Alvira Sweeten's colorful artwork is now on exhibit at the Middletown Arts Center.

Meet Rick McCrabb’s 10 most intriguing people of 2017

It’s a simple answer: The people.

Whether it was 1987 when I started at the Middletown Journal as a sports reporter, my years as a feature writer or now my time as a columnist and Middletown reporter, I have always enjoyed writing about people.

Every year, I read over the hundreds of stories I’ve written and select my “10 Most Intriguing People of the Year.”

Now that we have turned the calendar from 2017 to 2018, it will be interesting to see what these 10 people accomplish this year. Here’s one certainty: I’ll be watching and writing.

Here is my list, in alphabetical order:

Ann Marie Babb: ‘I’m one of the lucky ones. Very lucky.’

After reading about Ann Marie Babb and her incredible story, I was excited and apprehensive about the interview. As I sat there, at times listening almost numb in disbelief, there were lots of things I expected her to say.

One of them wasn’t: “I’m one of the lucky ones. Very lucky.”

RELATED: Middletown human trafficking survivor considers herself ‘very lucky’

Consider that Babb, now 50 and living in Middletown for two years, was a teenage drug addict and alcoholic who was sold like goods in the despicable and ugly world of human trafficking. There were nights, she said, when she was dropped off at a Cincinnati house — so drugged she didn’t know her name — and she was unwillingly passed from man to man.

“Vulnerable, lonely and with the wrong people” is how Babb described herself. “They made it very plain they had other plans for me.”

So for five years, until the man who owned her — “a very prominent drug dealer” — was convicted of drug trafficking and sent to prison, Babb lived the dark world that left her physically abused and psychologically scarred.

No wonder the Middletown Community Foundation selection committee named her winner of the AK Steel Magnolia award, an honor designated for a woman who has overcome obstacles. Babb took the $2,500 prize that came with the award and donated it to the Springhaven Home to be used to educate the community about human trafficking.

Preston Bober: ‘So much mature than a typical 8-year-old child’

Preston Bober showed us how to turn tragedy into triumph.

The 8-year-old third-grader at Grigsby Intermediate School in Carlisle responded to his father’s death by painting and selling rocks and walking in the Butler/Warren County Heart Association Walk. His father, Jon Bober, 39, died from heart disease in 2017, and Preston spent weeks hoping he could help others who suffer from heart disease.

RELATED: McCrabb: Carlisle boy, 8, ‘wonderful example of giving back’

“A wonderful example of giving back,” is how Heart Walk chairman Bob Fairchild described Preston. “I think we all can learn a lesson from this young boy, who is doing something so positive in the aftermath of a tragic loss.”

Stephanie Russell, 33, Preston’s mother, said her ex-husband was extremely proud of their son, and that emotion shines brighter today.

“It blows me away, it really does,” Russell said. “If Jon was looking down right now, he would be so happy about the amazing boy we raised. He makes me so proud because he isn’t thinking of just himself; he’s thinking of other people. A lot of people have told me that he has a real old soul because he’s so much mature than a typical 8-year-old child.”

Preston’s team was the top fundraiser at the walk.

Keri Booth: ‘They acted like she was totally invisible’

Early in our phone interview, Keri Booth warned me: “If you don’t have faith, you probably won’t believe this story.”

Continue, I told her. I love a good story.

MORE: McCrabb: Path leads two women together

Booth said that after turning onto Ohio 73, she passed a person — too bundled to tell if it was a man or woman — who was walking from Middletown toward Franklin. Others drove by. Booth figures hundreds of motorists had passed the person, and no one stopped.

“They acted like she was totally invisible,” Booth said.

She turned her car around, drove past the person, then turned around again. She put on her emergency flashers and stopped along the side of Ohio 73.

Booth, 59, stopped and asked the woman, identified as Linda Roach, 61, if she needed assistance. Roach had two crutches, but was unable to use them. She was carrying a bundle of blankets, a few clothes and a can of tuna.

She was returning from a Middletown gas station where she had washed off the infected left hand she badly burned while starting a camp fire near the Great Miami River.

Booth eventually convinced Roach to stay with her, and after three days, Booth took Roach to West Chester Hospital, where she was admitted for eight days. They performed two surgeries on her hand and another on her broken ankle.

Roach then was sent to Cedarview Health Care Center in Lebanon, an 83-bed facility. She stayed there for free and, once her ankle healed, was placed in permanent housing.

Cecil Daily: ‘Son, you’re supposed to be dead’

I admire veterans, especially those who served during World War II.

So when I heard about Cecil Daily and his long military history, I was excited to interview him. He didn’t disappoint.

RELATED: Once thought to have died at sea, Butler County veteran serves 3 wars

He was assigned to a cargo ship when it reportedly was sunk by an enemy torpedo. His parents, Cecil and Dorothy Daily, were told by U.S. officials that all servicemen aboard the ship were killed. But Daily said the torpedo sailed under his ship and sank a nearby vessel.

Imagine the shocked look on their faces when their son, a Merchant Marine, walked through the front door and into the living room.

“She didn’t do what I thought she’d do,” Daily said of his mother’s reaction. “I thought she’d pass out. She ran to me and almost knocked me down. I was glad to have her arms wrapped around me. My dad came out, and he didn’t know what to do. He said, ‘Son, you’re supposed to be dead.’”

So what did a man who escaped death do after the war? He enlisted and served during the Korean War and Vietnam War. Daily, who enlisted in 1943 — then a 16-year-old high school freshman in Hamilton — retired from the service in 1970.

“I feel I’m lucky that I’m still here,” he said.

Daily, 89, served as grand marshal for Middletown’s Memorial Day Parade, and he’s a popular veteran at the monthly gatherings at Mercy Point Church in Middletown.

J. Earl Jones: ‘You take care of your own’

When J. Earl Jones was 14, then a freshman at Lemon-Monroe High School, his father died at an early age, leaving the teen to live alone with his mother. After graduating from Monroe, then Miami University in the early 1960s, Jones, a talented trumpet player and accomplished singer, was courted by school districts and orchestras around the country.

RELATED: McCrabb: Musician’s roots stay in Monroe as he travels the world

“No way would I leave,” he said, referencing the care he provided for his mother, an invalid for 20 years. “You take care of your own.”

His mother, Nora, 81, died in 1991 — 38 years after her husband, Joel, died.

Today, Jones, who looks younger than 77, still lives in a house on what used to be his family’s 70-acre farm in Monroe. It doesn’t take a visitor long — only a few steps — to realize that his love of travel and extensive collection of horn instruments dominate his surroundings. There are large flags representing some of the countries he has visited hanging from the walls in his living room, he converted a back patio into a music room, and there are endless stacks of compact discs on the floor.

This year Jones was recognized during the Monroe High School homecoming for being a 1957 graduate, and more importantly, dedicating 31 years of his life to the school’s music program. Jones taught music and band at McKinley and Amanda elementaries in Middletown and at Lemon-Monroe and served as assistant band director in Monroe.

“Lots of emotion” is how he described the weekend events. “You are thinking about a lot of things. A lot of your life goes by you quickly.”

C. Kelly Lohr: ‘I needed to focus on something’

I’m not sure what was most impressive: the artist, her work or her remodeled downtown Middletown home.

I left overwhelmed by C. Kelly Lohr, her exhibit, “Personal Observations of Animals,” at the Middletown Art Center and her home, the former Middletown Historical Society, on South Main Street.

RELATED: McCrabb: Thief leads Middletown artist to paint animals

Her exhibit, which remains open this month, has received rave reviews, according to Executive Director Betsy Hope. The 33-piece exhibit, which features large oils of zebras and elephants, can be appreciated by all ages and levels of artistic sophistication, Hope said.

Lohr was pushed to paint animals after someone stole some of her creative work and music she had written from her studio in Arizona.

Then the Middletown resident discovered “healing” from the unlikeliest of sources: her photography work of animals in their natural settings and in zoos.

“I never thought I could improve on a photograph of an animal,” the 68-year-old said when asked why she never painted animals. “But I needed to focus on something.”

Charles Moore: ‘I ain’t been the best guy my whole life’

After watching Charles Moore work the crowd, I never expected the boisterous Salvation Army Red Kettle bell ringer outside the Kroger on Ohio 73 to disclose his history.

He once was more Grinch than Santa Claus.

RELATED: Bell ringer brings smiles, money to Red Kettle campaign

Before Moore moved to Middletown 15 years ago, he lived in Cleveland and was a constant criminal. He labeled himself “a thug” who was attracted to drugs, alcohol and petty theft.

“I ain’t been the best guy my whole life,” said Moore, 62. “It was always, ‘Charles, let’s go break into something. Charles, let’s get drunk. Let’s do this, let’s do that.’ I hung with the worst; never hung with the best.”

He caught his breath from the cold winter air, then added: “I was a follower. Now I’m a leader.”

For five years, Moore has been one of the most successful fundraisers during the local Salvation Army’s Red Kettle campaign. He works 40 hours a week — five eight-hour shifts that pay him $8.50 an hour — and Moore earns every penny. In his baritone voice, he greets all Kroger customers with: “Ho. Ho. Ho. Merry Christmas.”

Laura Ragle: ‘I didn’t want to die a junkie’

After meeting Laura Ragle, her boyfriend and 18-month-0ld daughter, Serenity, at a Middletown heroin march, I had to write about her journey from addiction to recovery. It was time to tell a success story instead of another drug overdose.

RELATED: Recovering Preble County addict: ‘I didn’t want to die a junkie’

Ragle, 27, like many addicts, thought she was different. She figured after six years of doing drugs — smoking marijuana, popping pain pills and injecting heroin in her arm — she was smarter than her friends who had overdosed, some of them fatally.

Then on March 19, 2014, Ragle overdosed in the bathroom at her parents’ Trenton home, just 18 hours after she was released from jail. The same Trenton police officers who arrested Ragle for drug possession 10 days earlier responded to the emergency call.

“My parents thought I was dead,” said Ragle, who had five felonies in 11 days. “I knew I had to do something different. Something clicked. I didn’t want to die a junkie and that be the only thing people remembered about me.”

This became one of those life-defining moments for Ragle, a 2008 Edgewood High School graduate. She was either going to continue to use drugs or take the next step.

Her mother told her if she turned her life around, she could live in her grandfather’s home in Preble County. She attended an intense six-month rehabilitation program at MonDay Community Correctional Institution in Dayton. She came out a better woman.

RELATED: March against heroin ‘a success’ despite crowd size

She is now a peer support specialist and recently was offered a job in Dayton. She hopes to take classes to become a chemical dependency counseling assistant, then earn her Bachelor’s degree in behavioral science.

Alvira Sweeten: ‘I’m just amazed to find myself in this position’

It was fitting an exhibit at the Middletown Art Center was completed on discarded cardboard, because that pretty much described the woman holding the brush.

Alvira Sweeten is a former homeless woman who has lived out of her car, who was raped twice, who tried to commit suicide with a knife in a bar bathroom and who has spent half of her life babysitting some of her grandchildren who were abandoned by their parents.

RELATED: Former homeless woman creates masterpieces from unlikely materials

Sweeten’s paintings, called “amazing” by the executive director of the center, were on cardboard, former pizza and cake boxes, that were torn and sometimes folded.

They went from trash to treasure in the stroke of a brush.

Sweeten’s work was brought to the attention of MAC by Sharon Bogan of Family Promises in Hamilton, a homeless shelter. Sweeten was staying in the shelter and had shared with Bogan her love of art.

The 68-year-old native of Bessemer, Ala., has painted since the early 1960’s and her work reflects the changes in her life and situation over the years growing more complex in trying times.

“I’m really amazed to see something done with my own hands actually hanging in a public place and other people have seen it and been blown away by it,” Sweeten said. “I said, ‘What are they looking at?’ It was nothing. I felt it was nothing and at the same time, it was something. I’m just amazed to find myself in this position.”

Carl ‘Geno’ Wells: ‘I do have a purpose to be here’

Even morning when I drive by the United Dairy Farmers on North Verity Parkway in Middletown, I make sure Carl “Geno” Wells is still standing outside.

Wells, 62, rides his three-speed black bike — a gift from a friend — from his Butler County Metropolitan Housing Authority apartment on South Clinton Street to the UDF on mornings to begin his volunteer shift as official greeter.

This generosity comes from a man who was severely scarred from a fire five years ago. The top of his head is bald because no hair can grow there, and the scar tissue limits the feelings in his arms, legs, and hands.

RELATED: Severely scarred from fire, man shares ‘all the good stuff’ in life

Still, Wells believes he’s blessed.

“God thank you for letting me be here,” he says daily. “I do have a purpose to be here. All of us have a purpose to be here.”

His purpose?

“Being happy for everybody,” he said.

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