Russell’s Ramblings

Those who do not hear the music might think the dancer mad

The Business of Politics

Russell thoughts 1

W.E. “Bill” Russell, CCE, IOM

This month marks my 25th year with the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce….a milestone from which to reflect on the past, but also look toward the future. Going through my files the other day, I found some letters we wrote to then N.C. Senator Fountain Odom in Raleigh years ago.
Most Chamber members join our association because of the many networking opportunities or for the chance to improve their marketing, management, or sales skills through our many seminars and programs. But a very important role the Lake Norman Chamber plays is being the voice of local businesses whether that’s at Town Hall, in Raleigh, or in the Halls of Congress.

In 1996, a group of our chamber members went to Raleigh to meet with Senator Odom regarding legislation he had sponsored. His bill would change the way our towns and cities annex. Our North Mecklenburg towns were opposed to the bill. While that may not sound like a business issue, the growth of our towns is very important to the overall vitality and health of our region. The chamber played, and still maintains, a key role in the economic well-being of the Lake Norman region.

It was my first trip to Raleigh and after a short wait we were escorted in to see the Senator. There was some small talk before we got down to the real reason we were there.  Senator Odom saw me looking at the beautiful ornate humidor sitting on his desk. He interrupted the Chamber Board Chair, Scott Lawrence, then opened the box and asked if we smoked. Indicating that we did smoke cigars on occasion, the Senator offered each of us a cigar, and took one for himself. He then leaned back in his chair, clipped the end of the cigar, and lit it up to my astonishment.

“Are you going to smoke that in here sir?” I asked, rather aghast. Senator Odom replied, “Son, this is Raleigh and North Carolina was built on tobacco.”

Senator Odom then asked if we were aware he had sponsored the Bill in question. “Yes sir,” I replied.  Odom took a few puffs on his cigar and with a glint in his eye said, “Boys, don’t worry.  That bill has been sent down to the rules committee where it will stay parked till we adjourn.” His language was clear – the bill would die in committee. Senator Odom sponsored legislation that pleased one group of supporters and had his own Bill sent to die in committee to take care of the other side.  In the end, nothing happened.

As we were walking back down the hallway, Charles Knox, our Chamber’s public policy chair at the time, looked at me and said, “Welcome to Raleigh.”

Over the course of the last 25 years, the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce has become very effective in advocating for our members. I could cite hundreds of cases where our chamber’s voice helped this region….whether it was assisting local businesses with zoning issues, overturning the county’s faulty property tax reval a few years ago, or bringing new health care facilities our classrooms our way. Statehouse Rediced

We successfully lobbied for new schools and expanded roads and stood up to Bond Packages which did not support our community. The Lake Norman Chamber led an effort to get a multi-jurisdictional transportation access management study when that type of study had never been commissioned before. We were able to get road improvements that had been denied to one of our towns by NC DOT.

But it’s the lesson I learned early from a freshman NC House Member I will always cherish the most.

On another visit to Raleigh, Representative Drew Saunders told us the greatest lesson he had ever learned was, “Never burn a bridge – whether that’s in business or politics! The person on the other side of the issue today could be one of your biggest allies’ tomorrow.”

In some respect Raleigh, much like Lake Norman has changed quite a bit in 25 years. Tobacco may have built North Carolina but it’s been replaced by finance and technology. But some of the games played decades ago are still going on, and not just in our state capital, but in Washington DC as well.

As we cross the bridge into our next decade, I am quite confident of one thing though – working hard, working smart and working together there is nothing that we cannot accomplish. Happy 2020!

Bill Russell

January 13, 2020 Posted by | Chamber of Commerce, Politics, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Guiding Light – Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas!

ChristmasThe Christmas season has always been my favorite part of the year. I cherish time spent with close friends and family and love all of the festivities and holiday decor that it brings. For many of us, this is the time to pause our hectic schedules and remember the true meaning of Christmas, and also reflect upon the past as we look to the future.

The past 11 months have been very challenging for me. I lost my father very suddenly in January. Dad wasn’t just a parent. He was my guiding star, my mentor, my confidant and the person I have strived most to emulate in my professional and civic career. Certainly, my Mom played a critical role in my life raising my brother, sister and me. She purchased most of our clothes if she didn’t make them herself. Then she stitched them back together when we wore them out.

Mom nursed us when we were sick, comforted us when we were in distress, and loved on us even when we were bad. (Okay, mostly it was me who was bad!) And while I love my Mom to the moon and back, I was always a daddy’s boy. I admired how involved he was in our community. As a kid, I was so proud watching him play ball, stand up and give a talk in front of the church, and when called upon – serve as the president or chairman of so many different local civic groups.

Later in life, when I led some of the same organizations that my Father guided in prior years, he counseled me. Perhaps his greatest advice when I was faced with several controversial decisions was, “Do the right thing no matter how unpopular it may be. Don’t make a decision in the moment because you’re going to remember it for a lifetime.” He also shared, “We do not choose when we set an example!”

Dad was never an executive with a chamber of commerce, though he was involved with the Rock Hill Chamber. But he recognized how much I enjoyed civic service and encouraged me to pursue a career in association management. This year marks 27 years at the helm of a chamber of commerce helping businesses grow and prosper while making it a great community to live, work, and play.

The hardest thing this year has been going through the boxes and boxes of personal papers, mementos, pictures, and notes at our family farm. I thought I was a pack rat until I started going through Dad’s closets and storage areas and emptying the attic at his home. Among the many letters and papers I found was a copy of a note he wrote to my brother’s daughter who was joining the church. In the letter he cited two guiding principles he relied on. One was a scripture verse from the New Testament, Matthew 5 Chapter 16; “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”Tree 3

The other was a line from the Jaycee Creed: “Service to humanity is the best work of life.” As I continued to read the letter, tears welled up in my eyes as I could hear his voice. The cadence of his words spoke boldly of his thoughts. The thoughts speaking to intention, and the intentions which were louder than the words. As I set the box of letters aside, I thought about how Dad’s life was a candle which burned brightly against the darkness. Before his flame flickered out too soon at the age of 81, he completed a lifetime of work, and left his community much better than he found it.

It was late as I finished for the night. I walked outside on the back deck and looked up at the twinkling stars.  The moon was full, and I peered across the pasture to the old ragged barn silhouetted against the horizon.

I couldn’t help but think in this Christmas Season what those travelers from the East thought two thousand years ago as they followed their star. Those three wise men who left behind their life and followed the light. The journey they made and the legacy we remember.

As I stood in the crisp country air, I heard the sound of a young calf piercing the darkness and felt a warm rush against the nighttime chill. It was as if my Grandmother was throwing a shawl around my shoulder to keep me warm….as she had many times when I was a child. In that moment, I could feel the love that surrounded me and the lessons that Dad left. Among them,  “It’s not just about the destination we seek but the journey along the way … and the many lives we touch getting there.”

In this holiest of seasons, I wish each and every one of you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Bill Russell

December 23, 2019 Posted by | Personal, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Promise to Keep

Bill on Dynamite

Bill Jr. on Dynamite with William E Russell Sr. – 1966

When I was just a young boy, I would ride my little pony from my Grandparent’s house to my Great-Grandfather’s home. The small white house sat perched high on a hill overlooking the lush pastureland where cattle grazed lazily on those warm summer days.

Great-Granddaddy Adkins would always give me with one piece of “Bazooka Joe Bubble Gum” for the pony ride over to see him. It hardly seems now that such a small token was incentive enough for a little boy, but at the time, it was a coveted treasure and well worth the ride. When he passed away in 1966, the old home which had served our family so well, stood vacant, a silent sentinel guarding the memories of lives lived well.

I found out some time later that the old farm house, which initially had been a log cabin held together by timber and mud, had gone back many generations. It had been deeded to my ancestors during the time of King George of England.

Unfortunately, after Granddaddy Adkin’s death, the proud old manor fell into disrepair and eventually time and mother nature took their toll. The roof sagged, its once sturdy walls collapsed, and a few decades ago it was torn down before the cattle, or worse, a family member or hunter, was hurt venturing into the failing structure.  A house which welcomed back Revolutionary and Civil War Veterans, providing a warm shelter and home for my family for generations, lost its battle against time.

Many Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce Members may not know of the Chamber’s commitment to our historical and cultural past. In 1997, I was contacted by Reverend Jeff Lowrance about joining the Board of The Hugh Torance House and Store in Huntersville.  Rev. Lowrance knew of my passion for history and the store is the oldest standing attraction of such designation in North Carolina.  It also has special interest to me, given its historical place in regional commerce and trade in Mecklenburg County, and specifically Lake Norman.

I have served as President and chaired the Hugh Torance Board since 2007 and all 23 of the Chamber’s Leadership Lake Norman classes have toured the local treasure as has our Junior Leadership program. In addition, the Chamber’s Young Professionals organization recently conducted a very successful fundraiser for the repairs of the House & Store. The Huntersville Town Board has also generously supported efforts to preserve this precious piece of our history and a Grant submission is being reviewed by Lowes Company.

Leader resized

Bill Russell leads a tour of the Hugh Torance House and Store to Leadership Lake Norman participants.

Mark Twain once said, “We can’t know where we’re going until we know where we’ve been!” While our Chamber is not only committed to the economic well being of our community and region – we will continue to work to enhance our quality of life and protect the cultural and historical past which has made the Lake Norman region a great place to live, work, and visit!

I have watched a piece of my own family history return to the dust from which it came.  It is important that we do not let a true community treasure like the Hugh Torance House & Store meet the same fate. If we do not owe it to the people who settled here, then it is certainly a responsibility we have to the generation who will inherit our community and region next. A debt to our past and a promise to keep for our future!

Bill Russell

September 16, 2019 Posted by | Chamber of Commerce, Personal, Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lessons from a lemonade stand

GardenPerhaps my favorite summer activity is gardening. I really enjoy going down to our farm in Rock Hill and working the ground that my dad, grandfather, and great-grandfathers toiled.  Perhaps the best thing about the garden is that the investment in labor always yields a bountiful harvest of fresh vegetables that keep my family and friends very happy.

A few summers ago, I drove through the back roads to the farm and passed by a little lemonade stand by the side of the road.  A little girl sat at a folding table and chair with a handwritten sign that said, “Fresh Lemonade.”  There was also what appeared to be a glass pitcher and a few Dixie cups stacked as she waited patiently for a thirsty customer who would certainly come along.

I did not have time to stop then, but made a mental note to drop by for a cool drink after working in the garden in the hot afternoon sun.  After spending a few hours tilling the soil and tying up the tomatoes, I packed up and headed home.  The little girl was still in her chair, head resting on her left hand, as she slumped down on the table.

I pulled my car over and walked over to her stand.  She jumped up and beamed a big smile as I asked her for a cup of her cold lemonade.  To be truthful, the lemonade was a little warm as the afternoon sun had taken a toll on the ice.  However, after a long day in the garden, the beverage was tasty and really hit the spot.  She charged me a whopping 25 cents.

After downing the delectable treat, I asked if I could have a refill.  She indicated that would require another quarter.  She carefully poured a second beverage, handed me my drink, and held out her hand for payment.  I pulled out a $5 bill and her eyes widened and mouth dropped in awe. The little girl timidly said, “Sir, I do not have enough change.”  I told her that was okay, she could keep the change as a tip.  As I drove away, I watched in the rear view mirror as she dashed back to her house waving the money.  Based on her excitement, I am guessing that she made more in one visit with me than she did all day.

The little girl’s location was not ideal – located on a lonely country back road where you’re more likely to see a stray dog wander by before the occasional car.  She clearly wasn’t prepared for any large transactions but I really admired the fact she stuck it out through the hot summer heat.lemonade-stand

That lemonade stand was similar to many businesses that are located in low traffic areas or operate without a solid business or marketing plan. The Lake Norman Chamber helps in those situations. We provide businesses with numerous opportunities to build new relationships through our many networking opportunities. Our chamber also gives business owners and managers’ new tools and knowledge needed for success, including presentations in financial planning, sales training, marketing, risk management, HR issues and other personal and business topics.

Unlike a lemonade stand, our lake businesses cannot afford to make critical errors in planning, financing, and marketing their business.  Our businesses are like a garden which requires constant attention. You do not just plant a seed – you have to constantly provide care.  Tilling, hoeing out the rows, fertilizing the ground, and supplying it with plenty of water.  However, if you put in the effort and investment in the business, the time spent building new relationships and cultivating existing ones, will yield a bountiful harvest and a successful business.

I’m not sure how much lemonade that little girl sold that afternoon but just thinking about her brings a big smile to my face. I hope she’s back there again this summer. A fresh pitcher of cool lemonade and perhaps this time a cookie or two.

Bill Russell

May 29, 2018 Posted by | Chamber of Commerce, Personal, Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Wish This Holiday Season

billThe holiday season is upon us and with it comes the sights and sounds of Christmas. Regardless of your faith, December is often a special month of reflection, generosity, and family.  Listening to my favorite carols and songs brings back long cherished memories of family and friends. For many, it’s a spiritual season with thoughts of life’s purpose. But others face much darker days with the struggle of addiction. Providing them and their families, relief from the pain would be the greatest gift of all.

Last week, I attended my weekly Rotary Club meeting and listened as a young lady shared her story of addiction to opioids. The daughter of a Rotarian, she fought through tears as she shared her innermost struggle with substance abuse. She was an honor student, gifted athlete, and popular classmate. Yet, she still felt a lack of esteem and confidence, which led to handfuls of pills that wrecked her life, leaving a wide wake of personal destruction with family and close friends.

I squirmed in my seat as I listened to her recount how her parents tried desperately to reach out with counseling and assistance. But in the end, they were forced to lock her out of their house. It was a story I was all too familiar with as my stepbrother faced the same insidious demons.

The opioid epidemic is now considered the worst drug crisis in our nation’s history. These drugs kill more Americans than automobile accidents and opioids now claim more than 27,000 lives each year. Addiction knows no discrimination as every demographic segment has seen a dramatic rise in deaths from overdoses of prescription opioids and heroin.

In 2014, friends from my High School lost their son to his struggle with substance abuse. Their family was close and Hendon was a popular and gifted young man and a talented athlete. Their son was one of the most likeable young men you would ever meet.  But again, addiction does not discriminate – and another life ended entirely too soon – and another family faced unimaginable heartache.

Earlier this year, I attended the funeral of a very successful young chamber member. She was the mother of two little girls. Bethany lost a battle that far too many wage. Her family and her faith simply could not compete with the pull of addiction – the momentary high that robs from the future.opioid

The young lady at Rotary ended by telling us how each day is a struggle, but she is winning that battle one day at a time. It takes courage, time and tons of support. Ultimately, the answer must begin with an acknowledgement that there is a problem and there must be resolve to overcome it.

If I could have one gift this Christmas, it would be for our nation to put aside all the petty political bickering and focus on the real threats which face our great country, robbing each of us of our greatest living treasure – the sons and daughters of America.

Country Singer Vince Gill sings a song called, “Go Rest High on that Mountain.” In the song, Gill sings, “…only you could know the pain. You weren’t afraid to face the devil, you were no stranger to the rain.”

Let us hope as we face this year ahead, we do so resolved to ending the addiction crisis threatening our young people. United in a common cause to bring awareness to the issue and compassion to the cause. While we may not win every battle, no one should ever have to face the devil alone.

Happy Holidays and God Bless!

Bill Russell

 

The above column first appeared in the last issue of The Lake Norman Citizen Newspaper – Final Thoughts – November 29, 2017.

December 5, 2017 Posted by | Chamber of Commerce, Personal, Politics, Social Causes, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Lasting Lesson From A Moment In Time

As summer vacations begin to wind down, many of us are refocusing on local businesses, seeking to learn new techniques to attract customers and create new revenue. Learning comes in many forms – seminars, forums, and continuing education. Sometimes though, the most lasting lessons come from the briefest encounters.

Aktion

Aktion Club of Lake Norman

For more than a decade, I have served as the advisor to a group of special needs adults called the Kiwanis Aktion Club. These young adults meet each month at the Lake Norman Chamber to socialize, conduct community projects, and participate in programs to enrich their lives.

Recently, a friend asked if I had a personal connection to this group. Perhaps a family member with special needs or a friend with a disability? As I started to reply, I had to suppress the tears. Yes, there was a story. There’s always a story.

In 1983, I joined a local community service group called the Jaycees and jumped head first into nearly every local project. Then one day, the Chapter President asked for volunteers to participate in Camp Hope Sunday. The statewide charity was a summer camp for children with disabilities. Each year the Jaycees would dedicate one Sunday to drive to this special camp and spend an afternoon with the young campers. The volunteers would take a picnic lunch, usually stopping at KFC just outside of the camp, and spend time with the campers.  After lunch, the kids would sing a few songs for their hosts.

The first few times I was asked to join in, I always found an excuse why I couldn’t attend, but in 1986 I was president of our Jaycee Chapter and felt that I had to go. Once there, I was assigned a little boy. Thirty one years later I still remember his name … Jason. Jason was just like any other ten year old child except he was considered special.  Jason had Down Syndrome.

Shortly after we arrived, we sat down for our picnic. The room was loud with laughter and chatter and Jason hardly took a breath between bites as he filled me in everything that came to his mind. When he reached over and started picking up food off of my plate, I was slightly taken aback.  But Jason just laughed as if he had told the biggest joke of all.

Several minutes later Jason joined a group of kids to sing a few songs. Picture twelve children, all singing the same song, but each and every one in a different harmony and pitch. I caught Jason looking directly at me, eyes locked on mine, and he was smiling from ear to ear. After the last song, he ran back to our table, anxiously asking could I hear him?  “Absolutely,” I replied. I’m quite sure he was the loudest child on stage!  As our group gathered to depart, I’ll never forget that moment when this young boy who I met just hours before, wrapped his little arms tightly around my waist, and said “I love you Mr. Bill.”Aktion 2

We drove three hours back to Rock Hill and although others in the car were carrying on conversations, my thoughts were still on Jason and the other campers. That’s the day, the very moment, I realized Jason didn’t have a special need – I did. But not anymore. I truly believe God gave me that moment with Jason for a reason.

When my friend asked me recently did I have a special needs child of my own? I said yes. I have a couple of dozen of them actually. We meet every month at the Chamber. We call ourselves the Aktion Club.

Some Aktion Club members are in their 20’s, some in their 30’s and they may not be kids – but in a very special way, they’re my kids. When they have every reason in the world to rail against their own particular challenges – they laugh, love, learn, and serve.

Jason touched me in way that I have never forgotten. This ten year old child with Downs taught me I didn’t need to be afraid. He had enough love for us both as he wrapped his arms tightly around me as my body literally shook.  Three decades later I remember that simple hug. It was the afternoon I found God’s Grace in the heart of a child.

Bill Russell

The above article was written for The Lake Norman Citizen Newspaper – July 26, 2017.

 

August 16, 2017 Posted by | Chamber of Commerce, Kiwanis, Lake Norman Aktion Club, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Planting Seeds – our harvest of hope

Garden 1

Our garden

Spring! It’s the time of year I look forward to most of all. While I spend my weekdays working at the chamber, I look forward to those weekends when I can travel down to our family farm in Rock Hill and work in the garden that I have toiled in for almost five decades.

My passion for gardening began as a little boy when my Grandfather Russell first had me plant watermelon seeds in his garden. At the age of seven, I was creating little hills with my small hands, dropping in my precious seeds, and waiting for that day when I could plunge my fingers into a delicious Crimson Sweet.

Granddaddy didn’t confess up front all the work that went into harvesting that plump juicy melon. Instead, over the years, he broke me in slowly. By the age of 16, I was helping both Grandfathers (Russell and Feemster) with their gardens. Typically, on Good Friday (but never rotten Saturday), we planted our seeds and sometimes our plants that yielded the corn, tomatoes, beans, melons, squash, cucumbers, and peppers that we hopefully harvested later that summer.

A few weeks ago, I listened as a couple of local entrepreneurs shared the challenges they faced with their small business and I couldn’t help but realize the similarities between those aspiring entrepreneurs and any determined farmer.

First and foremost, it all starts with that single seed. For many entrepreneurs it might begin with a credit card and a dream sitting at a kitchen table. I still remember Jim Engel, the President of Aquesta Bank, sharing how the Lake Norman-based bank started in the basement of his home. Like most entrepreneurs, he began with a vision, surrounding himself with a close knit team, facing challenge after challenge, on their journey to success.

Both the farmer and the entrepreneur will put in long hours and hard work and for a farmer the heat, weeds, and critters will challenge you every step of the way.

Garden

Bill Russell working the garden.

Farmers can usually recount the one good year versus all the bad. They must be patient and optimistic, realizing that perhaps next year can be better than this year.

As a farmer, you pray for good weather, and in some years it seems, the sweat and tears were about the only moisture that kissed the soil that whole summer. Yet, the risks should never be obstacles from pursuing your dream. They are merely steps along the way and we learn from each and every one.

Entrepreneurs face a new challenge every day. Challenges which require perseverance and creativity. There are no shortcuts to success. Instead, they toil each day, creating new relationships, and nurturing existing ones.

Perhaps there is no better example of entrepreneurship than Tom and Vickie VanWingerden who immigrated to Huntersville from The Netherlands. They started their business in 1972 with a 20,000 sq. ft. greenhouse on Old Statesville Rd. That 1 acre plastic covered structure has blossomed today into Metrolina Greenhouses which employs 725 people year round and another 600 seasonally. It is also largest single-site heated greenhouse in the United States at 162 acres under roof. Quite an accomplishment for a farmer and entrepreneur!

My grandfather was never a wealthy man. Just an old country farmer who toiled from sun up to sun down. Yet, he taught me a great deal – not just about farming, but life.   Anyone can plant a seed, but it takes a farmer or an entrepreneur to envision what it can become. It takes passion, perseverance, and yes, luck. But in the end, the fruit of our labor is the harvest of hope.

Bill Russell, Huntersville

The above post ran as a column “Idea Exchange” in the March 29, 2017 issue of The Lake Norman Citizen Newspaper page 33.

April 4, 2017 Posted by | Chamber of Commerce, Personal, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Business of Education

The uncharacteristically warm days these past few weeks had me climbing into the attic to retrieve my summer clothes in anticipation of the spring and summer days ahead. Grabbing what I thought to be a box of summer shirts, turned out instead to be old scrapbooks and albums.

First G

Mrs Hope – First Grade Class Finley Road Elementary, Rock Hill, SC  1966

Feeling nostalgic, I found myself perusing through a worn binder filled with grade school pictures and most of my early report cards. I laughed when I read the comments from my first and second grade teachers who cited “Billy is much too talkative” and “Billy is a really busy boy,” which was polite southern speak for “Billy simply cannot stay in his seat!”

The truth is I was a very bad student in elementary school and there is a real place in heaven for those teachers whose patience was extremely taxed teaching such an immature and talkative kid. It was not until high school that I hit my stride and found a love of history, political science, and writing. I have to admit, there are times I wish I could go back and thank those women who persevered with me. I wish I could express my gratitude to Mrs. Hope and Sellers whose names I still fondly recall fifty years later.

Education is the foundation of our economic and business development at the lake.  Perhaps no single issue impacts commerce more than our workforce development. The strength of our American economy hinges on our public and private school systems as well as post-secondary education and vocational training.

Recently in a Chamber meeting of Corporate CEO’s and entrepreneurs, they pointed to a lack of a skilled workforce as a challenge to their success. They stressed it is critical that we develop our talent and prepare our young people who will soon enter the workforce.

This Thursday, March 16th, the Lake Norman Chamber will have an opportunity to hear from both our current and incoming Charlotte Mecklenburg School Superintendents when we host our Education PowerLuncehon at NorthStone Country Club.  It will be an opportunity to thank Dr. Ann Clark for her service as well as welcome new School Board leader Dr. Clayton Wilcox.

The following day, Friday, March 17th, the Chamber will host a Focus Friday with our area Charter and Private Schools at the Chamber. Both events are a chance to hear how our educational leaders are developing our future employees.

This past week we have held School Career Fairs at both Pine Lake Prep (3/7) and Hough High School (3/8). It was a chance for area businesses to meet with students and help them prepare for their vocational future.

027

Future Business Leaders of America – Hough High School

Joseph Addison once said, “I consider the human soul without education like marble in a quarry, which shows none of its inherent beauties until the skill of the polisher fetches out the colors and makes the surface shine.”

Looking at those handwritten notes from my teachers brought a bright smile to my face and a little tug on my conscience.  We can all mentor a student, provide a business internship, participate in a career fair, and donate to a school fundraiser. That is the responsibility we have to the future and the obligation we all have to the past.

Bill Russell

The above column appeared in The Lake Norman Citizen (March 1, 2017 page 39) as Take Time to Mentor a Mind of the Young.

March 10, 2017 Posted by | Chamber of Commerce, Personal, Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Well Done John Kurti, Well Done

kurti-and-bill

Bill Russell and John Kurti at a Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce AfterHours Event

Once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky, the Lord will place someone in your life who makes a lasting impression. Someone who quietly goes about their life’s work with little fanfare, yet leaves you in awe of the impact he or she makes on the lives in a community. John Kurti was such a man.

I met John in the late 1990’s when he owned a Mail Box, Etc store here at the lake. Somewhat like Sam in the old TV series “Cheers”,  John would greet his customers with a smile. He wasn’t a man who simply mailed parcels – he knew you by name and you left assured your special package was in good hands.

John opened and sold several of the franchise stores and in doing so garnered a keen insight of how to market and manage a small business. Later, he served as a SCORE Counselor, the Small Business Group, who gives critical advice to both startup and existing small businesses. John often met his clients at the Lake Norman Chamber where I had the opportunity to watch him in action. He didn’t just impart lessons in entrepreneurship. He left his clients with the assurance that someone was in their corner. John cared and it showed.

John Kurti served three terms on the Lake Norman Chamber Board; longer than any other person in our 30 year history. He was also a founding board member of Visit Lake Norman and served that organization for 16 years before health issues plagued his final months.

John was not just a mentor, board member, and friend. He was often my roommate on chamber trips to Raleigh for Governor’s conferences and to Washington for legislative briefings. John was also one of three other chamber business leaders who accompanied me to Washington DC on a day none of us will ever forget –  September 11, 2001.  We heard news from then Senator Lieberman that a plane had struck the World Trade Center.  Moments later, while exiting one of the Capital buildings, we watched in disbelief and confusion as black smoke billowed from the Pentagon and the nation’s capital was filled with panic and fear.

The four of us drove the ten long hours back home in silence, wondering how life in America had changed. John, himself a past Israeli Air Force officer, was no stranger to the face of terror. He reassured each one of us that life would go on, and our country would emerge stronger – and it did.

kurti1

2002 Chamber  Board Chair Chris Angelino and Karen, 1999 Board Chair Scott Hinkle and Business Growth Chair John Kurti

John had dealt with health issues for many months prior to the day he made his triumphant return to the weekly North Meck Rotary Club meeting. As his presence was recognized, members applauded. His face filled with pride as he waved an arm high in the air signaling his deep appreciation and his return to our club. There were hugs, laughter, and love as the Rotary friends he cherished all shared how much he had been missed. John had previously served as our club president, and his passion for truth, fairness, and service above self, knew no bounds.

Perhaps that was God’s gift to both John and his friends that day.  One last chance to say how much we loved each other. One more hug before we said goodbye. Later, John passed peacefully away – just moments after our Rotary Club meeting ended. Just after the last toast and the last rap of the gavel. Now we all know, it signaled not only an end to the meeting, but a close to a chapter.

All of us would like to think our lives matter.  That we changed hearts, righted wrongs, brought peace to those who struggle, and strength to those who fear. That we used the talents God gave us to make this community and our world just a little bit better. John Kurti did that and more.

I know one thing for certain. He left this world knowing how much he meant to all of us at Rotary. I also have little doubt that he was greeted by his father in heaven, who took John by the hand, with the words we should all long to hear…..”Well done my faithful servant… well done!”

Bill Russell

January 26, 2017 Posted by | Chamber of Commerce, Personal, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Viewing life through a different lens

diversity-4

2016 Diversity Chair Chris Hailey and Lake Norman Chamber President Bill Russell

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I am an avid football fan. On any given Saturday or Sunday, I’m usually sitting back watching games when I see a real bone-headed play that leaves me thinking, “What was that all about?”

Granted the play has been stopped, we know the result and, in many instances, we watch replays over and over from every angle. Knowing the outcome, many of us become sports geniuses — hence the term “armchair quarterbacks.”

Several years ago, I had the opportunity, through our Leadership Lake Norman program, to tour the Criminal Justice Center at the Central Piedmont Community College Merancas Campus in Huntersville. There I was allowed to participate in a firearms simulation on which our law enforcement officers are required to train. Participants are provided a firearm equipped with a laser that registers actual hits and misses in a simulated environment.

In some situations, subjects in the video are innocent bystanders. In others, in the blink of an eye, the bystander became an armed assailant. The actual time you as a law enforcement officer have to ascertain the threat and act are mere seconds. My simulation involved terrorists who had taken hostages on a passenger jet in flight. I laughed it off and went home after I hit an assailant, a bystander and the fuselage of the plane perhaps dooming all of the passengers. For me, in that room with that make-believe gun in a simulated environment, it was little more than a video game.

Out on the streets, it’s anything but.

The last few days in Charlotte, and last few months nationwide, have seen tensions between law enforcement and the public reach a precipice. As I personally struggle to understand why we have reached this point, my good friend and the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce Diversity Chairman Chris Hailey asked me to “step back away from my ‘whiteness’ and see the world through a different lens — that of an African-American man.”

What some of us may see as a single incident is for many a tipping point of years of frustration, anxiety and fear. While there can be no excuse for looting, violence and lawlessness, there must be a way to confront the feelings many minorities are experiencing.

On Wednesday, Oct. 5, the Lake Norman Chamber Diversity Council will host a Lunch & Learn session at the CPCC Merancas Campus with Brandi Riggins from Charter Communications. She will discuss race relations and how we can continue to come together as a community. The Diversity Council will also host another community forum later in the month.

In the meantime, the Lake Norman Chamber will salute our public safety officers who put their lives on the line for us each and every day — our police, fire and EMS officers along with the Crime Stopper of the Year. That event takes place Thursday, Oct. 20, at NorthStone Country Club.

Unlike football, our police officers have no instant replay and no way to truly know what’s in the mind of the person they stop or try to apprehend. They have no ability to look back on what they could or should have done. They have only the moment. It’s real time.

One thing I do know for certain: none of our officers are out there looking for confrontation. They simply want to serve and go home safe at the end of the day to their families.

My friend Chris asked me to see life though a different lens. The reality is I’m not sure I ever really can. But I do know, I need to try. I pray to God that we all try.

October 11, 2016 Posted by | Chamber of Commerce, Politics, Social Causes, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment