Chapel Hill: Opinion

Kirk Ross: Goodbye to a dear friend

We stood on a hillside in Saxapahaw a couple of Sundays back and said farewell to Stephen Akin.

There were close to 200 of us wiping away tears, laughing, listening to songs and remembering a native son of Chapel Hill, whose gift to his community was his spirit, wit and kindness.

You could not help but like Akin. He was mischievous and good natured all in one. And it is striking, and a lesson, how for many of us his smile is such an indelible image. That’s something to be remembered for.

Akin grew up downtown at Cobb Terrace and was as old-school Chapel Hill and Carolina as it gets. He worked at the iconic spots like Schoolkids, Pepper’s Pizza, Henry’s Bistro and Playmakers, sang his guts out in a rock band and rooted harder for the Tar Heels than possibly any person ever.

He was just three years into being a father and his loss far too soon has been tough to contemplate. I hope it was some solace to his family, especially his wife Andrea, that so many of the friendships he formed from childhood, through school and in the places he worked were well represented on that hillside in the sun by the river.

For many of us who migrated here, Akin’s gift was to make you feel like a part of the place, like you could call this home. And for his longtime friends, he helped them stay in touch and feel like they still are a part of this place.

There’s a lesson in that, too.

I managed to catch up with a good number of people that day and was reminded of one of the great conundrums of this community.

Each year we send away, often for good, hundreds of creative, well-educated people. They go off to school, land a job and come home for special occasions. Or maybe they get out of school and stay here for a while, play some music, make a film, wait tables and then make a leap to somewhere else.

You can’t blame them, but it just doesn’t seem right that we don’t reap more from the investments we make here in the educational, artistic and cultural experiences of our own kids.

We also make it hard for ex-pats considering a return. Many want to be closer to parents and grandparents or raise their children here or just find a quieter, less-hectic place to work and live. Technology has made it even more possible to repatriate and at the memorial the other day whether to come back, when to do it and how was a common topic.

What is striking, is just how much the two problems – the recent grads moving away and the Chapel Hill ex-pats considering a return – have in common. They seek the kinds of careers and creative outlets that their education here prepared them for, which, not-so-coincidentally, are pretty much the same kinds of employers we’re trying to recruit and creative enterprises we are trying to encourage.

Solving these twin challenges yields a special benefit. Each young person that leaves for good takes local knowledge with them and leaves frayed a little bit more that which we try so hard to stitch together.

I’m not sure how this translates into policy or even if it can, but it seems like our dear departed Akin had it about right – he made a living in his hometown, he helped newcomers feel welcome and he kept close ties with the old school.

Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at