Chapel Hill News

2015 Chapel Hill and Orange County newsmakers

Deah Barakat, 23, (left) his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21,(center) and Abu-Salha’s sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 19, of Raleigh.
Deah Barakat, 23, (left) his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21,(center) and Abu-Salha’s sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 19, of Raleigh.

Here is the first of our three end-of-year issues. Look for our top stories of the year on Wednesday and our photos of the year issue one week from today.

Here are 10 people or groups of people that made local, national and international news in 2015.

‘Our three winners’

Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, and his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, were planning an overseas dental mission called Project Refugee Smiles when the young couple and Abu-Salha’s younger sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were gunned down Feb. 10 in their Finley Forest condo.

Their family and friends, rather than let their dreams die with them, rallied to raise money and find volunteers to carry out the couple’s plan to hold two dental clinics for Syrian refugees in Turkey.

The good works they were doing in the name of Barakat and his wife, both UNC dental students, didn’t stop there. They formed the Our Three Winners Trust, raising more than $874,000 through an online donation site and establishing a scholarship for UNC and N.C. State University students.

Volunteers collected more than 15,000 cans of food for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.

And the Barakat family launched a nonprofit – The Light House Project – to renovate Dean Barakat’s former home in Raleigh and open a community resource center offering services for youths and young professionals, Muslim outreach and incubation space for service organizations.

It has been hard, Barakat’s older brother Farris Barakat said, to balance the good that has happened with the cost to the victims’ families.

At times, Deah’s older brother, Farris, has struggled to balance the good that has come from the publicity that followed the shootings with what it has cost his and the Abu-Salha families.

But “life is a test,” he said. “Now we’re given an opportunity to do something good. We have to take it.”

Staff writer Tammy Grubb

Jan Boxill

Former UNC faculty chair Jan Boxill was in trouble from the first day the Wainstein Report was issued.

The same day that UNC made the contents of the report public – alleging a series of bogus classes and a stacked grading system was used to benefit UNC athletes – the school made it clear to Boxill she was destined to lose her position as a philosophy professor and director of UNC’s Parr Center for Ethics.

Boxill was highest profile person still employed at UNC when the report was delivered. Deborah Cowder, the AFAM administrator who helped issue the questionable grades, had retired. Julius Nyang’oro, the professor “teaching” the bogus classes, had resigned. UNC football coach Butch Davis, though never cited for any wrongdoing in the report, had been fired long before.

UNC notified Boxill of its intent to fire her for misconduct, according to a letter to her on Oct. 22, 2014.

“Your record of outstanding service does not outweigh your profoundly flawed and unethical acts recounted in the Wainstein Report,” UNC provost Jim Dean wrote Boxill.

She protested at first, saying she wanted a hearing in front of the facility council, but eventually she resigned effective Feb. 28, according to a statement released by the university.

“This has turned my life upside down,” Boxill told a Durham TV station in a rare statement.

Staff writer Elliott Warnock

Carl Fox

The Superior Court judge drew the Triangle’s attention to blood disorders and the need for bone marrow donations when he made public in June his own fight with Myelodysplastic Syndrome.

MDS is a cancer in which the bone marrow fails to make enough healthy blood cells. Fox learned about it after visiting his doctor in April for a spot on his leg.

He canceled his court schedule and decided he would fight back, getting regular chemotherapy treatments. His sister Angela Fox is a 20-year cancer survivor.

Fox, his family and a whole community launched a social media campaign – Save the Fox – that spotlighted his battle. The campaign has registered more than 2,000 people as bone marrow donors.

“The more people on that list, the more likely other people on it will find a donor,” Fox said in June.

In September, Fox received cord blood stem cell transplants, and his condition has been improving. He was discharged from the hospital Nov. 4 and, according to a Facebook post, last got an infusion of platelets in October. His last blood infusion was in November, he said.

Registration information is available at

Staff writer Tammy Grubb

Omar Currie

Once upon a time a boy who was called names every day in middle school grew up to be a third-grade teacher at Efland-Cheeks Elementary School.

One day one of teacher Omar Currie’s students got called “gay” in class and teased about “acting like a woman.” The boy felt bad and Mr. Currie decided to read a fairy tale he knew called “King & King” because the class had been studying fairy tales and he thought it would help.

But after Mr. Currie read the book, in which two princes fall in love and get married, some people at the school got mad. They said he was wrong to read the book without getting everybody’s parents’ permission first. They said he and the assistant principal who gave him the book were spreading a “homosexual agenda.” One parent carried a sign outside the school.

The school held a meeting, and lots of people came. Later, a school committee said the book was OK, twice. But Mr. Currie decided the school wasn’t a good fit for him anymore and he moved away and found a new teaching job. But he came to Chapel Hill a few months later to speak to a big group of other teachers who wanted to learn how they could help their LGBTQ students.

“Our number one job is to keep all students safe,” Mr. Currie told them. “We cannot do that when we are picking and choosing which students and families to represent.”

You can watch a video clip where he talks about it at

Staff writer Mark Schultz

Julie McClintock and CHALT

The Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town – CHALT – became a strong voice for change in town leadership and the direction in which the Town Council’s decisions were guiding future growth.

The group’s grassroots effort helped to unseat an incumbent mayor and two council members. CHALT-supported council candidates Jessica Anderson and Nancy Oates were elected, along with new Mayor Pam Hemminger.

CHALT co-founder and former council member Julie McClintock played a big role, helping focus campaign platforms and set up websites. She spent hours organizing, researching and hosting CHALT events, and personally donated at least $300 to Anderson, Oates and candidate David Schwartz.

McClintock said she’s “incredibly happy and gratified with the results.” Citizens had given the town a lot of time and input on decisions in the past few years, she said, but the council chose not to listen.

People from all over town working together made the difference, she said.

“I did put a whole lot of effort and time in this, and I have a unique set of skills, because I had been on the council and I care deeply about the town,” McClintock said. “But it was not me. It was everyone who voted as they did, (and) it was an incredible team of people with incredible skills and talents.”

Staff writer Tammy Grubb

Margaret Spellings

Margaret Spellings, who served as U.S. Secretary of Education under George W. Bush, was unanimously elected the new president of the 17-campus UNC system in October, capping off months of acrimonious debate that pitted members of the UNC Board of Governors against each other and drew fire from the General Assembly.

The process was set in motion in January when the board unexpectedly removed former President Tom Ross without offering a reason for ousting the popular leader.

A committee to replace Ross reviewed 230 applications before narrowing the field to 14 candidates. However, faculty and staff from across the state complained they’d been denied a voice in the selection, and prevented from interviewing any of the potential candidates.

Legislators also protested, taking the unprecedented step of passing a bill requiring greater transparency in the search process. Even the Board of Governors was split on how the search should be conducted.

Following a hastily-called closed session meeting in mid-October that some argued violated state law, board members called for Board Chair John Fennebresque to step down, criticizing him for being too secretive. He resigned three days after Spellings was named the new UNC system president.

Spellings takes office March 1, 2016.

Correspondent Elizabeth Friend

Renee Price

As tensions over race relations sparked rallies, Orange County Commissioner Renee Price invited residents to learn exactly where slaves had lived in historic Hillsborough. She invited residents to listen to how it felt attend a one-room, wood-heated rural “colored school” -- and to share their own experiences with school integration, from both black and white perspectives.

The Free Spirit Freedom cultural arts initiative, co-founded by Price, gave residents a chance to learn about their own shared history and to join community conversations, throughout 2015. Free Spirit Freedom draws on the arts to explore the county’s diverse heritage and to promote cross-cultural understanding.

Price moderated storytelling panels that included local civil rights activists and graduates of Orange County’s former rural “colored schools.” She coordinated Q&A sessions that spun into hour-long community discussions, where attendees recalled their own stories from the civil rights era. Price founded Free Spirit Freedom with fellow Hillsborough Arts Council board member Thomas Watson; the initiative is currently under the Arts Council’s fiscal umbrella.

Meanwhile, in her role as commissioner representing District 2, Price advocated for equity, inclusivity, and boosting the local economy – including opening the Rogers Road Community Center with support from county funds, extending bus service to northern Orange County, and opening the Morinaga factory in Mebane.

Price described Free Spirit Freedom as one way to complement policy. While policies may build a structure for equality, change must continue to deepen within the fabric of community, she said.

“You still have to change people’s minds and attitudes and hearts – and you have to do that by coming together,” she said. “You do that by sharing stories, realizing you have the same stories, or were in the same room at the same time (in history).”

Correspondent Julia Sendor

Aziz Sancar

Chapel Hill resident Aziz Sancar, the Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at UNC’s School of Medicine, won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Sancar shared the prize with Duke University’s Paul Modrich and Tomas Lindahl, a researcher based in the United Kingdom, for groundbreaking work in mapping DNA repair.

King Carl Gustaf of Sweden awarded the Nobel to Sancar in December. The native of Turkey and Chapel Hill resident since 1982 also received the Key to the City in November from Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt.

Sancar said at the time that his hope in winning the prize was that he had helped more people get to know his native and adopted communities. He and his wife, UNC professor Gwen Sancar, established a foundation and the Carolina Turkish House (Turk Evi) to promote cross-cultural understanding.

“I think it’s important, especially in these dangerous times that we’re living through, that we all know about one another, and that when we do, we are more alike than different, “ he said. “If the Turkish House survives after Gwen and I are gone, that will be just as important to us as the Nobel Prize.”

Staff writer Tammy Grubb

Charles Blackwood

Sheriff Charles Blackwood, a longtime Orange County deputy, was elected in November 2014. He replaced Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass, who retired after 32 years as sheriff.

Blackwood has worked with court and other officials this year to plan for a new Orange County Jail and assess how to build on the foundation that Pendergrass set, he said. He is “extremely proud” of changes to the Seniors and Law Enforcement Together (SALT) program’s outreach.

The deputies were already visiting seniors they knew lived alone, many without family support, he said. As more seniors worried they were being a burden, he said, they asked retired Capt. Archie Daniel to coordinate the effort. It has grown from roughly 60 seniors to about 140, he said.

“That’s probably one of our crown jewels,” Blackwood said. “We’ve gotten tremendous feedback from the public about that.”

The Sheriff’s Office also is focused on deputy safety, he said, finding money in the budget for modern ballistic vests and working with the county’s risk manager to design footwear that reduces injuries and hold workshops on conflict-reduction techniques.

They’re also working more closely with other law enforcement agencies, on joint operations and community engagement events and programs, Blackwood said.

Staff writer Tammy Grubb

Vimala Rajendran

The chef, activist and mom of three adult children received another laurel this year when her restaurant was one of 20 small businesses – out of 30,000 nationwide – to win a $100,000 grant from JPMorgan Chase Bank.

Her restaurant, Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe, was chosen for its unique business model, JPMorgan Chase officials said, and for its “everybody eats” policy.

The restaurant is rooted in the community meals that Rajendran served at her home. Rajendran opened the West Franklin Street restaurant in 2010 with $80,000 raised by family and friends.

Rajendran pays her employees $10 to $12 an hour, plus tips, and the restaurant was among three dozen businesses this year that helped to launch the Orange County Living Wage project. The project encourages businesses to pay at least $12.75 an hour.

Vimala’s Curryblossom Café is a co-founder of– RAISE – a national organizing effort advocating for a living wage for all restaurant workers. Rajendran has spoken nationally and internationally about the importance of a livable wage, as well on issues of women’s rights and social justice.

“Humans are endowed with the right to dignity, and the right to pursue happiness,” she said at OCLW’s launch in November. “How can anyone be happy when most people are not able to put food on their own table when they work in a restaurant?”

Staff writer Tammy Grubb

5 more making news

▪ Bob Johnson: The chairman of the nonprofit Colonial Inn Preservation Association, was a driving force behind a community effort to save the 176-year-old Colonial Inn in Hillsborough. Johnson’s group held rallies and fundraisers for the inn, which had languished since Francis Henry bought it in 2001. Johnson attempted for many months to negotiate with Henry to work him on repairs to the building or sell it to interested investors.

▪ Carrboro mayor and aldermen: Opposition candidates were nowhere to be found this year, as Carrboro voters returned Mayor Lydia Lavelle and Aldermen Damon Seils, Michelle Johnson and Bethany Chaney to office.

▪ Sisters Garden sisters: Twin sisters Bernice Wade and Barbara Stiles celebrated their 100th birthdays this year. The sisters have welcomed a community for decades to stop by and relax (and maybe even pick some weeds) in their Gimghoul Road garden of tulips, azaleas and other flowering plants. 

▪ Confederate rallies: The groups, Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County and Orange County Taking Back Orange County, rallied on the UNC campus in support of Southern heritage and the Confederate statue Silent Sam. The memorial, erected in 1913, became part of the debate about race at UNC this year and was targeted by vandals over the summer. 

▪ Body cameras: Carrboro Alderman Damon Seils, Police Chief Walter Horton and Chris Brook, legal director for the North Carolina branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, wrapped up nearly a year’s worth of meetings by presenting a draft body-camera policy for police officers to the Board of Aldermen. Some lingering policy questions are being worked out, Horton said, and he plans to bring the revised policy to the aldermen in January for approval.