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Kelly Reilly on moving to the South

Updated: Jan 22, 2019

Where are you originally from?

I was born in Williamsburg, Virginia, but consider my hometown to be Danville, California, where I spent most of my formative years.

Where do you currently reside, and how did you have ties to this place before moving here?

Durham, North Carolina, which is where my parents grew up. My maternal grandmother still lives here, at 98 years old.

You moved to California when you were eight years old, and then moved to North Carolina at the start of your junior year of college at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. Tell us about that experience. How was the culture different?

It's funny how many people asked me if I was in "culture shock" when I initially moved to North Carolina. I always replied that even though I didn't grow up in the South, I was raised by a Southerner. My mom was very proud of being from North Carolina, and taught my brother and me about several cultural traditions. We ate black-eyed peas and collard greens on New Year's Day, my mom baked a red velvet cake at Christmas and had barbecue and Brunswick stew shipped to us from Bullock's in Durham, and if a Duke game ever aired on the West Coast, we heard my mom yelling for the players on the screen. I'll never forget when she told me I had to address adult females as, "ma'am," and the first woman I ever said that to laughed at me. My mom gave up on pushing that formality, though insisted that we always say, "Mr." or "Mrs." unless told otherwise.

What brought you back to North Carolina?

I was obviously curious about what it was like to live here, since my mom is so proud of this state. I had a taste of what the Carolinas were like because my dad and step-mom would fly my siblings and me out to Myrtle Beach every summer. My dad's own memories of summers in Myrtle Beach were something he wanted to share with us. Those visits also gave us the chance to visit with my grandparents, who were living in Durham. Even as a young person, I picked up on the hospitality and friendliness of the people here. I toured a few colleges in the area when I was in high school, but didn't initially get in for my freshman year. Once I knew I wanted to major in Education (which wasn't possible as an undergrad in CA at the time), I researched more schools and applied to Wake Forest. When I got the letter that I was accepted, I knew immediately that I wanted to enroll. The only person I knew in the whole state of North Carolina at the time was my grandmother, the one who still lives here. It was one of those times in life that I didn't take time to weigh the options. I just acted on my gut feeling.

What do love about where you live?

I love the things that everyone else here loves: easy access to both the mountains and the beach, a family-friendly community, Southern hospitality, Southern food, and multiple businesses and universities. But one thing that surprised me, that has taken me a while to articulate, is how thankful I have been for opportunity to learn from North Carolina's rich diversity. Californians pride themselves on their state's own rich diversity, and its acceptance and inclusiveness of everyone, which I agree is a beautiful thing. On that note, a few people shamed me for wanting to move here. "North Carolina is racist," they would say. And yes, from the Civil War to our recent election, North Carolina has been at the center of racial strife and civil rights movements. But I can't think of a better place to learn how to become an educator than in a place where these issues are confronted; and not from a place of, "We've overcome this," but, "We admit we are still in the midst of it." Without a doubt, what I learned throughout my teaching career about issues of equity and diversity, here in North Carolina, is what made me a more open-minded and compassionate person.

When friends come to visit where do you like to take them?

I'm really proud of living in Durham, so I like to show off downtown. So much is happening right now with the exploding growth of restaurants, businesses, and development, but the character and charm is still there. Of course, the Durham Bulls games are always a lot of fun.

You were a guide for Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours, in which you not only shared some of Carolina’s finest foods, but our rich history. Tell us what that was like.

Did you learn anything new about the history of our state?

It was a blast. When friends come to visit, most people take them out to a favorite restaurant for dinner. But imagine taking your friend to 6 favorite restaurants in an evening, introducing them to owners and chefs who talk passionately about their craft, and while walking along the way, pointing out places of interest in the town, teaching them about history and architecture. Sounds like a more fun and complete experience, right?

And yes, almost everything I learned in preparation for guiding the tours was new information. You start to feel a deeper connection to your town when you walk into a restaurant and not only know the menu, but the story of how the owner and chef created it, when the building was constructed, and who owned it previously. Ultimately, the way we guided the tours was through stories, whether it was letting the chefs tell their own, or sharing a few from history that highlighted the town. That's what builds relationships between people and communities...sharing stories.

On a personal level, I learned a lot about my own history that made guiding the tours more meaningful. My dad came to visit and I took him to the American Tobacco District. He was amazed at the transformation, and told me that my grandfather had worked there when it was a tobacco warehouse. I hadn't known that. My dad also told me that he used to have lunch with my grandfather at King's Sandwich Shop, which is still operating. There are so many places that my grandmother and parents have pointed out to me in this area, to which I have a connection through my family's history, but are so unique to me personally because of my own experiences.

Last year, my husband had a conference in Wilmington, and I tagged along. My mom told me that my grandmother's father, whose story I have always been fascinated with because he was mysteriously murdered, was buried in a beautiful cemetery not far from our hotel. I knew visiting his grave wouldn't teach me more about his story, but I still felt compelled to visit. Standing there, I realized the unique juxtaposition of living in this state. I came here with a vision of personal growth, but my feet often find themselves standing on historical roots. And that's when I realized that North Carolina is no longer simply the place where my parents grew up. North Carolina is my home.

My aunt did research on our family history recently, and discovered that we are related to Washington Duke's brother, William Duke. It was a little crazy to realize that every time I had taught my tour groups about the history of the Dukes, I was talking about my own distant family members! I'll also add that one time I was asked by a tour-goer about the Kress building in downtown, and I remember thinking that I needed to google it to find out the information. But later I thought, "Who needs Google when I have Grandma?!" I called her and found out that it used to be a five-and-dime store, and my grandmother took my mom and aunt there to buy school supplies. She also mentioned that it had a huge toy department in the basement. So that's what I started to tell future tour groups...I think it's more interesting to give a personal connection to the history.

What are your proudest accomplishments?

Being a teacher and becoming a mother. I have left the teaching profession, but I will always have the utmost respect for teachers and educators. It is such a difficult job, and despite efforts to praise teachers and point out the obstacles they face, I don't think anyone can truly understand their unique situation unless they have been in their shoes. I think that's a critical problem for the system right now. Too many people are making decisions about our schools that have no idea what's going on inside of them.

Finally, I purposely said, "becoming" a mother is a proud accomplishment, and not "being" a mother, because I wouldn't dare take credit for my children when I am so early in the parenting game. ;) My husband and I faced infertility issues, and ended up going through two rounds of IVF to have my first son. It had never crossed my mind that that was something I would have to deal with in life. At this point, it seems like a distant memory, but at the time, it was difficult. It caused a lot of financial and emotional stress, and I'm proud that my husband and I worked through it in a way that made us closer.

You were the reader feature on the blog, which showcased your beautiful writing. Do you still write?

I've never thought of myself as being a creative person, but now that I'm getting older, I do believe writing is my creative outlet. It's the best way I know how to express myself. Personally, the most recent thing I wrote was a letter to my favorite non-profit organization, Book Harvest. After the recent election, I wanted to express my emotions in a positive way, so I wrote to the owner of the organization, expressing my gratitude for their work in the community (distributing books to children in need), and why I believe their vision is so important.

Professionally, I have taken on a new job with Bell Leadership Institute, and I have the privilege of working with Dr. Bell, who is a leadership trainer. His work is based on his model of personalities, and it is fascinating to learn from him. He is currently working on several books, and while Dr. Bell is the sole author, I am in the position of helping him organize his materials and outline his thoughts. We do not approach the writing process in the same way, but he is a brilliantly creative thinker and a humorous, compassionate leader, and as an up-close witness to his wisdom, I hope to absorb as much truth in observation as I can from him.

What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?

I am pretty competitive. I'm not the mom who "lets" her 5 year-old win at a board game. I'm the type who yells, "Boo-yah!" when my pawn reaches the Candyland castle.



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