Category Archives: Interview

I’ve met some fascinating people. These pieces document some of my best conversations.

‘A whole lot of God’

“We didn’t have a whole lot of things, but we had a whole lot of God.”

Those words still ring in the memory of Maryville man Macel Ely II. It was a favorite quote, used often by his great-uncle Brother Claude Ely when describing the faith that sustained him as a young man growing up in the Appalachian Mountains.

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What songs are meant to do

You may not know it, but you’ve probably already heard a Chris Trapper song. Though the Boston-based songwriter hasn’t become a nationwide household name, the sophisticated simplicity of his tunes has earned him a well-deserved reputation as one of best songwriters currently working in the craft. And that reputation has brought with it one opportunity after another for his music to be featured in films and television.

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Major League Vision

“If everybody’s focus was everybody else, how would that change the world?”

Doug Bochtler smiles as he poses this question. He is engaging and passionate and clearly talking about something he believes deeply.

We’re sitting in the upstairs conference room at Cherokee Athletic Facility; and through the large picture windows that I’m facing, I can see a busload of baseball players unload and make their way toward the center. Doug has opened up the Baseball Academy to Maryville College, which is hosting this year’s GSAC baseball tournament. “They don’t have batting cages, so we offered ours,” he tells me when I ask about all the uniforms converging on the facility. “That’s what we do; that’s who we are.”

The former major league pitcher has found a new passion after the end of his MLB career. “We exist to help others.” he says, “Everyone involved in the ownership of Cherokee is committed to this idea. A self-focussed mentality is a downward spiral; it leads to fleeting, surface level relationships.” And Doug has learned to long for more from life.

*

From the time he was five years old, Doug has known the answer to the perennial grownup question – what do you want to be when you grow up?

“I remember I was watching This Week in Baseball; Don Mattingly was teaching some kids how to put on a hat.” Doug demonstrates: pull your hair back in the front, slide the cap on and tug the back into place. “I still put my hat on like this every time,” he says. “Watching that show was the first time I said I wanted to be a major league baseball player.”

It might have seemed like a pipe dream or toddler chatter at the time; but Doug was already learning to love baseball.

By the time he was a freshman in high school, he had given up all other sporting interests to focus solely on baseball. “I knew it was a sport I could excel at; and I dedicated myself to it.” He quickly discovered his niche within the game, trying his hand at a few positions. He found he wasn’t a very good hitter, but had a strong throwing arm; he begin learning to pitch.

“Pitching really kind of found me,” he says.

But he wasn’t a star; nor did his talent shine through at first. Growing up, he often found himself languishing in the shadow of his older brother. “As a matter of fact, I didn’t make the freshman baseball team, my brother did. When I checked the roster after tryouts, it had my brother’s name listed. He was an incredible athlete; and he had made such an impression on everyone that the coaches put me on the team because of their memories of him. I don’t think they even saw me on the field. I was always fighting; I had to work hard because my brother was so great.”

*

On December 10, 1987, Doug’s good friend, Greg, was killed by a drunk driver.

Greg had been drafted by the Montreal Expos, but chose to stay in school rather than accept that initial offer. His mom and dad had planned a special Christmas present that year – a baseball glove embossed with Greg’s name. After the accident, Greg’s father approached Doug and presented him with the glove and this mandate: “Take this with you to the major leagues.”

“I don’t know why Greg’s dad gave me the glove.” Doug says. “There was no evidence of potential in me then; you could have asked any scout and he’d have told you I had no chance of getting into the majors.” But he accepted the glove and the responsibility. Playing in the major leagues “was a task I needed to accomplish to honor this request. Looking back, it’s awfully strange that he chose me.”

He carried the glove with him through every step of his journey to the major leagues. A few years after Greg’s death, Doug was himself drafted by the Montreal Expos. He signed with the team and began his climb to baseball’s top level.

Eight years later, May 5, 1995, Doug Bochtler made his major league debut with the San Diego Padres. He wore Greg’s glove as he relieved Fernando Venezuela in the fifth inning.

*

“It’s a weird place when you sit back and analyze your life; but it’s a good place to be.” Doug leans back in his chair. As I glance up from my notebook, I notice his eyes are far away. He’s reflecting on his words even as he tells his story. “You see that it’s not about money; it’s about the relationships you established. Our lives are intertwined.”

Doug learned this lesson on a lonely night during his last spring training as a major leaguer.

He and his family had just been put through the ringer. Doug had gone through a season-ending surgery; and the day after he returned home his wife went into labor twelve weeks early. They spent the next few months of sleepless nights listening to a breathing monitor and jumping out of bed in a panic at the slightest variation in their newborn’s rhythms.

When Doug returned to training camp, he was told he was being transferred to a AA team – two levels down from Major League Baseball.

That night he sat alone in his apartment and reflected on his life. “It was like in a movie, when the main character is questioning God. What is this about? What am I here for? I really thought about what baseball meant in my life; about how focussed I had become on my career. I realized that my ultimate goal had been myself. That was the moment that changed everything.”

Doug was able to find peace with the move down to AA ball. “I was put there for a reason,” he says. “There were people there that needed me.”

And he found a developing new passion during this time of transition. His role on the team had changed with his move back to the minor leagues; now he was a hybrid between a player and a coach. Doug discovered that he had been given the opportunity to help young, up and coming players reach their potential.

That included the chance to teach future Cy Young Award winners, like Johan Santana. Doug taught Johan to throw a change up and then sat back and watched him succeed with it. “I drew greater satisfaction watching him do well that if I’d done it myself.” Doug found that there was no greater satisfaction than watching those he’d mentored achieve their potential.

And with that, the future began to unfold.

*

When I ask Doug about his decision to move to Maryville and about starting the Cherokee Athletic Facility, he laughs out loud. “You wouldn’t believe me if I were to explain how this business happened.”

He begins to recount the most amazing part of his story.

It starts with his family’s decision to move to Maryville. He has no relatives here, had never been to Maryville before deciding to relocate here. Yet he uprooted his entire life to settle down in Blount County.

It was a Monday morning in February, 2004. Doug woke up and told his wife he’d had the strangest dream the night before. He’d dreamed that they moved to Tennessee to help start a church. They didn’t think much of it until forty five minutes later, when the phone rang. It was a friend, calling to tell Doug about a crazy dream he’d had. He dreamed he had moved to Tennessee to help start a church. “I held the phone away from my head and said, ‘Tell that to my wife,'” Doug recalls.

They chalked it up to bad pizza.

But then, on Thursday of the same week, Doug and his wife were having dinner with another couple. They were chatting, catching up, when Doug’s friend said, “Something strange happened Sunday night.”

Doug’s response was simply: “Holy cow.”

*

“We sold everything we owned, left our friends and family, and out of all that, came all this.” Doug gestures around him.

And I know he isn’t just talking about the physical building. Doug has a palpable love for what he is doing and for the people he is doing it with. You can sense his passion for creating relationships, his love of baseball and his drive to teach others the skills he’s learned.

The Cherokee Facility has become more than just a fitness center or sporting goods store. It’s a safe place for kids to come and hang out; kids that don’t have cable come in to watch games on the Cherokee TV. Often they’ll have questions for Doug. Which is fine with him.

“If a kid is that into the sport and he’s asking me questions, I’m not going to charge him for a lesson. I’ll sit down and pour my life into that kid,” Doug says.

*

Things have fallen into place since Doug and his family made the move to Maryville. He and his partners were able to get the historic Cherokee Lumber site at half its appraised value. “The owners really liked what we were planning to do here. That was the driving force behind the sale; they liked the concept and saw the need for this facility,” Doug says.

And that church Doug dreamed about? He’s found a group of Christians looking for a home and has purchased the land to create one. He’s not sure of his future role in the group, but knows it’s where he’s supposed to be.

“I allow God to arrange these circumstances and I just try to react to them in a Godly way. Faith was never faith to me until I recognized that God is bigger than I am and can arrange things better than I can.”

Doug is man that lives by faith, though he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve. He has never been what you could call “religious.” “From what I’ve read of the Bible, Jesus didn’t hang out with a lot of religious people,” he says, smiling.

His faith has been formative in his life, helping him be patient and allowing him to see beyond the moment into a greater plan that he believes God has for his life. He sees his current situation as a natural outgrowth of where he’s been throughout his life. As he looks back he sees that there are people woven into his life that have impacted him at times when he needed it the most. And he sees that he is woven into the lives of others.

“All the people I’ve come into contact with, my time in the major leagues, it has all brought me to this point. In the major leagues you’re almost untouchable, I needed to get to this place so I could impact more people. I’m not into taking shortcuts, though. I don’t really make a lot of these plans; I just try not to screw up what’s been planned for me.”

Teacher’s Pet

You might say Buc is the teacher’s pet. The four year old Black Lab is definitely at the head of the class. Buc is volunteer dog with the HABIT (Humans and Animals Bonding in Tennessee) program. He and his human, Janet Hathaway visit Mrs. Friant’s Eagleton Elementary every Friday morning so that the children can read to Buc. “The children are able to feel comfortable around Buc,” says Janet. It’s easy for them to read to him, because he doesn’t care if they mispronounce a word or if they stutter. It helps build their confidence.”

It’s part of the mission of HABIT. Founded in 1986, the program sponsors animal assisted therapy programs for people of all ages. The programs are held at assisted living centers, hospitals, schools and other venues. HABIT is a non-profit, community based group of volunteers which operates under the auspices of UT’s College of Veterinary Medicine. The group works to promote what it sees as an invaluable bond between people and animals. There are currently 400 members with 250 actively volunteering in 70 different programs.

Each Friday morning, Buc jumps impatiently into Janet’s car for his weekly trip to school. When they stop to drop off Janet’s daughter at her school, Janet has to keep Buc in the car. He gets excited as they approach the drop off; his head goes out the window an so would Buc if Janet didn’t hold him back. He thinks he’s where he’s supposed to be and can’t wait to get to work. He loves his students, and the attachment is mutual. Janet says the children will often write letters to Buc, or draw him pictures. When Janet and Buc leave for the day, the kids all wave and say goodbye as Buc makes his way out of the classroom.

He doesn’t really want to leave, though. “He’d come everyday if I let him,” says Janet. “When we leave home in the morning, he jumps in the car without a problem, he’s ready to go; but when it’s time to go back I’ll have to give him a treat to get him in the car.”

Janet began volunteering with HABIT about six years ago. She began working with HABIT on her husband’s suggestion. He had seen volunteers and their animals in his work at UT Medical Center and he thought his wife would be perfect for the program. She had a different dog then. A 9 year old Yellow Lab named Sam. He and Janet volunteered for three years before Sam had to retire. They worked at a nursing home together, helping lift the spirits of senior citizens.

Now Buc has carried on the volunteering spirit of his predecessor. He’s been doing work for HABIT for about three years now, and loves every minute of it. “We love the school, and we love interacting with the kids,” Janet says. “It’s amazing to see the difference in them from the beginning to the end of the school year. At the first of the year they can’t read, but by the end of the school year want to read Buc three or four books at a time.”

The Painting Pony

His work was accepted for a month-long gallery showing — that is, until the curator found out the artist was a horse named Buddy.

“We’d referred to Buddy simply as ‘the artist’ throughout the application process,” said Jessica Drake, Buddy’s owner.

Buddy is a 10-year-old Arab mixed-breed horse and is stabled in Rockford on a 100-acre farm that is home to several horses. About four years ago he learned to paint and has been painting ever since. His paintings have been sold to people all over Tennessee, and to individuals from Kentucky to Canada.

But the gallery showing was a no-go.

“We thought it would be wise to let them know Buddy was a horse once he got accepted,” said Daniel Drake, Jessica’s husband.

The gallery withdrew its offer when it learned “the artist” was of the hoofed persuasion. “They said it wouldn’t be fair to other artists,” explained Jessica. “I guess they would have been upset to be outsold by a horse.”

Buddy’s paintings are definitely abstract, but some might say they rival the work of an artist with opposable thumbs. And he even has an artist’s temperament. Sometimes he’ll refuse to paint until Jessica changes colors; or he’ll focus on a particular area of the canvas with an obsessive focus that forces her to flip the canvas before he paints a hole through it.

Buddy was diagnosed with Equine Cushing’s Disease at the age of nine. The ailment makes shedding difficult for affected horses. It is a condition that Buddy will deal with for the rest of his life. Buddy also suffers from Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM), a neurological disease that can cause paralysis. Buddy is still fighting EPM, but is expected to recover fully thanks to an early diagnosis.

When Buddy first started to paint, Daniel shared some of the paintings with his co-workers. They loved them, he said, and they started asking where to buy them. Jessica and Daniel started selling the paintings by request. When Buddy was diagnosed with Cushing’s Disease, however, the couple decided to open a Web site to sell Buddy’s work to a larger audience. The sales help defray the costs of Buddy’s treatment, and 10 percent of the profits are donated to the University of Tennessee to help fund Equine Cushing’s Disease research.

Many who buy Buddy’s paintings are inspired by their beauty and by Buddy’s story, his owners said. Jessica shared a comment from a buyer in Nashville: “Buddy’s paintings aren’t only beautiful, but they are an inspiration to me. My dog has Cushing’s disease just like Buddy and it’s very hard on the spirit. Buddy’s paintings are so full of color and happiness that they add a glimmer of hope and joy into my often dark world of Cushing’s Disease. Thank you, Buddy, for bringing some color back into my world.”

“To me, hearing responses like this one let me know that what I am doing is more than just paying the bills and creating art — that it has meaning not only to me, but to others who are also coping with various life troubles,” Jessica said. “I’ve had people purchase paintings for friends who have lost loved ones, dedicating the painting to them, and I’ve had people purchase paintings for loved ones who share a connection with Buddy’s health issues. People connect with his paintings, and it gives them hope — that to me means more than anything.”

Hidden Child

Sonja Dubois is one of our last firsthand links to the Holocaust. She is a member of a generation of European Jews that has been called the Hidden Children. These young children were given up by their parents in hope that they would be able to survive, even if their parents did not. Many of the hidden children assumed new identities; most never saw their parents again.

In 1942, Sonja’s parents were ordered to report to a train station for “re-settlement” to a holding camp in the Northeastern part of the Netherlands. In reality, it was nothing more than a stopover on their journey to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Sonja was 21 months old. Sonja: “As hard as it is to say this, I hope for early death; they went to the gas chambers sometime between August and December of 1942. So they were gassed in Auschwitz, along with the rest of my family – I’m the only survivor.”

Sonja’s only link to her lost family was an oil painting that she’s had since she was hidden away. It is a dark painting, full of greens, browns and dark hues. This signature is in black. Sonja had never known who made the painting, only that it had belonged to her family.

In 2000, she made contact with a distant cousin, whom she had never before known existed. When they met, she asked him about the painting. “I asked him if he knew anything about this painting; I told him it supposedly had belonged to my parents, and asked if he knew any details. And he told me ‘This is your daddy’s signature.’ So, he [her father] had been with me all along.”

Sonja’s father was an amateur painter, with ties to the Dutch artistic community. When he and his wife were ordered to report to the train station, they decided to leave their daughter with a family friend, a painter. At first he tried to find a safe place to hide Sonja; there were many Jewish children hidden in farms or country estates. But Sonja’s guardian was uncomfortable with the situations he was able to find and didn’t want to put Sonja in any further danger. So he began working with an underground agency to find foster parents for her.

Sonja’s foster mother was a Red Cross volunteer. She and her husband were unable to have biological children of their own, and had made it known that if there were any children who needed to be taken care of, they would be willing to take them in.

“We were really kind of the answer to each other’s prayers,” Sonja says.

*

Sonja was raised with no awareness of her Jewish heritage. It wasn’t until her foster family immigrated to the U.S. in 1952 that she was told of her parents sacrifice and her adoption by the only parents she’d ever known. “My parents died when they were 29 years old,” Sonja says. “They let me go to rescue me.”

It took a long time for Sonja to fully understand her parents’ sacrifice. “For years I didn’t think of it that way. I felt they should have taken a chance on life and hidden, as so many others did – unsuccessfully. It took my maturity to understand that this was a sacrifice for them. When I became a grandmother, when I saw my 2 year old grandson crying for his mommy – can you imagine giving a child up at that age?”

Sonja now understands the unreal choice her parents faced in 1942. “My parents didn’t stand a chance at that time and they knew it. They did the bravest thing on earth.”

*

It’s been only nine years since Sonja began sharing her story. “I’ve been trying to find myself for my whole life. It took a long time to even attempt to put the puzzle together. It’s a lonley story; and it’s painful.”

She partly made the decision to begin telling her story because she wanted to memorialize her birth family. “I’m the only way people know these folks existed; I’m the only person that can speak for their bravery.” But she also began sharing her message as a warning to be on guard the against racism, hatred and intolerance she sees every day. “The holocaust isn’t over,” she says. “Racism and prejudice are still real.”

Sonja focusses on reaching young people, and has had many classroom speaking engagements. “I want to encourage young people to take a stand everyday, in whatever way they can. I focus on what each person can do to counteract intolerant attitudes. There are many opportunities to make a difference. The Nazis got help everywhere they went; and silent bystanders became collaborators.”

And so Sonja tells her story to inspire a new generation of brave souls who will take a stand and renounce an attitude of apathy and impotent inaction. Her story must be told as part of the struggle to eradicate the spirit of Holocaust that threatens all people of good will.