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Church could face eviction. Bank says Greater Cleveland Avenue is stalling on property turnover.

Greater Cleveland Avenue Christian Church still hasn’t turned over its sanctuary and 15 acres of land to Apex Bank, two days after the bank acquired the property in a foreclosure sale at the Forsyth County Courthouse, the attorney for the bank said Wednesday.

Attorney Daniel Bruton, who represents Tennessee-based Apex Bank, filed a motion in U.S. Bankruptcy Court on Tuesday asking a judge to order the church to turn over the property immediately.

“I’m hoping to have to avoid the eviction process,” Bruton said. His motion is scheduled to be heard today in the federal bankruptcy court in Greensboro.

The church, which has used the name Greater Church in recent years, is led by Bishop Sheldon McCarter, who has been its pastor for some 30 years.

The church filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in April 2018 after it defaulted on a $3.3 million debt secured by the property and held by Apex Bank.

The church tried and failed last month to change its court-approved bankruptcy reorganization plan in a way that would have allowed it more time to pay off the debt and to stay in its 20-year-old sanctuary on Lansing Drive in Winston-Salem.

The bank acquired the property in a foreclosure sale two weeks ago by submitting a bid of $3.5 million, representing the payoff amount on the loan. Apex Bank was the only bidder.

On both Tuesday and Wednesday a Winston-Salem Journal reporter found someone at the church who appeared to be doing cleanup or maintenance work. A man cleaning a floor in the main building Tuesday said he was with the church but otherwise declined to comment.

On Wednesday, the same man and another man could be seen examining one of the doors on the back side of the church’s Family Life Center. The second man said he was not with the church but just there doing work for the church.

In his motion filed Tuesday, Bruton said that Greater Church has not only failed to turn over the property to the bank but has recently failed to pay any rent to the bank for being on the property.

The church was paying Apex rent of $13,000 a month during bankruptcy proceedings, but Bruton said in his motion that the church “has failed and refused to pay to Apex Bank” any rent past an April 30 deadline to leave the property.

Bruton said he is only asking the church to do what it agreed to when the court approved its reorganization plan on Feb. 22.

Under that plan, which Greater Church proposed in late 2018, the church had until March 31 to pay off its debt to Apex Bank. To ensure compliance, the church agreed to deed its property over to the bank, and the bank agreed not to record it until March 31. If the bank acquired the property, the reorganization plan said, the church had to leave by April 30.

As it turned out, the church failed to turn over a valid deed and didn’t leave by April 30.

“All we want is for them to comply with the plan they agreed to,” Bruton said. “That is all we have ever asked.”

The church has a long history in Winston-Salem, founded in 1893 and one of the city’s oldest African American churches.

Civic leaders including Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough and Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines have voiced support for the church in its recent troubles, and Kimbrough went so far as to post an appeal on Facebook recently asking people to contribute to the church.

During bankruptcy proceedings the church came under some fire for the amount of money it paid to McCarter, who received almost $100,000 a year plus other benefits, including housing and car allowances, that raised his total compensation to about $200,000 a year.

The church agreed during the bankruptcy process to eliminate McCarter’s salary, but he was keeping the housing and car allowances plus “love offerings” donated by congregation members.

McCarter declined to speak to a Journal reporter who went to his house Wednesday to ask for comment and told the reporter to leave his property.

The church has posted no word on its website or on Facebook about any future plans.

Bruton said if he does have to take the eviction route, it would involve the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office making “arrangement to go out there with a locksmith” to secure the property. But even then, Bruton said, there’s a 10-day waiting period for an eviction to take effect.

He said if the bankruptcy judge approves his recent motion, the church would have to vacate by a certain date or risk being found in contempt of court.

Winston-Salem group to perform in Normandy on 75th anniversary of D-Day

Seventy-five years after Allied Forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, Winston-Salem native Erinn Dearth will perform in the historic spot for the veterans who risked their lives there.

Dearth’s singing-dancing-comedy troupe, “Letters From Home,” is performing today on the anniversary of D-Day on Omaha Beach — one of the five landing areas in the Normandy Invasion of World War II.

“Performing on D-Day is going to be epic,” Dearth said. “It’s pretty overwhelming, not only to be in France on the anniversary in the place where it happened, but to be with the actual WWII veterans and to see all the re-enactors.”

June 6, 1944 — known as D-Day — marked the beginning of the end of World War II, as more than 150,000 American, British and Canadian soldiers sought to free German-occupied France.

Throughout the war, United Service Organization (USO) acts provided live entertainment to soldiers overseas and far from home to boost morale.

Dearth’s USO-style show plays on that nostalgia, incorporating a mix of music, tap-dancing and jokes for their veteran audience, she said.

“Our show is a little bit off-the-cuff, wholesome, interactive and silly, just a lot of fun,” said Dearth, the founding artistic director of Spring Theatre in Winston-Salem. “It’s very cool to see some of the older guys who served are brought back to when they were 19. They have a spark in their eyes they haven’t had in many years.”

‘Have costumes will travel’

The international festival in Normandy marks the first international performance for “Letters From Home.”

The 75-year anniversary event will be attended by WWII veterans and their families from around the world and dignitaries, including the Queen of England.

“There will be a lot of reenactments happening, recreating what happened on the beach,” said Dearth, who was home-schooled in Winston-Salem and performed in shows at The Little Theatre growing up. “It’s going to be insane.”

As a duo, Dearth and her performing partner Dan Beckmann draw inspiration from icons, like comedian Bob Hope, who famously made 57 tours for the USO between 1941 and 1991.

They travel across the country, performing at VFWs, American Legions, air shows and retirement communities.

As part of their shtick, the couple wears 1940s-era clothing with Beckmann donning an Air Force uniform and Dearth dressing, what she describes as, Marilyn Monroe-esque.

“Getting the chance to perform in Normandy might be the coolest thing that’s ever happened to us,” Dearth, 34, said. “Have costumes will travel.”

Beckmann, 30, had been a cruise ship entertainer for nearly three years when he met Dearth through a mutual friend and joined the group last year.

Coming from a family with no military background, Beckmann said the experience has been humbling and eye-opening.

“Military guys are especially fun. There’s a camaraderie, kind of like an old-school, respectable frat house,” said Beckmann, who joined the group a year ago. “They toss back beers and pick on each other. It’s a really earthy, unpretentious nice time.”

It was during a post-show hangout with veterans in Cleveland, Ohio that the duo obtained an invitation to the anniversary celebration in Normandy.

The duo is accompanying members of the 83rd Infantry Division and their families to France, which Beckmann said he expects to be a very immersive experience.

“I’ve been to France, but I didn’t have the opportunity to go to Normandy,” he said. “Being able to go there and stand on the beach with the guys who served is chilling.”

A ‘life-changing’ experience

“Letters From Home” was born out of a Sunday night dinner conversation when Dearth’s father, Coast Guard veteran Pat Dearth, suggested she start a USO-style group reminiscent of WWII times.

“What these USO acts did was invaluable,” Dearth said. “Just about any song from 1938 to 1946 has that peppy, feel-good, heartfelt inspiration.”

In 2010, “Letters from Home,” was formed in Winston-Salem, initially as a three-part tribute to the WWII-era Andrews Sisters, who were known for their 1941 hit “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”

Dearth said “Letters From Home” aims to capture that same magic and light-hearted entertainment that inspired so many soldiers during their deployments overseas.

“Some guys we talked to from World War II said it was difficult to keep track of how many days they had been out there,” Dearth said. “These little spurts of inspiration that came from USO probably kept them alive.”

As the newfound “Letters From Home” began to perform at other venues around North Carolina, their act garnered the attention of VFW higher-ups, who invited them to do their show at their national convention in San Antonio, Texas.

The performance exposed them to other veteran organizations, spurring a host of new gigs in 40 states and counting.

Dearth’s accompanying performers have changed over the years, but she said she and Beckmann have a real on-stage chemistry.

Relying on his background in film and acting, Beckmann said he took a gamble and accepted Dearth’s invitation to join the group.

“This opportunity came knocking and I wasn’t sure, but it’s become way more life changing than I expected,” Beckmann, a Minnesota native, said. “The coolest thing is Letters From Home doesn’t put me in a box. I’m up there playing Dan, goofing off with the audience.”

Now a duo, the group spends about 150 days a year performing across the country.

“It’s a truly nomadic lifestyle. We have a suitcase, a backpack and a truck,” said Beckmann. “Once you learn home is where the heart is, you bring home with you.”

A story about a job no one wanted tells the human cost of D-Day

It was only a single phrase, nine words in total, found at the end of a sentence buried near the bottom of an otherwise routine obituary. Just one fact among many that made up a man’s life.

John Alvin Cocklereece, Sr., of Greensboro passed away on Feb. 10, 2017, in Winston-Salem, NC … in the insurance business for more than 65 years … active in local politics … served a term in the N.C. House of Representatives … Army veteran … who made the landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day.

Nine words laying out one fact among many.

There’s a story behind that small phrase. It’s well-worth knowing, remembering and re-telling. Especially today as we mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

“He was pretty much open about talking about it for as long as I can remember,” said John Cocklereece Jr., a lawyer in Winston-Salem. “You know what his job was, right?”

I do. And you should, too. It’s impossible to forget.

The right person

Cocklereece Sr. never wanted the assignment the Army gave him as a skinny kid barely 20 years old. No one would. But it was necessary, and one that many today would just as soon not know existed.

His job was to help retrieve, identify and care for the dead. Cocklereece was assigned to the 606th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company and he went ashore in France with the Army’s 1st Infantry Division — the Big Red One. The 606th and companion units built the first American cemeteries in France.

Like his son said, he didn’t shy away from talking about his role in World War II. He told it many times throughout the years. I first heard it in the mid-1990s when he was serving in the N.C. House of Representatives.

He volunteered to share it for a newspaper story about the 50th anniversary of D-Day. He wanted people to remember to know what had been asked — and given freely — of an entire generation.

“I often thought that perhaps some of the young soldiers who were killed on Omaha Beach could have discovered the cure for cancer, diabetes or some other currently incurable disease,” he said at the time.

Cocklereece Sr. originally tried to enlist in the U.S. Navy, but was turned down due to color-blindness. He tried the paratroopers, but was denied because he wasn’t physically big enough. He wound up with the 606th.

“One of the things he always talked about was trying to get out of the unit,” Cocklereece Jr. said. “I’m sure it was horrific. … As hard as he tried, he never could get out.”

He was with the graves unit in Normandy and stayed with them from Omaha Beach for some 1,300 miles of the Army’s push across Europe including at the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.

He told a fellow veteran in an account published in The (Greensboro) News & Record that one of his duties involved collecting a man’s personal effects — letters, photos, wallet, etc. — and making sure they were preserved to be sent home.

That’s tough duty. It takes a special person to carry such an emotional load and remain focused on a soldier who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

“I always thought and came to believe that he was the perfect person to do that kind of work,” Cocklereece Jr. said. “He saw some pretty horrific things. But it’s not like he was haunted by it the rest of his life. He could talk about it and didn’t have bad dreams.

“It was the job he had and he had to do it. And that was that.”

Individual memories

Tens of thousands of young soldiers like John Cocklereece Sr. did their part. Some 407,000 Americans were killed in World War II; 2,500 died on D-Day alone.

Each of those who returned home and built lives came back with their own sets of memories and stories about people they met and the places they were sent. Most often, they’re a mixed bag of the horrible, the humorous and everything in between.

Cocklereece Jr. remembered one in particular that his father enjoyed telling about D-Day itself when he was on a landing craft in the English Channel approaching the coast of France.

“His curiosity got the best of him so he slid up on the part that comes down to let the soldiers out and stuck his head out over the top to see,” he said. “The guys yelled at him ‘Have you lost your mind? You’ll get your head shot off.’ Another guy said that he couldn’t lose anything he never had.

“I guess that’s just the crowd you end up with at that moment in time.”

At some point today, we’ll hear plenty about D-Day. We’ll see photos of the beaches of France and watch video shot of solemn ceremonies of remembrance at such places as Mere St. Eglise and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

It’s appropriate and right. Along the way we’ll hear, too, individual stories about men who were lost and those who came home to live long, happy lives.

Stories about men such as John Cocklereece Sr., in other words, that serve to remind us about what was asked — and given — to secure the nation.

Courtesy of the Cocklereece Family  

John Alvin Cocklereece Sr. was assigned to the 606th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company, and he went ashore in France with the Army’s 1st Infantry Division.

Pool closure 'a done deal'; community members voice frustration

The permanent closure of the expansive Gateway YWCA aquatic center elicited frustrated, angry and disappointed reactions from members at an informational meeting Wednesday.

But YWCA officials said the closure was a financial inevitability after the pool area flooded in an August 2018 storm, causing $600,000 worth of damage to the facility.

“We wanted to give them an update at the meeting on how we arrived at this decision and show them the bigger picture,” said Greg L. Fagg, vice president of operations for the Gateway YWCA. “People are disappointed, of course. That’s one of the reasons we fought so long and hard to try to keep it open.”

Members of the public and the media were turned away and denied access to Wednesday’s meeting by YWCA personnel who said that only current YWCA members could attend.

Fagg said they closed off the meeting to give members an update since it affects them directly.

But the ripple of the pool closure extends beyond just the YWCA’s roughly 4,500 members, said Tim Hillen, a former YWCA member who cancelled his membership when the pool closed. He was barred from the meeting.

“They told me I couldn’t go in. I really wanted to be a voice,” said Hillen, a local swim coach for Enfinity Aquatic Club. “Winston-Salem produces fantastic swimmers. We used to have a really great pool, now it’s looking like we won’t.”

Last week, the YWCA announced that it could not find a partner to help foot the bill — only $190,000 of which was covered by insurance — and that the pool would not reopen.

Instead the former aquatic center, at 1300 S. Main St., will be repurposed in the coming years as additional fitness space.

As members filtered out of the YWCA following the hour-long meeting, many expressed their displeasure with the decision.

“The meeting was a total waste of time. It’s already a done deal,” said Pfafftown resident Carolyn Cook, who used to swim at the YWCA four times a week. “It was a formality and there were a lot of frustrated people.”

Winston-Salem resident Joyce Lindberg, who attended the meeting with friend Cook, said the roughly 50 people in attendance at the meeting bounced around some good ideas but were told it was too late.

“We heard ‘It’s a done deal’ several times,” said Lindberg, who has been swimming at local YWCAs since 1989. “It’s very upsetting.”

The indoor aquatic center was the largest in the county and included a 223,000-gallon competition pool, a 64,400-gallon warm water pool and a 2,300-gallon hot tub and spa, Fagg said.

It cost $362,000 each year to operate, not including unexpected maintenance and repairs.

“It was brought up at the meeting why the pool was even built, and that’s a good question,” Fagg said. “It’s probably too large of a pool for this community, but that’s in the past. It is what it is and we tried for 12 years to make it profitable and it hasn’t worked out. We’ve been losing money every year.”

Fagg said about 10 percent of the YWCA’s members use the pool. While every member is important, there has to be balance, he said.

Fagg said their annual investment in the pool has hurt their ability to further other YWCA ventures and improve the building.

“This decision was made with a lot of thought and care, it wasn’t spur of the moment,” said Marilyn Odom, vice president for youth services at the YWCA. “It’s unfortunate, but due to the fact the funding isn’t there to operate it, it’s understandable.”

After the flooding, the YWCA looked for possible partners to sponsor the aquatic center repairs and help with the operating costs but was unsuccessful.

“We exhausted all kinds of relationships with different people, hospitals, universities, swim programs, other things like that,” Fagg said. “People did their due diligence and found out it wasn’t going to be profitable for them to embark on this.”

Some who attended the meeting were disappointed that the YWCA made the decision to close the pool without adequate community input and that they ended the search for a partner to reopen the pool.

Fagg said members were kept up to date on the aquatic center progress via email since August.

“They say that they really explored all avenues. They did not,” Hillen said, as he sat outside the YWCA instead of in the meeting. “A swimming pool is very expensive to run, but even if you lose a bit of money, you gain a lot of value.”

Hillen said he was hired as a consultant by the YWCA about five years ago to assess the sustainability of the pool’s business model and advise them on how they could make money.

After a two-month review that included studying foot traffic and contracts to rent the pool, he presented the board with recommendations, he said. One of the suggestions was reaching an agreement with the YMCA, which they did.

In November 2015, an agreement went into effect that allows local YWCA members to use the facilities of all of the branches within the YMCA of Northwest North Carolina Association.

Hillen also recommended they remove the indoor waterpark structure from the kid pool and open it up to a swim school, he said, while also renting their competition pool to high school swim teams.

“It wouldn’t have stopped the storm from happening, but it could’ve brought in anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000 per month,” Hillen said.

With the pool closing, the annual Ramblin’ Rose triathlon will no longer be held at the Gateway YWCA.

The all-female race — which includes a 225-yard swim, 8-mile bike and 2-mile run — draws a surge of swimmers leading up to the event and hundreds of competitors to the YWCA each August.

The YWCA benefited from the event financially through a direct donation made in exchange for use of the facility and volunteers to assist on race day, said Mary Toffolon with Ramblin’ Rose.

Toffolon declined to comment on the amount of compensation the YWCA received from Ramblin’ Rose.

“We have had a great working relationship with the Gateway YWCA for many years and are therefore very sad, for their sake, to hear about the facility issues that they are having,” Toffolon said. “As far as the Ramblin’ Rose event goes, we are currently in the process of securing permissions for an alternate venue.”

Last year, organizers were forced to convert the traditional race into a biathlon with cycling and running after the unforeseen flooding.

Toffolon said a new location will be announced in the next two to three weeks for the Aug. 18 triathlon.

“This was the best place to swim with different pools at different temperatures,” said Laura Cox, who swam at the YWCA five times a week and now drives to Greensboro, Kernersville and Clemmons to swim. “For me it’s inconvenient, but for those in surrounding underserved communities it’s devastating.”

Another meeting will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday for members only, Fagg said, in the multipurpose room of the YWCA to share information on the pool closure and address questions from those in attendance.

“I think it’s a travesty. They need to try harder,” said member Jeanne Szabo. “This is a huge loss to the community.”