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An Ode of Sorts to Those in the High Country Who Unexpectedly and Tragically Passed Away in 2012

By Jesse Wood

Dec. 31, 2012. Tragedies rocked the High Country in 2012. It seemed that one heartbroken tragedy followed another this year – from the 4-year-old girl from Deep Gap who died after a cross from a tombstone pinned her to the ground to Deputy William Mast, who responded to a domestic dispute and was fatally shot. Below is an outline of some of those tragedies, where folks perished much too soon. It’s an ode of sorts to those who won’t be around in 2013.  

Brian Newell
Brian Newell

Brian Alan Newell, Aug. 3, 1956 – Jan. 23, 2012

Brian Newell passed away in January after an 11-month battle with cancer.

A native of Abbeville, S.C., Newell moved to Boone in 1978 to manage a pizza parlor and then opened one of his own where the Red Onion Cafe is currently located the following year. He later managed several other businesses and opened another one of his own.

Brian was very active in the community and was a member of Snow Lodge #363, Scottish Rite Bodies of Winston-Salem, Oasis Shriners, Boone Jaycees, Boone United Methodist Church and the Boone Optimist Club. His favorite charitable cause was Santa’s Toy Box.

Newell was preceeded in death by his only son, Andrew Newell. In 2007, the Newell family’s vehicle was struck by a drunk driver. Brian, his wife, his son Andrew and one of his two daughters were inside the vehicle. All survived except for Andrew who was 22 years old. 

In addition to his two daughters and wife, Newell is survived by his parents, two granddaughters and other relatives.

Dara Lee Watson, June 15, 1981 – Feb. 6, 2012

Dara Lee Watson
Dara Lee Watson

A vigil was held outside Watsonatta Western World on a cold Friday in February, where dozens of community members gathered to mourn and celebrate the life of Dara Lee Watson.

Watson’s parents operate Watsonatta Western World. A graduate of Watauga High School and ASU, Watson was 30 years old when she died. After finishing school, she worked in finance at Tweetsie for a few years before moving to South Carolina.

She was killed by her fiance, who later committed suicide at their home in Mount Pleasant, S.C., a suburb of Charleston. The outpouring of support for the Watson Family in the face of this tragedy was immense.

Watson had a smile that could light up a room, according to a friend who signed an online memorial guestbook, adding that Watson was a special person.

Another friend from Boone noted that Dara was a “strong, spirited woman.”

Another person wrote, “I went to High School with Dara, I remember her positive upbeat attitude, her laugh and her smile. She was the most pleasant friend and was there for you when you needed her. She could always make me smile.”

Those were just three of the 2,000+ comments from people offering condolences to the family of The Watsons and remembering the Watauga County native.

Peyton Townsend, Oct. 31, 2007 – June 8, 2012 

Peyton TownsendOn a summer evening in June, a 1,200-pound cross from a tombstone fell on 4-year-old Peyton Townsend as she and her sister Lilly and 20 other kids were playing in a churchyard and cemetery at Mount Paran Baptist Church in Deep Gap.

The cross also struck her six-year-old sister Lilly on the leg. Fortunately, it only injured her slightly.

“Peyton enjoyed bright colors, Barbie dolls, picking flowers, painting her nails, dressing up, playing with her sister who was her best friend, drinking special coffee with Mam-Mam, singing and praising Jesus whether in the car or at church,” according to her obituary.

This tragedy sent the High Country community reeling. An estimated 2,000 people attended the wake. Instantly, officials with Watauga County Schools and local law enforcement and fire departments began working to establish The Peyton Plan, a mobile crisis plan that will assist children witnessing and experiencing such traumatic events in the future.

Dillion Critcher
Dillion Critcher

Dillion Luther Critcher, Feb. 19, 1996 – June 14, 2012

On a Thursday night in June, six teens were riding in a pickup truck, with two in the bed. The truck ran off the road and the two kids in the back were thrown from the truck. 16-year-old Dillon Critcher was the only fatality.

A rising junior, Dillion Critcher was a member of Mount Vernon Baptist Church and played baseball, basketball and football. His obituary described Dillion as an “outgoing, compassionate, fun-loving friend to everyone he met.”

In an online memorial, Leigh Cooper Wallace, a former teacher at WHS, who also recently passed away unexpectedly, wrote: “A teacher is not supposed to have favorites, but Dillion really was one of my favorites. He always smiled at me when he saw me and always shouted out a big hello when we would pass in the halls at school. I will miss his smile and the way he could always make me smile. He was a joy to be around, which explains why he had so many friends. My heart breaks for you and I will continue to keep you in my thoughts. I will never forget Dillion.”

One of those friends also wrote: “Every day I wake up and look above my bed and see all the plaques from the Mustangs and Spartans. Dillion was one my my best friends, and no matter where I go in life, I’ll always remember Dillion.”

Ryan David, April 3, 1977 – July 1, 2012

Maj. Ryan David
Maj. Ryan David

Maj. Ryan David was 35 years old and had a newborn son when he hopped into the C-130 Hercules plane with others from the 145th Aircraft Wing with the N.C. Air National Guard to fight wildfires in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

He was among three others on the plane who were killed when a very strong gust of wind from a thunderstorm above leveled the plane, causing it to crash. Two others survived the crash.

After Ryan’s death President Barack Obama chimed in, describing the courage of all those on the plane. Ryan’s wife Jenny also released a statement: “Ryan was my best friend, my husband, and loving father to our son. I am so proud of him for all that he has done, especially for helping other Americans in their time of need, combating wildfires in the Midwest. He did what he was so very passionate about, and that was to serve his country in uniform.

“He had an infectious smile, and always inspired those with whom he interacted. He will be remembered as a perfect gentleman, his entire family loves him so very much. I will miss him terribly. We were a good team and equal partners.”

Glen Edward Cross
Glen Edward Cross

Glen Edward Cross, Aug. 12, 1939 – July, 24, 2006

In another freak accident in the High Country, Glen Edward Cross, 72, passed away after two vehicles riding on a truck hauler slid off of the hauler and into Cross’ vehicle on Beech Mountain Parkway.

From Lithia, Fla., Cross was a veteran of the Air Force and a prominent Tampa Bay developer, one who instrumental in changing the face of the several communities in Tampa. According to the Tampa Bay Times, he was called a “visionary” by colleagues in the real estate/development industry.

He and his wife of 25 years, Sandy, had a summer vacation home in Banner Elk. He is survived by three children and five granddaughters that he adored.

An obituary, described his genuine character, kind demeanor and care for others has just a few of Cross’ traits.

William Ronald Mast, Jr., Aug. 16, 1988 – July 26, 2012

William Hunter Mast was born a few weeks after Watauga County Sheriff's Deputy William Mast was killed in the line of duty.
William Hunter Mast was born a few weeks after Watauga County Sheriff’s Deputy William Mast was killed in the line of duty.

Watauga County Sheriff Deputy William Mast was killed in the line of duty in the middle of the night on July 26. He was credited with saving lives as he and his partner Deputy Preston Russell were called to a domestic dispute near Deep Gap.

Russell and Mast were best friends. Both of their wives were expecting children within about five days apart, and the two were looking forward to a vacation together in October. That would never come to be.

A few weeks after Mast died, his wife Paige gave birth to William Hunter Mast, a 6 pounds, 15 ounce, baby boy.

As the funeral processions made its way from the Mount Vernon Baptist Church to the family grave site in Cove Creek, hundreds of people lined up, bordering the streets, to watch the casket pass by. People were sitting on their front porch, or they pulled over on the side of the highway and sat on their cars as the casket passed by. The silence was deafening.

Chrystalyn M. Piscopo, Dec. 6, 1979 – Aug. 25, 2012

Chrystalyn Piscopo
Chrystalyn Piscopo

As with everyone of these tragedies, friends and family members were shocked and sickened with sadness when Chrystalyn Piscopo died on August 25.

On a Saturday morning, her car crossed the centerline on N.C. 105 and struck a tractor-trailer head-on. She was survived by her long-time boyfriend Shawn Vestey and their three children – two daughters and one son.

According to an old Myspace page, Piscopo had a slew of interests, aside from family, that ranged from calligraphy and good coffee to butterflies and waterfalls, from power tools and auto repair to writing and art, from singing in the shower to making crafts such as dreamcatchers and wrapping stones.

One friend wrote on Facebook, “She was a dear friend to me. When I moved here and had no-one she was there, everyone is devastated by this, she was a wonderful mother and woman! I love you Chrystalyn!”

 Tyler Blalock, Oct. 14, 1992 – Sept. 29, 2012

Tyler Blalock
Tyler Blalock

Tyler Blalock passed away in the early hours on a Saturday morning in late September. A native of Charlotte, Blalock was only 19 years old when he died.

He was majoring in sustainable development and liked to play basketball and swim. He had many friends at ASU, and months after he died, a memorial still exists of flowers and photos at the site of his passing at Durham Park on the campus of ASU.

One woman who attends ASU and went to high school with Blalock in Charlotte wrote in an online guest book/tribute that “he was sweet, nice and funny. He always laughed at my silly jokes. You will forever be remembered Tyler.” 

David Lee Cook, Feb. 26, 1957 – Oct. 2, 2012

David Cook
David Cook

David Lee Cook, a N.C. Department of Transportation employee, died before dawn when a car struck him while he was clearing the road of a fallen tree on Old U.S. 421. The incident occurred just a day after the state’s new version of its Move Over Law went into effect.

He was a member of Mount Vernon Baptist Church. He was survived by his wife, two daughters, one son, a grandchild and numerous other relatives.

In an online memorial, the wife of one friend and co-worker wrote: “He was a hard worker, a real gentleman. We are so sorry to hear about this tragedy. He died a hero – working to keep the roadway safe for others. He will be missed.”

Meme McKensie Brown,  Oct. 30, 1990 – Oct. 15, 2012

Meme McKensie Brown
Meme McKensie Brown

Meme McKensie Brown, an ASU student, passed away in October after a four-year battle with ovarian cancer. She was 21, courageous and had a contagious smile.

A Yadkin Valley native, she attended Starmount High School, where she was a star on the volleyball team which retired her 32-numbered jersey when she passed away. Her college volleyball career was cut short as her condition worsened.

Hundreds of people signed an online guestbook and tribute to Brown, and many more offered their condolences elsewhere.  

One person wrote to Brown’s family saying: “Your beautiful daughter/sister has touched SO many lives. Her purpose on earth most certainly was fulfilled as she has brought so many people that much closer to our Savior. Just know that she is smiling down on you guys with that gorgeous smile and beautiful head of hair, pain and cancer free!! She had posted on her Facebook under a picture once, ‘I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I am right where I needed to be.’”

Bill Winkler, July 28, 1929 – Oct. 16, 2012

BIll Winkler | Photo by Jason Gilmer
BIll Winkler | Photo by Jason Gilmer

Bill Winkler was called an icon and a patriarch of the High Country. On a Tuesday morning in October, he was found in Winklers Creek behind his house, where each morning he was out and about tending to his pets.

He worked in car dealerships in the High Country for more than 60 years. He worked the Monday before his passing and was expected at work on Tuesday. Alfred Glover, the owner of Boone Ford Lincoln Mercury, where Winkler was still working at the time of his passing at the age of 83 years, said that “his shoes” would never be filled, his character impeccable.

“In my judgement, Bill had his priorities right. He loved the Lord, he loved his family and he loved what he did for a living,” Glover said. “Regardless how well or not so well Bill was doing, when you asked him how we was doing, he’d say, ‘The best you’ve ever seen.’” 

He was a veteran of U.S. Air Force, a member of the American Legion and the First Baptist Church in Boone. He was also founding member and sponsor of the Boone Fishmeran Club. He is survived by his wife, his children, 12 grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren and many more relatives.

Jonathan Dailey
Jonathan Dailey

Jonathan Dailey, July 8, 1989 – October 2012

Former ASU student and native of Charlotte, Jonathan Dailey passed away this October in Boston, where he was residing to further his career in architecture.

A talented young man, Dailey was a creative soul. He played violin, piano, guitar and was a songwriter. In Boone, he performed and co-founded the band Art Society.

He also loved to draw and was interested in photography. An avid outdoorsman, he was an Eagle Scout who enjoyed camping, hiking and skiing, both on water and snow.

Dailey was 23 years old at the time of his passing. After which, his buddies set off fireworks in memorial of their fallen friend. On a tribute website set up by Dailey’s family, a friend wrote: “Jonathan gave me an example of someone who could be himself, live with higher standards, pursue success and still connect with people whose vision or standards were not as high as his own.”

Brad Markland passed away Oct. 30, 2012

Brad Markland
Brad Markland

The roads were very slick on Tuesday morning at dawn in Banner Elk as snow pummeled the High Country the day before Halloween. As Brad Markland was driving on N.C. 184, his vehicle went off the road and splashed into the headwaters of the Mill Pond near the campus of Lees-McRae College.

Markland was a Carter County native. He was 37 years old and employed in the maintenance department in the Village of Sugar Mountain.

He loved to hunt, fish and watch football. He was a loving, husband, father and son. He is survived by his wife Samantha Stevens Markland and their three children.

Leigh Cooper Wallace, Aug. 12, 1969 – Dec. 17, 2012

Leigh Cooper Wallace
Leigh Cooper Wallace

A teacher and coach at Watauga High School, Leigh Cooper Wallace died unexpectedly on Dec. 17 after being diagnosed with pneumonia days earlier.

Her death was especially shocking because she was in excellent shape, an advocate of healthy living. She had taught health and physical education at WHS for nearly the past 15 years.

In 2006, she was inducted into the WHS Sports Hall of Fame and received numerous accolades while a student athlete at ASU, where she excelled in track and field.

Kelley Wilson, who knew Wallace and worked with her in March of Dimes activities, told the Winston-Salem Journal: “She was the definition of strength. She would be the first to help and support other people…. She was such a giving person and just an amazing woman.”

She is survived by two children and her husband. She has been a source of inspiration for so many in the High Country and will be sorely missed. 

“As a parent, teacher, and coach, Leigh’s spirit, inspiration, and memory continue on in the hearts of her children, students, and athletes – those she dedicated herself to most passionately,” her obituary reads. “It is they, along with the staff and faculty of Watauga High School to whom Leigh has imparted the values of good decision-making, working hard to achieve goals and overcome adversity, and truly living life to the fullest every day.”

This isn’t a complete list. If you feel we overlooked someone, please email jesse@highcountrypress.com.