Johnston County Residents Receive Awards

The 2021 Johnston Now Honors recipients. From left, Pamela Tripp, CEO, CommWell Health, Matthew White, Tiffany Whichard, Stephen Roberts, Michael Sneed, Donovan Spellman, Col. Rudy Baker, Shannon Mann, Loretta Byrd, Rebecca Flowers, Reid Stephenson, Flowers Plantation, and Ashley Woodard.

CLAYTON — Recently, Johnston Now magazine honored 11 Johnston County residents and one nonprofit organization during its fourth-annual Johnston Now Honors program, held at the Clayton Center and presented by Johnston Health.

Johnston Now Honors is a countywide awards celebration honoring local heroes, and in addition to a trophy, the winners received a feature profile in the October edition of Johnston Now magazine.

“Every year, we’re inspired to meet people who are making a difference in Johnston County,” Johnston Now Publisher Randy Capps said. “We’re so proud to honor their accomplishments, and we hope their stories inspire people as much as they inspired us.”

The winners were Stephen Roberts, Excellence in Arts; Shannon Mann, Inspiring Coach; Ashley Woodard, Distinguished Police Officer; Michael Sneed, Dynamic Entrepreneur; Matthew White, Outstanding Firefighter; Dr. Rodney McCaskill, Best Healthcare Professional; Rebecca Flowers, Legend Award; Donovan Spellman, Rising Star; Loretta Honeycutt Byrd, Spirit of the County; Tiffany Whichard, Exemplary Volunteer, CommWell Health, Nonprofit of the Year and Col. Rudolph (Rudy) Baker, Veteran Service.

Stephen Roberts

For the past 13 years, Roberts has been a part of around 50 productions for the Neuse Little Theatre. But while he appreciates the skills needed to be a proper thespian, he’s more comfortable behind the scenes — or building them ahead of time.

“They needed help building sets and I’m kind of good with my hands,” he said. “I’m mechanically inclined, so I started doing that, The guy who was in charge of that retired, so I just kind of stepped up and took over set building.”

Shannon Mann
Mann needed a place where her daughter could build and code robots alongside her peers, and so the Techno Tigresses were born. For her work in starting that team, and it’s impact on young women in Johnston County, Mann was the recipient of the 2021 Johnston Now Honors Inspiring Coach Award.

“My children attended Neuse Charter School for a few years,” she said. “I could not accept this award without saying Angela Jenkins was an amazing teacher at Neuse Charter School. She’s now at Triple S (Smithfield-Selma), and she was the one who really encouraged me to do this. She started the robotics teams at Neuse Charter, and my children went to some of the information meetings, but my daughter was too young at the time. She said, “aw, this is really something I want to do.’ So, we sort of kept thinking we’d do that.”

Ashley Woodard
It’s often said that a man’s first job is always his most special. That’s certainly been the case for Pine Level Police Chief Ashley Woodard.

Woodard, who has worked for the town since becoming a police officer in 2005, is this year’s recipient of the 2021 Johnston Now Honors Distinguished Police Officer Award.

“Pine Level is a great community,” he said. “I worked at the greenhouse there, and through that, I met Chief (Keith) Sparks. He sponsored me for the academy. He helped me in the academy, and when I got out, he offered me a job part time. A couple of months later, a full-time spot became available. The town is just such a great place to work. Great place to work, and I’ve been there ever since.”

Michael Sneed
Like many successful business owners, Sneed’s path to success wasn’t a straight line. Even the destination wasn’t quite where he thought he wind up when he left North Carolina A&T with an engineering degree.

But, in true entrepreneurial spirit, Sneed used his gifts, adapted and made it all work.

“Fifteen or 20 years ago, being an entrepreneur was almost a bad word,” he said of winning the honor. “If you told somebody that you’re going to be an entrepreneur, you were looked at like you couldn’t cut it in corporate America. I’d like for more kids to look into entrepreneurship. College is always a good way to go, but with the cost of college now, the amount of jobs that let you pay that money back is lower. We need to look more into entrepreneurship for kids, and let them tap into their creative and artistic sides. I ask kids all the time that come into the ice cream parlor, ‘what’s your dream?’ Then I find out that a lot of kids don’t dream anymore. Things don’t have to be so organized. Let kids go out, explore and make mistakes. That’s how we learn in entrepreneurship, making mistakes. You’re not going to learn business and not make mistakes.”

Matthew White

Spending the second half of his childhood on a family farm in Selma, it might have seemed that White would follow in that tradition and be the sixth generation of his family to enter that field after leaving North Johnston High School.

As it turns out, he followed another family tradition instead, becoming a firefighter.

“My grandfather was a farmer,” he said. “My other grandfather (Ed White), before World War II, was a fireman in Silver Springs, Md. So, he did that for a while after the war, then moved back home to take care of his family. He was actually the first fire chief and started Pine Level Fire Department. … My dad was on Selma Rescue before it became EMS. He did that for 20 years as a volunteer. I can remember when I was in the third grade for career day, I dressed up like my dad. I kind of feel like it’s in the bloodline.”

Dr. Rodney McCaskill
For Dr. McCaskill, October 2019 was a red-letter month. After all, he had just been named interim Chief Medical Officer at Johnston Health, a position that has since become permanent, and he was about to embark on an exciting new phase of his career.

Of course, those two years turned out to be interesting in ways that were impossible to imagine.

“The staff has been awesome,” he said. “They’ve gone above and beyond. Nurses are working overtime, picking up extra shifts, taking care of patients that, technically, they don’t really have to. The physicians? There are more patients on the hospital census over the past two weeks than there ever has been in the history of Johnston Health. They’re busy, and they just keep going. They just keep doing it, and it’s very impressive to watch.”

Rebecca Flowers
Today, Flowers Plantation is a sprawling series of stores, shops and neighborhoods outside of Clayton, surrounding the area where N.C. 42 meets Buffalo Road. Much like Johnston County itself, that area has changed quite a bit in the last 40 years or so, and a big part of the reason for the rise of Flowers Plantation, as we know it today, is Rebecca Flowers.

“I have a strong belief that it was my purpose to continue the ‘legend’ of our family farm,” she said. “Teaching was my passion from adolescence. I taught K-3 for five years and loved it so much. The specific moment that changed my work career was an afternoon drive to my apartment in Raleigh, after a fun-filled day with my students. While looking at my monthly check, it dawned on me that my salary would not be enough to pay the property taxes. It wasn’t the money that concerned me, it was the realization that my parents were growing older, my brother, Joshua Percy Flowers, Jr., died in a solo plane flight at the age of 24 and the farm would come to an end when my parents were no longer there.

“The determination to change that ending became the determination that I feel every day.”

Donovan Spellman
College football coaches spend thousands of hours each fall looking for recruits. They pour over game footage, browse scouting reports and tour high school campuses all over the country.

Naturally, someone like Clayton High’s Donovan Spellman catches the eye. After all, he’s a 6-3, 210-pound defensive end that’s athletic enough to rack up 75 tackles and 12.5 sacks en route to the Greater Neuse 3A Defensive Player of the Year Award as a junior this spring.

Appalachian State was sufficiently smitten with him to offer him a scholarship, and in July, Spellman verbally committed to play football in Boone.

“It’s an honor (to be recruited),” he said. “I wish that other players could get that spotlight that I’m experiencing. It’s an honor to have players who are getting looked at by the NFL telling you if you (go there), they’re going to take care of you. But it’s always up to you to make the right decision.”

“Don’t just go for the photos and the action, you’ve got to really be dialed into it. You never know what’s about to happen. COVID came out of nowhere, and I was lucky to get my (recruiting) process in. You’ve got to look into the schools after you come from there. They’re only going to tell you what you want to hear. So, you’ve got to look into it.

“And, if you don’t do school, it’s not going to happen.”

Loretta Byrd
Byrd had big plans when she left South Johnston High School — and not many of them included coming back to her hometown of Benson.

“It’s amazing how God has plans for you,” she said. “You come full circle, and I end up the second time marrying a Johnston County guy and ending up back home. No regrets whatsoever about that.”

After 18 years as the President/CEO of the Benson Area Chamber of Commerce, Byrd has become synonymous with the town, and because of her dedication to the Town of Benson and its citizens, she’s the 2021 Johnston Now Honors Spirit of the County Award winner.

“I do it because I love it,” she said. “I absolutely love my job. I love the people that I work for and I love my community. I feel like I make a difference in my community, as well as in my county. I have a strong work ethic. I’m not a person that can sit still. I can’t imagine retiring anytime soon and heading home and puttering around the house or garden. That’s just not Loretta. We have a saying in our family that Honeycutts don’t retire. Our toes just turn up. That’s pretty much how it is.”

Tiffany Whichard
If you’ve ever worked through lunch and felt your stomach rumbling at three o’clock, you have an inkling of what hunger feels like.
Now imagine that feeling for hours on end, day and night. Imagine it while sitting in a math class, or trying to hold down a job.

“Pre-COVID, 12.1 percent of Johnston County residents lived at or below the poverty line,” Whichard, Executive Director for Harvesting Hope North Carolina and Program Administrator for Plant a Row For the Hungry Johnston County, said. “On average, one in six people in Johnston County are what we call food insecure, which means that they don’t necessarily know where their next meal is coming from. So, our whole objective is that we donate 100 percent of our organically grown produce and then we donate produce that we glean from commercial farmers to the soup kitchens, food pantries and community outreaches here locally. We service seven of those currently, and last year, we were able to contribute 6,100 pounds (of food).”

CommWell Health
The story of CommWell Health dates back to the late 1970s and a little country store in rural Sampson County. But one of the basic principles that drive CommWell today, meeting patients where they are, is just the modern application of a much older idea in practicing medicine — the house call.

It’s that commitment to treating underserved patients in Johnston County and the region that has earned CommWell Health the 2021 Johnston Now Honors Nonprofit of the Year Award.

“CommWell Health has some of the most amazing people that work there,” CommWell Health CEO PamelaTripp said. “We are so fortunate to have just highly engaged, mission-minded individuals working at CommWell Health and they do deserve a lot of kudos and credit. But they don’t do it for that. … We have this thing called Eagle Excellence. They have this saying that our excellence tomorrow is greater than our excellence today. And that’s in everything. We are always looking for ways to improve. We’re never going to settle.”

Col. Rudy Baker
It was a steamy July afternoon in 1954 when Baker reached a decision that would change not only his life, but the lives of countless others.

“I was looking for anything except a tobacco patch,” he said, of that fateful summer day. “I had been cropping lugs all week on Devil’s Racetrack, some farm down there. About three o’clock, I said, ‘there’s got to be a better way to make a living.’ So I threw my hat on the ground, put my foot in it and said, ‘I quit.’ (My dad) said, ‘you can’t quit. You own three acres of this.’ I said, ‘you can have the three acres and whatever it gets.’”

He had just graduated from Selma High School, and went to High Point to work with a cousin in a furniture factory.

“On Friday afternoon, I came out of there with sawdust in my nose, eyes and hair and said, ‘this isn’t any better than the tobacco patch,’” he said. “I went down to the post office and saw a Navy recruiter with a sign up that said, ‘be back in an hour. So, I sat down and waited. When one hour went by and he wasn’t back, I went across the hall and joined the Army.”

He retired as a colonel 38 years later and, after 18 more years working for First Citizens Bank, has worked tirelessly to help his fellow veterans. That’s why he’s the 2021 Johnston Now Honors Veterans Service Award winner.

“Whatever I can do,” he said. “The country’s been good to me. From a sharecropper’s son to an Army colonel to a senior vice president with First Citizens, I owe something back.”