Lizard Lick’s Unsung Hero

By Dustin Swope, 2013

Everyone knows TruTV’s breadwinner and primetime pride and joy, Lizard Lick Towing. Fans flock by the thousands to visit the houses that Ron Shirley and Bobby Brantly were seen repossessing cars from. Tattoo artists across the country complain about how many people come in asking for torso-dominating lizards. Records show that “Amy” has been the most popular name for baby girls three years running.

Okay, so maybe that’s not entirely true, but it would be if everyone was the devout follower of Lizard Lick Towing and their TV show that I think they should be. Even if I’m in a league of my own, Ron, Amy, and Bobby certainly see their fair share of recognition. If nothing else, the stars can always count on North Carolina showing them love. Who doesn’t love a hometown hero with a cinderella story behind them?

In my first ever visit to the bona-fide location of Lizard Lick Towing LLC, I thought I had really lost out. I made time on a day that the whole gang had already scheduled an appearance on at a fall festival. What would a trip to Lizard Lick be, I thought, if I wasn’t going to meet the crew?

A pretty fun one, it turns out. Among other unexpected’s, I had the chance to meet and chat with Ms. Patty Branch. Those familiar with Lizard Lick know the reception lobby that has weathered many a storm, both the verbal and physical kind. The partitioning safety glass might be an inch and a half thick, but the walls sure feel paper-thin and neither can protect from words that cut like daggers. It takes a brave person to hold down that place in the reception lobby, and Ms. Patty is just that person.

Patty’s been with the crew since way before the fame and fortune came rolling in from the Lizard Lick series we know and love (well, I do at least). In fact, Ms. Branch has been holding the fort down since 2006. No cameras around then. In those years, the gang looked pretty much the way we see it on TV now. According to Patty, the only real difference between then and now was that, in 2006, no one cared if a deranged repo target came through to cuss and scream and punch holes in the wall. It just meant she needed to go find the patch kit.

Plenty of people pursue four-year degrees to get a chance at being a part of a nation-wide television show. Very few, however, are able to work their way up to a title like Patty holds in Lizard Lick. The best thing about her story? How modestly she tells it.

As a teenager, Patty walked into the trailer-office of a towing company in Lizard Lick, NC, looking for her first “real job.” She started out taking calls, then picked up dispatchings for the tow truck, and is now the go-to senior officer in the Lizard Lick command center while the faces of the TV show are off ‘getting themselves into a whole mess of trouble.’

What I loved about our time with Patty was seeing how falling under the spotlight affected her – Or hadn’t, rather. Personally, you would never know that Patty was such an integral part of a nationally recognized organization. She was polite and welcoming when I first approached her, and modest about what Lizard Lick was like before and after the cameras. She didn’t seem to try very hard for it, but Patty sure earned my trust as an authority on all things Lizard Lick and beyond.

At the same time, there was no emotional distancing while Patty and I talked. Often times, those who find themselves the target of media inquiry learn to stifle their emotions, their opinions, what feels like their entire personality. Not Patty. When she expressed neutrality or a desire to be fair, it was because she genuinely believes in the policy of living, and letting live.

I know this because, once she was satisfied that I was not their to embarrass or incriminate her, she was not afraid to speak her mind. Just as I came to trust in Patty, she put her faith in me. She voiced hopes and concerns that smear-media would love to get their hands on, and took positions that might not fit in with the majority-view and its expectations. I want to assure her and readers, though, that this exposition was made in good faith.

It’s inspiring to see that the lime light has not burned everyone it touches into automated, self-guarding cynics. As Ms. Patty Branch reminded me that day, fame does not have to strip us of our humanity. In honor of her authenticity, I hope that every every professional athlete and politician will learn from the example that Patty set in my eyes.

Mayor of Murphy Profile: Bill Hughes

By Hillary Dooley and Nicole Esplin, 2013

Bill HughesThere’s something about Bill Hughes. Something that makes you want to tell his story.

Traveling gets a person used to meeting new personalities every day, as we search for a new story to entice readers to read our bylines.  But with Bill, there was something more about him.  Something that you can’t plan to find readily. Bill Hughes is a modern-day living legend; the kind of man that will never die in Murphy. He’s the kind of man you can imagine enshrined as a statue, casting his brass gaze over Main Street.  Bill’s a man whose impact will be around long after he passes from his beloved town- his self-proclaimed goal. “The town of Murphy had been good to me,” Mayor Bill Hughes said. “It has allowed me to be moderately prosperous.  I was thinking of ways that I might pay it back.”

Hughes was born in Murphy, N.C. in 1938, and grew up with his mother and grandfather, who worked on the L&N Railroad.  Hughes’ first fond memories of Murphy lead back to the L&N railroad depot. One of his most memorable experiences happened when he was 6 years old. Inspired by the new story of the American Hobo, he climbed onto an L&N Railroad boxcar and headed for Atlanta. “I was just a wanderlust boy,” Hughes said.  “I rushed and jumped onto the boxcar.  When the train stopped and I got out, I thought we were in Atlanta.” What Billy Hughes thought was Atlanta turned out to be Culberson- the next stop over from Murphy. Billy was soon spotted by a man who worked with his grandfather, and was promptly taken home. “My grandfather was called and I still remember him coming in his 1937 Chevy to the depot,” Hughes said.  “That was the longest ride home of my life.”

The L&N depot in Murphy closed down in 1974, and Hughes has been working to get the railroad reinstated.  His passion for the industry is apparent in his cluttered office, filled with historic railroad mechanisms. “We’ve got switch locks, we’ve got telegraph tees, we’ve got this adding machine, and my grandfather had this first computer right here, which he bought used in 1911.” Hughes pulled a few more trinkets out from the bookshelf behind his leather desk chair and carefully brought them over for our benefit. As Hughes explained crossties, switch locks, ½ fare punches and date nails, I couldn’t help but let my eyes drift from the items to Hughes’ face.  None of this railroad memorabilia was new to Hughes, but his face was filled with nostalgia and awe. We imagined that Hughes had been making the same awe-struck, excited expression since he was introduced to these objects as a boy down at the depot.

Bill continued on the long story of his life in Murphy, punctuated with milestones and his favorite memories.  Bill’s face lit up as he recalled the first time he met his wife of 53 years. “When I married Barbara, she was majorette, main cheerleader, voted most attractive in the senior class, homecoming queen and the prettiest girl in town,” Bill said.  Bill laughed and continued, “I don’t know yet how I swiped her; I guess it was my irresistible charm and intelligence.” Everyone listening laughed with Bill and smiled as Barbara, sitting next to Bill, blushed. “Bill is three years older than I am, so I didn’t know him at first,” Barbara said.  “We met outside the drug store.”

As Bill continued describing his high school years in a typical small town during the 1950’s, we felt the real-world slip away and imagined walking down the street to the old Henn theatre, where Bill worked as a teenager. “The days of the ’55 and ‘56 Chevys, the ’57 Plymoths and Pontiacs. In the afternoon, all the kids went to Parkers drug store.  You’d hang around at the drug store, play records and we would drink Cokes and so on like that.  Occasionally, you’d do a little dancing and some sort,” Hughes said. “That’s it.  You cruise up and down the street.  If you get a date you know you cruise; we had drive-ins where you drive up, they put the creole on, all that.  A kind of life that’s gone now, but it was a lot of fun while it was happening.” We closed our eyes and imagined a life with no cell phones, no last minute plans to meet after school, and an assured trust on a Friday that everyone would be at the drugstore to celebrate the end of the week.

“At night, we’d pull our cars in, we’d hang out there, we’d turn one of the car radios on to WLAC Nashville, and we’d listen to John Richburg‘s Rock ‘N Roll Show all night long,” Hughes said. “He’d play Little Richard, Fatts Domino, the Cadillacs.  We’d sit there and listen to the radio and there was a never-ending debate about which car was the best.  I’ve seen kids almost come to blows about which car was the best, but that was the ‘50s.  And it was a great time to be a kid.  Some of the fondest memories go back there.” After Bill graduated in 1956, the majority of his class left Murphy while he stayed behind to attend college in order to become a teacher.  Bill became a teacher when he was 20 years old, and taught 6th and 7th graders at the White Church Elementary School seven miles down the road from Murphy. When the position of principal was vacated, Bill submitted himself for consideration.

“When I applied to the job I got it and I was 25 years old,” Hughes said.  “I was the youngest principal in the state for the size of the school.  I loved the job, we got right into it, I made a lot of friends. The people in the community, knew me, and they trusted me.” Bill’s accomplishments in his 33 years as principal reach beyond those of his predecessors; his school system was the first in the county’s history to receive state accreditation, and he organized the first Pre-K and Kindergarten classes in the county. Hughes also developed a mold for the beginning three years of primary school- teachers attend to children more individually for these years by allowing the children to dictate the pace of their education. This program still exists at the school.

Bill attributes much of his success as principal to the teachers he worked with. “When I walked in to school the first day, the staff came in. I spotted 6 teachers who had taught me in the grades,” Hughes said. “They were working for me, but I realized that was not going to work; I was still going to be working for them, because I wasn’t Mr. Hughes, I was still Billy. They just simply took me under their wing and I attribute my success there because they took care of me the first 5 years I was principal, just like I was one of their students.” Bill’s career as a principal continued for 33 years until he retired in 1997. After working as police commissioner on Murphy’s town council for 10 years, Bill decided it was time to completely repay his town. It was no surprise when Bill was elected mayor; nor has it been during each of his four reelections. “I’m full-time mayor,” Bill said.  “I’m here all the time.  I get here at 8 o’clock, I leave at 5.  I’ve always had what I call an open door policy.  That door you see there stays open all the time.  You don’t need an appointment to see me, you just walk in.”

Bill oversees all of the town’s departments, including the library, the fire and police forces, and the water works.  He credits Murphy’s continued success to the collaboration the town council members and volunteers who came together to make Murphy a town that is like no other and a town that provides for its citizens. Bill’s smile became bigger as he began to describe the talent of the citizens in Murphy. “Whether it be jewelry making, wood working, anything along that line; weaving, cloth, the whole bit- you name it.  Painting of all kinds, watercolor, it gave all of these folks an opportunity to come out and to present their wears on this occasion.  And we found there was a tremendous amount of talent and a big art colony here that just had not had an opportunity to be exposed, and it is now, and it’s really, really fantastic, some of the talents we have here.” Every Friday night these talents are on display at the Art Walk, an event that has replaced drive-Ins and “cruising” for Bill and Barbara.  On Saturday morning, instead of sleeping in after a night on the town, Bill and Barbara walk down to the Farmers Market in downtown Murphy.

The town is currently working on developing a 10-mile mountain bicycle trail and improving its Riverwalk trail, which Bill feels strengthens the feeling of serenity and awe in Murphy. He says, “You know, water has a tranquil effect on people, and as you walk along, especially in the fall, and you can see the reflection of colors into the water, it’s almost spiritual.” He pointed to his desk and as he picked up stack after stack of paper it became clear that the 75-year old mayor still has plans for Murphy to preserve the magic of Murphy and ensure that its citizens prosper. Bill has a 10 year plan for every aspect of city operation, explaining that “you’ve gotta know where you’re going, you can’t be haphazard anymore.”

“I wanted to be of service,” Bill said.  “I wanted to pay the debt back to the community. And when you walk away, if you can say you’re leaving more behind than you took with you, then you’ve accomplished that.” At the end of the day, Bill has led a life that has impacted the town and people of Murphy. With two successful daughters and a wife who works alongside him, Bill can look out across the town and know he’s left something behind.  Driving home, Bill looks at the old oak trees lining his driveway. They grow together in an arch, and the sunlight shines through the branches. He says, “the spirits seem happy here.” If he’s right, it’s because they’re happy seeing Mayor Bill Hughes of Murphy returning home safe and sound.

Local Franklin Farmer Profile: Joe Deal

By Nicole Esplin and Hillary Dooley, 2013

Seven boxes of apples sit directly to the left of the entrance, and some of the largest sweet potatoes I have ever seen sit in a container in the center of the rustic open room with red paint and dirtied white walls. More wooden stands in the store were filled with peppers, beans, squash, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, field corn, and onions. In the back corner, a small sign directs customers out the door to the cornfields, which on this October day had just opened its seasonal corn maze. For $5, customers can live the life of a field mouse, scurrying around and getting lost in a sea of amber corn.

On this unusually hot October day Joe Deal, the primary owner of Deal Family Farm, sits in his cluttered corner office, rummaging through paperwork. A cashier stands behind the register, monitoring the produce. On any other day, Deal can be seen working in the fields out back or managing his field hands.  As a father, field hand, and manager, Joe Deal works to bring produce to Franklin, North Carolina and its surrounding towns.  He grew up farming with his parents and grandparents, who opened the Deal Family Farm in 1951. “My dad and I still farm together, so it’s my dad and myself now,” Deal said. “I’m third generation.”

When you think of a conventional farmer, Deal has it all.  His athletic frame, callused hands and flannel shirt fit the description.  His office emits a feeling of organized chaos, and pictures of his children provide evidence that Deal’s outside life is ever-present.  A whizzing fan blows outside air into the non-air conditioned office and an open file cabinet hints at the constant managerial tasks that must be kept up with.  Deal’s friendly, open personality seems necessary for the current state of the farming business.  He’s a firm believer in farming for the good of the entire population, and works hard to provide for his customers and keep his workers happy. “I currently have 13 field hands hired right now,” Deal said. “They’re basically starving to death where they live in Mexico, so they like working.  Most of them are family with the crew that I have that has been coming for 16 years.”

While working to provide for his family and keep his workers fed and healthy, Deal concentrates his farming ideals on creating the most good for all of society.  Deal doesn’t take the popular organic stance for all of his vegetables; he believes that farming so everyone has produce and food to eat is most reasonable. “If everything became organic, a lot of people would starve to death,” Deal said. “If you live somewhere that averages 10 inches of rain a year and you didn’t have all the bacteria and fungus problems that we have here at least in the mountains it may work, but we average 50-60 inches of rain per year here.  We get disease pressure.” And with a growing world population, Deal believes the only option for the future of farming is conventional farming. “If I tried to go completely organic, probably 1 out of 5 years, I would have a good crop.  Other years, we would have reduced yields, a lot more headache.”

Deal’s main crops are apples. The farm usually produces about 5,000 bushels on 9 acres, and they have 13 different varieties. The Deal apple grove is small, but it is the only one in the county. The Deal Family Farm is a local vendor for Ingles grocery store, and they also sell wholesale in Raleigh. Today, Deal is selling Grimes Golden, an older variety with natural blemishes and specks. He mentions how the powdery mildew on the apples doesn’t hurt the apple except for appearance, and again I’m reassured that I made the right decision stopping at this road-side stand and talking to Deal.

“You can see the [produce] growing and most of the time you can see my five kids running around out here and eatin’ apples or eatin’ tomatoes,” Deal said as I took the first bite of my Golden Grime.

Do What You Know Do What You Love

By Dustin Swope and Anne Marie Glen, 2013

Selling pumpkins and strawberry shortcakes- the two don’t exactly shout “match made in Heaven,” but one North Carolina matriarch and her family have found a way to make it work. Following yard-stake signs for a pumpkin patch right along Highway 64 between Apex and Pittsboro, we broke north on your standard country road, weaving through peaceful wooded areas between farms, nurseries, and homes. Just under ten minutes later, we were pulling off the east side of the road into “Ragan & Holly’s Pumpkin Patch,” run by the Hopeland family.  Not particularly hungry, but our interest piqued by the state-fair food truck enjoying at least as much business as the actual pumpkin patch, we strolled over to meet the woman we soon knew as Mrs. Jean Hopeland.

A well-kept, smart, and sincere woman by appearance, Jean Hopeland is, by at least one account, the area’s resident Jane Lynch. On this day, Jean was looking comfortable behind the counter of the food truck, teaching her niece the tricks of the trade and clocking in some quality bonding time. Curiosity was knocking impatiently, so we had to ask Mrs. Hopeland: What was a state-fair food truck doing on a farm? Apparently, it was the intersection of good business sense and a childhood love. Mrs. Hopeland was selling beverages, fresh apples, and jars of her homemade strawberry jams, but the pride of her food truck was her strawberry shortcake.

Jean shared with us warm memories of cooking and taking meals with family. She told us about the trials and rewards of strawberry growing. She was laid-back, happy to talk to us at length and answer all our questions, an attitude you just don’t see in the city. Jean is living on country time. The pumpkin patch itself was not bustling, but it was bright with the familiar colors and sights of Autumn in the country. There were several tractors for decoration, and colors of all sizes and even colors (white and green pumpkins were a new experience).

We had never heard of pumpkin farming in the area, though, which was what made the set-up so curious. Mrs. Hopeland took clear pride in her baked goods, preserves, and of course in her strawberries – the last of which was probably easier to brag about than not! But Jean was understanding enough when we asked her how she liked farming pumpkins, wearing our agricultural ignorance on our sleeves. Alas, she reveals, the Hopeland family does not grow the pumpkins sold at the Hopeland Family Pumpkin Patch. If they did, there probably wouldn’t still be a Hopeland Family Pumpkin Patch today.

The pumpkins are outsourced from Ohio, where pumpkin farming is actually lucrative. Jean decided to incorporate the pumpkin patch into what she enjoys – growing strawberries, cooking with strawberries, and spending time with her family – and let synergy take over.  It was hard not to envy Mrs. Hopeland. Between the “seasonal” plot of land now occupied by pumpkins, the food truck that apparently truly does take in business at fairs and festivals, and of course the family farmlands, each generation of the Hopeland clan was having fun, making a comfortable living, yet never farther than a short stroll away from the woman that started it all.

The pumpkins rested on haybales, wooden pallets, and right on the ground, and the patch wouldn’t be there forever, with winter slowly approaching. But the little community surrounding the pumpkin patch takes life as it comes, setting up shop when the leaves turn and moving on when the air starts to get cold. Jean Hopeland goes back to her strawberry gardens in the woods off Route 64. Next year, when the foliage begins blossoming into orange again, the cycle will repeat and the pumpkin patch and Mrs. Hopeland will return to share North Carolina’s bounty with curious passers-by like ourselves.

Roger Person: An Artist as Vibrant as His Work

By Grace Elkus and Anne Marie Glen, 2013

In the small town of Siler City, North Carolina lies a hidden gem: a bustling and ever-growing community of local artists. Arguably the most intriguing of these artists is a man named Roger Person, owner and artist at the main street studio cleverly named Person to Person Art. Passersby are lured inside by a life size sculpture of a neon-colored cow out front, and once inside, sculptures and paintings of all sizes and mediums surround you. There are canvases hand-stretched into unusual shapes, broken down mannequins that have been reassembled and painted into strange but wonderful sculptures, and, in his second studio across the street, an installation piece entitled “The Debate” made of several papier-mâché characters arranged in a circle.

The artist himself is perhaps the most interesting of all. Originally from San Francisco, Roger Person began his art career twenty years ago after a disabling accident left him in a wheelchair. The inspiration for his unusual and exciting art comes from a lifetime of adventure, which is nothing short of horse racing across the Western United States, racing motorcycles in the desert and downhill alpine skiing.

“I only worked maybe six months a year, and I’d take six months off and go do things,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of different things. I’ve got a lot of memories and experiences to draw from.”

Person’s demeanor is so calm and nonchalant that when he talks, you wonder if he’s joking. But his warm and genuine smile makes you believe his adventurous past, and his larger-than-life artwork is a testament to his exploratory and daring lifestyle. After meeting his wife while living beachside between San Francisco and Santa Barbara, the two moved to Wisconsin and lived on a beautiful piece of wooded, lakeside property. There, he crossed off another item on his bucket list – building a log cabin. After spending twenty years between Wisconsin and Tucson, Arizona, he relocated to Siler City after visiting the area with a friend. Person was drawn to the small town not because of a thriving art community, but rather the lack thereof.

“(My friend) came down to visit his brother, and this little art community was just getting started,” he said. “I could live anywhere I wanted to at the time. But I’d just be another guy. Here, I was the first one to have his own gallery and studio. It was a challenge to try and build an art community from zero. But it’s just another adventure.”

The Siler City artists continue to come up with new and interesting pieces in hopes of drawing visitors and art collectors to Siler City. Creativity is never a challenge for Person, who now has two studio spaces and is always defying the boundaries of what art traditionally is. Person describes his art as “multi-dimensional assemblages,” and it’s easy to see why he needs such a complex phrase when you take a look around the gallery. A small tree erupts from a teal mannequin torso, a chair balances on four mannequin legs and boasts a black giraffe head, and sculptures created from glass, metal, clay, wood, and stone surround the room. Seemingly nothing is off limits- Person showed us more than one piece that incorporated goat skin, which, he explained, gets pliable when wet and shrinks to size as it dries. His workshop behind his studio overflows with mannequin parts, one of his favorite bases for art. He considers himself lucky that he can be so experimental.

“I’ve got an income that sustains me, so I can do all this goofy stuff. If someone likes it, fine, if they don’t, that’s okay too. I’m down here, I’m just playing with ideas and trying to do things.”

Although his art is unique and quite intricate, he produces it at a rate that makes a visitor to the studio want to come back time and time again to see any new additions. Assembling the various pieces comes naturally to Person, who works on his art for three to four hours each day and claims to favor no medium over another.

“What I try to do is use different mediums and combinations,” he said. “I have an engineering and construction background, household manufacturing, so I have a good idea of how things work and go together mechanically.”

Each piece has its own unique and whimsical concept. Person’s sculptures include a playful blue Japanese spirit riding a skateboard in 3D, sitars with the legs of baby dolls, and a mottled blue mannequin lounging vertically, mounted on the studio wall. He has a collection of paintings depicting neon animals in the desert under the night sky. His second studio features a series of cigar boxes filled with baby dolls, clocks, and other paraphernalia. There is not one item the eye can just carelessly pass over, and every piece is subject to change.

“A lot of times, I’ll (start) something, and I don’t quite know how I’m going to do it, and I’ll move onto something else, and I’ll get an idea,” he said. “Then I’ll come back to things that I’ve finished that have been sitting around for a long time and say that wasn’t very good, and I’ll add something else onto it.”

If you are anywhere near Siler City, stopping by Person’s studio is a must. There are too many inspiring pieces to miss, and even if you are not a professed art lover, you will find something in Person’s studio that brings a smile to your face or stays on your mind for the rest of the day. Places like Person to Person art are few and far between, and Person himself is happy to talk to anyone who is interested in his art. To experience him and his artwork is well worth your time.