There is nothing I enjoy more in this profession than sitting down and talking with people. Most journalists call them interviews. I call them conversations.
I turn on my recorder, ask a few questions, then when it’s time to write their story, try to stay out of the way.
During 2018 — my 31st year at the Journal-News and 38th as a reporter — I wrote hundreds of stories, including those about people battling drug addiction, overcoming disabilities, losing extreme weight, and returning to their roots.
Here are my Top 10 Most Intriguing People of 2018, in alphabetical order:
Kent Keller II: ‘It’s worth the battle’
For years, Kent Keller II waged a war against his weight. He dieted, he exercised, he took pills. Nothing worked. In fact, despite his attempts, he gained weight.
But as the Middletown man has learned — and has preached to anyone who will listen — his 200-pound weight loss has turned him into twice the man he was before.
“This totally transformed my life,” he said. “It’s worth the battle.”
One day five years ago, Keller II stepped on the bathroom scale. He tipped the scale at 383 pounds. He even took a picture of the digital number.
Keller II estimates between that day in 2014, and when he started dieting months later in April 2015, he probably gained another 17 pounds. So the man carried 400 pounds on his 5-foot-10 frame. Because of the excess weight, he suffered from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep apnea and sore knees. He was a slow-walking time bomb, his doctor told him.
He weighs 190 pounds now and has gone from size 48 pants to size 32.
Carrie Kienlen: ‘Glad to be back in Middletown’
When Carrie Kienlen was a senior at Middletown High School in 2014, she told everyone that after she earned her college degree, she would return to her roots.
That was five years ago, and since then, Kienlen, 22, has graduated from Miami University with a degree in early childhood education, got married to Will Parson, changed her last name, and began her career as a kindergarten teacher at Wildwood Elementary School in her hometown.
Carrie and Will Parsons have settled in Middletown and are becoming active in the community. This coming at a time when organizations need new blood transfusions.
“She has taken pride in her town,” said Carrie’s mother, Patricia Kienlen.
On her second day on the job, Parsons watched over her 18 students in the cafeteria. She ate part of her lunch — a cold-cut sandwich — while standing up in the cafeteria.
“I’m so glad to be back in Middletown,” Parsons said while supervising recess. “It’s been all that I can imagine.”
Jeri Lewis: ‘I believe God has called me’
If you follow Jeri Lewis on Facebook, you wonder how one person has enough time to post that frequently and serve her community.
While the rest of us fight the evils of Father Time, a different clock dictates her life.
Lewis, 40, runs Free Family Movie Nights every summer in Middletown, hosts families at Sherman Park, organizes “Ladies Night Out,” a low-budget evening for women, drives around the city checking on the homeless and those battling addictions, serves as the marketing and development leader at Kingswell Ministry and recently was named chairwoman of the city’s Memorial Day and Independence Day parades.
“It’s a calling,” she said while sitting in Triple Moon Coffee Shop on Central Avenue. “I believe God has called me to do what I do in the community in every aspect.”
Earl Nelson: ‘It’s almost taboo to be a black police officer’
Earl Nelson addresses race relations head-on.
Last year, Nelson was promoted to sergeant in the Middletown Division of Police Department, the highest ranking African-American officer in the city’s history, said Police Chief Rodney Muterspaw.
When Nelson, 39, a native of Maysville, Ky., decided he wanted to become a police officer and buck the trend, it came with a high price tag. Nelson hasn’t spoken to his youngest brother in years.
“It’s almost taboo to be a black police officer because of the history of racism in this country,” Nelson said while sitting next to the police chief. “It’s almost ingrained in our DNA that we can’t work with the police. Police never have been good for black people. It’s not something we do, especially black men. You don’t go work for them. They’re the bad people. My goal when I became a police officer was to change that. The only way I knew to change it was to do it from within.”
There are 70 police officers in the Middletown department, and three, or 4 percent, are African-American. Of those officers, 58 are male and 64 are white, according to police records.
Duane Sparks: ‘One of those guys who make you smile’
Fairfield firefighters Scott Goller and Rob Lance have formed a special bond with one Special Olympics athlete, Duane Sparks, 50.
He was born to be a firefighter, Sparks was, but while that was impossible, he has been adopted by the Fairfield Fire Department, especially Goller and Lance.
“They’re the brothers Duane never had,” said his mother, Jean Sparks. “He likes them. Their friendship is unbelievable. You can tell when they’re with him how much they love and appreciate him.”
This summer, after Sparks broke an ankle while exercising, he had three months of rehabilitation at the Tri-County Extended Care in Fairfield. While Sparks resided there, Fairfield firefighters made several medical runs there.
Without fail, they were greeted at the front door by Sparks, and as they pulled away, he stood at the window and waved good-bye.
“He’s one of those guys who make you smile,” Goller said. “If you talk to Duane for about five minutes, you gravitate toward him. He’s hilarious. I’ve never seen Duane in a bad mood. Ever. You can just see how caring the guy is.”
Dannika Swagler: ‘Honored to be chosen to be part of the group’
Dannika “Nika” Swagler is living proof of the miracles of medicine and the power of prayer.
Born at 24 weeks and measuring nine inches and weighing one pound, those in the medical profession gave Dannika little chance to survive. When her foster mother Mary Swagler drove from Hamilton to Dayton Children’s Hospital to bring Dannika home when she was 5 months old, she was met by a nurse who delivered this alarming advice: “If she dies don’t worry about it. She probably will.”
Swagler, the mother of five, looked at the nurse and responded: “Not on my shift.”
That was 30 years ago, and Swagler’s shift continues today.
Consider that Nika, a person with intellectual disabilities, graduated from Hamilton High School’s Special Education program in 2007, completed Project Search, a post high school work training program at Atrium Medical Center, works full-time in the warehouse at Thyssen Krupp Bilstein, has lived independently in an apartment for five years and three years ago, obtained her driver’s license.
Oh, and one more accomplishment: Nika participated in the Special Olympics USA Games 2018 in Seattle, Wash. On the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics, Nika and her playing partner, Molly Grimm, won the Silver medal in golf.
“Quite an honor,” Nika said while sitting in her apartment. “I’m honored to be chosen to be part of the group. I’m ready to get out and show them that I can do my best and have fun with it.”
Greg Tyus: ‘That provided clarity for me in terms of direction for my life’
Thirty two years ago, long before he was called reverend, Greg Tyus listened to the songs at Spunky’s Night Club in Dayton.
“Doing my thing” is how Tyus, then 29, described the club scene.
Then just as quickly, and without notice, Tyus said he had “an encounter” with God.
“Spoke to me like I’m speaking to you,” he said while sitting in his office.
God’s message: “You need to leave here.”
Tyus told his buddy he wanted to go home without offering a reason. When Tyus got back to Cincinnati, he cried himself to sleep.
“That provided clarity for me in terms of direction for my life,” he said.
Last year, Tyus, 61, celebrated his 25th year as minister at United Missionary Baptist Church in Middletown. Before coming to Middletown in 1993, Tyus worked at New Mission Baptist Church and St. Mary Baptist Church, both in Cincinnati.
Dominic Watkins: ‘That’s the cards I was dealt’
We’re told not to get too close to our sources. It’s one of the first lessons we’re taught in journalism.
I broke that rule.
After attending a Monroe High School boys basketball tournament game and seeing Dominic Watkins sitting on the bench — one of his legs amputated because of bone cancer — I knew we would become friends.
I interviewed Dominic one day at school, and in November, the McCrabb Open, a charity golf tournament I founded in 1990, sent Dominic, his mother, sister and best friend, to New York for four days. A few days after Christmas, I visited Dominic at a Cincinnati hospital. He looked weak and tired.
His bone cancer has returned.
I asked Dominic during one of our initial conversations about osteosarcoma, a bone cancer.
“I couldn’t pronounce it let alone think I had it,” he said. “That’s the cards I was dealt. There was no anger.”
Lynn Weber: ‘A lot better than being on the streets’
In 1959, Lynn Weber, then 11, moved with his brother and sister from Dayton to the Otterbein Childrens Home in Lebanon after he said his mother suffered a nervous breakdown.
Weber and his brother, David, and sister, Linda, lived with about 60 other orphans in homes that now are the site of the Otterbein Senior Life campus on Ohio 741, just north of Ohio 63.
The way Weber maneuvers his motorized wheelchair around the Otterbein Senior Life campus, stopping just long enough to greet every resident and staff member, you get the feeling he’s right at home.
He should be. His residence has come full circle.
Weber lived there until 1963, the year the children’s home closed, and he and the others were moved to Flat Rock Childrens Home in Flat Rock, Ohio. While a student, Weber worked in the Thompson High School concession stand during basketball games and his job was operating the popcorn machine.
He was nicknamed Popcorn, and now, some 50 years later, the name remains. Few people know Lynn Weber. Everyone knows Popcorn.
Weber said after moving from Otterbein as a child, he promised himself that one day he’d return as an adult.
“I was treated well as a child,” he said. “I told myself, ‘I will return some day.’ ”
He kept that promise and moved into a small home on Ohio 741 about 18 years ago. He has saved many mementos of those early childhood days and they’re stored in a wooden chest in his living room. It would be understandable for an orphan to want to erase their childhood memories. Instead, Weber embraces them.
“Well taken care of,” he said of his upbringing. “A lot better than being on the streets.”
Arlene Williams: ‘One more time never comes’
On a summer night in 2012, Arlene Williams was at a friend’s house and heroin was available. She was experiencing “a rough time” with relationships and she felt isolated.
She dialed up heroin, her best friend.
“When you have a problem like that, you do it once and it just…it’s like a snowfall,” Williams said. “You think, ‘Oh just one more time.’ One more time never comes.”
She wanted to quit using, she honestly did, but each attempt ended with heroin up her nose.
“Lots of bad choices that took me to a place I didn’t want to be,” she said.
So as she had done countless times, Williams snorted heroin, but this time, she collapsed on the floor.
What could have been the last chapter in her obituary became the opening sentence in her new life. The 35-year-old decided she was done. She was tired of being high, depending on her next fix to get her through what she called “the bad times.”
No more crutches, she decided after that night.
“That was enough,” she said of her near-death experience. “It was a huge reality check.”