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Body found on Blue Ridge Parkway identified, investigation ongoing

BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY — An autopsy has been completed by the North Carolina State Medical Examiner’s Office on the body found Oct. 9 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Investigators have identified the victim as Josue Calderon, age 33, of Rhode Island.

This incident is being investigated as a homicide. Special Agents from the National Park Service Investigative Services Branch, with support from NPS law enforcement rangers, are leading the investigation with assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office.

NPS dispatchers received a report from a park visitor of a body near an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway on Saturday, Oct. 9, at approximately 1:14 p.m.

Law enforcement rangers responded to the scene and located a deceased male at 1:19 p.m., below Yadkin Valley Overlook at milepost 289.8.

If community members have information that could help investigators, they can contact the NPS Investigative Services tip line by phone at (888) 653-0009 or by email at nps_isb@nps.gov.

Information gathered by investigators continues to suggest there is no ongoing concern for public safety, or that this investigation is related to any other ongoing investigations.

At this time, all other details regarding this incident are linked to ongoing investigative efforts. Updates and further details will be provided when they are available and will not compromise the integrity of the investigation.

Nine awards honor local leaders, businesses during 72nd Annual Membership Meeting for Boone Chamber

VALLE CRUCIS — The Boone Area Chamber of Commerce held its 72nd Annual Membership Meeting Oct. 12 at Valle Crucis Community Park. The event was presented by First Horizon Bank with additional sponsorship support from Peak Insurance Group, Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, and Spangler Restoration.

North Carolina Secretary of Commerce Machelle Baker Sanders delivered the keynote address for the event, sharing a message about the economic resiliency of rural communities throughout North Carolina to an audience of over 300 members and guests of the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce. Secretary Sanders also discussed First In Talent, the Strategic Economic Development plan for the State of North Carolina, which provides recommendations and reference points for policy makers and economic developers across the state.

Sandy Vannoy, interim dean of the Walker College of Business at Appalachian State, was introduced as the Chair of the Chamber’s Board of Directors for the 2021-22 year. Her remarks highlighted current collaborations between the University and the business community and opportunities for the Chamber to unlock future partnerships.

Photo Leila Jackson 

Community members gathered on Oct. 12 for the 72nd Annual Membership Meeting of the Boone Chamber of Commerce.

David Jackson, president/CEO of the chamber, delivered the annual State of the Chamber remarks, touching on the organizations work over the past year to connect the business community to resources during COVID-19. He also spoke about upcoming partnership opportunities with organizations throughout the state, the Chamber’s advocacy plans for the year ahead, and the refocusing of the Education committee to concentrate on partnerships that enhance workforce development.

The Chamber honored its 2021 Community Award winners as part of the ceremony. Nine local leaders and businesses were recognized for their accomplishments over the past year, each blending professional achievements with a spirit of resiliency that has served as a driving force throughout the business community this year.

Wade Brown Award for Community Involvement: Stephen Poulos, director, Watauga County Parks & Recreation

Stephen Poulos led staff and volunteers through conceptualizing, designing, and eventually opening the Watauga County Parks & Recreation Center, a 100,000-square foot facility that serves as the county’s first community recreation venue.

Since joining the department in 1992, Poulos has worked with various community groups to gather feedback regarding desired features for the facility. Once the building was complete, he has implemented customer-focused training for staff and volunteers while continuing to adjust layout and placement of various equipment to ensure the most efficient and enjoyable experience for users of the facility.

Throughout his 29-years working for Watauga County Parks & Recreation, Poulos has coordinated a variety of recreation programs for Watauga County residents, from youth sports to adult engagement. He helped create the Boone Roundball Classic, a regional basketball tournament in its 18th year of operation, which brings upwards of 150 youth teams to the area on an annual basis. Poulos is an active sports official throughout Western North Carolina and spends volunteer hours to benefit numerous community organizations.

The Wade Brown Award for Community Involvement is the Chamber’s oldest award, dating back to 1979. Named after the first recipient of the honor, this award recognizes a significant contribution through community engagement. The award is sponsored annually by Boone Golf Club.

Ben Suttle Special Services Award: Boone Sunrise Rotary Club

True to their motto of Service Above Self, the Boone Sunrise Rotary Club was an active participant in 14 community service projects over the past year. The club achieved 90% participation among its members and provided 646 hours of community service and volunteer support throughout the year.

The Sunrise Rotarians led dozens of volunteers that staffed COVID-19 mass vaccination clinics throughout the community, coordinated and placed signage to promote community social distancing regulations, and posted signage to provide thanks to local healthcare workers.

The club is an annual participant in the Boone River Clean-Up and maintains a key section of the New River along the Boone Greenway throughout the year. Sunrise Rotarians host American Red Cross Blood Drives throughout the year and serve as volunteers at the annual Back to School Festival in August. They also work alongside student Rotary Clubs at Appalachian State University and Watauga High School on various service projects throughout the year. Its fundraising efforts go to support local non-profits, world Polio eradication, and Alzheimer’s Research.

The Ben Suttle Special Services Award, named for the former Boone Town Councilman, recognizes the spirit of volunteerism in the community.

everGREEN Award for Sustainability: Blue Ridge Conservancy

Blue Ridge Conservancy (BRC) partners with landowners and local communities in northwest North Carolina to permanently protect natural resources that have agricultural, cultural, recreational, ecological, and scenic value. BRC’s land conservation projects protect the region’s vital and vulnerable natural resources.

Over the past year, BRC continued to work with Grandfather Mountain State Park to offer expanded opportunities for public access and recreation in this popular area. This work coincides with similar efforts around Elk Knob State Park and Three Top Mountain Game Land in Ashe County, where BRC completed a series of projects resulting in the conservation of over 1,000 contiguous acres on Three Top Mountain.

BRC has advanced opportunities for outdoor recreation and environmental education. The Conservancy plays a pivotal role in expanding public access to land for hiking, biking, water paddling, hunting, and fishing. The Conservancy’s premier recreation project, the Middle Fork Greenway, will connect Blowing Rock to Boone, providing safe and healthy access to nature for residents and visitors while protecting the environment and strengthening the local economy. The organization recently moved into his new headquarters on a conservation campus off Aho Road, which will become a centerpiece for community outreach and education moving forward.

The everGREEN Award for Sustainability is presented to a business, organization, project, or person who has furthered the inclusion and integration of sustainable development principles. This annual award is sponsored by Mast General Store.

Dan Meyer Partnership Award: Quiet Givers

Quiet Givers is a 501©(3) non-profit organization made up of civic-minded community members from the North Carolina High Country who are passionate about helping others. Board members come from area businesses and local non-profits in a collaborative effort to catch needs that fall through the cracks.

An agency identifies a need it can’t fill and submits the need to Quiet Givers. They work through a network of contacts and donors by use of their website and social media who contribute to the need via anonymous donations. The organization has served over 900 people throughout the last year.

Needs are defined by the organization as essential components of basic human dignity. Quiet Givers support needs covering any of the following categories: food, health, shelter, safety, transportation, and education.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Quiet Givers has provided rent support and funds for heating fuels and other housing essentials. They also played an important role in identifying education and transportation support for families whose work schedules were impacted by changes brought on by pandemic-related restrictions.

The Dan Meyer Community Partnership Award recognizes a community leader for their efforts to bring multiple parties together for a common cause. Meyer served as President/CEO of the Chamber for 12-years before retiring in August of 2016. The award is sponsored annually by LifeStore Bank.

Alfred Adams Award for Economic Development: LifeStore Bank

Providing customers with hometown, friendly service has been core to the mission of LifeStore Bank since it was established in 1939. As individuals and businesses attempt to make sense of the financial impact of the pandemic economy, LifeStore staff has worked to provide timely information with competitive loans and assistance to help meet these challenges.

Over the last year, LifeStore Bank has helped local small businesses by issuing 459 PPP loans exceeding $20 million. LifeStore Bank was also a leader in mortgage originations in the High Country during the past year. They expanded their contributions in the community to include: assisting with food insecurities and shelter needs, expanding educational opportunities, supporting business development, protecting our environment and improving recreation for this area.

The Alfred Adams Award for Economic Development recognizes individuals and/or organizations who have worked for the orderly growth and development of Boone and Watauga County. Adams served as a local banker and provided an influence on many Chamber committees in the organization’s formative years. This award is sponsored annually by Wells Fargo.

#KeepBooneHealthy Award for Community Leadership: Reggie Hunt, Pastor, Cornerstone Summit Church

Advocating for leadership through unity and understanding, Reggie Hunt has used his voice to share stories and experiences rooted in compassion and community well-being. Serving as Lead Pastor of Cornerstone Summit Church for 17-years, Hunt has been an established bridgebuilder, bringing voice and experience to important conversations involving race, inclusion, and treating community members with respect and an openness to learn from one another. His efforts have worked to bring numerous agencies and organizations to the table to discuss national issues that are impacting the High Country, and how community members can use this moment to use perspective as an opportunity for growth.

In addition to his pastoral work, Hunt is a sought-after facilitator of topics centered on leadership development. He serves as Student-Athlete Leadership Coordinator for Appalachian State Athletics and has authored and delivered leadership strategy sessions for business and community partners throughout the region. A 2000 graduate of Appalachian State, he is a frequent contributor to the Chamber’s Watauga Leadership Institute, and has expanded his scope to include facilitating corporate retreats and team building sessions throughout the State of North Carolina.

The Boone Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors established the #KeepBooneHealthy Award for Community Leadership in 2020. This honor is presented to a person or organization whose leadership has been pivotal to maintaining the health and vibrancy of our community. The award is aimed at recognizing leadership that rises above the work of any one business or agency in order to unite and mobilize business, government, non-profit, and civic partners toward an improved quality of life for our entire community.

Baker/Jones Woman of the Year Award: Captain Carolynn Johnson, Watauga County Sheriff’s Department

Serving as one of the most visible faces of the Watauga County Sheriff’s Department, Captain Carolynn Johnson provides encouragement and optimism to her law enforcement co-workers and the community at-large.

Captain Johnson has progressed through the ranks within the department, starting her career as a call dispatcher, and now serves as lead deputy in the department’s Investigations Division. She served as a family liaison and provided investigative support during the tragic events that led to the loss of two co-workers, Sergeant Chris Ward and Deputy Logan Fox in April of 2021.

Through her role with the department, Captain Johnson works closely with the Children’s Advocacy Center of the Blue Ridge, OASIS, and Hospitality House. She is an active volunteer with the local chapter of the American Red Cross, the annual Blood, Sweat, and Gears cycling event, Special Olympics of Watauga County, Hunter’s Heroes, and was a participant in the Police Unity Tour in Washington, DC.

The Baker-Jones Woman of the Year award is named for long-time Chamber volunteers Gillian Baker and Susan Jones. This award honors an inspiring member who exemplifies the qualities of leadership, mentorship, and community involvement. This award is co-sponsored annually by Appalachian Regional Healthcare System and Blue Ridge Energy.

Sue W. Wilmoth Award for the Advancement of Tourism: Grandfather Mountain Vineyard

Since starting their operation in 2000, the Tatum family has grown Grandfather Mountain Vineyards from a start-up family business into a thriving tourism magnet.

Steve and Sally Tatum purchased the property in 2000, and along with son Dylan and daughter-in-law Nicole, blended the study of viticulture with the creation of a business model that showcases the unique attributes of the High Country’s first winery, nestled on the banks of the Watauga River.

As COVID-19 changed people’s travel habits, the Tatum’s adapted their operation to provide additional options for customers that prioritized outdoor experiences. They’ve added to their seating and event space, making their grounds a popular destination for weddings and other social gatherings. All service has shifted outside of the tasting room and the establishment of a menu of special events, food truck appearances, and live music throughout the week have helped the business draw record crowds of locals and tourists alike over the past year.

The Sue W. Wilmoth Award for the Advancement of Tourism is named for the former Chamber Director, who used her influence in tourism promotion to capitalize on the region’s natural resources while balancing progress with preservation. The award is sponsored annually by the Boone and Watauga County Tourism Development Authorities.

Kathy Crutchfield Citizen of the Year Award: Dr. Scott Elliott, Superintendent, Watauga County Schools

Providing leadership to teachers and staff through a global pandemic while prioritizing the delivery of quality public education as a cornerstone of community development, Dr. Scott Elliott has lead Watauga County Schools through a variety of challenges over the last 19-months.

Over the course of the pandemic, Dr. Elliott has worked with staff daily to maintain operations for the 10-school district, seeking creative means to provide reliable support services to students and teachers. In 2020, he helped facilitate a meal delivery program that prepared and distributed more than 250,000 meals to local children while schools were closed to in-person instruction. He has worked with State, Federal, and local partners to find creative ways to minimize the financial burden of attending school as families across the county grapple with pandemic-induced economic instability. He has also advocated for funding to increase the number of school nurses and school resource officers working throughout the district.

During his tenure seven-year tenure with Watauga County Schools, Elliott has overseen the foundation of the Watauga Innovation Academy, the district’s early college program, and The Watauga Virtual Academy, an online remote learning school. He implemented a salary study aimed at increasing wages for the district’s hourly classified staff and organized a facility study to address the needs of various buildings and properties. Dr. Elliott promoted cooperation between the Board of Education and Watauga County Commissioners to secure a site for a new Valle Crucis School, and established public forums to seek input on the impact of changes to one of the county’s legacy community schools.

Named as the 2019 regional Superintendent of the Year, Dr. Elliott works in various capacities with State leadership in Raleigh, and co-chairs a committee of Superintendents that works to improve literacy education across the State.

The Boone Area Chamber of Commerce presents the Kathy Crutchfield Citizen of the Year Award annually to an individual who exemplifies a selfless work ethic while impacting and supporting a broad array of community partners.

Three local women bond after breast cancer diagnosis

BOONE — On Oct. 30, three local women who were diagnosed with breast cancer are doing a 5K walk to fundraise for the High Country Breast Cancer Foundation at the Boone Greenway Trail.

Lauren Watts, Kim Kirby and Erin Ellington were all diagnosed with breast cancer in fall 2020. While they are celebrating that they are cancer free, each of them is still in active treatment either on chemotherapy, hormone therapy or immunotherapy.

Every year, the High Country Breast Cancer Foundation does a 5K, but the event was moved to a virtual format this year due to COVID-19.

Even though it’s still on as a virtual event, Watts, Kirby and Ellington wanted to do something a little more.

“We all have a really big community support between the three of us, and so we just decided ‘Hey guys, the run was scheduled for Oct. 30. Let’s still do it,’” Kirby said. “Let’s just round up our crews and our crowd and our tribe and let’s all just go meet at the Greenway assuming weather’s OK and let’s still walk in support of breast cancer survivors. Those who have gone before us, those who have yet to go through it, and let’s raise money for the foundation so they can keep helping more breast cancer patients.”

For the three women, the HCBCF has helped them tremendously during their fight against breast cancer. According to the women, the HCBCF paid for cold capping so they did not lose their hair.

“I think we all felt really indebted to the foundation that we got that support and all got to keep our hair,” Watts said. “When you have small children, losing your hair looks really scary to them. We wanted to give back. We needed to just try to get awareness and give back to this group that’s given so much to us.”

Kirby said talking to others who have had breast cancer, losing their hair was one of the hardest parts when going through chemotherapy. She said HCBCF paying for the cold capping — which helps them with their hair — helped her mental state in a huge way.

All three of the women met shortly after getting the breast cancer diagnosis. Shortly after diagnoses, they received six months of chemotherapy, surgery and more than 30 rounds of radiation.

For each of them, meeting one another helped tremendously.

“If you have to go through it, it is something that you need to have other people that understand what you’re going through because it’s actually a comfort,” Ellington said. “It really helped a lot. Kim had the same cancer treatment regimen as me and so I was able to ask her questions and ask Lauren questions. It’s just really comforting to have folks who know what’s going on to kind of rely on and lean upon.”

Ellington said she knows it sounds cliche when people call it a sisterhood, but she said that’s what she found when meeting these women and other community members battling breast cancer.

“They are my sisters, my pink sisters,” Ellington said. “It’s just something that we went through together that will remain with us and keep us together until forever, honestly.”

The other day, Watts said she read about someone who had their cancer return, which she said took her to a dark place.

“It just brings up your own fears,” Watts said. “You go through all this and you hope never to deal with it again. But I knew that I could text Erin and Kim and go to a safe place and express that and they would understand and they know all the right things to say.”

Having each other to rely on helped them through their journey and is part of the reason they wanted to raise more money for HCBCF.

“Me, Erin and Lauren are just really so passionate about (HCBCF) mission and what they are doing,” Kirby said. “Each of us have such a strong drive here in Boone and we just really wanted to raise a lot of money for the foundation so that they can help other patients the way that they’ve helped us.”

The mission of the High Country Breast Cancer Foundation is to support breast cancer patients, survivors and their families in the High Country of North Carolina.

The run will take place at 9 a.m. on Oct. 30 at the Boone Greenway. Those wishing to donate or register for the virtual 5K can do so at hcbcf.org/events/2021-virtual-5k-event/?fbclid=IwAR0ce2cuGXjtsPOm1ydG0iAxyUi2qA1Gc0VrQfr2716xf-Gp5rTwpevwGYQ.

Those wishing to support Watts, Kirby and Ellington can do so by filling out the team name section.

  • Lauren’s team — Lauren’s Lovelies
  • Kim’s Team — KimsKrew
  • Erin’s Team — Ellington Ensemble

All proceeds will go directly to the High Country Breast Cancer Foundation to support others in the High Country who are fighting breast cancer. More information on the Greenway event can be found at tinyurl.com/2tkzruf5.

Banner Elk Woolly Worm Festival celebrates successful downtown return

BANNER ELK — Despite uncharacteristically warm temperatures leading up to the festival weekend, Mother Nature flipped a switch to bring back typical fall weather, as a wet and damp beginning to the opening day of the 44th Annual Banner Elk Woolly Worm Festival on Saturday, Oct. 16, gave way to a cooler afternoon to close the first day and reign on Sunday to close the two days of activities.

Thousands of visitors flocked again to downtown Banner Elk on both Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 16 and 17, following a 2020 festival that was curtailed to a single race due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

With returning patrons came the other facets of the festival that attendees know and love, including the more than 150 arts and crafts vendors selling their wares to food vendors providing tantalizing aromas and palate satisfiers, with everything from doughnuts to barbecue available on offer.

Also present were various local organizations who pitched in to make the event take place, with efforts that ranged from raising funds through offering parking services near the festival grounds in town to the regular and repeated collection of trash throughout the weekend that accumulated on the festival grounds by longtime festival supporters the Civil Air Patrol.

“The event was awesome, despite the rain on Saturday,” Avery Chamber of Commerce Director Anne Winkleman said of the atmosphere, camaraderie and the success of the festival. “There was so much excitement up on the stage, and the weather didn’t slow anybody down. There was so much pent-up excitement.”

The stars of the weekend, and each festival for more than four decades now, are the woolly worms themselves, as they attempt to wiggle their way up a three-foot string for glory (and cash for the winning owners). Following an arduous day of racing, the last worm standing following dozens of quarterfinal and semifinal races over the day was owned/trained by Eric Wood, who took home the $1,000 grand prize.

Wood stated that he came to the festival thanks to a suggestion from a family member.

“I didn’t even think about it, what I would spend the money on when I bought a $2 worm. That’s like a 500 percent return on investment!” Wood said after the win and claiming the $1,000 in cold hard cash.

The festival boasted more than 150 Art and Craft Vendors, along with numerous food vendors, live entertainment, games and more. According to Winkelman, sales went well with many of the vendors on site, as well as with advance e-ticket sales, of which almost 1,200 tickets were sold prior to the festival, more than double the total sold in the festival’s first year of using the online ticketing service option in 2019.

“All of the vendors had an incredible sales event,” Winkelman said. “We had an amazing weekend. The food vendors did really well and had long lines. Even in the rain, we had numerous vendors who sold out. I was amazed with how many people braved the rain for this awesome event.”

An event to carry on for more than 40 years successfully depends on many people to form a team. Winkelman shared that this year’s festival was no exception, as numerous individuals, groups and organizations from various sectors were instrumental to bringing the festival back to what regular annual attendees are familiar with and enjoy, as well as providing the sort of first-time experience that new attendees will not soon forget.

“So many groups were important and made the event work so well. The Civil Air Patrol were fantastic. The Boy Scouts were great. We had the Ladies Auxiliary of the Banner Elk Fire Department who worked really hard. Cycle 4 Life, Doug Owen and his whole family all worked throughout the festival,” Winkelman explained. “My family, including my husband and I, my mom and my friend all were busy working. Mary Jo Brubaker did a fantastic job as we worked together in putting on the festival. She was awesome and also had all of her family working there. The FFA did a good job with us, and though we had less volunteers than we have had in past years, the ones who volunteered did an awesome job and double duty. Talia Freeman from Beech Mountain did a tremendous job, the educators sorority were fantastic, and the Avery High School Key Club were a great help. We can’t thank those folks enough, and many others, for what they did throughout the weekend.”

The trio of Adam Binder, Jason Dewitt and Shawn Stricklen served together in providing commentary during the races and as the general Masters of Ceremonies for the weekend, as several dozen heats of races were carried out in order to get to the grand champion at the conclusion of the day on Saturday afternoon.

Kiwanis Club of Banner Elk partners with the Avery Chamber each year to operate the festival weekend, and proceeds from the event are split between the two organizations. Kiwanis utilizes its funds toward the awarding of grants for area groups and organizations each year.

Doug Owen, President with the Banner Elk Kiwanis Club, was quick to offer praise for the execution of this year’s event after last year’s pared-down festival.

“It was great to see the festival in full swing again in 2021. It is our biggest fundraiser of the year and from the funds we are able to generate Kiwanis gives back to the community through grants,” Owen said. “Anne from the Chamber is a real go-getter, and with this being her first festival, she did a fantastic job. She set up a live phone call with The Weather Channel on Sunday morning. The vendors all seemed happy with their sales, even with the Saturday rain. Many of us feel that is was our biggest Sunday in a long time.”

Following the festival, Owen and a number of others organized a release of the worms that were used from the event back into a natural habitat around Banner Elk to live out their days before eventually metamorphosing into the Isabella tiger moth.

“For me the official worm release after the festival was extra special,” Owen added.

For patron and organizer alike, the Woolly Worm Festival was a welcome sight for sore eyes, a hopeful harbinger that normalcy beyond the previous 18 months may be on the horizon.

“Every person I spoke to, customers and vendors, were so excited to be out. They felt safe there, and there was no frustrations by anyone. More than five vendors told me that this was the most money they had made at any festival they had been to all year,” Winkelman explained. “Two things I’ll remember from the festival are the long doughnut lines and the long line to get shirts from Don Iverson’s booth. Those were the most popular places. We all had such a good time this weekend.”