How is Rowan County doing?

The vaccine

North Carolina does not rank well in the area of vaccinations, and with the exception of Georgia, we’re a much bigger and more densely populated state than the other low performers.

And it’s no comfort seeing the Rowan County numbers. We don’t do well compared to most other counties in the state. And this county is more populated than most of the other low-vaccine counties. We rank 21st in population.

With the Delta variant spreading very fast, these factors, and others, give us a vulnerability rating of “very high,” which prompts a concern that there will be a lot of illness and death this fall and winter, when we’re spending more time indoors.

I’ve lived here most of my life. I was born here and lived in one house for my first 18 years, and then in the house I live in now (3 blocks away) for 35 years. So I’ve lived in the same neighborhood for about 53 of my 64 years.

I’ve worked as a teacher here. I’ve owned businesses here. I have family and friends here. It’s home, and I’m not planning on going anywhere else.

But I find our county’s 30% vaccination rate to be appalling, especially since it’s universally available and free — while other countries remain vulnerable to great suffering and can’t get vaccines at all.

Education, Republican style

For obvious reasons, our vaccine numbers mirror our educations numbers, and I’m not proud of what we’ve become in the area of education.

The county commissioners and state representatives used to be a mixture of Democrats and Republicans, and much less partisan.

We used to have a pretty good county school system and a highly ranked city school system.

But for the past 30 years, it’s been nearly complete Republican government — and many of these folks seem to have values that don’t align with competent leadership.

When they speak about school funding, they never miss an opportunity to say that money doesn’t solve problems.’ Or they say things like you can’t throw money at a problem.’ From what I’ve read in the newspaper and seen online, they never seem to empathize with the needs of a kid who deserves a quality school in order to live a quality life.

Morality

They hold themselves up as moral leaders by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a losing court case, fighting for the right to say “in Jesus’ name we pray” at the end of a prayer, before a meeting.

Just a plain ol’ “Amen,” or a nod to God, or nothing, or a moment of silent prayer — something that would have shown common respect to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, and all other religions who have equal standing under the constitution, was not suitable for this group. If they couldn’t pray in the name of Jesus at a public meeting, then they were excited to go to court and spend all their time and hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to try.

And yet, in the area of morality, Craig Pierce, one of the most pious of the lot, just got a DUI, blowing a .26 and, according to the police report, threatened a police officer in the process. 

This hard right politician got drunk enough to reach across the aisle and drive in the left lane.

Another commissioner, one of the ones who spearheaded the costly lawsuit over prayer, a few years ago, showed up drunk, in the morning, to teach his eighth grade class. He was a decent guy who did get help, and he’s since passed away. But he also continued to serve after this happened.

I don’t respect the shaming of a person with a drinking problem and do not intend to do so. But I do question the ability of some people to lead. If a person exhibits enough lack of control to drive in the wrong lane or teach teenagers while under the influence — then maybe he should not make decisions about taxation, health care services, school funding, and other matters of public importance. Sure, he was elected. But…well…it’s obvious that he’s not capable.

Where do we rank?

Our vaccination numbers mirror what’s happened to our public schools in Rowan County over the past 30 years. We have failed, badly.

Where does Rowan County rank? Where does North Carolina rank? I don’t know. There’s plenty of data out there, great for drilling down and looking at a specific school’s numbers, but my Google skills are not sufficient to find school rankings. Perhaps that’s a thing of the past.

There are, however, a plethora of data available on various directory platforms with a certain social media flare. (ie. schooldigger.com, niche.com, or greatschools.org) This gives the ranking that really matters because actual people rank and comment and set the narrative. Whatever the actual ranking, according to the state’s testing and demographic data, yearly progress, and whatever other factors they use, a county’s social media reputation will have a much greater effect on what kinds of business and industry and housing and education and culture show up in that county.

Rowan County has a lower average income than each of its four surrounding counties. The poverty rate in Rowan County increased by 13% from 2010 to 2020.

And while Republicans have managed all of it, holding every political office for decades, they don’t seem to assume responsibility for the decades of economic decline. And the voters will not hold them accountable because they are told that taxes and government spending are evil, and they’re too distracted by this false morality and other irrelevant gossip to vote on the issues. Education is the issue. Competitive schools cost money. Our Republican commissioners have chosen not to compete.

When you get behind early, it makes it harder to catch up.

And we’re used to it. It’s what we know. If you’ve never seen a really nice, well-run, adequately funded school system, then it doesn’t exist as a possibility.

Years of proudly underfunding the school system has hurt our economy. We have two hospitals, three colleges, and Food Lion home office. That’s a lot of brainpower working in a small town in this county. These people who work in Salisbury used to live in Rowan County, and their children went to school here. Now, this class of people mostly commutes from surrounding counties with better schools.

It’s still a good place to live. Because population growth has been lagging behind our neighboring counties, some of which have real traffic problems, the roads here have kept up with the growth and it’s easy to get around.

How it started

Rowan was a Democratic county until the 1966 election, when it began it’s swing to the right. That year, Republican John Stirewalt defeated Sheriff Shuping, a Democrat, in an upset. Two years later, Earl Ruth, a popular dean, professor, and basketball coach at Catawba College, and member of the Salisbury City Council, changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican, got a big endorsement from Nixon, and won a seat to Congress.

The pump got primed in the 80’s, when we had some extreme right wing Reagan style “government is the problem” guys on the county commission. These self-made, non-college types sent their own kids to private, Protestant church schools and voted no to anything that had to do with public school funding. One of them told me, one time, that school funding was entirely the state’s responsibility and the county had no responsibility at all.

Meanwhile, schools were just starting to get computers, and Cabarrus County (which was fairly close in population to Rowan County at that time), had a technology budget ten times the size of the Rowan County’s technology budget.

While these Reagan extremist commissioners were considered heroes by some, getting cheers each time they used the word waste,’ many people thought of them as crackpots. While the 80’s foreshadowed what would happen in Rowan County and North Carolina, there were still smatterings of reasonable Democrats and Republicans in the mix — both in the county and in the city.

We began the full right turn on July 4th, 1991, when a very popular President Bush came here in order to play softball in Faith. The national news focused on the fact that there were no black residents of Faith. Locally, it was a huge rally for the Republican Party, and it also brought a lot of young people into that party. I remember kids in bands being pretty excited about playing for the president. 

In 2003, Elizabeth Dole, a Republican from Salisbury, who had already served as a Cabinet Secretary in the Reagan and Bush administrations, became a U.S. Senator. She was and still is the wife of Bob Dole, who was the Republican Leader of the United States Senate.

So Rowan County became not just a red county, but an early adopter, well-entrenched red county.

By now, demographics ensure we would be a Republican county anyway. Trump got 68% of the vote in Rowan County in 2020. The parties now have a stark urban/rural divide over the entire country, and Rowan County residents like country living. Biden had a good showing in Salisbury and won 10 precincts. But Salisbury has not grown as fast as the county and now contains 24% of the county’s population. Trump won the precincts outside of Salisbury and Spencer and East Spencer by 40 to 50 points — so there’s almost no hope for a Democrat to win an election here for anything other than the municipal non-partisan races.

A case, yes. But is it a hopeless case?

My point is that we had a few years head start on the era of austerity, and we’re paying a heavy price for it.

It shows up in many ways — income, educational opportunity, employment opportunity, technology, safety, and quality of life.

It may also show up in hospitals this winter, with more COVID.

You can’t start working to solve a problem until you recognize the problem. In the case of Rowan County Republicans versus Rowan County Education…well… there is no real case. But it seems like there has been. 

There should be a different kind of case in the other direction: Rowan County Education, and lost hopes for prosperity, versus The Rowan County Republican Party.

It’s a clear case. Thirty years of solid Republican domination in local politics has overseen 30 years of decline in education standing. And 30 years solid Republican County Commission has overseen 30 years of decline in economic standing.

You would think a strong Democrat could make that case and be a viable candidate for at least one seat on the County Commission. But, at this point, with county-wide voting for each of the five seats, with party loyalty being what it’s become, even one seat to a Democrat would be a huge upset. Even with a great candidate, a well funded campaign, a strong grass roots following, and a massive, localized get out the vote operation — it would likely end in an embarrassing trounce.

Going to see ‘A Parie Home Companion’ and I’m Sorta excited

phcIn a few minutes, Alicia and I will be making the pilgrimage to see A Prarie Home Companion, in Brevard, NC.

That show begin a month after I graduated from high school, and I’ve been a fan since then.

My dad liked it, and I have a vivid memory of sitting in the car on trips and listening and laughing. After all, I was an English major, and Mr. Keillor has always had a knack for English major jokes.

I’m not much of a concert goer. I could count on both hands the number of I’ve been to in my life. I’ve been to more political rallies — and a whole lot more training and development weekends 🙂

But this is special. He’s retiring, and I’ve always wanted to go.

So this is just to say I’m pretty excited!

Remembering Scotty

Scotty Mitchell

Scotty Mitchell died on Wednesday. Tennis players in Salisbury (a.k.a. great friends) will miss him mightily.

As a player, he had an amazing forehand crosscourt return of serve. The angle was so sharp it made one wonder how the ball could realistically get over the net.

In my 20’s and 30’s, I played a lot of doubles matches against Scotty. In the traditional manner of the day, I served and volleyed, every time. Always serve and volley. Always.

Being a teaching pro and a tournament player, 35 years younger than Scotty, I used to look at the old man and assume I could overpower him.

So I would serve, come in, and then watch these effortless returns scoot by me, WAY out of my  reach — almost sideways to the net. Amazing.

But of course it was the conversation that set him apart the most.

I only saw him at three places. Primarily at the tennis courts. But also in coffee shops and at the library. Scotty was a constant reader, always sharing something fascinating from the book he was currently in. He was kind of a reluctant scholar — an extremely well educated man with tons of life experience who could relate to absolutely anybody.

And I mean anybody.

A lot of characters show up at the tennis courts (especially back in the day, when pick-up games were the norm in tennis in Salisbury). Oftentimes, one shows one’s true colors in a close match. Scotty was great with everybody.

I remember a pick-up match in which an argument erupted over a line call. Two of the guys started getting nasty. One of them (seriously, now) pulled a knife out of his tennis shorts and flicked out the blade.

I was watching. Scotty was on the court, playing. He wasn’t rattled in the least.

“Put that away,” he said. “Ad out.”

If my memory serves me correctly, he was 55 when he moved to Salisbury. That was in the City Park tennis era and the sport of tennis was riding a wave of popularity. The courts were full much of the time. You didn’t need to make phone calls. I would just ride my bike down there and find a game. It was quite a family.

He retired from G.E. about the time Catawba built it’s new tennis center (about 28 years ago?). He became the tennis coach there. It was a labor of love. I know, because I applied for the job myself and didn’t get it — possibly because my jaw dropped when they told me the pay.

I live two blocks from those courts and in those years made my way there daily. Scotty was the maitre ‘d.

My son grew up playing there and being the recipient of Scotty’s warm encouragement. I loved hitting with Aaron, but he preferred playing with Scotty. During much of his childhood and teen years, he would ride his bike to the courts almost every day and hit balls or play sets with Scotty. The man was in his late 70’s and early 80’s then, and he was a magnet for tennis players.

We couldn’t afford for Aaron, my son, to take a lot of lessons. I taught him the fundamentals myself. But it was Scotty’s incredible generosity that was largely responsible for Aaron having a tennis scholarship in college.

Many days, I would hang out at the courts and talk Scotty’s ear off while he strung rackets, listened to my various woes, and shared his wisdom. A Dartmouth grad. A WWII soldier in the Pacific. An avid reader. A father of six.

He said he played tennis as a child and then turned to golf until he was in his 50’s and moved to Salisbury. Then it was all tennis.

He, Dr. David Smith, Dr. Joe Corpening, and my father were all about the same age. Scotty was the oldest, I think — by a year. He died Wednesday at the age of 92, outliving the other three. They were all remarkable people and tougher than nails, accomplished tennis players who kept running and hitting balls until their bodies would no longer allow them to.

I regret that I can’t be at the funeral tomorrow and be a part of the sharing of memories.

I last saw him a couple of months ago, at the City Park. He was sitting on the bench, watching a doubles match. He asked me about my life, my work, my family. I asked him if was going to join the game — if he was still playing.

“Play?” he said. “I can hardly walk!”

Scotty was witty, funny, kind, and wise. He was unique. But these memories of him are not unique. I know I speak for countless others when I say I loved him, I’ll miss him, and I’m extremely grateful to have spent time with him in this life.

Spencer Tracy’s speech in Inherit the Wind is a fitting response to our commissioners and representatives

Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind

Here in Rowan County, North Carolina, our County Commissioners are defending themselves against an ACLU lawsuit, because they refuse to open the meetings with an inclusive prayer.

Coming to their defense, our brave representatives in the state house took a shot at establishing a state religion.

There’s not a lot to say that hasn’t already been said — so why not let Spencer Tracy make the point. He said it very, very well!

North Carolina Amendment One tells us that old people vote and young people don’t

The big news tonight in North Carolina is that amendment one passed.

According to ABC News (the site that rose to the top on my little Google search):

“The referendum- North Carolina Amendment One- goes a step beyond outlawing same-sex marriage, which was already illegal in the state. The law decrees that ‘marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State’- meaning that civil unions and potentially other types of domestic partnerships will no longer be legally recognized.”

Here’s my opinion (based on zero knowledge of the data):

Regardless of the impact, which will affect a lot of people, this outcome says very little about what people actually want.

It only indicates the generational divide in voting; old people like to vote young people don’t take the time. Period.

In the overall scheme of things, human rights flows in one direction, from slavery to freedom.

There are setbacks on the way, but they are reactions — little historical blips on the path to more freedom.

And this is one of those setbacks.

In a couple of decades, most of the people who voted for this will either be dead or too feeble to get to the polls — and the younger generations will vote to allow this freedom. They will laugh at us.

(For the record, I did vote against it and almost everybody I talked with about it voted against it).

a few notes about Poochie, my play, that opens Wednesday

Production shot from 'Poochie,' (Bob Paolino and Chris Speer -- from The Salisbury Post)

This new play has been different from any production of any play I’ve ever had.

I’ve had plays in other cities or states where I just showed up and saw the show. And I’ve had some around here where I basically watched the sausage being made.

But I’ve been busy. So I wrote it, gave it to the director, Justin Dionne, and basically left it at that.

I’ve had very little input. Even if I had had time for input, it wouldn’t have been a good idea. The direction and design is way beyond anything I had in mind for the little black box theatre on Lee St.

Because I didn’t really have time to go to rehearsal, I even gave Justin permission to change any lines he thought needed changing. A new play needs a little work, and I trusted him to do that.

It opens this Wednesday.

Saturday night, I went to rehearsal and saw the second act for the first time.  I was moved to tears — and I’m not exactly sure where the emotion came from.

Maybe it came from the profound gratitude I felt for these people applying such talent and hard work to the task of realizing something I wrote. Or maybe it was just the realization that I’m putting this material out there for others to see. Or maybe it was that I wrote about a piece of my life and saw it given back to me.

The play is about caring for a person with Alzheimer’s Disease, and although I intentionally did not make this autobiographical — I have had experience watching the progression of the disease — with my aunt, my grandmother, and now my mother.

What it is, I think, is that my own play brought back memories in the staging that I didn’t experience in the writing — if that makes any sense.

People may think or say I wrote a play about my mother. And there’s some truth to that. But I realize now it’s not about the mother who is now in the final stages of Alzheimer’s.  It’s about the mother who took care of my grandmother when she had Alzheimer’s. And it occurs to me now (and not before now) that the granddaughter is me.

So that’s my note on autobiography. It’s all so personal and subjective. I don’t  know how audiences will react but will find out soon enough. Wednesday night.

Whatever happens, I’m awfully proud — stunned, actually — by what these folks are doing.

the makings of a great chicken wing advertising campaign

There are many platitudes about finding the good in the bad.  Silver linings.  Lemonade.  Yin and Yang.

It occurs to me that Italy Café could use this story to market their chicken wings.

Might I suggest an advertising campaign?

italy cafe
Italy Cafe

“A taste of our chicken wings is enough to make you commit armed robbery.”

I’m sure there are better ideas than that.  But, seriously, a full-blown advertising campaign, built around this story, could probably sell a lot of chicken wings.

After all, the perps weren’t just hungry.  They specifically wanted those chicken wings.  They must be pretty good wings.

When Mr. Kirk put me on the spot

The first day of high school can be exciting and traumatic for lots of kids.  Mine was.

On my first day of high school, in 1971, Phil Kirk — my journalism and English teacher — put me on the spot.

“Your mother said you would be our photographer,” he told me and everybody else in the class.

She did?  That was news to me.

I was possibly the youngest and smallest person in the room.

He was also the youngest — the youngest person ever elected to the NC Senate in North Carolina.

I got a really nice note from Mr. Kirk the other day, and it was fun thinking about that time when he scared me a little and taught me a lot.

These days, with a digital camera in every phone, it’s hard to believe that a fifteen year old had never taken a picture before, but most of us back then had not.  Shutter speed.  F-stop.  Film speed.  All Greek to me.

I wanted to be on the newspaper staff not for photography, but so I could write stories and editorials.  He put me in the sports department, not because I wanted that either, but because that’s what was needed.

My first assignment was to interview Coach Pete Stout about the football team.  I wasn’t much of a student of the game, so I asked Mr. Kirk what I should ask him.  I still remember the look on his face.  Many others have given me the same look many times throughout my life.  It’s the figure-it-out–do-you-have-to-ask-me-everything look.

“Ask him if they plan to pass a lot,” he said.

I had other assignments.  I remember interviewing Harold Isenberg, the superintendent of the Salisbury City Schools.  I thought it was clever to record the interview and turn in a verbatim Q & A.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I thought I was the first person to ever think of that, that I was actually inventing the Q & A.

Mr. Kirk was less impressed.  “Didn’t take much effort,” he said.

I won’t even begin to describe my performance in his English class that year.

The photography was not a topic for discussion.  Mr. Kirk had worked his way through high school and college with my mother at The Post.  They were close friends for many years.  The Hornet staff needed a photographer.  They had struck a deal.

I’m guessing that neither senators nor teachers were well paid in those days, because I’m pretty sure I remember Mr. Kirk spending his Christmas break working on South Main Street at Belk’s.

Down on North Main, next to our family store, Zimmerman’s, was a store called Carolina Camera.

My dad got me a used Minolta, a used enlarger, some chemicals, pans, a dark room light, and some bulk film.

Dad advised me, when taking a person’s picture, to “get close.”

He gave me a few lessons on how to put film in a camera, adjust the settings, and develop pictures.  My father was a good photographer and these things came easily to him, so his teaching methods were fairly straightforward.  My learning methods could be a little tedious.  He eventually gave me a book and told me to just read it and figure it out.

Our bathroom became the dark room.

I didn’t take many sports pictures.  Fortunately, The Post provided some of those, along with the more skilled annual staff photographers at the school.  I was assigned the basic pictures of clubs, projects, features:  the people in the school, during school.

One day, a few months into the school year, Mr. Kirk asked me if my mother was telling the truth when she told him that I stayed up all night developing pictures.

“Uh, yeah.”

He might have had some sympathy, but I doubt it.  Mr. Kirk was such a hard worker; he probably thought I needed to work a little faster.

James Barringer, The Post photographer, tried to give me a few pointers.  He was nice enough to say that the problem with my pictures was the camera.

Bill Billings, whose father, Horace Billings, was sports editor, was the photographer for the school annual.  Bill’s pictures were excellent.  Mr. Barringer said that’s because he had a better camera.

I’m not so sure about that.

I’m not sure I had much aptitude for it, and I’m quite sure I had no idea what I was doing.  I had trouble figuring how long to expose the prints or how long to leave the paper in which pan.  When I could get a picture clear enough to identify the people in it — it was good to go.  I still cringe when I think about some of those grainy globs of gray I called pictures.  Sometimes they were so bad that David Wilson, the annual staff photographer, came to the rescue and retook the picture.  He knew what he was doing.  He used a light meter (whatever that was).

Mr. Kirk, our senator, might have felt bad about this abuse.  Perhaps that’s why he was nice enough to take me on a fascinating field trip to Raleigh to watch the legislature in action.  We had lunch in the cafeteria with Jim Holshouser, where I listened to his lawmaking buddies joke about Holshouser running for governor.

Two years later, Holshouser became the youngest, and first Republican, Governor in NC in the 20th century.  I felt like I had been there when the idea was hatched.

Mom thought Mr. Kirk’s political skills would take him as high as Vice-President of the United States.  She said he would never become President because of his limited oratory skills.

She got that wrong.  I’ve heard Mr. Kirk speak.  I also went to a Bill Cosby concert when Cosby was in his prime.  I can’t decide who was funnier.

He served as chief of staff to two governors: Holshouser and Jim Martin, and chief of staff to U.S. Representative Jim Broyhill.  He was president of the NC Chamber of Commerce, and longtime chairman of the North Carolina Board of Education.

More recently he was Vice President of External Relations at Catawba College, and he is currently Director of Brady Energy Services, spokesperson for the Yadkin Valley Winegrowers Association, and an awesome keynote speaker.

It’s been fun watching a former teacher build such a career.

On election days, I consistently vote Democrat, but I might split my ticket once in a while if more moderates like Mr. Kirk ran for office.

Consider this breath of fresh air from a bygone era of politics, back when there seemed to be a lot more cooperation and compromise between the two parties:  Former Governor Jim Hunt, a Democrat, has said of Kirk, a Republican: “If there’s a single person in this state who is more involved and at the center of every issue, I don’t know who it is.”