Paul Oakley: On leaving Salisbury

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 5, 2011

Musings on leaving one of America’s unique cities
By Paul Oakley
Special to the Salisbury Post
There is a mind-numbing sameness about most small cities in America. Signs for the same chain restaurants, hotels and fuel stops combine with the same large chain stores designed to sell the same foreign-made products to people who dress and look like the people in every other city. Suburban sprawl meets rural sprawl and almost every town looks the same from the Interstate highways.
Luckily, there are a few cities that resist this temptation toward “sameness,” and decide to maintain their regional charm and personality. Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia are good examples of such cities. One of the great southern cities for maintaining its uniqueness is none other than Salisbury, North Carolina, our home town.
We moved to Salisbury four years ago from New York City. Previously we had lived in some of the finest cities in the country, Minneapolis, Boston, and Charlotte to name a few. We could not imagine what it would be like to give up the vigorous life of the city to settle in a small southern city. We came originally for our jobs, but it was the town itself that stole our hearts.
It is easy to get caught up in the daily routine of life and miss the very things that make Salisbury a remarkable city. But job changes have forced us to leave this city that we love, and there are things that should be lifted up as part of this city’s uniqueness.
Salisbury is one of the only towns I have ever experienced where the names you see on buildings, parks, schools and streets are not for people living cloistered away from the general population. Rather, the people whose generosity built and continue to inspire this city are the same people you see at civic events, sporting events, cultural events, at worship, or working for Rowan Helping Ministries (one of the city’s greatest accomplishments). Just yesterday I heard about one of our most prominent city fathers driving a homeless woman to a pharmacy to get a prescription. This is unheard of in most American cities.
New York City is said to have “the best of everything.” Well, I can testify that this is not the truth. At age 51, I have never had better dry cleaning service than Paul and Beth offer at Vogue Cleaners here in Salisbury. There is no better place to taste cheeses and exchange conversation that Tom and Joe’s A Step in Time. While looking at their beautiful merchandise, you can meet the most interesting people for near and far. The beautiful galleries are amazing in this area, and as collectors of art, we have found the Green Goat in Spencer and Pottery 101 and The Fine Frame Gallery on Main Street in Salisbury to be wonderful sources. This is where we got hooked on the great pottery of Brent Smith and the brilliant photography of Sean Meyers.
If you are looking for a world-class selection of wine and beer you don’t have to look any further than Stephanie and Bob’s new Salisbury Wine Shop on Main. My mother will mourn our leaving Salisbury because she has become accustomed to receiving terrific gifts from Missy and Greg Alcorn’s Caniche Boutique. She waits for those boxes like New Yorkers wait for the Blue Box from Tiffany’s.
In a class by itself is the Literary Book Post. Last December a world-renowned pipe organ builder from Padua, Italy was visiting us. I mentioned that Deal and Sheila Brownlow had a remarkable small book store with unparalleled quality. He had been looking in specialty book shops all over the world in his travels for a certain book on architecture. He went into the Literary Book Post with me, and Deal had a copy of the very book he was looking for in his upstairs storage. It was a stunning moment for the organ builder and for me. By the way, the next time you are tempted to order a book online, don’t do it. Go to the Literary Book Post and order the book. Help keep this unique and wonderful store thriving in our community. We hope all of these specialty shops will survive and thrive. It doesn’t take magic, it takes revenue.
Those of you who know me are visually aware that I am a fan of great food. We were so afraid that coming from New York City we would be forced to eat in the basic chain restaurants that can be found anywhere. Again, we were shocked by the choices of excellent, locally-owned restaurants available for many discriminating food tastes. Our wallets did not allow as many meals at our gold star La Cava Restaurant as we would have liked. But, all of our special occasions here have been marked by memorable evenings of food and wine in that very wonderful place. It rivals any major New York City restaurant in cuisine and atmosphere.
However, within our regular budget were culinary treats we came to look forward to great food on a regular basis: Sunday Brunch at Sweet Meadow Café on Innes (always a treat, and you won’t find a better Pork Chop in Iowa); the great Minestrone Soup at the Stag & Doe in China Grove; Fried Chicken on Thursday and Sunday at the Farm House; Saturday deli sandwiches and great conversation at the Sidewalk Deli; Beer Cheese soup better than you can get in Wisconsin (we have had it in Wisconsin many times) at Ivan’s. All of these are really exceptional places to eat. Recently, the fantastic Cuban food at the Mambo Grill on Fulton (in its wonderfully artsy new building) has been a great addition to the palette of Salisbury diners.
Our favorite neighborhood restaurant wasn’t even in our neighborhood. We have loved living in the beautiful Historic District of Salisbury, but we have also enjoyed a brief drive over the rolling countryside to Faith where we became regulars at the Faith Soda Shoppe. Brenda Welch and her son Andrew (the chef) have created a winning menu of regular items and a rotating list of specials that make my mouth water just thinking about them. We have lived in Texas on multiple occasions and Andrew’s Beef Brisket rivals anything we have had in Texas. It has a melt-in-your-mouth texture, full of flavor and with a Texas-style sauce that is first class. The catfish is excellent and the Prime Rib specials on the weekend are worth much more than you are asked to pay. Why do to a taupe chain restaurant when you can eat at these and so many other local diners? It doesn’t make any sense to do otherwise.
The good people of this community have filled our concerts to overflowing with enthusiastic and curious audience members. The joy of watching your faces while conducting “O come, all ye faithful” during the annual Service of Lessons and Carols will be always in my mind and heart. The students in our choral programs have felt supported, encouraged, and even loved by members of this community.
As a performer, leaving New York to come to Salisbury seemed nothing less than crazy. But, my first weekend in town I experienced the city’s wonderful Pops at the Post. Not only was I shocked by the sound of the local symphony orchestra, but was astounded that the community had attracted a conductor with the excellent skills of David Hagy. This just doesn’t happen in small towns. His conducting is superb. What a treasure this city has in its symphony! You must remember to support it.
Friday Nights Out in downtown, the excellent community theatre productions, the annual Parade of Homes in the Historic District, the parade on Thanksgiving Day, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Breakfast, and the Civitan Spaghetti Luncheon are just a few of the remarkable things that happen for the people in this community. What a place to live!
The entire time I have lived in Salisbury, I have been actively fighting colon cancer. While others may choose to leave town for other medical facilities, I have had the best medical care here I have experienced in my entire lifetime. Carolina Oncology Associates, (Drs. Wimmer, Black, Brinkley and Storey; Nurse Practitioner Doraine Spencer and their incredible staff) are without peer in offering world-class cancer care in a loving, hopeful, encouraging and uplifting environment. This care is given in a beautiful building designed by our own master architect Karen Alexander. (This is only one of her many beautiful buildings in our community.)
I have had four surgical procedures at Rowan Regional Hospital and Dr. Emil Sekada and Dr. Paul Caputo were both nothing short of brilliant. Dr. Caputo once helped me though a life-threatening situation without my even knowing I was in a life threatening situation. I went home that same day. Our “regular doctor” while in Salisbury is no regular doctor! We have had the great care given by Dr. John Kribbs and his nurses at Rowan Family Physicians. I have never heard anyone say a negative word about Dr. Kribbs. He is an amazing physician and human being. We were so lucky that he was willing to take us as new patients.
I have terrible eye-sight and was told by my Minneapolis, Charlotte and New York doctors that I would never have 20/20 vision. Now, after Dr. Tom Henie, Barbara and there staff have taken care of me, I have 20/15 vision and see better than I ever thought I could. They are here in Salisbury, not in some major city center.
Throughout my cancer treatments I had the inspiration of watching Fr. John and his congregation from Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church design and build the astoundingly beautiful church they have built on Lumen Christi Lane on the south side of Salisbury. I would drive there to cry and pray about my cancer situation, and I watched it grow from a dirt road up a barren hill into a church that rivals great parish churches of Europe. The church’s acoustics for classical music are among the best available. What a gift to this city that beautiful edifice is.
Churches are like kudzu in the south. They are often overly-abundant, overgrown and often unruly in many Southern cities. But in Salisbury, we have been welcomed by many of the congregations. When we first arrived in town, the warm fellowship and excellent music program of First United Methodist Church was a great support and comfort to us. Then we began to work in churches as musicians and found ourselves forced to part from our friends at First United Methodist Church for our jobs. We have experienced the great hospitality of Rob Durocher at St. John’s Lutheran Church (with their excellent Casavant organ) and we have been moved the by the inspiring music and tremendous preaching at Soldier’s Memorial AME Zion Church. Dr. Grant Harrison and his highly gifted wife preside over some of the best worship and music offered in the city of Salisbury.
Dennis Jewett has had the joy of serving as the Choir Director for First United Church of Christ while we were here. He has loved watching that congregation’s close fellowship and sense of mission continue to flourish in times of transition. The people of First UCC have welcomed our sacred music students with open arms, and they were the first church in town to have a Choral Scholars Program (thank you Greg Alcorn for being willing to think outside of the box).
I close this article with a tribute to Salisbury’s historic First Presbyterian Church. I have served this congregation in several capacities of music leadership. I had my first paying church job at the age of 9, and my first Organist/Choirmaster job when I was 15. In the years following I have served churches in many denominations and in many localities. I am not a Presbyterian, I am actually an Episcopalian. But, in my years working with the staff and people of First Presbyterian Church in Salisbury my faith in what the church should really be has been restored. This large congregation casts a very wide net of acceptance and hospitality. There are members of the congregation with widely disparate views on almost any theological question or politic. However, this congregation puts aside its differences in a loving way and concentrates on living as disciples alive with fervor for mission in this community and far beyond it. In over 40 years in working in churches I have never seen a church that I feel better displays the grace and loving nature of God in its daily life together.
Also, in decades of ministry with many famous preachers, I have never seen a pastor more genuine, honest, caring, daringly prophetic, and completely real than Dr. Jim Dunkin. Jim, Leslie, Matthew, Christina Dunkin and Dee Williams (Leslie’s mother) are a family of distinction. Media reports are full of stories about people who do not take their callings and vows seriously. The Dunkins are a model of what a pastor’s family should be, and that should be written about in the media as well.
The caring and loving congregation of the First Presbyterian Church has embraced and loved this community for decades, and my heart is broken in leaving this church. I looked for this church for over 40 years and only got to be a part of it for four years.
We thank you Salisbury for your countless acts of kindness and generosity to Dennis Jewett, to me, and to our remarkable students. We will always be grateful for what makes you that unique American city that protects its individuality. Please support local businesses, use our wonderful medical facilities, and join our area churches in great ministry through Rowan Helping Ministries. This is a great city. Celebrate it and keep it thriving.
PAUL OAKLEY became director of vocal choral and sacred music studies and associate professor of music at Catawba in 2007. He resigned recently to join the faculty at Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro, Ky. He also was organist for First Presbyterian Church in Salisbury during part of his time here.