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Year in review: Fascinating people make difference in community

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer

Humbug to wealth and fame. Denton area residents are interesting for other reasons, and we’re grateful that Denton Record-Chronicle readers often call to tell us who we all need to know better. Here is a sampling of the area’s most fascinating people in 2012.


Don Boots

Don Boots doesn’t like to talk about Feb. 19, 1945, the day he and other U.S. Marines went ashore at Iwo Jima. But this year, the 87-year-old shared his memories of that day and the month-long campaign to take the island with Denton Record-Chronicle readers on the anniversary of the event.

“I often think of the young guys in our outfit,” he said. “Me, I’ve survived 66 years of wonderful life — kids, grandkids, great-grandkids.

“Those kids were taken out.”

After the war ended, Cpl. Don Boots returned to his native Pennsylvania, where his family had long been in the construction business. He moved to Denton in 1963 and continued to work as a master carpenter. His son joined him, and Boots Construction Co. continued to grow as father and son worked together until 1989, when the elder Boots retired.

A member of Denton Bible Church since 1972, he has taught in the Denton County jail ministry for 14 years and helped start a church in Flower Mound. He also works in the Gideon ministry. He says he knows he has been blessed.

“It’s something that never leaves you. It’s part of you,” he said. “There’s a lot of stories out there, and some men die with them in their hearts.”


Gavin Dillard

Nine-year-old Gavin Dillard is a hero, too. The Sanger Fire Department named him a 911 hero in September.

Although Gavin told us that it takes a little more than dialing 911 to handle a medical emergency. He called because his mother’s implanted defibrillator was shocking her heart with alarming frequency — it would end up shocking her 53 times in 43 minutes.

The 911 dispatcher had lots of instructions for Gavin. He had had to turn on the porch and kitchen lights for the paramedics, relay the names of his mother’s medications, and try to take his mother’s pulse. But he couldn’t find it at her wrist — even medical professionals measure it at her neck because of what her heart disease has done to her veins and arteries, his mother said. Instead, the dispatcher had Gavin say “OK” each time he saw his mother exhale.

He held her hand the whole time, even though her nails were digging into his skin. Soon, the paramedics arrived, and so did friends to help Gavin. His mother was home after about a week and is on the mend. More than once since then someone has asked Gavin what it means to him to be called a hero.

“I’m not a hero,” he told us. “I just do what my mom tells me to do.”


Levi and Leah Dubrawsky

After seeing the item in a Jewish community newsletter, a reader called to let us know about a new home in Denton for Jewish university students.

Rabbi Levi Dubrawsky, 25, and his wife, Leah, 23, are the leaders of Chabad North Texas, which is located at their house on Houston Place. Reporter Rachel Mehlhaff got the coveted assignment to cover Leah Dubrawsky’s kosher cooking class in September. Students prepared gefilte fish, carrot kugel, chocolate cake and chocolate chip cookies.

Levi Dubrawsky comes from a line of rabbis. His father is a rabbi in Dallas and his grandfathers also were rabbis.

He noticed there was a need for a Chabad house in Denton because students were driving to Dallas for services. The couple, along with their 1-year-old daughter, moved to Denton in March to start Chabad North Texas for students from the University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University. They lived in an apartment until they found their house about a month ago.

College is a time of discovery for students, Levi Dubrawsky said, and he wants to provide them with a safe and warm environment where they can hang out.  He will be offering classes on the Torah and Judaism and is available for students curious about the Jewish culture and religion.

Although the Dubrawskys have held only a few events at the house, students already feel welcome.

“My goal is to bring light to the world,” he said.

That’s not just a Jewish thing, he said, it’s a humanity thing.

“We want to make this world a better place,” the rabbi said. “It’s a group effort.”


Buck Elliott

As word got around about the widening of Mayhill Drive, readers began calling this fall to ask about the the fate of the man who waves at passing drivers. Living landmark Buck Elliott, 75, is one of many homeowners being displaced as Mayhill becomes a four-lane, divided road from Colorado Boulevard to U.S. Highway 380 next year. Most mornings for the past 27 years, he has sat out in front of his Mayhill Road home and waved at people. Driving by Elliott and returning the greeting is part of the day for many residents and city workers, too.

Elliott grew up in the Big Thicket in southeastern Texas. His father sat outside and waved at folks as they passed, too. When he first moved to Mayhill Road, it was still the country, Elliott said. He likes spending the day outside; as for waving as someone goes by, well, that’s just being friendly.

“There ain’t no other way to be,” Elliott said.


Bryson Gappa

A Lewisville woman’s uncommon ornament collection is coming soon to Denton County museums. Bryson Gappa began a memorial to the Iraq War in her front yard in 2004 after reading a newspaper story about the first 101 Texas casualties. She started with 117 ornaments, which she created with the Texans’ photos.

The work made the losses real.

“I started identifying with them,” Gappa said. “One looked like my brother. One looked like the kid who mowed my lawn. One had a smile during the picture — you had to wonder what he was thinking about.

“Other people needed to see their faces like I did so they could see real people — so their absence could mean something.”

When the war began winding down, she had 436 ornaments. She began taking the ornaments down and sending them to families of soldiers who wanted them. She plans on giving the rest to the county for preservation and display.

Gappa still has a tree dedicated to veterans of the war in Afghanistan. 

“We are still in Afghanistan and there are still casualties, so I will keep doing it there until we are out of there as well,” she told us.


Jason Lim

A new orchestra debuted in May, thanks to the tireless work of a former international student at the University of North Texas College of Music who has made Denton his home. A private music teacher, Jason Lim trained as a violist and was a member of the UNT Graduate String Quartet before taking up conducting.

Together with Clair Salz and Charles Workinger, he formed the Odysseus Chamber Orchestra, a professional, nonprofit chamber ensemble.

“When you look around at all the high-quality music Denton has to offer, you start wondering, ‘Why doesn’t Denton have a chamber group?’” Lim said.

The group won’t compete with the Denton Bach Society, which covers early music. Instead, the group is focusing on orchestral music written by Mozart and Vivaldi, as well as concerti and other pieces written for small ensembles — including contemporary works by Denton area composers.

“When I play or conduct music, I visualize the impact that it has on the listener. It has to have movement, it has to have feeling,” Lim said. “I have high expectations of myself and high expectations of the musicians. What you do depends on your expectations.”

Monica Thieu

OK, we’ll make an exception for stories of the rich and famous for Monica Thieu. A student in the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science at the University of North Texas, Thieu prevailed over 12,000 hopefuls from around the country and won the Jeopardy! College Championship in February.

She went into the second day of the two-day finals in first place with $18,000. She answered the final question correctly and her total winnings were combined to make her the champion. She brought home the grand prize of $100,000 and a small trophy.

At age 18, she was the youngest winner of the College Championship since the tournament debuted in 1989.

It didn’t take long to decide what to do with all that money.

“College tuition. Definitely,” she said.


Shelly Tucker

We thought we knew where the skeletons were.

Then we met Shelly Tucker. The Denton resident and professional storyteller takes anyone who dares to the places where Denton’s skeletons, ghosts and goblins are.

A professional storyteller and Denton resident, Tucker dons a portable microphone after dark every Thursday, Friday and Saturday and guides local ghost hunters and spooky story lovers around the Square. She’s half of the local volunteer ghost tour called Denton Haunts.

She jumped onto the one-man bandwagon started by University of North Texas communications studies professor Shaun Treat almost as soon as she discovered it.

“This is right up my alley,” said Tucker, who is a familiar face from the Texas Storytelling Festival, which is held in Denton every March. “I’ve always loved ghost stories, and I love telling them. There’s nothing like a good ghost story. When I finally met Shaun, I basically told him I’d scrub his toilet if he’d only let me start helping with the tours.”

Tucker said she’s helping Treat track down ghost stories that aren’t legend or lore — yet.

“Some people won’t talk about it,” Tucker told us.  “I’ll go into a business and sometimes ask if you’ve ever heard of any unexplained things or activity. You can tell when there’s something there. People will get really quiet, and other people will ask if you’ve heard about something strange. A lot of people have named their ghosts.”


G. Roland Vela

Denton named the new soccer complex at North Lakes Park for G. Roland Vela, a retired University of North Texas microbiology professor and the first Hispanic elected to the City Council.

Vela, 84, served one term on the council, from 1979-81. Then, he said, he looked for something else he could do that would interfere less with his teaching responsibilities.

He served for more than 11 years as Denton’s representative on the Texas Municipal Power Agency board during a tumultuous time when it was building a coal-fired power plant. TMPA also bought a share of the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant, but costs escalated. Eventually, TMPA filed a friendly lawsuit, Vela said, to get free of the contract for its share and get back about $800 million.

Vela, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas in 1962, has written microbiology textbooks and lab manuals and authored two books about important figures in Texas history — Antonio Lopez de Santana and Bernardo de Galvez, the man for whom Galveston is named.

Longtime community volunteer and activist Emilio “Popo” Gonzalez called Vela a role model for the community.

“He puts the needs of people ahead of his own — in love and in service,” Gonzalez said. “He is the best example of a friend of family men.”


Sara Willburn

If you peeked behind the counter at Impressions on the Square this year, you may have seen Sara Willburn. The 55-year-old has called the Denton State-Supported Living Center home since she was 7 years old. She and many other residents travel to the shop on the Square to make hand-crafted items that are sold there.

Earlier this year, we watched Willburn string a key chain of beads that included tiny pink pearls and large zebra-striped orbs. Sometimes she has to take her work apart and start over to get the pattern right, but she told us she didn’t mind.

Her mother, Minnelle Magill, followed the advice of the family doctor and placed Willburn at Denton State School, as it was then called, when she realized that her daughter’s developmental delays were not a passing problem.

Advocates have long questioned whether the model of mass housing can even work. Some families and caregivers are fighting to close the state-run facilities once and for all. Under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice following, which includes regular monitoring visits, the Texas centers are making some progress against abuse and neglect, but many officials believe the centers will not meet next year’s deadline for compliance.

Still, guardians and family members of some residents of the Denton facility, including Magill, have fought efforts to close the living centers. Magill said options likely would be different now for her, even as a single mother. But Magill also said closing the center would be traumatic for Willburn, and many of the other residents who are, on average, about the same age.

“They made a beautiful life for her,” Magill said.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. Her e-mail address is