Laura Chang Selected Michigan Teacher of the Year

By Sue Moore

“Humble” is often used to describe Laura Chang, second grade teacher at Sunset Lake Elementary school. After the state of Michigan sent representatives to present her with the Michigan Teacher of the Year award, she seemed blown away by the accolades.

“No one deserves it more,” said Pat Moreno, her former principal at the school. “She was born to teach. She taught me so much during our years together that I have been able to share with other young teachers coming into the school district.”

“She just has a way about her,” said Shannon Richards, whose child was in her classroom several years ago. “She’s special. The kids feel very safe around her. She has their respect, she is kind and soft-spoken. She cares about the kids and their families too. We are like her extended family.”

There are thousands of great teachers in the state of Michigan. How did Laura Chang get singled out? This award has been given to a teacher in Michigan since 1952. That person is nominated to represent the state in the National Teacher of the Year recognition.

Sunset Lake Principal Amie McCaw decided it was time to nominate Chang because of the impact she has had beyond the classroom door. “She serves others through her leadership on teams for Sunset Lake, Sunset PTSO, Vicksburg Community Schools, Western Michigan University and also at the state level for the Michigan Department of Education. Laura is a visionary in education and she serves others, all with such grace.”

There were 850 nominees statewide. A committee of educators narrowed the list down to 10 finalists, one from each region in the state. Chang was selected from the southwest area. All 10 were interviewed in Lansing in a round of presentations and a Q & A session.

Chang also prepared a video that described her philosophy of teaching. “Her enthusiasm, energy, her words kind of wrapped around us,” said Pamela Harlin, director of the MEEMIC Foundation, who was on the selection committee.

Sheila Alles, interim superintendent of education for the state, came to Sunset Lake school on May 18 to announce to the students and faculty that Chang had won the award.

“Chang was inspired by her dad, who was a teacher. She cares deeply about her students that they reach their highest potential. She is admired by her colleagues. Now she will be on a trajectory for a whole year of talking to legislators in Lansing and in Congress. She will sit in on state board of education meetings where she will be asked for her advice on the many education issues that come before the board.”

Chang, a WMU graduate, has been teaching in Vicksburg for 18 years. “I feel so supported here,” she said. “It’s a team. We are sharing students more across the whole spectrum of learning. Our building has nearly doubled in size since I started here. It’s alive, thriving, exciting and fast-paced. It’s a thrill that so many families want to move to Vicksburg.”

The Chang family lives near Tobey Elementary school with their children, Cassie, 12, and Andrew, 8, both involved in school activities. Her husband is in technology with a company in Kalamazoo. Besides volunteering in both children’s activities, Chang teaches at WMU online and on campus in the literacy studies department.

She credits the parents of the children in her classroom. “They are amazing and supportive on field trips, volunteering to read and taking part in math activities. If families want to volunteer but are unable to come during the school day, I often send work for them to complete at home. When parents are engaged, then students are engaged.”

There are three main teaching fundamentals Chang uses and actually carries around on her phone if a reminder is needed: 1. Kind, contributing members of a community 2. Passionate for learning throughout their lives 3. Empowered to stand up for one another.

“What children learn here will have an impact all their life. Learning is never done. I want the kids to be curious. These take practice every day.”

Chang said, “I’m just an ordinary second grade teacher and happy to represent the voice of our region elsewhere. It’s important to look at the whole child’s needs. We are not just making sprockets here!”

Keevin O’Neill Named Vicksburg School Superintendent

lisa and keevin
Keevin O’Neill with his wife Lisa at the school board meeting when he was announced as the new superintendent of Vicksburg Community Schools.

By Sue Moore

The interview room was crackling with anticipation as the Vicksburg School Board convened in May to question its internal candidate for school superintendent, Keevin O’Neill, to replace outgoing Supt. Charlie Glaes.

Over the last 65 years the board has gone outside the school district only twice to select a superintendent. Board members aspired to select from within the district, according to Skip Knowles, board president. This year was no exception; trustees have had their eye on O’Neill, the high school principal, for eight years as the preferred candidate.

Knowles told O’Neill, “We are looking for a long-term relationship with our superintendent. We want that person to be the voice for education in the community.”

O’Neill did not disappoint. He read from a prepared statement and then took questions from board members, handling each with humor and directness, Knowles observed. At the end of the Q & A, the vote came down with lightning speed, 7-0 to promote from within.

O’Neill came to Vicksburg 17 years ago as assistant principal. “My next step in growing as a leader has been to become a superintendent,” he told the board. “I’m prepared to do so as I’ve learned from some of the best leaders in the state by attending the Michigan Association of School Administrators Leadership Institute and Navigate Leadership Program the last three years.”

When questioned about his strengths and weaknesses, O’Neill responded that he is a hard worker, always on time, and a strong communicator. “I think I’m real and relate well to others. My weakness may be in that I want to be perfect and yet I’m a risk taker. I want to be out in front of everything.”

O’Neill was asked what his priorities would be if the school was handed two million dollars as a one-time gift. “I would put the money in people. Invest and build your people. It’s what makes a school district great. If the people feel valued they will perform well.

“We have talented thinkers, writers and readers. I would embed rigor into programs we have while focusing on raising the bar. I would put everything on the table including summer education. There is a burn out factor if classes go year-round. Kids get tired so we would have to evaluate each program and ask ourselves are we getting the product we want? It’s about evaluation: See what’s working here and elsewhere and then decide [direction].”

“Career and technical training are in a monster paradigm shift. Seven out of 10 jobs are in technical fields that don’t require a four-year college degree these days. How do we have these conversations with parents? It comes down to what’s best for kids in the end,” O’Neill said.

“The Vicksburg community is a supportive family that doesn’t get in the way of achievement. We have a talented staff with awesome teachers. This is my home and I want our education system to be the very best,” he said. “I’m a life-long learner but learning is about failing along the way. I’m ready for this opportunity and hope to continue to grow what we have that is so positive.”

Adam Brush Promoted to Principal

The Brush family from left to right: Reese (11), his wife Jen, Preston (10), Adam, Paige (7).

The Vicksburg Board of Education has promoted Adam Brush to high school principal. He has served as assistant principal for the last eight years, working closely with Keevin O’Neill, who will take over as superintendent on July 1.

“He is familiar with the building culture and the team throughout the school,” Superintendent Charlie Glaes announced. Brush’s wife, Jen, is the computer technician in the middle school. The couple have two sons and a daughter named Reese, Preston, and Paige.

Barn Quilt Painting Workshop in Vicksburg

quilt trail
Hugh and Kitch Rinehart made a presentation to the Calco Quilters Guild of Battle Creek. In May, 21 of their members came to the Vicksburg District Library to learn how to paint barn quilts so they can organize a quilt trail in Calhoun County. Here is their handiwork.

The Vicksburg Historical Society is announcing the 6th and final Barn Quilt Painting Workshop. It will be Saturday, July 14, from noon-4 p.m. at Vicksburg District Library. Paint your very own 2×2-foot barn quilt, suitable for a shed or garage, for $40. Space is limited; phone 269-329-0481 to reserve a spot. It will be a colorful afternoon, said Kitch Rinehart, organizer and originator of the Barn Quilt Trail in Vicksburg.

Local Landmark Closing After 65 Years

roller rink 2
Colleen Carpenter and Dani Carpenter-Littel stand in front of a sign of the times at the Long Lake Roller Rink.

By John Fulton

If you grew up in Vicksburg, you know many folks who made at least a few trips to the Long Lake Roller Rink. After 65 years of continuous operation serving southwest Michigan by the Carpenter family, Long Lake Roller Rink is closing June 1.
The property had been a restaurant and public beach known as Summer Home Park before Robert and Alta Carpenter opened it as a roller rink in 1952. Robert, known as Bertie, had returned from military service in WW II. Alta, known as Al, had been working at the local North Lake Roller Rink. Bertie and Al met at her work place before he shipped out. He taught her how to skate.

In the 1960s, they had an old school bus. Bertie would drive to Portage schools and pick up kids, bringing them to Long Lake to skate. They stayed for a couple of hours and Bertie took them back. The Carpenters probably didn’t anticipate the 65 years and thousands and thousands of lives that would be touched by them through this hometown rink in 1952.

In 1958 the Carpenters added the main rink and the property became the only area rollar skating facility with two rinks. This made it the largest in the area, but still small for the country, according to Dani Carpenter-Littel, their daughter. On busy holiday weekends over 1,000 people would come to skate. Still today, 300-plus come to skate on weekends. The heydays of skating were 1952-1968. The 90’s saw a resurgence she said.

The Carpenters’ two daughters that took over running the rink. Colleen Carpenter started working in the family business in 1983. Dani joined Colleen in 1991 working as a team, although the sisters had worked at the rink growing up there.

Colleen ran the floor, programming and the pro shop. Dani ran admissions, booking and public relations. “We grew up living under the roller rink. I was answering the phone at age three and we got on the school bus in front of the rink. We just accepted this as normal,”, Dani remembers.

Dani said, “I will miss the kids the most. The kids that skated with us are really good kids. They care about each other, they’re welcoming, and they help each other out. We could tell when there were problems at home by the behavior of the kids.”

“A roller rink is a lot like a church,” she added. “Attendance is generational and you might drive an hour to visit another rink, but you come back to your home rink. There is a lot more spiritual that went on at this roller rink than people realize. You can know a lot about a rink based on the music they play. We never played music that contained violence, sexual content or was demeaning to any group.”

The Carpenter sisters as kids did not belong to a church because every church came to the rink. They heard regular sermons and homilies all while in their skates at the rink. Dani said, “We learned that Christ reaches out to all of us in different ways.”

One young boy, Virgil, stands out in her memory. Both Virgil ‘s parents were in jail and his life was challenging in many ways. He showed up at the rink and was angry and frustrated that he could not skate. Dani reached out to him in conversation and Virgil noticed her prayer beads hanging nearby.

Virgil slid the beads on his wrist and said, “They almost fit.” Dani asked, “’Would you like to keep them?’ I told Virgil he could have them if he went back out and practiced the skating Miss Colleen had taught him. He went and did a darn good job.”

Dani doesn’t know what became of Virgil, but she hopes and prays that carrying those beads changed his life.

Dani said “I am at peace with the closing, but a low might come. I need some time to decompress. I hope our guests will find other places to skate.” When asked for her parting comment, Dani said, “Just keep skating with your kids. Skating is one of the few sports families can do together. It is healthy, wholesome and fun.”

Via Gelato Opens on Portage Road Near Erbelli’s

gelato 1
Jasper and Vincenza Matranga are seated in front of their extended family of Anthony, Piera, Bob and Julia Fagaly, at Via Gelato on Portage Rd.

By Sue Moore

Vicksburg natives Piera and Bob Fagaly have opened Via Gelato, an Italian restaurant which features gelato and other delicacies. The couple comes by their Italian heritage naturally. Piera is the daughter of Jaspar Matranga and niece of Carmela Renda, both well-known as entrepreneurs in the Vicksburg area.

The Matranga family immigrated to Vicksburg in the 1960s. They opened businesses such as Jaspare’s Pizza and Renda’s Carpet and Tile store. “This is the best country in the world,” said Matranga. “You can work day and night as long as you pay Uncle Sam. It was easier to make it in the 70s and 80s for an immigrant. Lots are surprised and impressed we made it here, as that’s not normal.”

Matranga has had success in buying buildings and transforming them, so it was natural that the Fagaly family would choose to occupy one of his investments that shares a parking lot with Erbelli’s Pizzeria at 8390 Portage Road.

The new restaurant was totally Piera’s idea, her dad said. “We only had pizza places. She wanted something else. I had an uncle who was the first to sell gelato on the streets of Sicily. It’s an Italian dish, soft and creamy. Piera was intrigued by her great-uncle’s idea. She and Bob went to a Chicago school to learn how to make authentic gelato. She did her research.”

Fagaly said that all of her family is involved in the store. Her husband, Bob, makes the gelato after his regular work day is done as an IT guy for a Kalamazoo firm. Daughter Julia, a Vicksburg High School graduate in 2017, is home from Grand Valley State University and working in the store for the summer. Son Anthony is a VHS freshman and helps out when he is out of school.

“The basic difference between gelato and ice cream is that they use less heavy cream. There is milk in the mixture but it has less fat and air content. It is churned at a slower pace and becomes denser that way,” Fagaly said. They also have a small café menu with paninis which are toasted sandwiches, flatbreads and piadas, which are like a toasted Italian wrap, and salads. “It’s a combination of American and European with a concentration on Italian desserts. Her sister makes macaroons, her mom makes tiramisu and cannoli from scratch.”

Fagaly said her mom, Vincenza, is a fabulous cook. “It’s hard to beat my mom as all the recipes are in her head. She has a passion for cooking and helps us out but she is not an employee. We had to sit her down and go through each step and then write it all down.”

Although Via Gelato was opened in 2017, they decided to close for the winter when it seemed that most folks were not as interested in this warm weather treat. They reopened in April with hours of 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, open until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Sunday hours are 4-9 p.m. Phone 269-459-6745.

What’s the Difference Between Gelato and Ice Cream?
1.  Gelato has less heavy cream than ice cream.
2.  Gelato has less air whipped into it making it denser and giving it a stronger flavor.
3.  Gelato is served at a slightly higher temperature than ice cream to allow better taste to come through rather than numbing the tongue.
4.  Gelato is presented differently and served with a spade rather than scooped.

Smith Family Enterprises Come to Main Street

veronica 1
The two families that have started the Village Works, are seated inside the lobby area of their remodeled building at 102 S. Main Street in Vicksburg. From left to right: Veronica and Scott Levin, Lupe and Ron Smith.

By Sue Moore

The entrepreneurial and artistic spirit runs deep in the families of Ron and Lupe Smith and Scott and Veronica Levin. They have purchased the former Dr. Bob Dornbos building at 102 S. Main Street in Vicksburg.

What they plan to do with the building has somewhat changed from their original idea. For the time being, the front walk-in area displays Lupe and Veronica’s art work, which is for sale. In a small area off the main entrance, Mary Ruple of Pet Emporium has bath lotions for pets and humans for sale following closure of her store at 108 S. Main. In what was the dental practice toward the middle and back of the building, Brittany Hovious has opened her doors as the Shear Beauty Salon & Spa.

The mother and daughter team of Lupe and Veronica have been creating art for many years. Smith paints abstracts using acrylics and is an accomplished potter. Levin creates jewelry and giclée prints with vibrant colors made with fancy ink jet printers using alcohol ink on synthetic paper. Their vision was to create a space to sell the art work while having an area where friends and customers could drop by for coffee, tea selections and coffee cake in the multi-use space. They envision wine and paint parties with no regular time schedule, just a place to get together and meet.

Smith said her kids went to high school while she went to college in Urbana-Champaign’s University of Illinois campus. She is originally from Ecuador, where she met Dr. Ron Smith, who had graduated from Vicksburg High School and Michigan State University as a veterinarian. He was serving in the Peace Corps and had his eyes on this beautiful woman who was working in her dad’s shoe store.

Lupe’s father was an entrepreneur and owned a movie theater, a shoe store and a bank building. At the same time, Ron’s parents Gerald and Lorene Smith owned and operated Smith Radio and TV store in Vicksburg, where he was raised. They moved to Vicksburg from the university, where he was a professor in the College of Veterinarian Medicine. In 2006, Ron became treasurer of the Vicksburg Historical Society and joined the Lions Club. He has been a member of the village Council since 2012. His mother had served on the Council in the 1980s.

Lupe is a gardener of great renown as she helped to start the Vicksburg Community Gardens some 10 years ago. She is a formidable cook and uses much of the produce to make exotic dishes, her daughter explained.

Veronica has been a free-lance graphic artist for many years, having taught at Washtenaw Community College while the couple lived in Ann Arbor. They came from Anchorage, Alaska where Scott was a journalist and technology guru for the Anchorage Daily News. He now works for MLive as a tech guy. They moved to Vicksburg with four-year old son, Whitman, in 2017.

Veronica’s brother, also named Ron Smith, is a software architect and has his own consulting company in the Chicago area. Lupe was from a family of 12 children, many of whom have immigrated to the U.S. Her mother is still alive, living in Ann Arbor with one of her children. She is 90 years old now and a U.S. citizen.

Shear Beauty Salon to Open in Vicksburg

hovious favorite
Brittany Hovious of Shear Beauty salon & spa.

By Sue Moore

Brittany Hovious, ready to operate her own beauty salon, needed a place to call home. She found just the right fit at 102 S. Main street, in a building previously owned by Dr. Bob Dornbos, who recently retired.

Dr. Dornbos had sold the building to the families of Ron and Lupe Smith and Scott and Veronica Levin two months ago. They are renting to her.

“It was perfect for my needs, with space for three hair stylists, all the plumbing we needed with counters and built-in cabinets. All I did was buy salon fixtures. I’d been saving for a long time as it’s been my dream to have my own place since I started in the business nine years ago,” Hovious said.

She began work right out of Vicksburg High School with Jackie Stevens for five years, then with Mandy Miller for a year, Kemi Laing for two years and most recently at MSpa in Portage. She has been mentoring Yezmene Vanderbor, who graduated from VHS this June. Through the school’s Education for Employment, Vanderbor has already finished her beauty schooling. She will be one of the Shear Beauty stylists as well as seasoned veteran Michelle Cheesebro who had her own shop on Main Street for many years. Dawn Rygwelski, a certified lash extension lady, has also signed on with Hovious to rent a booth.

The business will have one person specializing in eyelash extensions and it will have two pedicure chairs in a private setting, Hovious said. She is certain that there is room for a new salon in Vicksburg. “There were eight salons when I started and we are down to only two and several one-person businesses out of their home.

“We each do our own booking and will also offer booking online at The phone number is 269-888-3633.” The salon opened on June 1.

Hovious’ fiancé, James Stephens, urged her to try stepping out on her own. She has prepared for the challenge by completing business courses at Kalamazoo Valley Community College. She essentially has been running her own business for the last nine years, renting a booth from each of the previous owners she has worked under. “I’ve built my business by referrals from family and friends and word of mouth. I love doing color. In two hours I can totally change a person’s experience and looks. You have to know the client’s hair to formulate what chemistry is needed for their color.”

“I knew from when I was in middle school that I was going to do hair. I would help all my friends do braids and other styles. It came natural to me and I love it,” Hovious said.

Indian Lake Elementary Gets New Playground

indian lake playground
The construction committee for the Indian Lake playground equipment were from left to right in front: Garrett Patnoude, Trevor McClish, Jeff Kidney, Dustin Barrett, Shawn Wayne. In back from left: Chris King, Grady Ellis, Kody Fruehauf, Megan Ellis, Colin Ellis, Ruth Hook.

The Indian Lake Elementary PTSO has been raising funds for replacing playground structures this year. They have put on multiple fundraisers to support the ongoing efforts to replace all the wooden structuresthat had been around for more than 25 years.

Principal Ruth Hook was grateful for the construction team which was led by Shawn Wayne who gathered a group of Vicksburg community people to help with the building of this fun playground addition. Playworld Inc. delivered the items on a Friday while Shawn Wayne and his team worked all day to prepare the area for building the new structure. The team then arrived early on Saturday to begin the building and completed it by 5 p.m. “Our students were excited to play on this piece Monday when they returned to school,” exclaimed Hook.

Gary Belden’s Return to Vietnam

By Sue Moore

It’s been said that one can never go back to an old haunt, especially one with memories of war. But many veterans do so. One was Gary Belden of Vicksburg, who went back to Vietnam where he had served in the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, fighting to keep a strategic bridge open to traffic seven miles south of Da Nang.

His unit was assigned to keep the bridge open at all costs. He fought in a bunker next to Lewis Puller, Jr. his second lieutenant in the platoon. He fought in what came to be called the “bridge battle” in January 1968.

His platoon had been befriended by a young girl the platoon named Wendy. She lived near the bridge and had been considered a Viet Cong. She spoke no English but would bring fruit to sell to the hungry soldiers guarding the bridge each day. She got to be their mascot as they were stationed at the bridge every third month during Belden’s tour of duty. “She was sweet, so we looked after her. Then one day she was wounded in a firefight, losing her left arm, and my buddy, Joe Oncay, saved her life. He took her to the medics for help. This is the battle where I received a combat promotion as a machine gunner from PFC to corporal with a commendation for courage and composure under fire in August of 1968,” Belden said.

Shortly after that, Puller lost his legs in a battle that made him somewhat famous. He was the son of General “Chesty” Puller, the only man in the Army to go from private to general and the most decorated Marine in history. His son has written a book about his experiences in Vietnam.

Members of Belden’s unit have held reunions through the years and even visited Vietnam about 10 years ago. In February, Belden and Joe Oncay decided to visit Wendy on their second trip to the country. She had been unable to work because of the lost arm but she put on a big spread for them. They took her out to dinner and managed to leave her with hundreds of dollars when the visit was over. “Now when we go back, the people are so nice. It’s in their nature. She has a son and daughter-in-law but is divorced and her husband is deceased.”

Belden was later stationed in San Diego, Parris Island and Quantico, where he trained officers in jungle warfare who were studying to become Green Berets. He mustered out as a sergeant and went to work for Hoekstra’s Meat Co. in Kalamazoo. Shortly after that he got a job with Mead Paper Company and after six years there became a tower boss.

He went on to obtain an associate’s degree from Southern Ohio business college and then an electrical degree from University of Cincinnati. He is a boiler expert and can fly single engine aircraft. His final job before retiring and returning to Vicksburg was running the power plant at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Cincinnati for nine years.

He left Vicksburg at the age of 17 right out of Vicksburg High School in 1967 to join the Marines. He suffers from diabetes, which he believes is the result of being exposed to Agent Orange. He has had his remembrance of the bridge battle published in a book entitled “We Remember II”. His home on Sunset Lake has a room reserved for memorabilia from the Vietnam War along with some special items from World War II and the Korean War.