Gibsonville — With faces covered and heads bowed, hundreds of people gathered at Eastern Guilford High School on Thursday night for a candlelight vigil to support the families of the four students who died Monday night in a car wreck in Whitsett.
“This is not even close to the way I wanted to welcome you back to Eastern,” Principal Lance Sockwell told the crowd.
“We are never going to recover from the loss of these four men.”
Maurice Williams, 16, was driving north on Interstate 40/85 when the car left the road and hit a tree, according to Highway Patrol. He and three of his passengers — Sequoyah Delaney II, 16; Justin Porter, 15; and Javon Johnson-Rumley, 16 — died at the scene.
Fifteen-year-old Azaiah Howard, the fifth teenager in the 2004 Honda, survived but is hospitalized with injuries. Sockwell said Howard’s family was with him at the hospital Thursday night.
“They had him up, moving around,” Sockwell said. “He is doing well.”
All five friends had been students at Eastern Guilford, Sockwell said, though Delaney finished the school year at Ragsdale High School in Jamestown.
The families of the four formed clusters on the school football field, while students, parents and other community members gathered around the track that circles it, hushed as they waited for the vigil to begin. Most wore medical masks, as required by the school and a pending broader order by North Carolina’s governor.
Like other schools, Eastern Guilford and its campus had been closed for classes and other activities since mid-March because of the threat of COVID-19 contagion. Graduating seniors had accepted their diplomas in a lengthy drive-thru recognition ceremony, with just a few of them on campus at any given time.
But the deaths of these four teenagers brought students back together.
“It just doesn’t feel real at all,” said rising senior Nyzaja Johnson.
She and classmates Mekiah Cousin and Dorian Jackson remembered the teenagers for their long-lasting friendships, for their caring and loyalty, and for the times spent together: basketball games, a New Year’s Eve sleepover, days at the pool, with Williams the first one in and the last one out.
During the vigil, a member of each family walked with a lighted candle out to the track, passing their flame to the encircling crowd.
“Things of this earth confuse us and trouble us,” the Rev. Josh Parrish said during the ceremony. “We are thankful that on this night, we can see the support of this community.”
As she walked back to her car after the vigil, Tameka Williams, the mother of Maurice Williams, noted how her loved ones tended to her. If one person let go of her hand, another slipped in to take their place.
Even with questions about the wreck not far from her mind, the vigil’s message of caring and support came through. Williams remembered the way she has seen people come together before, like when Eastern Guilford was rebuilt after it burned down in 2006.
“You can see that our community is nothing but love,” she said. “Sedalia, Eastern, the teachers, the students ... we still stick together, you know. These grounds are holy grounds. We love each other for who we are.”
GREENSBORO — This was supposed to be that summer.
Opening act for a popular touring band.
Dates through the summer playing in nice venues.
Grimsley High graduate Emily Scott Robinson, named one of Billboard Magazine “Ten to Watch” list in country music, performing her Top 25 song “The Dress” across the country.
Instead, the 33-year-old former social worker found herself rambling down another highway in her recreational vehicle home with her husband at the steering wheel, the pages of a book in front of her when the words inspired the lyrics to what could be the year’s anthem.
In the book, “A Gentleman in Moscow,” the narrator, a Russian aristocrat who is sentenced to house arrest in the attic of a hotel, spots a boarded-up flower shop in the midst of despair, war and upheaval. He says, “Ah, but the time for flowers will come again.”
It caught in her soul.
“That’s what we need to hear right now,” Robinson said of wanting to write about hope and resilience. “We need to be reminded that in the midst of the pain the time for flowers will come again.”
The socially conscious singer and natural storyteller was initially writing about the COVID-19 pandemic and hope in a difficult time, but she also felt an urge to issue a call to action for social justice and systemic changes in such areas as health care and education.
“It’s time to fix what is broken,” Robinson said.
She wasn’t finished with “The Time for Flowers,” when someone asked in the comment section during a live Instagram performance if she had written any new music. After she performed the portion of “Flowers” that was done, her fans and friends urged her to release it.
l l l
By the time Rolling Stone named Robinson among “10 New Country and Americana Artists You Need to Know” and with one of the “10 Best Country Songs to Hear Now” in 2019, she already had a grassroots following.
The songwriter, who accompanies herself on guitar, realized how special her voice was while singing in her bedroom back in her high school years when she could hit all the notes on the Joni Mitchell song she was singing.
Robinson, with an easy smile and known for her compassion, was preparing to be a social worker. On mission trips to foreign countries she had seen great poverty and how individuals could make a difference. Offered a full scholarship to Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, she instead enrolled at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., where she sometimes performed in local coffee houses.
That song that Billboard coveted is about a night in college, when someone slipped her a date-rape drug at a bar. She never reported the rape and later finds the dress, which she thought she had thrown away, in a stack of clothes.
Rolling Stone describes “The Dress” as a “heartbreakingly honest song about sexual assault” with lyrics that “examine the guilt and confusion that an assailant leaves behind.”
The vocals, Rolling Stone added, “are lovely, shot through with a light tremble that sounds like vibrato one minute and a stifled cry the next.”
Robinson, who is fluent in Spanish and once worked as a translator for Legal Aid, said although all her stories aren’t autobiographical, she has not regretted revealing something so personal in what has become one of her signature songs.
“People come up to me after shows or message me online and say, ‘Oh my God, I thought I was the only person who felt this way — I thought I was alone but I’m not,’ ” Robinson said. “It makes me feel like what I’m doing is making a difference. I love that.”
The exposure resulted in an uptick in ticket sales to her shows, which included a performance at the Carolina Theatre of Greensboro.
“People have been finding my music through Spotify and Rolling Stone — stumbling around and discovering me,” she said with a laugh.
That has allowed her to work professionally full time.
Robinson and her husband bought an RV to travel the country.
Both were scared to drive it.
It’s 36 feet long; towing a car adds another 13 feet.
“What we did was sign up for an RV driving class in Tennessee,” Robinson said. “This guy in his 70s said, ‘I teach old ladies to drive RVs, you’ll be OK.’ ”
Robinson already had a busy schedule and a booking agent. Touring pre-coronavirus accounted for 85% of her income.
Some people see Robinson in the same trajectory as a number of now well-known Triad performers, including Fantasia and Chris Daughtry after they were on “American Idol.”
Last summer, Robinson played the main stage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado — something she had only dreamt about.
“I thought I was going to be so nervous,” she said of walking onto the stage before her biggest audience yet. “I felt so steady and I had this voice that came to me that said this is where you belong.”
For her part, Robinson is just thankful for the opportunity to do what she loves — albeit COVID-19-delayed.
“I miss live shows,” she said. “I miss people. I miss performing. I’m realizing now it is a marathon and not a sprint.”
In the downtime, she has stayed busy writing, going on a social-distancing beach trip and a week in Greensboro that time wouldn’t allow before.
And reading, which is how she came across that line that she could not get out of her head.
l l l
Robinson, whose music is described at times as vulnerable, at others, defiant and absolutely free, uses the wisdom of an “elder” in her latest song.
She comes across the woman planting sunflower seeds and asks her of the use in all the despair. Among the woman’s replies is, “Honey, I’ve lived long enough to learn ... .” The lyrics go on to talk about the cycles of life — Robinson uses the planting of seeds as a call to action to get involved in “fixing what is broken.”
Her own part includes raising money for an equal-justice initiative and Feeding America. She was to be part of a July 5 benefit for the Navajo Nation. Her own role model is singer Belinda Carlisle, who spends a lot of her time and energy rasing money for child refugees and social-justice issues, and supporting younger artists.
After the urging of those who heard the incomplete version of “Flowers,” Robinson spent another week editing the lyrics, then recorded the song in her RV. She sent the vocals to a fiddler in Nashville, Tenn., who recorded his part. Then Robinson sent it all to an audio engineer to mix it.
In the accompanying video, she uses images related to the coronavirus, protests and memorial services. And flowers.
“My platform is a lot smaller right now,” she said, “but I know I want my job to be a job of service.”
GREENSBORO — Jane Fernandes will mark two milestones on July 1, 2021: It will be her seventh anniversary of her arrival at Guilford College, and it will be her last day as the college’s president.
Guilford announced Friday that Fernandes will resign next summer as the college’s ninth president, a year before her current five-year contract is set to expire. Fernandes has been president of the private Quaker college since 2014 and is the first deaf woman to lead a U.S. college or university.
In a four-paragraph letter Friday to the Guilford community, Fernandes said she had been thinking about leaving the presidency “probably in 2022” and said she is “grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of this community.”
But Fernandes is stepping down in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is putting stress on small and large colleges alike.
Guilford announced earlier this month that it would reopen in August with in-person instruction after closing its campus in March. But the college furloughed slightly more than half of its non-faculty employees in early April to help save money while students finished the spring semester at home and summer activities on campus were canceled. Those furloughs are scheduled to last through at least the end of July.
“Now with the increasing uncertainty of our altered reality that this pandemic is causing,” Fernandes wrote, “I think it best to complete some of the hard decisions we need to make, assist the Board of Trustees with a transition, and allow another leader to envision and implement the structural adjustments in higher education that undoubtedly will follow this crisis.”
Greensboro attorney Ed Winslow III, chairman of the college’s Board of Trustees, called Fernandes’ tenure “a period of progress and bold leadership” in a two-page letter to the college community.
“She has found new ways forward that are firmly grounded in Guilford’s noble and historic past rooted in our Quaker values,” Winslow wrote. “What has not changed is that Guilford remains a powerful advocate for liberal arts education, and it preserves the highest standards of intellectual excellence.”
Fernandes’ tenure to date has been marked by lots of change and some turbulence, but Guilford’s trustees had generally supported her and in 2016 extended her initial three-year contract by another five years.
Among the biggest changes: The college is spending $50 million to renovate dorms, athletic facilities and other campus buildings. It’s among the biggest construction efforts in the college’s 183-year history, but Guilford borrowed most of the money, something the college traditionally has not done.
The college also dramatically revamped its academic program, a process that Guilford’s leaders said was long overdue.
In the redesigned curriculum called the Guilford Edge, students take a single intensive three-week class at the start and end of each academic year. Each student has assigned academic and career advisers during their time at Guilford and must complete an interdisciplinary project to graduate. Many traditional courses were redesigned.
Winslow in his letter Friday credited the Guilford Edge with attracting more first-year and transfer students to the college. The college in a news release announcing Fernandes’ resignation said Guilford’s enrollment rose 8% last fall in the first full year of the Guilford Edge.
Enrollment — and the tuition revenue that comes with it — has been the biggest challenge facing Guilford and other small private colleges in recent years.
Guilford’s enrollment declined every year from 2009 to 2017, according to the college’s own statistics, and again in 2018, according to federal numbers. One of Fernandes’ first big acts after arriving in Greensboro was to eliminate 52 positions in 2015 to close a $2 million budget deficit. But another money-saving move — contracting its housekeeping services to a private company — drew the ire of some Guilford professors, who protested the decision at commencement in 2018.
Last summer, Guilford settled a wide-ranging Title IX lawsuit filed two years earlier by two former coaches and 14 current and former players alleging that the college had discriminated against women athletes and women’s sports for years.
The college agreed to add two women’s sports, promised to improve facilities and scheduling for women’s teams and take other steps to ensure equitable treatment of its women student-athletes and their teams. Guilford, meanwhile, is seeking its fourth permanent athletics director in three years.
After she resigns as president, Fernandes said she plans to move into a faculty role at the college.
In addition to serving as president, Fernandes also is an English professor at Guilford. It’s common in higher education for college leaders to hold dual roles if they came up through the academic ranks; her predecessor at Guilford, Kent Chabotar, remains on the college’s political science faculty. Fernandes holds a doctorate in comparative literature and during her 34-year career in higher education has taught American Sign Language.
Fernandes came to Guilford from UNC-Asheville, where she had been provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs for six years. For 11 years before that she was a vice president and later provost of Gallaudet University, the Washington, D.C., school that educates people who are deaf or hard of hearing.