25 Charlotteans who inspired us in 2021

25 Charlotteans who inspired us in 2021

Photo: Symphony Webber/Axios

2021 began with high hopes, mostly because it wasn’t 2020.

But like any year, the reality didn’t often match the dream.

In Charlotte we were far from perfect:

Yes, but: On the upside, we Van Gogh’d and we LaMelo’d. We Cam’d and we planned. We patio’d and Duke’s Mayo’d.

Why it matters: Once again, the struggles revealed the best of us. People who exceeded expectations, who mediated while others scuffled, who challenged us to be better while others coddled our own ignorances, who inspired us while others demeaned, who reminded us that no matter what we’re still all part of Charlotte, and that Charlotte’s part of us.

  • They all serve as reminders that in this post-2020 world, the next year won’t be better simply because we wish it to be true; it’ll only be better because of the people who insist it becomes true.

Here are the 25 people or groups or places that inspired us in 2021, listed in no particular order.

  • Of note: Some folks from last year’s list, including Ric Elias and Joe Bruno, would’ve been good choices again this year but we left them out to save room for others. We think they’ll understand.

Vaccine clinic workers/volunteers

Bank of America stadium, vaccine, COVID, shot

An “I got my COVID-19 vaccine” sticker. Photo: Brianna Crane/Axios

Vaccines gave 2021 hope, even with the rise of new variants, that there’s a way out of this pandemic.

But we couldn’t have vaccinated so many from the community without the workers and volunteers who put in hours at mass vaccination sites, pop ups and countless other events.

A great many pitched in: healthcare workers, county health officials, vaccination sites like Camp North End and Optimist Hall, StarMed’s funny social team, the folks behind that “Don’t Get Vaccinated” stunt, and of course Bruno and his Twitter feed. It was a true community initiative.

— Danielle Chemtob

LaMelo Ball

LaMelo in yellow. Photo: Courtesy WFNZ’s Will Palaszczuk

LaMelo in yellow. Photo: Courtesy WFNZ’s Will Palaszczuk

Maybe it was the fact that he gave Charlotte something to cheer for during a pandemic, or his fresh fashion sense, or that his favorite dish in Charlotte is from a locally owned cereal bar. Whatever it is, eyes are on the reigning NBA rookie of the year. — Ashley Mahoney

Afghan refugees and resettlement orgs

mural at US Embassy in Kabul, July 2021

Murals on the walls at a quiet US embassy on July 30, 2021. Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

After Afghanistan fell to the Taliban this summer, two Charlotte-based organizations — Catholic Charities Diocese of Charlotte and Carolinas Refugee Resettlement Agency — agreed to receive 300 Afghans as part of a wave of resettlements to the U.S.

  • The original timeline from the Biden administration was four to six months.
  • Nearly all arrived in a two-month window.

Staff at CCDOC and CRRA worked to exhaustion trying to find affordable living situations for them and their families. They spent hours at the airport, looking for Afghans who couldn’t read the signs and were trying to figure out where to go.

But the local groups did it — with the help of Welcome Home CLT and veterans orgs like Veterans Bridge Home and Independence Fund — knowing that their hardship was nothing compared to those they were welcoming.

The bottom line: Most Afghans are here because they have to be, and no matter how much they embrace living here they’ll always wonder if they’ll ever go home again.

  • “We’re a part of the dirt of Afghanistan,” Arzoo, an Afghan who resettled here a few years ago, told me in August. “No matter where we are, our hearts are always in Afghanistan. Any Afghan you meet, no matter in what corner of the earth, their dream is to go home. Live in their country. Walk freely.”

For more:The many ways the fall of Afghanistan hits home in Charlotte

Sarah Blake Morgan and Nick Ochsner

Sarah Blake Morgan and Nick Ochsner

Sarah Blake Morgan and Nick Ochsner with their dogs, Murrow and Zara. Photo: Courtesy Nick Ochsner

Meet a journalism power couple. Sarah Blake, a former WBTV reporter who now works at the Associated Press, put down her computer in March to head to boot camp in the U.S. Army.

  • She later spent most of the fall at officer candidate school.
  • In between boot camp and OCS, she returned to her job at AP, putting out a heartbreaking story of a hospital in Louisiana coping with a surge in COVID-19 cases during the Delta variant spike in late August.

Meanwhile Nick had a taxing but important year as an investigative reporter for WBTV.

  • Most notably, he brought to light numerous claims of sexual assault by students on CMS campuses, and the victims who say the system failed them.
  • Nick, whose father was a U.S. Special Forces soldier, also published a powerful piece with CNN on what it was like to watch the fall of Afghanistan as a Gold Star kid.

And by the way, Nick published a book I’ve heard a little about — “The Vote Collectors.” I hear it makes a great last-minute gift. — Michael Graff

Dairelyn & Jason Glunt, owners of Salud

salud cerveceria owners

Photo: courtesy of Justin Driscoll

Dairelyn came up with the concept for Salud Cerveceria because she wanted a fun and safe space for her and her friends.

  • They opened the beer shop portion of Salud in 2012, and Fūd at Salud of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives fame was opened 2018.
  • But it’s the top-floor brewery and Cerveceria — now open for breakfast, lunch and dinner — that ties it all together. Once a month they hold Latin night there, and every day they have coffee and food (those pizzas) and some of the best beer in town.

Pour all those ingredients into a glass and you have one of the most interesting spots in town, and a welcoming space for everyone, especially Latinos, who are the fastest-growing ethnic population in Mecklenburg County. — Laura Barrero

Amie Kiehn, Panthers social media

Tripp and Amie Kiehn. Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

Amie Kiehn drives the witty and brilliant Panthers social media team — the one that hauls in about 1 billion impressions per year.

  • Her three-year-old son, Tripp, drives her. Tripp was born about four months prematurely on September 8, 2018. He was 1 pound, 3 ounces.

Amie and her husband, James, spent months wondering if he’d survive. Doctors wondered, too. But he’s developed into a wide-smiled boy with a big personality who goes around passing out doses of laughter and perspective.

Our story on Amie and Tripp was one of our most-read of the year, and we hope it’s a reminder to think about who you’re yelling at the next time you’re hollering at the Panthers on social media. — Michael Graff

Hookshot Charlie

hook shot Charlie

Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

Charlie Currence can hit hook shots from half-court over and over and over. It’s contagious. Every time he’s in a gym, young kids and grown kids gather around to watch, then start trying their own.

The Thirsty Beaver

mick jagger tweet thirsty beaver


Keith Cradle

Photo: Alvin C. Jacobs, Jr.

Sure, his Instagram is fun to live vicariously through when it comes to hiking, but the director of youth/juvenile services for Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office turned his passion into a nonprofit mentoring program in 2021.

Camping with Cradle uses the outdoors to teach youth life skills, and it even received its first grant from the city of Charlotte – $1,000 from the JumpStart Community Safety Micro-Grant Project — to create a winter camping experience at Hanging Rock State Park. — Ashley Mahoney

Cam Newton

Cam Newton shouts to the crowd after scoring a touchdown in his return to the Panthers. Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Cam Newton shouts to the crowd after scoring a touchdown in his return to the Panthers. Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

OK, so it didn’t lead to the playoffs like we all hoped.

Jamie Brown and Jeff Tonidandel, owners of Supperland, Crepe Cellar (turned Andalo), Haberdish, Growlers, Reigning Doughnuts

crepe cellar owners

Photo: Courtesy of Jamie Brown/Crepe Cellar.

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, they say. But Jamie and Jeff are about new adventures.

They knew making the switch from crepes to carbonara wouldn’t be very popular among the Crepe Cellar fanatics — the restaurant has been on North Davidson for a dozen years after all. But a trip to Italy to discover Tonidandel’s roots inspired them to transition the restaurant into Andalo, an Italian spot set to open next year.

Then, right at year’s end, they announced that they’re buying the old Dilworth church that’s been home to Bonterra for 20 years.

May 2022 be about following your passions and getting out of your comfort zone. — Laura Barrero

Charlotte Sports Foundation

Will Pitts and Danny Morrison with Duke's reps at App State-ECU game of the Duke's Mayo Classic Bank of America Stadium 9.2.21.

Will Pitts and Danny Morrison with Duke’s reps App State-ECU game of the Duke’s Mayo Classic Bank of America Stadium 9.2.21. Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

CSF is the group working behind the scenes to make sure Charlotte’s college sports scene thrives. This fall’s Duke’s Mayo Classic games injected millions in to the local economy, acting as a jolt for Uptown businesses battered by the pandemic.

CSF, a team of less than a dozen, this year joined Jordan Brand in announcing a three-year deal for a major men’s and women’s college basketball tournament starting next year called the Jumpman Invitational. — Katie Peralta Soloff

Anna Cockrell, Olympian

Anna Cockrell Tokyo August 2021a

Anna Cockrell prepares to compete in round one of the Women’s 400m hurdles on Aug. 2. Photo: Amin Mohammad Jamali/Getty Images

She had people all over Charlotte waking up and going to bed at odd hours to see her compete in the Tokyo Olympics. Anna Cockrell didn’t wind up medaling, but she did advance to the 400-meter hurdle final.

She wasn’t the only one in the Cockrell family with big career news this year: Her father, Kieth, became Bank of America’s Charlotte market president this summer. And her brother, Ross, won a Super Bowl championship with the Buccaneers. — Michael Graff

Read our full story on the amazing Cockrell family.

The line around Price’s

Price's Closing

A line at Price’s Chicken Coop when it closed over the summer (Symphony Webber/Axios)

We lost too many of the restaurants that fed Charlotte as it made its late 20th century ascent.

Each closure unfolded in similar fashion: The announcement, the social media yelps, and then the lines of people — people wearing flannel and dress clothes, work shirts and pajamas; people from all demographics and ages coming out to say goodbye to memories and $10 lunches.

The one at Price’s, on a warm June Saturday, topped all: a winding and weaving string of people swapping stories as if they were at a tailgate party and a funeral all at once. — Michael Graff

The four-plex

multiplexes four plexes

Photo: Katie Peralta Soloff

It is merely a structure, all brick and wood and boxy, with no feelings, no ill-will intended. But for some reason, this year, the multiplex became whipped mule of the 2040 plan debate, hauling all of the frustrations of those who were against the plan, and all of the hopes of those who were for it.

  • Then, when the debate ended, it faded out of discussions and back among the trees in Elizabeth and Dilworth and other neighborhoods, still filled with people who love living there— Michael Graff

Julius Chambers

Photo: Ashley Mahoney/Axios

Julius Chambersnever lost a case in the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • Most notably, he won Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, in which he argued busing would help desegregate CMS. The case set the precedent for integrating schools nationwide in 1971.

On this 50th anniversary year of Swann, there’s now a statue honoring the civil rights attorney on the Trail of History on Little Sugar Creek Greenway in Midtown, and a high school was renamed after him. Julius Chambers High’s football team made it to the North Carolina 4A state championship game in its first year with the new name.  — Ashley Mahoney

Lowe’s CEO Marvin Ellison

Lowe’s CEO Marvin Ellison (courtesy of Lowe’s)

2021 was huge for Lowe’s as Americans ramped up their spending on home-improvement projects. “Demand went through the roof because all of us started to spend more time at home,” CEO Marvin Ellison said during a Charlotte Regional Business Alliance annual outlook event this month.

  • This year also marked Ellison’s third at the helm of the Mooresville-based home improvement retailer. When he became CEO in 2018, Ellison began a company turnaround for Lowe’s that continues today.
  • This includes modernizing Lowe’s digital platforms and improving its supply chain.

The pandemic also highlighted how Lowe’s interacts with its customer-facing workers. The company’s announced billions in bonuses over the last couple of years for them. During the pandemic, Ellison had all of his officer-level employees (including himself and SVPs, VPs, etc.) go out to work in the stores every week. “We’re no better than you are,” Ellison said as his message to frontline workers. — Katie Peralta Soloff

Damian and Jermaine Johnson, No Grease owners

Jermaine (left) and Damian Johnson, No Grease

No Grease owners Jermaine (left) and Damian Johnson. Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

Jermaine and Damian started No Grease in 1997. Now they have shops from here to Atlanta, and a barber school that changes lives of the people who come through it.

  • In January 2021 they opened Knights of the Razor in SouthPark Mall. It was quickly successful, but less than two months later the mall’s management sent them a letter saying their temporary lease was being pulled: The mall had another tenant lined up.
  • After we published a story on their notice of termination, the mall was flooded with calls. And after 24 hours of criticism and calls to protest, management decided to honor the rest of the lease.

The latest: That lease is now nearly up, and Knights of the Razor will move into another location, just across the mall courtyard, with construction starting in early 2022. — Michael Graff

Team Gaston (Melissa and Darryl)

Darryl Gaston

Darryl Gaston. Photo: Courtesy of Varian Shrum

Darryl Gaston made the Druid Hills neighborhood, and the city at large, better. He was a tireless advocate for equitable development in neighborhoods that haven’t historically had a voice in the changes that happen to them.

The last time I spoke with him, he helped me with a story on a street in Druid Hills that was named after Jefferson Davis. The street had recently been renamed to Druid Hills Way. Darryl never got to see the street sign coming down.

His widow, Melissa, continues his fight for the future of the North End, speaking out about development in the neighborhood. — Danielle Chemtob

Melissa Gaston

Melissa Gaston. Photo: Danielle Chemtob/Axios

Taiwo Jaiyeoba

city planning director Taiwo Jaiyeoba

Outgoing city planning director Taiwo Jaiyeoba. Courtesy of the city of Charlotte.

No matter where you stand on the 2040 plan, Taiwo Jaiyeoba fought for more than three years to make sure Charlotte has a citywide comprehensive plan to address its rapid growth. The city hasn’t had a plan of its kind since the 1970s.

With more than 385,000 people expected to move to the city before 2040, these efforts couldn’t have come soon enough. His passion for making the city a better place will be missed in Charlotte as he moves to Greensboro— Danielle Chemtob


Returning to the classroom amid a pandemic, teachers had even more challenges this year, as lawmakers and parents and others turned school board meetings into debate halls. The ones in the classroom deserve all the credit for doing such an important job in spite of everything. — Danielle Chemtob

ATCO Properties & Management of Camp North End

Paige Hopkins/Axios

Camp North End sunset (photo: Paige Hopkins/Axios)

Over its lifetime, the Camp North End has had a range of uses, from a missile assembly plant to a Ford factory. In 2016, ATCO Properties & Management — headed by names many locals know such as co-president Damon Hemmerdinger and community manager Varian Shrum — bought the sprawling campus, which Eckerd/Rite Aid most recently used as a distribution center.

Camp North End is now home to local businesses — from Leah & Louise, the nationally renowned Black-owned restaurant, to small retailers like That’s Novel Books, a used bookstore — as well as the offices of corporations like Centene. Camp North End’s overhaul will take years and will also include the addition of apartments and more offices. — Katie Peralta Soloff

Dr. Ophelia E. Garmon-Brown

Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown (courtesy of Novant Health)

Ophelia Garmon-Brown was Charlotte’s first female African-American family medicine resident, as the Observer and others reported. She served on the Leading on Opportunity Council and co-founded the Charlotte Community Health Clinic, which helped care for uninsured patients.

The Charlotte Regional Business Alliance named her the 2020 Citizen of the Carolinas. A beloved physician, author and well-known community leader, Dr. Garmon-Brown died in November after lengthy bouts with cancer. — Katie Peralta Soloff

Havana Carolina owners (Manny Pérez Ochoa, his sister, Ana, and mother, Dania)

Havana Carolina restaurant story October 2019

Manny, Dania, and Anna still keep Havana Carolina going.

This family is fulfilling their American dream in Charlotte, despite the obstacles that come with moving to a new country, and the sudden loss of the family’s patriarch in 2019, as this story from Ben Jarrell documented two years ago.

The family has only been in the U.S. for about five years, and they already own and operate two successful restaurants: Havana Carolina in Concord, and now El Puro in Madison Park— Laura Barrero

Mattie’s Diner and owner Matt King

Mattie King

King says the new Mattie’s Diner will have healthier options on the menu. Photo: Courtesy of Matt King

It takes gumption to hold onto a 40-by-16-foot building for seven years, not to mention transporting it from New Jersey to Charlotte.

Charlotte gets a lot of criticism for its “out with the old, in with the new” mentality, but King has taken the diner that closed at the Music Factory in 2015 and planted it on an old Tire Depot lot on The Plaza, where it’s expected to open soon— Laura Barrero

Read More: https://charlotte.axios.com/281973/25-charlotteans-who-inspired-us-in-2021/