Piedmont Profile: Bridging old and new: Ryan Dayvault’s Kannapolis roots go deep
By Emily Ford
KANNAPOLIS ó Descended from the man who sold a farm in 1905 that became Cannon Mills, Ryan Dayvault has brought his family full circle.
Dayvault, 23, now works at the N.C. Research Campus, a biotechnology complex that rises from the ruins of the old textile mill, which rose from 72 acres of farmland that his great-great-grandfather, Paul Dayvault, sold to J.W. Cannon for $1,200.
From the balcony outside his second-story office at the UNC Nutrition Research Institute, Dayvault can look out over his ancestors’ land, which went from cornfield to Town Lake to Core Lab, the five-story laboratory building that opened last fall.
He’s proud to play a part in what he calls the rebirth of Kannapolis.
“I see this project as a continuance of Mr. Cannon’s dream to create a town that will be an economic engine for the state,” Dayvault says.
The $1.5 billion Research Campus will provide good jobs for the people of Kannapolis and surrounding communities, he said.
“This is something I truly believe in,” he says.
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If one person can embody a city, Dayvault does so for Kannapolis.
He personifies all the significant pieces that come together to make up this unique puzzle, from farming to racing, from textiles to biotech.
“He provides a generational bridge between the old Kannapolis and the emerging Kannapolis,” says Eddie Smith, assistant city manager and Dayvault’s boss during an internship.
Dayvault sometimes even goes bananas.
At 5 feet 7 inches and 120 pounds, he pulls on yellow tights and giant shoes and climbs into a Dole banana suit every now and then for community events.
Dole Food Co. owner David Murdock, who owned the mill in the 1980s, bought back the shuttered plant in 2004 and founded the Research Campus a year later.
In a city undergoing a nearly unprecedented transition from mill village to science center, Dayvault celebrates what defined Kannapolis yesterday while helping shape the city’s tomorrow.
A commemorative brick in the sidewalk at the Research Campus sums him up pretty well.
“Ryan G. Dayvault. Honoring the past, embracing the future.”
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Dayvault’s coworkers call him a mix between Andy Griffith and MacGyver.
He can fix just about anything, and his genial manner and historical knowledge make him seem older than his years, even though he still looks like a teenager.
“A lot of people say I’m like an 80-year-old in a 20-year-old body,” Dayvault says.
When he was 12, Dayvault took apart a broken 1956 Ford car radio and fixed it.
Since then, he’s restored scores, maybe hundreds, of antique radios, spending up to 15 hours a week repairing the inner workings and refinishing the hardwood cases.
“I put them back exactly like they were when they were brand- new,” he says. “I don’t convert them in any way.”
He learned the craft from Harold Holbrook of Holbrook’s Radio and Television Service. Holbrook has died, and his sons who run the shop send any really old radios to Dayvault.
He works on car radios from 1928 to 1958 and house radios of any vintage. He’s made a little money with his hobby, enough to buy “a lot of lunches and gas money to go back and forth to Catawba College,” where he graduated in 2008 with a degree in political science.
He sometimes goes to auctions, but usually people bring him radios they’ve found in basements or barns.
He’s sold only a few and keeps most of his collection in storage.
“I’m afraid if I get rid of one, I may never be able to find another just like it,” he says. “They’re so scarce.”
Dayvault has a hard time describing exactly why he devotes a month or more to restoring one old radio.
After thinking for a minute, he talks about the moment he hears music or a voice transmitted through the machine for the first time in 40 or 50 years.
“It gives me a good feeling to know that I’ve brought something back to life,” he says.
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Although Dayvault has a stunning collection of restored antique radios, a refurbished 1954 jukebox, a 1970 Chevelle in mint condition and a 2004 Mustang, one of his most treasured possessions is a telephone.
It’s shaped like a black race car and bears the number 3.
When he plugged it in on his sixth birthday, the phone rang.
It was Dale Earnhardt.
“What are you doing, boy?” Dayvault remembers his hero asking. “Happy birthday.”
The gift still sits on his bedside table.
“I wouldn’t take anything for that phone,” Dayvault says.
His family got to know Kannapolis’ most famous son while they owned Dayvault’s Tune Up and Brake Service. The shop sponsored Earnhardt’s first race car, a pink 1956 Ford dubbed K-2.
The Dayvault garage had the only chassis dynamometer around, which measures horsepower. Earnhardt and other drivers took their cars to Frank and Wayne Dayvault to have them tested.
The Dayvaults, including Ryan Dayvault’s dad, Gregg, maintained Earnhardt’s car.The family built a replica of K-2 in 2000 and gave Earnhardt a photo of it for Christmas that year.
The Intimidator had planned to come to Kannapolis to sign the dashboard but died while racing in the Daytona 500 two months later.
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Dayvault keeps a small model of K-2 near his desk at the Research Campus, on top of a restored radio.
He also keeps a piece of the Cannon Mills smokestack and a small replica of Plant 1.
The only son of Gregg and Leslie Dayvault, Ryan Dayvault comes from two long lines of millworkers.
After his great-great-grandfather sold the farm to the Cannons, Dayvault’s great-great-uncle drove the first stakes for the mill.
His father worked in the mill’s truck garage for 25 years and his mother in distribution for 26 years.
The Dayvaults had left the mill by 2003, but they were still shocked when it closed. Thousands of people lost their jobs in the largest layoff in state history.
Ryan Dayvault had a premonition as he looked at the empty mill with his father.
“I said, ‘There needs to be a university here,’ ” he recalls.
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Not one but eight universities now have a presence at the Research Campus, searching for healthier fruits and vegetables and better ways to treat disease.
Dayvault wanted a job at the campus as soon as Murdock announced his plans.
“Opportunities in Kannapolis were very limited for someone with a four-year degree,” he says.
He attended public hearings about a controversial new way to pay for infrastructure improvements around the campus called Tax Increment Financing.
“He would stand up in public hearings and speak in favor of the TIF,” assistant city manager Smith says.
Dayvault’s advocacy made an impact on leaders who eventually voted to approve the bond sale.
“He made a huge impression,” Smith says. “There weren’t very many young people who even knew what was taking place, and he could speak intelligently on the subject.”
Dayvault played a part in the development of the Research Campus, Smith says.
“Without Ryan, we would have had same talking heads and same experts and the same role players saying the same things,” he says.
Dayvault went to work for the city, completing a six-month internship while still at Catawba College.
“His intuitiveness was so vital,” Smith says.
Dayvault has a vast understanding of Kannapolis history, gained from hours of research but also from years of listening to his parents and relatives talk about their town.
One week after college graduation, he started work at the Research Campus as special projects manager and interim facilities coordinator for the UNC Nutrition Research Institute.
He handles any issues that come up with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s massive, four-story building. He serves as a liaison between several universities and landlord Castle & Cooke North Carolina, as well as a variety of subcontractors and maintenance crews.
“He’s very personable, very confident, an independent thinker,” says his boss Jana Harrison, deputy director for the institute. “You can trust his judgment.”
Harrison says his knowledge of the community is invaluable.
“That’s a great asset for us,” she says.
When new UNC faculty members move to Kannapolis, sometimes sight unseen, Dayvault directs them to local businesses or services they might need. He introduces them to people.
He’s also a good salesman for the Research Campus.
“He communicates very well what we do,” Harrison says. “He’s a good ambassador.”
Dayvault’s job is temporary and ends in May. If he can’t find full-time work with UNC, he’ll pursue other opportunities at the Research Campus.
“I try to contribute to making this all it can be,” he says. “I can see that this has so much potential to change and make the town something that everyone can really be proud of once again.”
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