearson, and other CRC-C members traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, to visit the Equal Justice Initiative’s two landmark projects: The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
After returning from the trip, Nettles said she was most impacted by the room with the sign, “A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY.”
“The room also displayed hundreds of jars of soil from around the United States, with the name of the person lynched, date and year lynched and a short story educating the public about the lynching,” she said.
Those jars included soil from sites from Chatham’s six lynching victims, which Nettles helped collect.
“In addition to the stories I have heard, I was able to see and read about a painful truth that needs telling of a long history of racial injustice and wrongful convictions against people of color,” she said.
One of the next steps Pearson said the CRC-C may devote energy toward is recognizing the enslaved Africans who were brought to Chatham County with European settlers. Currently, the Historical Museum in Pittsboro has a plaque of “the first settlers of Chatham County,” but Pearson said it includes only white European names.
6. Jim Vanderbeck: Viet Nam Veteran remembering his fallen fellow soldiers
Many men and women from Chatham County have served with distinction in the military, but every year, as Veterans Day approaches, Jim Vanderbeck’s memories of war are particularly poignant and painful.
In August 1969, he had a chance to move from crew chief on aircraft #64-13161 to an additional replacement ship — as aircraft were called — as flight engineer on a Boeing manufactured Chinook CH-47 being used by the Army. The fateful switching of “ships” would have eternal consequences.
“My friend Jim Mott was not surprised at my reassignment to the new ship as we had celebrated the previous night in the flight platoon hootch (living quarters) we shared; I took his picture,” Vanderbeck remembered in a first-person Veterans Day story he wrote for the News + Record. “Jim Mott and I were both unaware at the time that two crew chiefs would be showing up for one flight engineer position in a conflicting situation the next morning, but Mott had been expecting a replacement crew chief, nonetheless.
“Aug. 30, 1969, is indelible in my mind, but the exact timing during the remainder of that day is now a bit blurry.
“161 took off with its five-man crew for the day’s sorties as I continued to work on 141. Sometime later, word came out along the flight-line that one of the company’s ships went down. I went to the flight operations shack to get more information. The report came in by radio that the downed ship was 161 but there was little additional information just then. The mission board showed the ship had been supporting the Australians out of Nui Dat base camp. More info started to come in that the ship had crashed in the jungle short of their intended LZ (landing zone), FSB Diggers Rest. The jungle, the ship’s jet-fuel, and the exploding ordinance the ship was carrying prevented on-the-ground field forces from quickly getting to the downed ship.
“A little later, it was reported that there were no survivors of the five-man crew.”
Vanderbeck later flew over the crash site; the outline of a Chinook was burned into the jungle, he wrote.
“The cockpit was separated from the rest of the ship and the pilots, Bobby Gray and Marvin Butterfield, had been intact in their seats but were dead. Jim Mott, Scott Verner and Greg Trimnal were consumed by the fire that completely burned the remaining 52-foot fuselage except for the massive aft rotor head.”
Now, the 113-acre site Vanderbeck owns in Chatham County is being used to recognize and honor “the sacrifices made that enabled me to literally continue my life … We decided we would name our road Greg Trimnal Circle and look for opportunities in the future to name other areas of our land after the rest of the crew of 64-13161.”
He wrote that he and his wife, Marie, are moving closer to their of recognizing the ultimate sacrifice of the crew of 161.
“Oh,” Vanderbeck wrote. “How I miss them!”
7. Airryn Wharton: Northwood student who saved her father’s life
When Airryn went outside to warm up her car on that chilly Feb. 7 morning, she noticed her father had returned from driving her younger sister to school. But when she came back outside to leave for school herself, his car was still there — in the same spot.
That was unusual, Airryn thought.
Normally, her dad would have already left for work. When Airryn investigated, she found him inside the car, his head against the window — unconscious.
Airryn immediately ran to get her mother and brother, who were inside, and then called 911. The car doors were locked, but the window was down and the family managed to open the door, pull Reginald Aaron Wharton Jr. from his vehicle and lay him down flat upon the driveway.
The sound her dad made sounded like snoring to Airryn. But she knew — thanks to a class she took at Northwood — that it wasn’t.
Airryn proceeded to perform CPR on her father and continued chest compressions for about six minutes until help arrived. That sustained him until a police officer and Emergency Medical Technicians arrived; an ambulance then whisked her dad to UNC Hospitals, where he remained until late afternoon before being released.
Wharton’s CPR training at Northwood High School saved her father’s life.
8. Rose Pate: founder of JMArts
For 41 years, one woman has occupied the desk in the middle of the Jordan-Matthews High School library. It’s been a space for students to have their college essays read, contemplate difficult life decisions and feel safe in the often chaotic times of high school.
Now, the woman behind the desk — a bedrock of the J-M community — is retiring. Rose Pate celebrated her final year at J-M on a Wednesday night last June with a special retirement ceremony in the school’s auditorium. The ceremony featured more than 50 current students, staff and alumni dating as far back as the class of 2006.
The auditorium seemed a fitting place for Pate’s retirement ceremony as the founder and president of JMArts, the nonprofit organization to enhance arts education at J-M. When Pate founded JMArts in 2011, the school barely had enough funding to put students on stage in a costume. She wrote and produced three one-act musicals, working with J-M chorus teacher Matt Fry. The final one was “Twi-School Musical,” a mashup of the Disney hit “High School Musical” and the Twilight books, which they performed because the school couldn’t afford rights to perform a Broadway show.
Since then, J-M has performed nine Broadway musicals, including “Into the Woods,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Oklahoma!” The theatre program is set to perform its 10th, “Shrek the Musical,” next spring.
Pate’s leadership in the arts extends beyond theater. She’s also been instrumental — pun intended — in supporting the band, chorus and visual arts programs.
Pate remains involved as president of JMArts, even after her retirement.
9 & 10. Craig Witter & Tammy Matthews: founders of Pittsboro Youth Theater
Craig Witter and Tammy Matthews, co-founders of the Pittsboro Youth Theater, make the humble stage in downtown Pittsboro a place of family. Over the years they’ve seen the company evolve and grow, but the community they’ve created along the way has followed them.
The couple first opened PYT out of the Pittsboro Community House, where they ran the operation for five years before moving into their own space around the corner in the Pittsboro Center for the Arts. Now, after five years the theater is set to move again.
At the end of 2022, PYT was in the midst of moving into a new, bigger space in Bynum. It’ll be a home that is authentically theirs, Witter said. Unlike previous spaces, they’re designing everything essentially from scratch to make it the optimal place for youth theater rehearsals, music lessons, dancing, and of course, charming performances.
“There’s just no way we can stay here,” Witter said. “Business as usual won’t cut it.”
PYT is expanding faster than the corner space in downtown can keep up with, so the bigger space was a necessary move. When Witter and Matthews first began the endeavor they never thought it would expand to where it is today. What used to be one musical a year is now an average of seven shows annually, a music school, and most recently, a competitive troupe preparing for the Junior Theater Festival (JTF).
What started with five families is now bigger than ever with more than 120 families consistently participating in the shows. They’ve even hired others to help out with the operation including choreographers and a music director.
In 2022, Witter and Matthews celebrated the 10-year anniversary of making PYT a home on stage for kids throughout Chatham County.
11. Thava Mahadevan: founder of Tiny Homes Village at the Farm at Penny Lane
On a bright fall morning, Thava Mahadevan heads down a gravel pathway to a clearing surrounded by orange construction tape and a circle of trees just beginning to fade in color. At the moment, the construction site itself isn’t particularly impressive; white stakes in the ground demarcate plots of land and a septic route while tire tracks etch the soft mud of the property.
But through Mahadevan’s eyes, it’s the foundation of a dream years in the making.
In 2009, when Mahadevan purchased 40 acres of farmland in a neighborhood off Chapel Hill Road in Pittsboro, the idea of one day creating a space for safe, affordable housing was just a hopeful vision.
A licensed clinical addiction specialist and director of operations at the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health, he founded the Farm at Penny Lane in 2012 using a “holistic and sustainable approach” to improve the quality of life for those with serious and persistent mental illness.
Over the next 10 years, Mahadevan and his team at the Farm at Penny Lane saw the development of the organic therapeutic farm and its recovery-oriented programs, from music and yoga classes to animal-assisted and horticulture therapies. Addressing social determinants of health and centering those with lived experiences are at the core of the Farm’s practices.
“So it’s a place to really build on the notion that collective impact makes a big difference,” Mahadevan, who also serves as executive director of local nonprofit Cross Disability Services, told the News + Record in October.
Now, the Farm is getting closer and closer to seeing another part of its community finally in practice: the Tiny Homes Village.
The Tiny Homes Village, located on the grounds of the Farm at Penny Lane, will have 15 tiny homes; each will be built on a permanent foundation and encompass around 360 square feet. Five of the homes will be reserved for veterans with chronic health conditions, and the village will also have an outdoor pavilion and a clubhouse with fitness and cooking facilities.
12. Anna Hackney: 18-year-old who spoke out against her sexual assault
Anna Hackney was raised in a household where the family unit was the most loved and trusted entity.
Little did she know it would be a member of her own family who would betray her in the worst way possible: between the ages of 11 and 15, Hackney was sexually and emotionally abused by an uncle.
“As I got older, it definitely made me more uncomfortable, and it definitely made me feel like he targeted me,” Hackney told the News + Record in December, almost a month after her uncle’s sentencing. “I definitely started to realize that what was happening was normal for me, but I needed to find out if it was normal for anyone else.”
That uncle, John Mark Ellington, stepped into Hackey’s life after her parents divorced. Hackney found herself at the home of Ellington and his wife, often on a weekly basis; the two helped to fill in the gaps when needed. But Hackney said Ellington began sexually abused her — touching her inappropriately, beginning at age 11 — and, according to Hackney, blaming the various medications he took for his actions.
Two years after reporting Ellington to the authorities, Hackney is in trauma-specific therapy. She still attends weekly sessions with her therapist, Mary Miracle, and says the sessions have helped her learn to cope with the years of abuse she suffered at the hands of her uncle.
Hackney said she wants to help others with what she’s learned from Miracle, and ultimately, she wants to use her voice to help others in situations like hers.
“It is one of my goals to be an advocate for people of all ages who’ve through any kind of sexual trauma — to be available, to be a friend to talk to,” Hackney said. “I think that I could help point people in the right direction, and help get them the help that they need. Plus, I have tips that I’ve gotten from therapy that I would love to share with somebody.”
13. Jennie Knowlton: founder of Quiltmaker Cafe, feeder of the hungry
Jennie Knowlton established the nonprofit Quiltmaker Café in February 2021 with her husband David and daughter Elizabeth and a simple vision: to open a permanent fast-casual restaurant in Pittsboro using a pay-what-you-can model, in which those eating set their own price for the meal. Donations can take different forms, including monetary, produce or donations of time through volunteering.
Knowlton said there are around 50 other cafés in the country using the same model, and under the umbrella of the One World Everybody Eats nonprofit organization.
Quiltmaker Café, which has been serving meals at community events while it aims to establish a location in Pittsboro, follows seven tenets: pay-what-you-can pricing, the ability for guests to choose portion sizes, the ability for guests to volunteer in exchange for a meal, serving healthy and local food, offering a community table as “an equalizer” to guests, paid employees receiving a living wage and volunteers making up the majority of restaurant staff.
Knowlton, who grew up experiencing food insecurity, remembers the associated stigma. A core feature of the restaurant is dignity, she said, and being able to give agency to patrons to dine out and enjoy a meal with others.
“So there’ll be no separation between who might be paying, who might be volunteering, who might be paying under,” she said. “And just building that community also with using volunteers, rather than employees, [so] that everyone is also serving each other, once again, no matter from what type of means they might be coming from.”
In Chatham County, 11.7% of residents, or 8,350 people, are food insecure, according to the 2019 Feeding America report. In comparison, the state’s food insecurity rate for the same year was 13.5%. The Chatham County Public Health Department’s 2021 Community Assessment found that more than 1 in 8 Chatham County adults reported worrying they would run out of food before they had money to buy more in the past year, including around 30% of Hispanic or Latinx residents and 20% of Black residents.
Since its establishment, the Quiltmaker Café has hosted different meals in the county, including a Thanksgiving Day feast at Postal Fish.
Knowlton, in a New Year’s message to supporters this week, wrote: “I have to say that the nonprofit world is an amazing and one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had, second only to raising our child. The amazing people that I have met this year and even more importantly, have really gotten to know, truly blows my mind and sparks an internal hope that I’m sure all of us, at one time or another, have lost over the negativity and drama that can seem to take the spotlight. If you are ever feeling down, visit a local nonprofit, any nonprofit, and I can almost promise you that the people you meet will lift your spirits.”
14 & 15. Tyler White & Chris Terry: owners of Bestfood Cafeteria
Tyler White and Chris Terry have spent the majority of their lives behind the serving line at Bestfood Cafeteria and working in Hayley Bales Steakhouse — starting back in 2003, when their fathers acquired the businesses.
Now, it’s just the two of them.
Chris’s father, Mike Terry, died in 2018 after a lengthy battle with cancer. And Tyler’s father, Art White, died after contracting COVID-19 last August. Now, in the face of grief and loss, Tyler and Chris are carrying on the legacies of their fathers as the faces of two of Siler City’s best-known eateries.
“When you look back on it, it gave our dads a lot of stability to know they had two people under them who cared, knew the sacrifice and could do the work,” Tyler said.
Bestfood Cafeteria and Hayley Bales Steakhouse — located side by side off U.S. Hwy. 64 — have been a part of the Siler City community for decades. Bestfood (which opened in 1989) operates during lunch and dinner service as a more casual dining option, while Hayley Bales (which opened in 1992) serves a more formal dining experience with dinner-exclusive services.
The Terry-White duo strives to continue their fathers’ dreams of serving up Southern cooking to the community that continues to support the cafeteria, the steakhouse and their fathers’ dreams.
16. Erika Hoffman: writer for ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’
Erika Hoffman became a bit concerned about her own state of mind after reading a series of articles about dementia, a memory-loss condition which afflicted her late father, and decided to take action.
What happened next was downright laughable. A story Hoffman wrote — entitled, “You Smell That?” — led off the second chapter of a 2022 edition of “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Too Funny!” book, in a section called “I Can’t Believe I Did That.” The tale involved a magnifying glass, a bit of Italian, some fine print and a startling revelation about what she thought was “the nicest perfume I’d ever been given.”
The story was the 17th Hoffman has had published over the last dozen years in the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book series, which began in 1993 and now includes more than 250 titles. A new book is added to that list each month; more than 100 million books have been sold in the series so far and been translated into more than 40 languages. Nearly 30 years after the first “Chicken Soup” book was sold, the brand now includes a podcast, education programs, a line of pet food and films.
A retired educator, now a writer, Hoffman and her husband, Byron, were married in 1977. They moved to Chatham County when he took a job here as an internist at the old Chatham Hospital. These days, as a part of the “Chicken Soup” family, Hoffman keeps an eye on the Chicken Soup website — chickensoup.com — which lists upcoming book titles and deadlines.
“Usually, I have a personal story about whatever subject they suggest,” Hoffman said.
All told, more than 400 of Hoffman’s works have been published in various forms — in regional magazines, inspirational venues, or ezines on the craft of writing.
“Editors have said they like my humor,” she said. “They like my humorous, conversational-style pieces. I have more trouble writing things that are poignant.”
And her advice for aspiring writers who envision joining her as a “Chicken Soup” author?
“I would tell them not to be afraid of writing down a true story,” Hoffman said. “And just do it. Submit it without mulling it over too much. Don’t let anxiety squash your hopes. If you don’t succeed, just try, try again.”
17. Abdul Chaudhry: owner of Chaudhry Halal Meats
Abdul Chaudhry likes to take care of his people.
He’ll tell you as much on a walk-through of his Siler City business, Chaudhry Halal Meats, pointing to the several relatives he employs or the ways he looks to support his employees and their children in pursuing educational opportunities.
“I’ll do anything for them,” Chaudhry said.
Much of Chaudhry Halal Meats’ business is rooted in servicing independent, local farmers in Chatham County. And whether it’s establishing one of the first halal meat slaughterhouses in North Carolina — providing a much-needed service to Muslims across the Triangle — or founding and financing the construction of the only mosque in Siler City, Chaudhry knows what it means to carve out space for himself and the people he cares about.
After ringing in his 26th year in business in 2022 during a career in meat processing that stretches even longer, Chaudhry is seeing the fruits of his labor and preparing the next generation of butchers in his family.
18. Kenzie Scoggins: 5-year-old who battled rare cancer
Those who knew Kenzie Wrenn Scoggins knew her as unconditional, pure love.
At age 4, Kenzie was vibrant, cheeky and affectionate; she was known to reliably crack up at hearing a curse word just as easily as she would earnestly tell those around her that they looked beautiful on their worst days.
Kenzie was diagnosed in late 2021 with an aggressive childhood brain tumor called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, or DIPG. DIPG spreads throughout a part of the brain stem called the pons, making it inoperable; most patients are given a survival range of eight to 11 months.
Kenzie died from the disease on Sept. 18, at the age of 5, following months of radiation therapy and treatments.
On Dec. 17, the towns of Siler City, where Kenzie lived, and Pittsboro, as well as Chatham County, marked what would have been Kenzie’s 6th birthday with “Bushel & A Peck Day” — named after a song she would sing along with her mother, which has become emblematic of the love the child shared with those close to her.
In her absence, the Scogginses and Kenzie’s loved ones are continuing to honor her memory and carry on her legacy.
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