Thanks to the technology of the internet, I spent Sunday afternoon watching a livestream of the long-delayed 2020 commencement ceremony for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Kenan Stadium was covered with the bright Carolina blue gowns of happy graduates.
I had signed on specifically in support of a former intern of mine, Olwen Blessing, one of many who worked at The Enterprise over the years, usually responsible for putting together a monthly Phoenix school newspaper page for Southern Nash High School.
Olwen was a star student journalist, and we’ve kept in touch over the years as she’s gone on to become a young adult and an important clerk at the General Assembly in Raleigh.
It was, of course, impossible to pick out Olwen in the sea of blue on the field over my computer screen, but I knew she was there somewhere among the graduates. Like the thousands of relatives and friends who filled the stands behind them, I joined in spirit the speakers who encouraged and exhorted them, and applauded from home as the graduates turned their tassels and threw their caps into the air.
This graduation was their big moment, too long delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. I was proud of Olwen and knew her father, Pat Blessing, who died earlier this year, was proud of her too.
The commencement speaker, basketball coach Roy Williams, emphasized to the graduates that they were “forever” connected to UNC as alumni. In his own folksy manner, he encouraged them never to stop loving UNC and to remain proud of their part in its history as the nation’s first public university.
Of course, all universities say the same things to their graduates, but the sentiment is still true for all of them. I even felt a surge of emotion at the coach’s remarks and during a choral group’s singing of “Carolina On My Mind.”
The ties are real. I graduated from UNC in 1972, in the same class as Williams, and he reminded me that I will celebrate my own 50th anniversary as an alumnus next year. I even lived in the same dorm as the men’s basketball team.
One of my most visceral memories is when I was surrounded in the dorm elevator by the towering teammates and my eyes were level with their lower chests. George Karl was much taller in person than he appeared on television.
I mention these ties because I felt similar connections last week when The Enterprise hosted a candidates’ forum for the two mayoral and seven commissioner candidates at the Spring Hope Community Building, hosted by Editor Corey Friedman. The municipal election is next month, and this was the only opportunity for local voters to pose questions to all the candidates and compare their answers.
About 30 people attended the forum and I hope many more watched it, or will watch it, over YouTube. During the course of almost two hours, Corey asked a few questions and patiently made sure all residents had a chance to ask questions of their own. I was particularly interested because I didn’t know all the candidates or what they stood for. I also wanted to hear what was on other voters’ minds and see how the candidates reacted to their concerns.
The questions generated a few news stories, but the concerns were relatively focused on only a few things: the town’s water and sewer infrastructure, dissatisfaction over poor service by Envirolink and complaints revolving around what residents feel is a lack of transparency by the town board and an unwillingness to hear their comments. A few questions dealt with personal character.
The forum was successful in giving voters at least a chance to compare candidates and learn something about them. The format did not sharpen the distinctions in the mayor’s race, and I left still pondering my choices for commissioners in November, although to me, candidate Dap Dunston disqualified himself by failing to appear when all the others submitted to scrutiny.
I did think the character questions were important because integrity is, and must be, the essential bedrock of any good public official. Candidates who lie to get your vote will almost certainly be town officials you cannot trust to conduct public business.
But what especially impressed me afterward, and I remembered Sunday, is how the forum — and an earlier town hall meeting — gave me and other citizens a sense of emotional connection to our town, a link and voice to our community. Our own fates, and happiness, are tied to the communities in which we live and to the people with whom we live.
The forum, like the town hall meeting and even the Spring Hope National Pumpkin Festival amplified and reinforced those connections and loyalties. The residents of Spring Hope belong together and depend on each other for our success or failure as a community.
The upcoming municipal elections are not just a chore to ignore. Participating in them is a responsibility, and a privilege, of belonging to the town we call home.
Carolina is always on my mind, I was reminded Sunday, but Spring Hope is also on my heart every day.
Ken Ripley, a Spring Hope resident, is The Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.
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