A Walk on the Wild Side

A Walk on the Wild Side

Behind the scenes at the astounding Greensboro Science Center

By Jim Dodson 

Photographs by John Gessner

A wise man keeps his child’s heart. Or so advised the ancient Chinese sage Mencius.

As I dip a hand in the waters of Hands-On Harbor at the Greensboro Science Center, where five cownose rays are gracefully circulating in their pool, a lovely female ray rises to the surface and allows me to touch her silken back.

For one sweet moment, my child’s heart is back. Schedules and deadlines suddenly fall away.

“Oh, wow,” is about all I can manage.

Both Erica Brown, the Center’s marketing manager, and senior aquarium keeper Karla Jeselson laugh.

“A lot of people have that response,” says Jeselson, explaining how the stingrays are naturally curious about human beings and conditioned to come to an orange ball at feeding time, twice a day, beginning with a full meal before the Center’s official 9 o’clock opening time, followed by an afternoon snack. As a result of such conditioning, the aquarium staff once managed to attach a stylus to the ball that permitted the rays to paint on canvas, images that are now sold in the museum gift shop.

“The little male ray is particularly good at art,” she confides. “We fish people don’t generally give names to our animals but between us, we like to call him Picasso.”

This charming introduction to the natural wonders — and constant surprises — of the Greensboro Science Center serves simply as the prelude to a delightful before-hours walking tour of the museum’s diverse exhibits that include the spectacular Wiseman Aquarium (named after former VF Corp. CEO Eric Wiseman and his wife, Susan), an outstanding Animal Discovery Zoo, not to mention the award-winning Science Museum, which vividly explores everything from dinosaur bones to the starry firmament. The three-in-one destination makes the museum unique in North Carolina and only one of 14 such facilities nationwide to earn accreditation by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums and the American Alliance of Museums.

My purpose in calling on the Science Center this cool morning is pretty simple.

First is to make up for lost time. After I left my hometown in 1977, chasing a journalism career that took me from New England to Africa, I missed the remarkable transformation of what was then called the Nature Science Center into a spectacular showcase of science, technology and the wonders of the natural world.

Paradise in our own backyards, as a close friend and proud member of the Center likes to say.

My only point of reference, in fact, was the Gate City’s original Junior Museum of Greensboro, so dubbed by the local chapter of the Junior League that established it in 1957. It was a decidedly modest affair that featured — if memory serves — a few science exhibits highlighted by a nearby petting zoo with a few woodland creatures kept behind chain link fences and live snakes on display, all set down in the forest of Country Park. I remember live deer, a fox, a few monkeys, an alligator and maybe even a live black bear being the star attractions.

As I confide to Erica Brown during our eye-opening tour of the Center’s 35-acre campus, I can’t believe what I’d missed.

“That’s something we frequently hear from people who’ve lived in Greensboro their whole lives but never checked us out,” she explains with another knowing smile. “When they see what is here, they’re always impressed and usually become regular visitors or members. There’s always something new to see and learn.”

In my case, impressed didn’t quite cover it.

Over the course of a full morning, I see live sea horses, a mama Giant Pacific octopus straight out of Jules Verne and penguins being fed by hand. I meet Tai the red panda and Duke the silvery gibbon, exchange quizzical stares with a family of curious meerkats and watch a maned wolf doing his early-morning calisthenics in a patch of meadow sunlight. I see Drogo the komodo dragon and watch a female lemur named Reese receive her annual physical exam from staff veterinarian Sam Young and his able tech assistant. I also meet Sheldon the barn cat and Sidney the cockatoo, explore “Prehistoric Passages,” and learn interesting things about the human body in Health Quest Gallery.

Had I wisely thought to bring along my trusty knee brace, I might even have tackled Skywild, GSC’s extraordinary aerial adventure park, a roped obstacle course with seven different treetop challenge courses and three levels of difficulty that allow visitors and kids of all ages to get in touch with their animal spirits high over the forest floor.

Suffice it to say, having found the heartbeat of my own inner child again, however briefly, the other purpose of my visit is to hear from the Center’s indefatigable president and CEO, Glenn Dobrogosz, how this diverse and multifunctional wonder ship of science, nature and environmental sustainability came to pass.

Long a destination for local school groups and church field trips, the Center’s dynamic period of growth kicked into overdrive in 2000 when the voters of Greensboro passed a $3.5 million bond to create a new Animal Discovery Zoo, setting the scene for the arrival of a new president and CEO with even more ambitious plans in mind.

Appalachian grad and Raleigh native Dobrogosz arrived in Greensboro in 2004 with a resume that included the impressive revival of several leading zoos and a bold vision of growth that was supported by a board uniquely composed of forward-thinking civic, business and local foundation members, all of them eager to see the Center grow into a genuine destination park.

Animal Discovery Zoo opened to wide acclaim in 2008, doubling annual attendance from 125,00 to more than 250,000. One year later, an expanded planetarium that features 3D and laser projection technology also debuted.

The real watershed moment came in 2009, Dobrogosz says, when he approached the City Council with a long-range vision that included construction of an aquarium and a number of expanded exhibits that would make the Center, as he puts it today, “a one-stop shop for science, technology and environmental education.”

“If you recall that time,” he says, “the Great Recession had hit and Greensboro was still recovering from key economic losses going back further than that. It was, in short, a challenging time for everybody. The city was not your typical destination or tourist city.” He reels off the standard old jokes about Greensboro being “Greens-boring,” and suffering from “Charlotte envy.” But not everyone was laughing. “Then mayor [Yvonne Johnson, Greensboro’s current mayor pro-tem] and the council listened to our plan to create a signature three-in-one model that included North Carolina’s first inland aquarium combined with a zoo and asked how much we needed to make such a vision happen. Quite frankly,” he adds with a laugh, “I was taken by surprise.”

The result was a $20 million bond referendum that not only passed by a wide margin when it was placed before Guilford County voters that autumn, but also attracted a bevy of new corporate and private sponsors that funded the aquarium and enhancements of the Animal Discovery Zoo, setting new attendance records when the Wiseman Aquarium opened in 2013.

“It was really a gift to — and from — the people of Greensboro,” Dobrogosz adds. “But it was really just the beginning of what we hoped to accomplish.” He points out that in a city where tourism was never regarded as a major economic driver, the Center today is the No. 1 most visited attraction in Guilford County — a unique resource for the nearly half a million visitors who flock there every year now. Following an expansion of the aquarium that was completed in 2017, along with a newly reimagined dinosaur gallery, the Center broke attendance records yet again. 

The big news coming out of the Center’s annual “See to Believe” Gala this past October? A capital campaign called “Think Big” that doubled its goal of raising $6 million to fund new educational programs and a major expansion called “Revolution Ridge — Life on the Edge.” Scheduled to open in 2020, it will connect the American Colonists’ fight for freedom among the fields and forests where the Center now stands, with the plight of endangered species across the globe.

The vision includes habitats for endangered pygmy hippos, an okapi forest for rare creatures called “forest giraffes,” a Cassowary Cove (strikingly large and dangerous birds from New Guinea), a Greensboro water garden, a greenhouse complex designed to educate visitors on plants essential to the survival of animal and man, a learning plaza with Chilean pink flamingos, plus a home for endangered cats called Precious Predators.

An expanded animal heath center will provide state-of-the-art medical care serving up to 1,000 wild animals, birds and reptiles. A new multiuse amphitheater, meanwhile, will host concerts, science programs and outdoor events of all kinds.

If everything goes as planned, the good news for Center stalwarts still grieving over the recent passing of the Center’s aging tigers, Axl and Kisa, will be a pair of endangered Malayan tigers in an expanded endangered tiger breeding center. Delighting kids of all ages, the campus will also be home to a world-class old-fashioned carosel funded by the Greensboro Rotary Club.

Finally, the campus’ current buildings will undergo a major architectural makeover that unifies the complex and allows space for public artwork. This year, the Center also acquired the former home of the Greensboro Council of Garden Clubs, scheduled to be transformed into the SAIL Center (Science Advancement through advanced Learning), a facility for educators, and a venue for lectures and seminars.

“It’s very exciting time at the Science Center,” Dobrogosz enthuses. “It’s amazing to think how far we’ve come, with a talented staff of more than 50 — many of whom come from this community — and hundreds of dedicated volunteers and docents who have come to love this place and do inspiring work with our visitors.

“In this respect, we are unlike any other facility in the state,”Dobrogosz contends, crediting his staff, the museum members and sponsors for making the Center a “primary destination” with a bright future.

Indeed, over the course of four hours I learn about monarch butterflies and howler monkeys, watch a 16-foot anaconda get fed her monthly rabbit, make meaningful eye contact with a shy fossa from Madagascar and learn about the conservation of coral reefs. A paradise indeed, as my friend had told me. But there is still so much to see and learn about.

My morning walk on the wild side ends far too soon, downstairs, where I chat with longtime curator of reptiles and invertebrates Rick Bolling about his 40-year career at the Center. He joined the staff in 1977 and will retire a few days after Thanksgiving this year.

“My first job was cleaning the glass of the snake enclosures. I thought that was very exciting work,” he remembers with a laugh. “When I got here very few people seemed to know about this facility. We were a nice little museum that educated schoolkids and gave people a taste of wildlife and science.”

The last 15 years, he says, have been nothing “short of incredible” thanks to Dobrogosz’s infectious “can-do passion.” “Over the years, he has brought much-needed energy and fresh vision to the zoo and museum,” says Bolling. “The education the public gets about conservation and animals and all sorts of science is nothing short of incredible.”

Bolling says that upon retirement he hopes to take a trip out to see Yellowstone National Park “before it burns up.”

Would he miss his daily life at the Center, we naturally wonder.

“Of course I’ll miss it! It’s been my life’s work and I count my blessings that I was a small part of our amazing growth over the years,” he says, gazing into the distance. “Every day here is different, always exciting, always new. This facility is really a big family that includes the animals and the people who support the Center.

“In fact,” he adds with a sly grin, “I’ve told everyone don’t be surprised if I come back to work as a docent. That way, I’ll never have to leave.”  OH

Jim Dodson wrangles writers and editors in the zoo that is O.Henry magazine.


The Faces of Revolution

One artist’s mission to democratize portraiture and preserve the past

When painter Suellen McCrary moved her studio to Greensboro’s Revolution Mill two years ago, curious walk-ins included folks who remembered the workspace from another era when the mill turned out flannel from 1898 to 1982.

“They had all kind of stories to tell,” says McCrary, who specializes in portraits. “Some of them said they’d worked there, or their grandparents had worked there.”

To honor that history, McCrary pitched a project to the mill’s current owner, Durham-based Self-Help Ventures Fund, which acquired the complex in 2012.

In return for a monthly stipend, McCrary would spend two years painting oil-on-panel portraits of 25 people connected to the mill, whether they’d worked on machines bolted to the maple floor, handled clerical duties, or lived in the mill village.

At the end of the project, the portraits would join the permanent historical collection at the mill, now a hive of live-work-play development.

The portrait subjects would receive free prints of their likenesses, making possible an otherwise costly keepsake. The price of an original oil portrait can range from $3,000 to six figures.

“I was looking for a way to democratize portraiture,” says McCrary, who solicited subjects on a Facebook page called Cone Mills Villages — My Family’s History.

A dozen former Revolution employees have reached out to her, and she has completed a few portraits, but she wants to round up more applicants.

“I would love to get a cross section,” says McCrary, 60, who grew up in Greensboro and attended Page High School with the children of mill families, though she didn’t personally know them at the time.

Now living in High Point, McCrary hopes to capture the faces and stories of her schoolmates’ families while there’s still time. She recently painted 101-year-old Dorothy Sheppard Davis Brewer, a former mill inspector.

“This is a generation that’s passing, so I’ve got to get moving,” says McCrary. — Maria Johnson OH

Contact Suellen McCrary at smccrary4@gmail.com or (336) 848-3900. She’ll post progress shots of the project on her Instagram account, @suellenmccraryart.

The Omnivorous Reader

Beyond Jaws

The tragedy of the Indianapolis revisited

By Stephen E. Smith

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the bookstore, there’s a new best-seller about the worst shark attack ever — a book that details the feeding frenzy, past and present, that surrounds the sinking of the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis on 30 July 1945.

Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic’s meticulously researched and artfully constructed Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man is the latest in a plethora of books, history specials, movies, documentaries, TV news features, etc. that has, since the cruiser disappeared into the Philippine Sea 73 years ago, contributed to the lore surrounding the demise of the ship and crew that transported the first atomic bomb to the island of Tinian.

If you’re a reader with a basic knowledge of American history, you’re no doubt familiar with the tragic story of the Indianapolis. If you aren’t, anyone who’s seen the movie Jaws will be more than happy to tell you all about it, just as Quint, the shark hunter (played by Robert Shaw), told them: After delivering the components for the bomb, the Indianapolis was cruising at night when the Japanese submarine I-58 fired two torpedoes into the ship, sinking her in 12 minutes. About 300 crew died in the torpedo attack; another 900 went into the water. No lifeboats were launched, no actionable distress signal was transmitted, and the men had only flimsy life preservers and makeshift rafts to keep themselves afloat. Many of the crew died of saltwater consumption, others simply despaired and committed suicide. When the survivors were located almost five days later, only 316 remained to tell the story. Figures vary as to the exact number of the men taken by sharks, but experts theorize that the majority of those attacked had already died of exposure. Still, the horror engendered by a shark attack — the possibility of being eaten alive by a silent, subsurface predator — has resonated through popular culture.

To their credit, the authors aren’t obsessively concerned with sharks, focusing instead on a post-rescue conspiracy surrounding the Indianapolis disaster. In the months immediately following the sinking, the story was eclipsed by news of the surrender that occurred after the dropping of the atomic bombs, but a bureaucratic feeding frenzy began as soon as the survivors were rescued. According to Vincent and Vladic, Navy brass, intent on covering up their incompetence, subjected the ship’s captain, Charles B. McVay III, to a court-martial in which he was convicted of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag,” although zigzagging was not required or even recommended in the area in which the Indianapolis was cruising. In an unprecedented move, prosecutors brought in the commander of the I-58, a former enemy combatant, to testify against McVay. The Japanese captain stated emphatically that zigzagging would have made no difference in his attack on the Indianapolis, but McVay was found guilty anyway. He was blamed for the disaster, a reprimand was placed upon his service record, and a deluge of hate mail followed him for the remainder of his life. No other American captain has ever been punished for losing his ship to a torpedo attack. Whether out of guilt for his lost crew or the emotional distress brought on by a failing marriage, the former captain of the Indianapolis committed suicide in 1968.

Vincent and Vladic’s account doesn’t end with McVay’s death. They examine in detail his eventual exoneration. In 1996, a 12-year-old Florida boy, Hunter Scott, took an interest in the story of the Indianapolis and initiated a letterwriting campaign. He was supported by survivors who wanted to honor their late captain and by Sen. Bob Smith, who offered a congressional resolution that finalized McVay’s long-delayed vindication. But the reprieve didn’t come easy, and the military machinations and congressional intrigues surrounding the McVay hearings are at the heart of the book.

As the congressional inquiry neared its conclusion, Paul Murphy, one of the men McVay had led into harm’s way, wrote to the committee reviewing McVay’s court-martial, objecting to a previous report upholding the Navy’s original court-martial findings: “They contain falsehoods, statements taken out of context, and plain mean-spirited innuendos about our skipper and others who have attempted to defend him . . . The Navy report contained personal attacks on Captain McVay’s character. They were unwarranted, and in most instances, unrelated to the charges against him. On behalf of the men who served on the Indianapolis under Captain McVay, I would like to state our deep resentment and ask: Why is the Navy still out to falsely persecute and defame him?”

Most of the available histories of the Indianapolis sinking — Fatal Voyage, Left for Dead, Out of the Depths, Lost at Sea (there’s also a bad movie starring Nicolas Cage) — focus on the suffering of the crewmen abandoned by a Navy too busy or too disorganized to notice that a heavy cruiser had gone missing. The Vincent/Vladic book is, by and large, an update on the Indianapolis story and concludes with the August 2017 discovery of the ship’s remains, now a designated war grave, in the North Philippine Sea, bringing to a close the ship’s eight-decade saga.

“For the families of the lost at sea,” write Vincent and Vladic, “the news stirred high emotions, bringing back memories many had sealed away for decades. After nearly three-quarters of a century, children, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren were finding the peace that their parents and grandparents had sought for so many years.”

This cathartic effect notwithstanding, one thing is certain: With only 19 Indianapolis survivors still living, the finger-pointing and recriminations will soon enough cease to matter.  OH

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press awards.

Green Acres

Green Acres

Living above The Farmer’s Wife, proprietor Daniel Garrett enjoys both country and urban living

By Billy Ingram     Photographs by Amy Freeman

Would you believe me if I told you there’s a charming country home downtown, just steps away from Hamburger Square? As Daniel Garrett, owner of this urban oasis put it, “You can take the farm boy off the farm, but you can’t really get the dirt from underneath the fingernails.”

Garrett is purveyor of The Farmer’s Wife antique store at 339 Davie Street the cream filling in the only cluster of storefronts that survived a series of fires in the 1980s that wiped clean the Davie Street business sector. The area was once a thriving district with two- and three-story buildings on both sides of the avenue rivaling those on South Elm, one block west.

Garrett recalls, “My neighbor told me the story that, when the big fire was across the street where they were in the process of building [Greensborough Court], he said he got on top of his building and hosed it down, afraid that sparks might jump the street and spread to here.”

Garrett established his original antiques boutique on South Elm. His shop opened doors in the middle of a struggling downtown between Lewis and Lee streets (now Gate City Boulevard) in 1982, when just about every other downtown establishment had migrated to shopping centers and malls in the suburbs. “When I first started the business 36 years ago,” Garrett tells me, “you could rent a building on South Elm for $300 or $400 a month for a good sized-space. Of course, now people want $1,200–1,500 or more.”

It was a different environment then. “We were moving into a wholesale antiques district, and we knew that, there was no retail,” he says. “It was out-of-state people coming to buy items then take them somewhere else to sell for more money.”

Garrett had a notion to own a place of his own downtown, so when his neighbor on Davie told him about the building next to his being foreclosed on in 1994, that it was to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, he decided to check it out, mostly out of curiosity. “There were about 25 or 30 people there.” To his surprise, “At the end of the auction I was the last one to bid. It was serendipity, I guess.”

Built around the turn of the 20th century, this former grocery wholesale distribution center is crowned with a decorative, galvanized metal cornice. The upper two levels are fronted in brick, accented with limestone trim above and below the windows.

To call the purchase a fixer-upper would be a laughable understatement. After years of neglect, it was — how shall I put this politely — a dump. The kind of place you’d deposit a dead body if you didn’t want it found.

It was a roll of the dice. Downtown wasn’t the most hospitable environment back in the mid-1990s. Daniel Garrett recalls, “That first year I had power tools stolen, paint stolen.” After Southside and City View Apartments went up on the other side of the tracks, and the train depot was resurrected to serve as an all-purpose transportation hub, “It all became a little bit more gentrified, you might say,” he says.

This home is remarkably quiet considering it’s situated practically on top of the railroad tracks. When I told him one of the reasons I enjoy living downtown is the sound of the trains, Garrett replied, “Well, you have to love the trains because they’re right there.” Indeed, the reason for this cluster of four buildings’ very existence was proximity to the rail yard, the original Southern Railway system’s freight depot was located right next door.

It’s a bit of a mystery as to the exact date this place was constructed. The first tenant I can pin down was George T. McLamb wholesale grocers, who moved here from Lewis Street in 1906. McLamb’s neighbor at 337 Davie, in a nearly identical building, was the National Biscuit Company, one of over 100 satellite bakeries for the company we now know as Nabisco.

McLamb closed up shop around 1912. Another wholesaler, Transou Hat Company, traded chapeaus at 339 Davie before the address was once again home to a succession of wholesale grocers beginning in the 1920s until the mid-1960s when the building was vacated. Primarily used for storage after that, for brief periods in the 1980s it housed a college professor or two.

Entering the living areas on the floors above the street level storefront is like stepping into a country farmhouse that somehow sprouted in the heart of the city. Raised in Pleasant Garden where, as he put it, “You’re related to everybody and everyone knows your business,” the décor reflects Garrett’s small-town upbringing. His grandfather made one of the tables and two of the cabinets in this living room.

You would think an old structure like this would be dark, but it’s remarkably bright inside. Large picture windows to the front and rear flood the rooms with natural light. Plus, Garrett cut a horizontal window into the living-room wall to take advantage of sunlight emanating from a skylight on the other side.

A heavy eight-paned garage door slides to one side, leading to another wing of the home used mostly for storage. “We had to do things a little at a time,” Daniel explains. “I didn’t have the money to just do everything at once. I replaced windows one or two at a time.” A new roof was needed, the electrical wiring and plumbing had to be redone, “I had a very small budget to rehab the building. So when that money ran out we had to stop.” A new kitchen was installed about five years ago.

The store’s original front doors were flat and drab so a more inviting entrance with an Italianate feel was created. The project was a familial effort, “My brother-in-law, who had just retired from the post office, was a huge help at that time. He was wanting projects to do and he was one of those persons who was handy and could do things like that.” Until five or six years ago, off the kitchen, a dilapidated freight elevator sat stuck in place, “My brother worked for an elevator company and he said, ‘You’ll never get this to pass inspection’ so it was removed,” Garrett explains.

His bedroom on the floor above is one enormous warehouse-sized space with a 25-foot-high ceiling and three massive picture windows on the western-facing wall that overlook the park across the street behind Natty Greene’s.

As for the impressive and ubiquitous exposed brick walls and lightly colored hardwood floors, Garrett says, “This is exactly the way it was before I bought it, I haven’t unpainted or repainted the brick.” Because 341 Davie was built first, his southern-facing wall was that building’s exterior wall. The floors are imperfect but, “I’m leaving them that way. I can live with imperfection,” he allows. “I’d rather have it the way it was, and how it was used, versus getting too slick or sophisticated.”

A mirror in need of resilvering is a favorite item. “I like that one because it doesn’t make me look as old. It’s so fuzzy, it doesn’t necessarily tell the truth,” Garrett jokes. Numerous wooden architectural touches from building exteriors lend both scale and intimacy to these cavernous spaces. Pointing to a large mantel positioned just below the bedroom ceiling, Garrett explains its provenance:  “I bought that in Liberty, North Carolina, years ago. It’s actually the cornice from the top of a building that I had mounted to the wall.”

A large armoire stores dishes and glassware, because, “You have to have big things in a room this large; if you have a bunch of little things they just get lost,” Garrett notes, adding, “That’s why I did this line of prints down low, to pull the ceiling down to a more human scale.”

Also on display are a variety of mortars and pestles, “I’ve been collecting them for 25 or 30 years, one at a time. I don’t know why, I’m just infatuated with them.”

The pride of his collection is a windup fly swatter, an odd ornament from the Victorian age. “An antique dealer had it in his house,” Garrett explains. “I told him, ‘If you ever want to get rid of it I want to buy it.’ It would have been used in the middle of a table, with the same sort of mechanism that a clock would have. It supposedly keeps the flies away.”

In one corner there’s an antique writing desk while a rustic pie safe with perforated metal screens, manufactured around the time this place was built, hides a television and a collection of books. Everywhere you look there are bound volumes on just about every subject, many detailing the life and works of world renowned artists and photographers, about which the homeowner remarks, “Like Thomas Jefferson said, ‘I can not live without books.’”

“I was a design major in school,” Garrett says. “I ended up getting a degree in art education from UNCG. I did teach for a couple of years.” As an itinerate art teacher for the Greensboro Public Schools, he moved from one school to another.  “I rotated with instructors who taught music and physical education for fourth, fitth and sixth graders,” Garrett recalls. Following that stint, he taught art at Mendenhall and Kiser junior high, but ultimately gave it up for the same reasons many in the profession leave: “I quit teaching because I got tired of filling out forms and lesson plans that no one ever looked at.”

charming brick patio with a European flair awaits at the rear of the building. Beyond it is an English country garden populated with miniature shrubberies, stone pottery, a wispy Bonsai tree, with quirky accents that include a rusty, antique metal lamppost base.

The hearthstone from his grandfather’s fireplace has been repurposed for a bench that, Garrett recalls, ”Took four men and a couple of 12-packs to move.” A neat row of tall ginkgo trees, along with Japanese and Ming maples, shields any view of the train depot behind them. It’s a far cry from the mess that he inherited when he moved in, “Where we’re standing right now was trashed; you couldn’t even grow weeds back here.”

What could be more cosmopolitan than living above your store? Today a large portion of Garrett’s antique business, The Farmer’s Wife, is dedicated to flower arrangements, “I used to go to the farmers market and pick up a couple of bunches of flowers,” he explains. “I put them in the shop so as to not look so stuffy or stodgy.” When customers began to purchase them, “That mushroomed into people wanting me to do something with them for events or birthdays. It’s not something I was planning on happening, but now flowers are probably 65 percent of our business.”

Downtown Greensboro began roaring back to life in the 2000s. “I don’t know what started the resurgence of people wanting to come back to downtown,” Garrett reflects. “I think younger people are wanting the convenience where you can walk to businesses versus having to drive a car.” He found himself the beneficiary of a trend that few would have predicted back in 1994. “Next door they’re renting a man-cave for $1,200 a month . . . and it’s dark. In hindsight, this was probably the best business decision I ever made.”

The arduous journey that began with his hand being the last in the air at a sidewalk auction more than three decades ago has been completed, more or less. “It will always be a work in progress,” Garrett assures me. “But, as of June of this year, I paid off the mortgage. It’s finally mine.”  OH

Billy Ingram first moved downtown in 1997, to the mystification of almost everyone who inevitably commented, “Why would you want to live there? There’s nothing but bums down there.”

Drinking with Writers

After the Storm

Over cold ones at Flying Machine, writer Kevin Maurer remembers the impact of Hurricane Florence

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

When I moved to Wilmington in 2013, Kevin Maurer was one of the first friends I made. Over the years, I have gotten to know his family, and he has gotten to know mine. We have played on the same intramural basketball and football teams, and we have suffered losses and injuries, bonding over our bruised bodies and equally bruised egos. But what has informed our friendship more than anything else is the writing life. We regularly have dinner or drinks and talk about our decisions to become writers, and the effect our work has on our families and our friendships with people outside the publishing industry. A few months ago, I chronicled one of our conversations on Twitter, and it was retweeted over 1,200 times and responded to by writers as various as Neil Gaiman and Mary Alice Monroe, all of whom agreed that the writing life never gets easier, no matter who you are.

Kevin is one of the most successful writers I know — the New York Times best-selling co-author of No Easy Day: The First-Hand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden and American Radical: Inside the World of an Undercover Muslim FBI Agent; and a celebrated journalist who has written about the war in Afghanistan as an embedded reporter — but he is also one of the hardest working.

Our conversation once again turned toward the writing life when we met at the new Flying Machine Brewing Company in Wilmington a few days following my family’s return to town after evacuating in advance of Hurricane Florence. Kevin’s family had evacuated as well, but he had stayed behind to cover the storm and its aftermath for statewide and national news outlets.

Flying Machine Brewing Company, which is set to open in early November, is on Randall Parkway, where it sits along the cross-city trail and has views of the lake at Anne McCrary Park from its two-story patio. The interior of the taproom feels both enormous and inviting, with clean lines and industrial seating that mirrors the sheen of the brewing equipment that brews all the beer on-site. Borrowing from the name, flying machines and parts of flying machines inform everything from lighting fixtures to wall art to the pulls on the taps behind the bar.

Although they were not open for business before Hurricane Florence hit, Flying Machine jumped into the community effort after the storm had passed by offering free purified water to anyone in need of it. There were plenty of people in need, and there still are. Because of this, Flying Machine has pledged to donate a portion of their proceeds from their grand opening to local nonprofits.

As Kevin and I settle in at the bar, we are delivered a round of beers by co-founder David Sweigart. He offers us the “Passarola” Brut Pilsner and the “Electric Smoke” Alt Bier, and he lets us know we are being served the first beers poured and sampled in the brewery’s history. Kevin and I agree that the honor of sampling Flying Machine’s first pours is made even sweeter by the fact that both beers are delicious.

I ask Kevin about what it was like to write about Wilmington before, during and after Hurricane Florence. As he takes a sip of his lager, I mention something he wrote in an article about the aftermath of the storm: Wilmington has become a city of lines, he wrote. Lines to get food. Lines for gas. Lines to get supplies.

“That was the hardest part of covering the storm,” Kevin says. “The waiting and watching people wait.” He stares at the wall across from us where a huge mural of a globe featuring the words “Wilmington N. Carolina” hovers above us. “I watched people sit in their driveways and wait for the water to rise, and I watched it get higher and higher by the hour until they decided they couldn’t wait any longer before they left and took whatever they could carry.”

My family and I evacuated to Asheville, and we waited there, desperate for knowledge about what was happening on the coast, in Wilmington, in our neighborhood. I told Kevin I could not imagine being among those who were waiting here in town.

“It’s interesting,” he says. “My whole career has been spent covering crises around the world: war, famine, insurrection. It’s been hard to see some of the things I’ve seen, but I always get to come back home. Covering Florence was different. This is my home.”

After we finish our beers, Kevin and I are invited into the production area, where gleaming stainless-steel tanks tower above us. Taproom manager Marthe Park Jones, who has spent years working in the Wilmington craft brewing community, and retail manager Grant DeSantos, recently arrived from Asheville, where he managed retail for a major brewery, give us a tour and introduce us to a group of brewers who have spent years working and studying at breweries around the world. When the tour is over we stand around talking about the storm, and the long road the community and region have ahead. 

Later, on our way out to the parking lot, Kevin and I make plans to get our wives together for dinner that evening at a local restaurant that has recently reopened. The city is gathering itself and moving forward. Wilmington and its people — both the long residing and the recently arrived — are no longer waiting. OH

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

The Accidental Astrologer

Romance, Recklessness and Destiny

For the November-born, excitement is written in the stars

By Astrid Stellanova

Creative Ole Abe was an Aquarian, like four other notable U.S. Presidents. But then, you knew that, right Star Children? So when Abe Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving holiday in 1863, it was a good idea that nobody could resist, no matter which side of the Mason Dixon line they lived on.

But did you realize another holiday figures into the stars this month? Do the math — November-born are conceived around Valentine’s Day, which means they are the stuff of romance, recklessness, destiny, or a maybe a little bit of all. — Ad Astra, Astrid

Scorpio (October 23–November 21)

Star Child Scorpio, you see someone through a forgiving lens, who by even the most generous descriptions would be called weird. As weird as a mating fruit bat. You are virtuous and hold on tight when another might cut bait and leave that bat behind. Return the favor to yourself and forgive the things you are privately self-critical about. It’s a necessary liberation and will set you on your highest course.

Sagittarius (November 22–December 21)

Darlin’, let ole Astrid lay it on you straight: Don’t hang with the night crawlers. As tempted as you are to enjoy newfound popularity, a few of your new hangers-on are not exactly top-shelf stuff. And maybe be a little less generous about picking up the bar tab.

Capricorn (December. 22–January 19)

Shew, Sugar, you were right all along. And as much as that is true, revenge ain’t as sweet as you think. Don’t shove your Mama overboard. By the time you read this, I hope you will find it in your heart to let it go so you can face everybody over the turkey table and smile.

Aquarius (January. 20–February. 18)

Time’s a-wastin’. Get your house in order before the holidays so you won’t be high, dry, and too lonely in the run-up to Fa-La-La Season. The only relationship you haven’t lost lately is with your Chia Pet, Sugar. Setting things straight with You-Know-Who will require an apology and some soul-searching. All worth it.

Pisces (February 19–March 20)

In a parallel universe, you got your due credit. But in this one, you did not. You must chase the thing you deserve credit for, and be sure you get top billing the next time you invent a self-wringing mop electric toilet brush. Cause, really, Honey Bunny, most are not that creative.

Aries (March 21–April 19)

Stuff went down and nobody was happy. Like a honey badger, you just don’t care much either. Good thing, because you are already on to the next thing and you are leaving the drama behind. If anybody’s nose is still out of joint, hand ’em a splint and a smile.

Taurus (April 20–May 20)

You haven’t moped this much since Burt Reynolds died. Honey, it may not be about Burt, but it might be about your recent inclination to go all nostalgic. The next time Smokey and the Bandit is on TV, just change the channel for gawdssake.

Gemini (May 21–June 20)

You may think the party can’t start without you, but Sugar, get a grip. Are you a self-declared disaster area? Or are you just ticked off because a genuine chance to make a big entrance didn’t happen? Think about it: If you throw the party, you get to control the spotlight, too.

Cancer (June 21–July 22)

This isn’t the time to take a stand about small and petty. In the name of world peace, let the jerk who rains on your party slink off into the night. You are about to have a wonderful holiday and nobody can change that. Get ready to make merry, Darlin’.

Leo (July 23–August 22)

It hasn’t gone unnoticed that you have launched a self-improvement program. Points for that, Honey. If you keep this up, somebody is going to surprise you with a declaration of love that might take your breath away, but do keep your hand on your wallet, as they might take that too.

Virgo (August 23–September 22)

Someone near and not so dear makes you grit your teeth and suck in your temper. You try to set a good example before this feckless fool. While you’re at it, try dividing by zero. Same outcome. Give them an air kiss and lickety-split, moving on fast.

Libra (September 23–October 22)

Your best work happens when you let go and let loose your natural charms. You don’t have to be Jim Carrey funny, Honey, just rely upon your dry wit, and good times and best outcomes find you. By next month, you won’t be able to keep up with all the invites.  OH

For years, Astrid Stellanova owned and operated Curl Up and Dye Beauty Salon in the boondocks of North Carolina until arthritic fingers and her popular astrological readings provoked a new career path.


G.I. Joe

Photographer Joe Bemis recreates the drama of World War II

By Billy Ingram     Photographs by Joe Bemis

To celebrate Veterans Day, photographic artist Joe Bemis (featured in O.Henry two years ago) returns with another panoramic gallery recreating famous engagements in American military history. Under the banner of Victory Productions, he’s been known to depict soldiers in the field in Napoleonic times, even aerial dogfights during WWI, but his main concentration is on the Revolutionary War and World War II.

For the most part, Joe organizes photo shoots with historical re-enactors, like these images representing the 1st Infantry Division, The Big Red One and the 82nd Airborne at Operation Market Garden, using actual Jeeps from WWII, even a ’39 BMW motorcycle. You have to admire his dedication: Joe dug the 8-foot-deep gun emplacement for his Kuban Bridgehead ’42 photo series himself. “I don’t want to glorify war with my photos,” he says. “But Nazis were the world’s greatest bad guys.” Other photographs in this collection depict Russians and Germans at the Eastern Front.

“A lot of guys I’ve met own their own Jeeps, tanks and halftrack vehicles,” Joe tells me. “You can’t really find a Panzer or a Tiger tank because they don’t exist outside museums anymore, but you’ll see some guys with German motorcycles.” Nazi staff cars are more plentiful thanks to the Volkswagen Thing phenomenon. After all, the VW Thing was an automobile very similar to the Kubelwagen manufactured for the West German Army in WWII for use as staff cars, retooled slightly for sales in the United States in the mid-1970s.

On occasion Joe will take advantage of battle re-enactments produced for the public. He’ll arrive before the gates open and stay after-hours to stage photos with the participants. “I’ll grab a couple of guys and set the shots up because I have very specific images in my head that I want to recreate,” Joe explains. The last WWII re-enactment he attended was at Latta Planation in Huntersville, North Carolina. “That was one where I actually ran around in the battle while the action was happening, so I was able to get some shots that nobody else could get because I was at different vantage points,” he recalls.

For re-enactors it’s a very expensive hobby when it comes to weapons and outfits, especially so for Revolutionary War troops. “A buddy of mine is a tailor,” Joe notes. “He makes his living creating those uniforms.” Re-enactors are often ex-military, cops, history professors and curators. “Even when no one can see them they’re still in character, staying very accurate to what would have been happening around them at that time,” Joe continues.

He is currently immersed in depicting the Japanese side of the second World War, in particular Zero and Kamikaze pilots. Airplane interiors were shot at last year’s Warbirds Over Monroe event, where aircraft seen in the motion picture Tora! Tora! Tora! were on display courtesy of the Commemorative Air Force out of Texas. “I was able to get in contact with the lead pilot Michael Burke and he gave me access to the planes for the interior shots,” Joe told me. “Even though they are not actual Zeros, they’re Navy trainers that were painted to look like Zeros because, from a distance, you couldn’t tell the difference. It felt so cool to be in those planes that actually flew in that movie.”

Although it was released well before he was born, Tora! Tora! Tora! from 1970 is one of the photographer’s favorite movies. “I watched that with my grandfather,” Joe remembers. “I never thought in a million years I’d be able to sit in one of those planes.” Max Lee is the main model in those photos, he adds. “He has the complete Japanese fighter pilot uniform. He even had the ceremonial sword on his dress uniform.” Photographed at a studio in New York, for in-flight scenes 1/18th scale model Zeros were used. “They’re accurate right down to the rivets,” Joe notes.

Meanwhile, Joe Bemis is applying his considerable talents to photographs he shot inside a restored German U-boat captured by the U.S. Navy in June 1944, currently on display at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. That U-505 was captured by the U.S. Navy in June 1944. As for future Victory projects, “We’re going to Normandy next year for the 75th anniversary of D-Day,” Joe says. “That’s always been a dream. They’ve pretty much gotten every surviving C-47 to perform a fly-over over Normandy, paratroopers are going to drop over the historical drop zones. That hasn’t been done since D-Day. I can’t wait.”  OH

For more recreations from America’s military past, visit VforVictory.us. The next Warbirds Over Monroe air show will be on the 10th and 11th of this month, featuring the Memphis Belle B-17F Flying Fortress from the 1990 movie, Memphis Belle, the P-51 Mustang Swamp Fox, a German ME262, the very first jet-powered fighter, along with more than a dozen other historical aircraft. Held yearly at the Charlotte-Monroe Executive Airport in Monroe, N.C., ticket price for veterans and current military personnel is only $5, while kids under 12 get in free.

Billy Ingram is writing a book about his career as a movie poster designer working for the major Hollywood studios in the 1980s and ’90s.

Life’s Funny

Sneaking Up on Cool

Waiting for the other shoe(s) to drop

By Maria Johnson

My younger son called from college the other day. Strange. Was someone sick? Hurt? In trouble?

“ARE YOU OK?” I answered quickly.

He was. He was lighthearted, in a good mood, eager to talk.

Hmm. Suspicious.

We chatted about his classes, his housing situation, his plans for the upcoming fall break — all good.

“So . . . listen,” he finally said. “Are you doing anything this afternoon?”

I wondered if he could feel my eyes narrowing. “I’m working on a story,” I said. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, there are there these shoes,” he said.

At this point, I should tell you that the boy is a fool for athletic shoes. Not just your run of the mill kicks. I’m talking high-end sneaks “designed” by pro athletes and entertainers. Adidas’s Yeezys by musician Kanye West. Nike’s Air Force 1 by rapper Travis Scott. Kobe 11 Elites and Jordan South Beaches, both by Nike, anointed with the endorsements of former NBA stars Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan respectively.

Let me be clear that my son does not OWN all of these shoes, though by dint of a good-paying summer job and online haggling, he has acquired a few specimens that have garnered the respect of folks in the know.

Last summer, I witnessed other young men turning to study his feet as we walked down the street. My son did not acknowledge their acknowledgment.

Later, when I asked him if he’d seen them checking out his shoes, he nodded. A slight smile bent his lips. Apparently, when one is cool, one stays cool about it.

But there is a price to pay. One must be vigilant about one’s cool.

Which was why he was calling.

He wanted me to go to a hipster store in downtown Greensboro and enter a raffle for pair of shoes called Nike Blazer Mid Off-White All Hallow’s Eve, which are exactly what they sound like: mid-rise canvas shoes with an orange swoosh for Halloween because, I dunno, wearing a pair of orange socks wouldn’t be enough.

The deal was, each person could register only once, and he and his roommate had already signed up at a Raleigh store so, if I wasn’t doing anything, maybe I could go downtown — by the end-of-the-day deadline; no pressure — and register for the shoes under my name. Whoever won the raffle would get the “opportunity” to buy the sneakers at the full retail price of $130. If either one of us won, he promised, he would pay me back.


An hour later, I walked into the store, where I was the oldest person by, oh, 30 years.

“Howyadoin?” said a guy behind the counter. He was helping someone else, but he paused long enough to scan me. His eyes stuck on my feet.

I would be lying if I said I hadn’t anticipated this. Before leaving the house, I’d pulled on some black woven athletic shoes, which I thought were, you know, pretty dope in a post-menopausal, calcium-taking, small-SUV-driving kind of way.

He lingered on my feet. Taking a cue from my son, I did not acknowledge his acknowledgement. It did not occur to me until later that he might have been looking at my lace-up ankle brace, and that it was entirely possible that no one wearing an orthopedic device had ever entered the store before.

As a result of my ignorance, I stayed cool. I would nod a lot and speak only when spoken to.

“Can I help you?” said another guy.

“Yeah, I’m here for . . .”

My mind froze. I needed to get the word right. What had my son called it? A drawing? A cake walk? A raffle? Yes!

“. . . the raffle.” I nodded.

“What size?”

I looked down at my feet.


“What color?”

Color? I almost said off-white, naturally, but it’s a good thing I didn’t because — as my son would explain later under eyes that were rolling like a slot machine — Off-White is the label of Virgil Abloh, who recently became the first black artistic director of men’s fashion at Louis Vuitton. The collaboration of Nike and Off-White is what makes the shoes special.


I consider it a small act of God that the sales guy prompted me before I could answer.

“Black or tan?” he said.


I had a 50 percent chance of being right.

“Check your email on Wednesday,” he said. “If you win, they’ll send you an invoice.”

I nodded. He nodded. Cool.

A few days later, my son was home on break. The shoe raffle had been held the day before. Neither of us had gotten an email. Oh, well. My kiddo was sitting on the couch that night, perusing his phone, when he started laughing. His roommate, who’d gone with him and registered for the raffle on a lark, had won.

“Maybe he’ll let you wear one of the shoes,” I said. My son looked appalled.

He pulled up a website, stockx.com, an Internet aftermarket, which showed that a pair of never-worn All Hallow’s was selling for more than $700. His sole brother’s plan: Sell the shoes and buy a similar pair for a hundred bucks.

My son nodded. I nodded.

Cool.  OH

Although Maria Johnson, a contributing editor of O.Henry, doesn’t always walk the walk, she sure can talk the talk. You can reach her at ohenrymaria@gmail.com.

Pleasures of Life

Penn-ultimate Pleasures

North Carolina’s first family of swing is still going strong

By Maria Johnson

After 60 years, how do Dixie and George Penn keep the sparkle in their music and marriage?

Dixie, 77, whips out a small battery-powered device — her iPhone.

“We go to bed with this every night,” she says. “He has his, and I have mine.”

“Sometimes she says, ‘Turn it down,’ “ he says softly.

Sharing YouTube music videos is a guilty pleasure, far different from the days when they embarked on the entertainment and romance business. Back then, in the mid-1950s, they were teenagers. Dixie ran to the radio and jotted down the lyrics of songs she wanted to learn. George, a saxophonist, drove his arrangements of popular tunes over to her house on the pretense that he just happened to be passing through Gretna, Virginia, a speck of a town 30 miles from where he lived in Danville, a slightly bigger speck.

“That’s kinda how you . . .” Dixie starts.

“Snowed your mother,” George says.

Sixty years will do that to you. You finish each other’s sentences, know each other’s paths, pitfalls and punch lines.

Dixie and George anticipate each other, whether they’re sitting in the formal living room of the home they’ve shared in Madison since 1968, or performing for the thousandth time — no exaggeration — in front of an audience that laps up their jazzy, swingy, big-bandy sounds.

These days, their performances happen mostly in the lobby of Greensboro’s O.Henry Hotel.

The Penn family — either the full gang of six or some permutation of Dixie, George and their four daughters — play the hotel’s free jazz series regularly.

On December 8, all of them will convene at the hotel for a special concert celebrating the couple’s 60 years of marriage and 62 years of making music together.

“Music is the heartbeat of that household, for sure,” says Victoria Clegg, who curates the jazz series. “It’s just remarkable to me that that’s how George and Dixie met, and then that they had four daughters who are so incredibly talented.”

The best way to see the arc of their lives, Dixie says, is by decade. She hands over an outline written in her flowing hand. Here’s a fleshed-out version:

1940s: She’s Got Talent

Nine-year-old George Penn sees 7-year-old Dixie Hendrix in a talent show at the Belk-Leggett department store in Danville, Virginia.

Dixie wears a pinafore and belts out “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” from the Disney film Song of the South.

She wins first prize. Perhaps blinded by her success, she does not see George.

1950s: The Spark

Dixie is 16 and somewhat of a celebrity in the Greater Gretna area because a) she has her own weekly radio show, a 15-minute segment sponsored by her home-builder father, b) she is the drum major at Gretna High School and c) she gives free baton twirling lessons to local kids.

“You know how people love it when you do things for their children,” she will say later.

One day, she gets a letter from Charlie Price, leader of the Russ Carlton Orchestra in Danville, who heard about her singing ability. He invites her to audition. George is a saxophonist in the band. This time, Dixie sees him. He is 18 and headed to Virginia Tech. He has a girlfriend. She has a boyfriend.

Not for long.

They marry while George is in college, on January 3, 1959, during Christmas break.

They travel to gigs on weekends and see a variety of behavior: fights, frat boys licking beer off the floor, audience members unplugging the band’s speakers and plucking the drumsticks from a drummer’s hands.

They play on because audiences are generally respectful. Appreciative. Fun-loving.

The Penns are having fun, too.

They are in love. With music. With each other.

1960s: New York, New York

George graduates, mothballs the horn, and takes a job in the New York City office of Gem-Dandy Inc., maker of belts, suspenders and sleeve garters.

They live in the suburbs. Dixie joins the Larchmont Junior League and its a cappella group, The Soundettes. She also sings in the community chorus, which is directed by bandleader Lew Anderson, formerly Clarabell the clown on the Howdy Doody television show.

Anderson knows Doc Severinsen, a trumpeter and future bandleader on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Severinsen does a concert with the chorus. Dixie solos with “Lullaby of Broadway.”

George dusts off the saxophone and jams with local musicians.

Their daughters inherit the entertainment gene. Baby Vaughan wails in perfect pitch.

The next two girls, Elaine and Elizabeth, possess angelic voices, too.

One day, George announces they’re moving to Madison, the company headquarters in Rockingham County, north of Greensboro.

Dixie is dumfounded. She doesn’t want to go.

But Madison grows on her.

1970s: Children, children and more children

Georgianna is the fourth and final package of perfect pitch.

Dixie and George gig from time to time with the Red Vests, a Dixieland band in Eden, or with the Dave Cook Combo from Danville.

Mostly, they herd children in a swirl of school, church, sports and song. They provide musical instruments. Piano lessons. Turntables and tape decks. The basement becomes a rehearsal space. When the rhythm picks up, the floor shakes under the linoleum in the kitchen above.

1980s: Politics as Usual

Dixie graduates from UNCG in 1983 with a degree in therapeutic education and a minor in recreation. She becomes director of the Madison-Mayodan Recreation Department, a joint effort of the side-by-side cities. She juggles playgrounds and small-town politics.

She also manages La Vogue, the family band. Hey, it’s the ’80s.

Here’s the rule: If you are in the family, you are in the band. Most of the time, it works well. Except when it doesn’t because . . . four teenage girls.

They fight over clothes, jewelry, and everything else. But something happens when the band kicks in. The girls sing and smile and focus on the music. You can’t sing upbeat songs and be angry. Music breaks the circuit.

Every gig confirms what George and Dixie know: they are happiest while performing.

Taking big vacations? Bleck. Spinning around the dance floor as consumers of music, not creators? Boring.

“We tried doing what other people did and it didn’t work,” Dixie will reflect later. “We went back to doing what we wanted to do, and we were so happy.”

1990s: Empty Nest

The girls, now young women, scatter. Vaughan goes to Los Angeles to write music for TV and movies. She will share the stage with Emmylou Harris, Darius Rucker and Huey Lewis and others.

Elaine, who was an All-American basketball player at Greensboro College, moves to Wilmington, where she makes environmental documentaries and continues to perform.

Elizabeth jumps into entertainment production at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Georgianna takes a turn at Busch Gardens, too, then joins Vaughan in Los Angeles. They appear as extras on shows including Bay Watch and the medical drama E.R.

Dixie and George visit them on the set and meet an actor, a nice fellow also named George . . . Clooney.

Back home, Dixie and George play with a combo called “50s Plus,” a nod to 1950s music.

The Penns are in their 50s, too. Family life is changing, but all is not lost. Lyrics.com and cell phones small enough to carry to bed are on the horizon.

2000–2018 (condensed): The Flock Returns

Slowly, the far-flung family coalesces back in North Carolina. Vaughan, a writer, singer and producer, lives near Charlotte.

Elaine, who does motivational speaking, music and marketing, lives in Madison.

Elizabeth lives in Greensboro. A physical therapist, she directs rehabilitation at the UNC Hospital in Eden. She continues to do musical production.

Georgianna lives in Greensboro, too. She is a freelance writer and does marketing for Charlie’s Soap, the Madison-based company that George went to work for when he retired from Gem-Dandy.

Dixie retired from the parks and rec job, for the third time, last year.

The flock flies loosely under the banner of Penn Family Music, which means at least two people named Penn will show up.

Getting everyone together is rare, but the reunions often happen around a show.

“It’s the highlight of our music, having them all together,” says George.

“I can’t tell you what joy it brings,” says Dixie.

Sometimes, they team up with the Greensboro Big Band, directed by Mike Day. The whole crew will play for the Piedmont Swing Dance Society on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

The anniversary show at the O.Henry Hotel will happen a few weeks later. Dixie and George probably will sing a duet.

They sang together for the first time last October. They trilled another love song for church seniors this past September.

This tickled Dixie — but not in the way you might expect.

“His mouth goes so funny, I cannot watch him,” she says. “I thought I would die. I laughed halfway through the song, waiting for it. Then, I started crying because when he came in, it was so beautiful. His harmony was so beautiful.”

Did she feel he was singing to her?

“No,” she says flatly.

“I gotta find a third song,” he says softly.

Celebrating five years of O.Henry Jazz

By Georgianna Penn

Sergio Ward, of WQFS 90.9’s Jet Set Jazz Radio, often refers to O.Henry Jazz as “the gift that keeps on giving.” It certainly is for me and my family. I’ve been performing with my sisters and parents, George and Dixie Penn, for several decades in the Triad and we are blessed to be a part of the O.Henry Jazz Series.

Picking up the mantle of earlier jazz clubs — Sammy’s, Green’s, Plantation Club, Sam’s Canterbury Inn — Thursday Cocktails & Jazz at 5:30 p.m. and Select Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. feature practically every subgenre — Dixieland, Swing, Blues, Bossa Nova, Cole Porter, a little Gershwin and whole lot of the Great American Songbook — all of it originating from the magical space of the Social Lobby of the O.Henry Hotel.

It’s a favorite spot for CEO and chief design officer Dennis Quaintance, who often makes it a point of stopping by on Thursday evenings. “It’s just very meaningful when you see this sort of joy emanating from this room,” he says, explaining that the thriving O.Henry Jazz Series is an affirmation of his vision and that of his friend and guiding spirit for the hotel’s design, the late Don Rives.

With the Algonquin Hotel as inspiration, Rives made sure the high-ceiling space was welcoming with rich paneling, warm lighting and plush furniture arranged for easy conversation.

“Even the moldings break up the sound differently than if that was just a flat ceiling, so it ends up being acoustically warm and not acoustically hot,” Quaintance notes. But it’s the musicians who conjure the magic.

Five years ago, at the recommendation of well-known musician Jessica Mashburn, who was working at the Green Valley Grill, Quaintance hired Neill Clegg (sax, flute, clarinet), husband of series curator Victoria Clegg. She suggested his colleague at Greensboro College, pianist Dave Fox. A few years later “first call” bassist Matt Kendrick, came aboard. The O.Henry Trio was born. “It’s about the intention and this sort of love and passion by Victoria, by Neill, by Dave and by Matt . . . their energy is palpable,” Quaintance observes.

Perhaps because each of them is “a singer’s musician,” as Victoria Clegg puts it. My own experience working with the Trio is like attending a master class, though Neill Clegg will tell you that jazz should be a conversation between the singer and musician. The creativity is in the conversation and that’s what makes it intimate for the listener.

“One of the nicest things that happens at the O.Henry is when you see the musicians and the vocalists take someone back in time,” says Victoria Clegg.

Little wonder the first show drew 130 people, many of them still regulars. For the musicians, “It’s a big community sandbox,” Victoria Clegg continues. “You now have this great place to show your wares in the fashion in which they should be displayed.” Steve Haines, a bassist and professor of music in UNCG’s Miles Davis Jazz Studies program, appreciates the cultural significance of the series: “Victoria and her friends at Quaintance-Weaver have put a feather in the cap for music in Greensboro.”

Tapping local talent instead of musicians from elsewhere is the cornerstone of the program. “The foundation is that we’re people who live here . . . and so, it ought to be sort of neighbors being gracious to neighbors,” Quaintance says. “It’s astonishing to me the musical talent that exists, not just in the jazz genre, but in general.”

Victoria Clegg considers each performance a gift “and every week it’s wrapped differently depending upon who the artist is, a different package,” she says. “I always think if O.Henry could speak he would say, ‘job well done, job well done’ with this little grin on his face.”  OH

For schedule of shows visit ohenryhotel.com.