Let there be no doubt — when Tensie Taylor sets her mind on something, chances are it’s going to happen. That was certainly the case with Taylor’s lifelong quest to be a contestant on Wheel of Fortune.
Taylor’s fascination with Wheel of Fortune began when she was just five years old, when her family watched game shows after catching the evening news. “Jeopardy was okay,” she says, “but I loved Wheel of Fortune. Two or three letters would be up there, and I could solve the puzzle.”
Taylor’s mother bought her a Wheel of Fortune video game for a Gameboy and then a version of game that could be played on the computer. “I played these games religiously,” Taylor says. “I was just fascinated by the show.”
But Taylor was not just intrigued by the game itself. She was also drawn in by the show’s trappings.
“I loved Vanna because she got to wear elegant dresses and turn the letters on the puzzle board,” Taylor says. “Pat Sajak seemed so nice. And everyone on the show went home a winner.”
Taylor is 27 years old now, having graduated from NC State in 2009 and gone on to earn a master’s degree in education from the University of Southern California in 2014. She is a manager at the Black Alumni Association at USC. She also works part-time as a hostess at Hollywood events such as the Grammy Awards and the NAACP Image Awards.
But her interest in Wheel of Fortune has never waned. When she was in graduate school, Taylor would make sure to schedule night classes so they didn’t interfere with her nightly viewing of the show.
Taylor had occasionally applied to be on the show when she was living in North Carolina. But when she moved to Los Angeles, Taylor decided to take her efforts to a new level.
“I’m very initiative driven,” she says. “When I put my mind to something, I go all out to do it until I accomplish that goal.”
So Taylor applied online to be a contestant every single day of 2013. That’s 365 consecutive days that Taylor sat down at her computer and applied to be a contestant on Wheel of Fortune.
But she still wasn’t selected. “I was disappointed,” Taylor says. “But it was more motivation to keep on trying and trying. And that’s what I did.”
And it finally paid off, when she got a call in early January 2014 inviting her to audition for the show. She was one of 100 people who showed up for auditions on Jan. 16, and then one of 15 to make the cut after completing a quiz of 16 puzzles and participating in a mock version of the show (she won a Pat Sajak bobble-head figure for correctly solving a puzzle). A couple of weeks later, Taylor received a letter inviting her to be on the show on May 2.
“I was trembling I was so nervous,” she says. “I screamed, ‘I’m going to be on Wheel of Fortune!’”
Taylor’s episode is scheduled to air this Thursday, and she is not allowed to talk about how she did on the show. But she was able to talk about what it was like to finally fulfill her dream.
“I was so nervous,” she says. “I was going on national television, and I might have the opportunity to win a million dollars.”
Taylor was determined not to become what she called a “YouTube sensation” by making a spectacular mistake on the show. So she decided not to make any wild guesses, to be calm when calling out letters and to be deliberate when solving puzzles. She was surprised by how small the studio was and how difficult it was to spin the wheel, which weighs 2,400 pounds.
“To be able to meet Vanna and Pat was great,” she says. “It was the quickest 20 minutes of my life — wow, that’s it! It was an amazing experience.”
But having accomplished one dream, Taylor already has her sights set on another goal. She wants to be a contestant on The Price is Right.
When Josh Hager was looking for a break in his graduate studies at NC State a few years ago, he would often host Jeopardy parties for his fellow graduate students in the master’s program in public and applied history. Hager would prepare the questions (or should that be answers?) and even play the role of Alex Trebek for a night of trivia with his friends.
“It worked out wonderfully,” says Hager, who earned his master’s from NC State in 2011.
The same could be said of Hager’s appearance on the actual Jeopardy show last week. Hager, in an appearance that was taped in July, won $26,100 in his first game. He lost in the second game, but walked away knowing that he could pay off some student loans and always call himself a Jeopardy champion.
“That’s a pretty good feeling,” Hager says. “That’s a pretty exclusive club. I am thrilled to be part of it.”
Hager, 27, is also part of another exclusive club — he has earned degrees from all three of the Triangle’s major universities. A native of Fayetteville, N.C., Hager earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Duke before deciding that he wanted to work as an archivist. So he did a dual-degree graduate program with NC State, where he earned a master’s of arts in public/applied history in 2011, and UNC, where he earned a master’s of science in information science in 2013. He now works as a correspondence assistant at the State Archives of North Carolina.
“I love the fact that I get to work with North Carolina history every day,” Hager says. “It is common for me to work with 200-year-old documents ever day. What really is most rewarding to me is helping people find what they are looking for.”
Hager says he roots for Duke in football, largely because they were so bad on the gridiron when he was in school there. But he roots for NC State in basketball. “Having gone to Duke and NC State first, I was trained to not root for Carolina,” he says. (But he is quick to add that he got a great education at UNC.)
Hager also appreciates NC State for not adding to his debt — he earned a full ride at NC State by working as a teaching assistant. His debts are from loans he took out to study at Duke and UNC. “My experience at NC State was great,” he says. “I had great professors and great classes. I still keep in touch with the people at State, more so than at the other schools.”
Given his love of history and trivia, it was a lifelong dream for Hager to compete on Jeopardy. He passed an online Jeopardy test last year and was invited to regional tryouts in Tampa, Florida. He then got a call from the show in June, telling him to be in Los Angeles in July for a taping.
Hager boned up for his appearance by watching old shows. “It gave me an idea of what kinds of questions they might be asking,” he says. “Instead of studying all of classical music, there are several composers they tend to focus on.”
Hager figured history would be a strong suit, along with the categories dealing with literature or sports. He swept a category dealing with literature on his first show and a category dealing with the National Football League on his second show. He struggled with a category dealing with the “Cinema of Steve McQueen” (“I can name Bullitt and The Great Escape.“) and a category on artists (“The previous champion was an art history professor.”).
Despite his success, Hager says he never felt like he figured out the timing for buzzing in to give an answer. He says he unsuccessfully tried to buzz in several times.
Jeopardy tapes five episodes a day, so Hager had a lunch break between the taping of his first show and his second show. That meant that he was the reigning Jeopardy champion for about two hours.
“At least I had that little moment of time when I had time for it to sink in,” he says. “The other contestants were happy for me.”
They had lunch in the cafeteria at Sony Pictures, where Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune are taped, and Hager saw some people dressed up in World War II-era gear for some sort of production. Hager says he didn’t have any interaction with Wheel contestants, but says the Jeopardy folks made it clear that they were expected to behave differently than contestants on the neighboring game show.
Hager says they were told that if they won, “they should be happy and celebrate, but not jump up and down and shout.”
“That’s more of a Wheel of Fortune reaction,” Hager says they were told. “Accept your victory with grace.”
Greg Behr and his team at GBW Strategies, a Raleigh-based communications firm, was asked last year to helping develop a public relations strategy for the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival. The multi-day music event and street festival was moving from Nashville, Tenn., to Raleigh, and Behr didn’t know quite what to expect.
“We thought we’d have 60,000 to 80,000 people come out over two days,” says Behr, who graduated from NC State in 2006 with an English degree. “We were shocked when we had 140,000 come out over two days.”
That’s quite a mark for a festival of any sort to set in its first year. So as Wide Open is back in Raleigh for its sophomore year today and Saturday, Behr welcomes the opportunity for Raleigh to once again show it can help grow the festival and the International Bluegrass Music Association.
“The band Chatham County Line wrote a song about the IBMA coming and living in Raleigh now,” Behr says. “Raleigh is a fantastic place to be. We’ll put people in the seats. We’ll make it so you can continue to grow your organization in a new home.”
Behr is familiar with getting the word out about events in downtown Raleigh. GBW Strategies has worked with the city and Raleigh Convention Center on various events, including Raleigh Wide Open, the Cherry Bounce Festival and the NHL All-Star Game in 2011.
“We’ve been working the big downtown festivals during Raleigh’s renaissance,” he says. “We knew Raleigh could put on parties. Those models are what helped us work with the convention center, [which] led the way in getting Wide Open here.”
So Behr has spent time this week spreading the gospels of the mandolin and banjo as the festival has grown in scope to more stages and acts. He realizes he can’t simply depend on word of mouth to bring out a crowd, but he also admits that bluegrass fans in North Carolina do give the event a distinct advantage.
“It’s such a dedicated audience. It’s cool to come down to the festival and you get all these hardliners coming to the venue. They can tell you who’s picking with who. But then you have a family just looking for things to do.”
The Wide Open Bluegrass Festival takes place today and Saturday in downtown Raleigh, with more than 85 bands performing along Fayetteville Street. There are both ticketed events and a free street festival.
The Department of English at NC State is looking for stories. Do you have one you would like to share?
The department is sponsoring the 2014 NC State Short Story Contest, and they have put out a call for entries. They are looking for unpublished short stories by writers or would-be writers who live in North Carolina. There are two categories, one for short fiction (5,000 words or less) and one for what they call “short-short fiction (1,200 words).
There are a few rules to the contest, but essentially you are free to enter unless you are a tenure-track professor in the university system or a writer with a published book. The contest will be judged by best-selling author Wiley Cash.
But you don’t have much time – the deadline for entries is Oct. 13.
It is widely known that NC State students often go on to become great engineers, entrepreneurs, teachers, scientists and military leaders.
What may not be as widely known is the university’s track record in producing college and university presidents.
But on this day in 1951, the Technician reported that NC State was “rapidly gaining a nation-wide reputation as a training ground for college and university presidents.”
William G. Van Note
The story was prompted by the news that William G. Van Note, head of NC State’s Department of Engineering Research, was set to become the new president of Clarkson College of Technology in Postdam, N.Y. The paper said Van Note would be the fifth faculty member from NC State (or State College, as it was known then) to become university presidents since 1939.
Others who made the leap were:
- Blake R. Van Leer, former dean of engineering at NC State, who became president of Georgia Tech.
- Robert F. Poole, former dean of the graduate school at NC State, who became president of what was then known as Clemson College.
- Carlyle Campbell, former head of the English department at NC State, who became president of Meredith College.
- David A. Lockmiller, former head of the Department of History and Political Science, who became president of the University of Chattanooga.
Shequeta Smith has a secret that only a couple of her co-workers know about. When she leaves her 9-to-5 job at Coca Cola, where she works in corporate sales, all she thinks about is screenwriting.
She casts the latest scene she’s written — maybe Matthew McConaughey in her movie about a man who gets pregnant. She thinks about her nine years in California, from the day jobs she had to have to pay the bills to her first encounters with Hollywood working behind the scene on such shows as Everybody Hates Chris and Flavor of Love. And she ponders what she wants her vision to be as a filmmaker.
But Smith, who graduated from NC State in 2001 with a sociology degree, is coming dangerously close to having all of her co-workers know about her budding success as a writer and director.
Last week, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s HBO show Project Greenlight, which aims to award a promising first-time filmmaker the opportunity to direct a feature film, announced Smith’s trailer for her yet-to-be-made movie, The Gestapo vs. Granny, is one of 20 finalists for the show.
“I have two gigantic notebooks full of rejection letters,” Smith says. “I keep each one. I wasn’t ready then, but this is going to happen. Visualizing it, I know it’s going to happen. I don’t know when, but I’d like for it to happen now.”
Smith, 35, says writing has always been in her heart, whether it was composing rap lyrics as a kid growing up in Salisbury to hearing North Carolina-based storyteller Jackie Torrence come to her school. She never thought of it as a viable career option, and instead came to NC State to be pediatrician, a goal she now laughs off thinking back to how college chemistry forced her to reimagine her professional plans.
Smith still holds on to her play she wrote as a freshman at NC State. Her instructor urged her to explore screenwriting after reading it.
But an English 101 instructor at NC State gave Smith some direction. “My freshman year, I wrote a play called Shades of Darkness,” she says. “She told me, ‘You should really consider screenwriting.’”
It would be three more years, an internship with Def Jam/Rock-A-Fella records and interviews she wrote up for the Nubian Message before Smith again thought of returning to writing a script. She tried her hand at writing something and submitting it for a show. Then she wrote a script for a film called Drama about a girl who’s a model and finds out she’s HIV-positive. It was a finalist for the Screenwriters Lab at the Sundance Institute. It didn’t make the final cut, but it was enough of a sign that she moved to Los Angeles, where she’s been the last nine years trying to make it Hollywood.
Smith has worked on sitcoms and reality television shows. In 2008, she started her own company, Rayven Choi Films. She has written and directed two short films, The Takeover, a romantic comedy, and The J.H. Gunn Project, a drama about a young man trying to turn his life around.
Smith directs action in the trailer she made for The Gestapo vs. Granny.
But it’s her turn at comedy with Gestapo, a film Smith hopes to make with Betty White as the lead about an elderly woman who has been kicked out of multiple nursing homes, that Smith has found to be the most rewarding and challenging work.
“Comedy is my one,” she says. “It’s hard to make people laugh. Everyone has different senses of humor.”
If she is chosen for Project Greenlight she might get that chance to work with one of her idols who she grew up watching on Mama’s Family and The Golden Girls. But directing her own movie, even with White as the star, will not be Smith’s greatest thrill.
“Writing is my biggest love affair,” she says. “That’s what brought me here.”
Bryan Hum got an unexpected treat not long after he sat down to dinner last night at a restaurant in Albany, New York. And it appears he has a fellow NC State alumnus to thank for the pleasant surprise.
Hum, a 2013 NC State graduate who majored in international studies and political science, is in his second year of law school at Albany Law School. After attending a Student Bar Association meeting last night, Hum and a friend walked to a favorite restaurant for dinner. They had just ordered drinks, when a waitress walked up and handed Hum a hand-written note and a $20 bill. She said another diner had noticed Hum’s red NC State t-shirt, and asked her to give him the note and the money.
“Apply this to your bill! God bless!” read the the note. It was signed “Brian,” with no last name, and indicated that “Brian” was a 1996 NC State graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering.
Hum’s initial reaction was confusion. He wondered if it came from someone he knew, particularly since it was signed “Brian,” a different spelling of Hum’s first name. He asked the waitress to point the customer out, but she said that he had given her the note and the money as he was leaving. “He saw your shirt and wanted you to apply this to your bill,” the waitress told Hum.
Hum thought briefly about going outside to try to track down his benefactor, but quickly realized that he appreciated the anonymous nature of the gift from a fellow Wolfpacker.
“I was just astounded by it,” Hum said this morning. “It really touched me. It made me want to pay it forward myself.”
It also reinforced the strong feelings that Hum already had for NC State and its alumni — something that he quickly shared with friends via social media. “We talk about the great alumni we have, and this just proves it,” he said. “We look out for each other. It’s just a great connection we all have.”
Hum says he only spent $15 of the gift on his dinner, and plans to use the remaining $5 to pay it forward – hopefully sometime later today or this weekend.
Filmmakers Kieran Moreira and Andrew Martin were sitting around in the summer of 2012, charged by their boss at Drawbridge Media, a Raleigh video production company, to find content the studio could produce. They read script after script, but nothing really struck the pair. So Moreira decided to present his own idea.
“I had this one idea I called ‘Cloud Fortress,’” says Moreira, who graduated from NC State with a film studies degree in 2011. “I had this image of a boy trying to climb up to the sky.”
That nugget turned into the new short film, Harbinger, that Moreira directed and co-wrote with Martin. The independent movie will premiere at the James B. Hunt Jr. Library on Centennial Campus Wednesday, Aug. 27 at 7 p.m. Admission is free.
The film centers around a relationships between a mother and her young son Harold, whose imagination helps him deal with the changing complexities of his reality. “We had always seen it as a fantasy based in reality,” Moreira says. “The fantasy hides the more harsh realities of the world. Harold is at a transition. He is discovering things from his past. So the fantasy is an escape, but it is a shield, too.”
Moreira and Martin, who graduated from NC State in 1999 with a textile engineering degree, learned their own realities could be harsh, as well, in the three years it’s taken to get the film out. They launched a campaign on Indiegogo to raise money for the production costs, and they didn’t reach their goal. And they didn’t have the luxury of focusing solely on their movie.
“There was a tremendous amount of challenges,” Martin says. “This was going to be a year or two of our lives. Even though Drawbridge was encouraging us, we still had a full slate of work from our day jobs.”
But the fact they were able to pull it off with the help of many volunteers was instrumental in accomplishing one of their main goals. They felt they could show that while movies like Iron Man 3, some of which was shot in Cary, N.C., garner a lot of attention for the film industry in North Carolina, there is a strong independent movement afoot in the state that is already producing quality work.
From left to right, Kieran Moreira, Andrew Martin and Paul Frateschi.
“Something we always wanted to do was to showcase the talents here at home,” says Paul Frateschi, the film’s director of photography and 2009 NC State graduate. “A lot of those big films come in and bring in a DP from New York or out of state. We wanted to show what quality work we’re doing here locally. It was freelance crew people. It was the actors. We wanted to tell a North Carolina story with a North Carolina crew and cast.”
And that goal is tied to another one Martin sees as directly tied to his Wolfpack roots.
“Ultimately, so much of the reason we did this was to build the community,” he says. “We would love to build the film department and communication department at NC State so more film can come out of there.”
Doug Mattox was a history buff long before he majored in the subject at NC State.
As a boy growing up in Wendell, N.C., he discovered stamp collecting. No one in his immediate family was a stamp aficionado, but Mattox gravitated to it. And just like a stamp, the hobby stuck.
Today, Mattox is the founder and president of Mattox Coins & Stamps, Inc., a Raleigh company that generated $1.5 million in revenue last year.
“It’s just the treasure hunter in me,” he says, when asked what has kept his business going for more than 35 years. “You never know what’s going to come in the door or what you’re going to find in a box of stuff. That’s what keeps it fun.”
As the name implies, the company deals in more than just rare stamps. Mattox and his son, Austin, work as agents and brokers, appraising the value of coins, currency, stamps and envelopes and selling them to auction houses.
The work attracts a variety of clientele, ranging from universities and bank trusts to individuals who inherit items from deceased loved ones and aren’t sure of their value. Other customers come to Mattox with items they purchased for investment and are ready to sell.
But the Internet has fooled many a would-be collector, says Mattox, who graduated from NC State in 1976. People often buy coins that are purported to be rare by advertisers, only to learn that they were duped when they come to Mattox for an appraisal.
One of the most counterfeited items that Mattox comes across are U.S. gold coins. Valuable ones are about 90 percent pure, but Mattox says people often come to him excitedly with some, only to find that their coins are perhaps 50 percent gold, or even just gold-plated brass.
“I tell them just to put it in the bank or give it to a kid,” he says. “You know, on the Antiques Roadshow, everybody gets good news. But here, more people get bad news than good news.”
Over the years, Mattox has encountered many old and unusual items. One day, he might find himself appraising German currency from the 1920s. The next, a $5 American bill from the 1880s. The priciest item sold recently was a set of Tibetan stamps from 1907 for $121,000.
But as a former American history major, Mattox gets the most excited when an American colonial item comes his way.
“That’s always fun because we weren’t very populated – even in big cities – in colonial days,” he says. “So when you run across envelopes or currency, that’s always cool.”
One California day, a scared and suicidal man walked into a homeless shelter in a city he’d never been to before. He’d been discharged from a psychiatric hospital in Las Vegas three days before, given a bus ticket and shipped off to Sacramento with barely any food and little medication.
He was looking for help – but he never imagined it would come from Phillip Reese, a 1999 NC State graduate and investigative reporter for The Sacramento Bee.
Reese and colleague Cynthia Hubert uncovered a systematic process of patient dumping by the Nevada hospital, which shipped 1,500 mental patients out of state over five years, stranding many in unfamiliar cities with no support system.
Some ended up turning to crime, including one murder.
Reese and Hubert’s reporting led to multi-million dollar reforms in the Nevada mental health care system, led to Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital being stripped of its accreditation and received several prestigious awards, including becoming a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.
Reese, a former Technician editor-in-chief, called the patient dumping series the most important and effective work of his career thus far.
“This was a very taxing story to report,” Reese said in an email interview. “Cold calling people and asking them about their time in a mental hospital is tough.”
Finding the patients and family members who were willing to talk was one challenge. So was identifying the trend. To do it, The Bee requested the receipts of bus tickets that has been purchased in the last five years.
Reese, who is skilled at data analysis, put the receipts into a database and mapped them. He discovered Rawson-Neal had bused patients to each state in the continental United States during that period, and that’s when he and Hubert started tracking them down.
Some were dead ends. Some of the patients’ stories couldn’t be verified. But thousands of hours later, Reese and Hubert had spoken with nearly two dozen patients and 100 family members, as well as former Rawson-Neal employees who confirmed that busing patients without escorts happened more frequently than officials claimed.
The reports led Rawson-Neal to change its busing policies so that now no one can travel without a chaperone. The state of Nevada also has allocated $30 million in additional funding for mental health care in the state.
“That was validating,” said Reese.
Since the series was published in 2013, Rawson-Neal made changes that enable it to continue receiving federal Medicare funds. A civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of the Sacramento man that was the catalyst for Reese’s series was just dismissed, but the attorney plans to appeal.
Asked if he has any other investigative pieces currently on his radar, Reese has a one-word reply: