April 17, 2024

Northern Express Fascinating People of 2024

Meet 20 inspiring members of our community
By Northern Express Staff & Contributors | March 2, 2024

Have you ever wanted to hike the Pacific Crest Trail? Open a bakery? Make a movie? Start a business? Stand up for a cause you believe in? This year’s crop of Fascinating People of northern Michigan has done all of the above…and more.

Whether they’re chasing eclipses around the world or showing off their skills on stage, these 20 folks never fall short of fascinating. Get to know them with the help of writers Kierstin Gunsberg, Ross Boissoneau, Al Parker, and Jillian Manning.

Kendall Kotcher: The Warrior Princess

Kendall Kotcher always knew she was destined for the stage.

“I remember seeing shows like The Wizard of Oz and Phantom of the Opera,” she says of growing up in the Detroit area. “I remember watching them and being like, ‘I want to be up there—that’s what I want to do.”

By the time Kotcher was completing her acting degree at Michigan State, she’d found another performance outlet: stage combat, which she says helped transform her from “an awkward giraffe” into “a warrior princess.” Today, she’s certified in all eight of the Society of American Fight Directors’ disciplines.

The Traverse City Film Festival brought Kotcher north, and she worked summers at the festival while spending the school year with a traveling theater company. After COVID hit, Kotcher decided to make TC her permanent home. Here, she still acts (catch her as Madame de Garderobe in Old Town Playhouse’s Beauty and the Beast) and helps teach young performers. She’s also the vice president of the Up North Pride board of directors.

“Being a part of the LGBTQ community and also being a theater human, both of those spaces gave me permission to be myself when I was growing up,” she says. “I want to pay it forward and contribute creatively.”

Micah Bauer: The Trailblazer

Ask most high school seniors why they can’t wait for graduation, and they’ll list homework-free weekends and catching extra Z’s. For Micah Bauer, it was the call of the Pacific Crest Trail he couldn’t wait for—literally. With three weeks still left in the 2023 school year, Bauer convinced Traverse City Central to let him skip his graduation ceremony and wrap up the loose ends of his schooling to embark on his childhood dream of running—not just walking—the 2,650-mile trail system.

Completed by less than 36 percent of participants, the trek spans multiple countries, terrains, and climates along the West Coast and takes an average of five months to navigate through desert heat and avalanches. It’s no walk in the park. But the Trojan track star, equipped with a satellite communicator and loads of calorie-packed peanut butter and Nutella wraps, finished 2.5 months early, just in time to start his freshman year at Concordia University in Ann Arbor.

As an Olympic hopeful, Bauer is fast, but it’s his love for growing up exploring the beauty of northern Michigan that motivated him to take up running in the first place. “Just go out there and have the adventure,” Bauer says. “In the end, it’s not about how fast you go—it’s just about enjoying the moment and being there.” 

Liann Kaye: The Next Great Filmmaker

For the last 15+ years, writer, director, and filmmaker Liann Kaye been producing film content through her company Paper Frame Productions for brands like Johnson & Johnson and musical artists like her sister, Charlene (KAYE), who Kaye says “disappointed” their immigrant parents first “by deciding to become a rock musician.” Next, it was Kaye’s turn.

“I was the ‘good daughter’ who worked at corporate companies as a video editor,” she says. “Until I had a nervous breakdown and decided I had to quit and attempt to make one short film.”

Since then, Kaye has focused on telling AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) stories. Her award-winning YouTube mini-series, The Blessing, navigates the topic of interracial, intercultural marriage when Italian-American Leo gets to know his future-in-laws before proposing to his Chinese-American girlfriend. Meanwhile, her short film, Seoul Switch, starring K-pop’s Kevin Woo, premieres this week at Oregon’s DisOrient Asian American Film Festival.

As critics have pointed out, Kaye’s writing stands out for its warmth and humor that transcends cultures and generations.

“As an Asian American female filmmaker, there are a number of barriers to being seen and heard in Hollywood,” she says. “I care deeply about issues such as race, equality, justice, etc., but I do believe that delivering those themes through an accessible lens is my passion.”

Tina Greene-Bevington: The Eclipse Chaser

First contact. Penumbra. Totality. Those may sound like the titles of sci-fi novels, but these terms are just regular verbiage in the solar-eclipse community, where Tina Greene-Bevington is a die-hard member.

Her fascination with solar eclipses started at age 11 when her teacher helped the class construct pin-hole viewers out of shoeboxes to safely view an impending partial eclipse. From that point forward, “I became hooked on everything to do with the stars and planets,” says Greene-Bevington, who grew up to be an educator herself before retiring to Suttons Bay, where she now owns Bay Books.

In the spring of 2006, she caught her first total eclipse from the rolling waves of the Mediterranean Sea, observing and photographing all four minutes and seven seconds of the roving solar phenomenon from a boat off the coast of Libya.

Since then she’s lugged her Canon EOS 70D all over the world to chase eclipses from Antarctica to Australia (her next eclipse locale is in the Sea of Cortez). Her only guarantee is adventure, since weather can quickly put the kaput on eclipse viewing.

As they say, it’s about the journey, not the destination. “When you chase solar eclipses, you’re opening yourself up not only to adventure, but new cultures, new food, new experiences, and wonderful learning opportunities,” she says.

Doug Craven: The Man in the Woods

Doug Craven has spent most of his professional life in the great outdoors. (And a lot of his personal life, too.)

“I would say my connection [to nature] stemmed from an early age spending time with my grandfather and my grandmother up in Harbor Springs,” he says. “Hunting, fishing, mushroom gathering, maple syrup making—just kind of being outside and part of the landscape.”

Craven is the Natural Resources Director for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, a role he’s held for more than 20 years. He was the first director of the department and says the investment made in expanding from five employees to 30 during his tenure shows how important protecting the land and waters are to the LTBB community.

The biggest project on his desk right now? The Archie Kiogima ba Migizi Aviary and Rehabilitation Center, the first tribal eagle aviary and raptor center east of the Mississippi River and one of only eight nationwide.

No matter what he’s working on, Craven says he’s guided by two main philosophies. The first, “looking seven generations forward.” The second, working toward “the common good.” Those have led him to become more invested in Odawa culture and to join the Pellston Planning Commission, with a special interest in improving housing access in the area.

Kathy Sanders: The Advocate

When Wisconsinite Kathy Sanders retired from education in 2014, she settled in on the west side of TC and quickly became involved with the advocacy group Before, During, and After Incarceration (BDAI) through Saint Francis Church’s Justice & Peace Commission.

Less than a decade old, BDAI is focused on assisting and humanizing an oft-overlooked group: the incarcerated. “It comes down to being a justice issue,” explains Sanders of the BDAI’s efforts to provide resources like mental health care, addiction treatment, and coaching programs for post-release success to inmates.

Sanders also notes the ripple effect that incarceration has on the local community, especially when it comes to children whose parents are jailed. Support those parents, Sanders explains, and you’re supporting the next generation. “If you can stabilize people’s lives, you're stabilizing the community.”

Last year, Sanders was honored for her community contributions when she was given the Sara Hardy Humanitarian Award by the Traverse City Human Rights Commission. For Sanders, a highlight of the mid-summer ceremony was spending the evening with her fellow advocacy champions at the Justice & Peace Commission and beyond.

“The greatest honor is being able to work with them, because this kind of work is not something one person can do alone,” she reflects. “It really, truly does take that village.”

Matthew Archibald: The Singing Librarian

Students at Grand Traverse Academy (GTA) call him “The Library Guy.” Others know him
as “The Singing Librarian.”

Matthew Archilbald answers to both with a slight smile and an easy-going manner. His official title is Branch Manager of the East Bay branch of the Traverse Area District Library (TADL). Prior to this gig, he worked in the popular Youth Services Department at the main TADL branch, where he was keen on creating STEM projects and videos for curious youngsters. The Albany, New York, native was a voice major in college and spent 12 years teaching music. He’s also been involved in productions at the Old Town Playhouse and with the Northwestern Michigan College Choir.

Every Wednesday, Archibald flexes his musical muscles during “Sing and Stomp” days for youngsters at the library. And he looks forward to his monthly trips when he drives the library’s Bookmobile to GTA.

When he gets time off on a weekend, you can often find him driving to the U.P., where the family runs Archie’s West Bay Diner in Grand Marais. He helps out wherever he can in the restaurant. That’s a lot of work and a busy schedule for this self-described book lover, so what’s the most satisfying aspect of a typical day? “I really love the people I work with,” he says.

MaryAnn Tucker Moore: The Lighthouse Luminary

MaryAnn Tucker Moore is a “professional volunteer,” at a number of Mackinaw City organizations: Woman’s Club, Historical Society, Arts Council, the Wawatam Area Senior Center and more. “I’m service oriented,” she says, and she means it.

Her longest running gig began in 1992, when she joined the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association (GLLKA) to help with the nascent restoration efforts at the remote and derelict 1873 St. Helena Lighthouse, 10 miles west of Mackinac Island. (Michigan has 129 historical lighthouses.) Since then, she spent every summer for 31 years on the island, helping with the Lighthouse Keepers program, where overnight guests work on projects—and pay for the privilege—while enjoying some of the planet’s most beautiful real estate.

Moore knows how to dig a latrine, but she sounds like a poet when she talks about St. Helena. “The historical location moved all of my senses.” Plus, she’s a retired Family and Consumer Science teacher—home ec, to folks of a certain age—and you just know she can do stuff: scheduling, cooking, cleaning, guiding tours, treating poison ivy, rescuing lost guests who wandered off, among other responsibilities.

Moore stepped away from active GLLKA participation in 2022, but remains on the board. “If I see a need, I’m willing to help,” she says.

Dr. Jessica Rickert: The History Maker

A member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, Dr. Jessica Rickert became the first female American Indian dentist when she graduated from the University of Michigan in 1975.

“At that time, the first American Indian dentist was Dr. George Blue Spruce. He contacted me and wanted to know if it would be a good idea to start a society of American Indian Dentists,” Dr. Rickert tells us. She said yes, and that society has grown from two people to hundreds today.

Dr. Rickert practiced dentistry in Interlochen until she stopped doing clinical work in 2016. But instead of fully retiring, she joined Delta Dental for their Anishinaabe Dental Outreach program.

“My tribe is not in the state of Michigan because President Andrew Jackson forced them to walk to Kansas against their will, but our grandparents walked back,” Dr. Rickert says of why she’s always called Michigan home. “The Grand Traverse Band is not my tribe, but they’re very welcoming.”

She now travels the state talking with Michigan tribes about dental health and careers in dentistry. In 2022, Dr. Rickert was awarded the American Dentistry Education Association’s prestigious William J. Gies Award for her tireless advocacy of diversity in dentistry.

Josh Stoltz: The Grassroots Innovator

As the Executive Director of Grow Benzie, Josh Stoltz could be the poster child for many things: Farming. After-school programs. The environment. Art. What he is mostly, though, is a bundle of enthusiasm.

When asked how things are going, he immediately responds, “They’re rockin’!” The Benzie County nonprofit is properly named a Rural Prosperity Incubator, working to improve the lives of those in Benzie County through countless projects and events, plus space for “food and farming entrepreneurs to experiment.” Stoltz has built it from the ground up—literally, as the building Grow Benzie inhabits was an abandoned nursery before being purchased.

Stoltz has traveled to Great Britain and Russia as a Rotary Charities Changemaker Fellow, studying how those in other rural areas are dealing with population changes and their environment. Back home he’s continued to do the good work.

“We partner with other agencies to get stuff done in the community,” Stoltz says simply. “We’ve diversified our income,” he adds, meaning the monies from grants, foundations, members and fundraisers have grown to the point he doesn’t have to worry constantly about it. “It’s the first time in nine years I’m not thinking about [closing] if we don’t hit the next funding goal.”

That gives him time to think of more big ideas to impact his community. 

Lisa Thauvette: The Improv Aficionado

How it started: “I took an improv workshop, and the reason why I took it was because it really scared me to do it,” says Lisa Thauvette, founder of Tilt Think Comedy Collective.

Thauvette’s day job is as a Montessori consultant—she’s taught all over the world, including as a head of school in Brussels, Belgium—but she’s always loved the theater. When she found improv, she found her calling.

“[I thought], I’m not smart enough. I’m not funny enough, quick enough, you know, all those things,” she continues. “So I took one workshop, and I was like, you don’t have to do all those things. You just have to be playful, and I’m pretty playful. So I took a shine to it.”

How it’s going: Thauvette went on to perform internationally with a professional improv troupe. When she moved to Traverse City, Tilt Think was born. Tilt Think players have performed at the TC Comedy Fest, enjoy recurring shows at The Workshop Brewing Company, and have welcomed members from Chicago, L.A., and New York into their ranks.

“You get people who do improv for really different reasons,” Thauvette explains. “We get people who say, ‘This has changed my life,’ people that are just enamored, and it’s just incredible to see what they’re doing and how far they’ve come.”

Daniel Kinga: The Self-Betting Man

When Daniel Kinga moved from Nashville to Traverse City, he wasn’t expecting to start a Michigan-themed sunglass line or become a bank manager. He says when he was a kid, he wanted to be a police officer, or maybe run a Fortune 500 company. “I just wanted to be successful,” he tells us.

In his 15+ years in TC, he’s certainly crossed a few milestones off his list. He was part of the 2022-23 Leadership Grand Traverse Program and is active with groups like Traverse City Young Professionals and Northern Michigan E3. No matter what goal he’s chasing, he says he’s driven by curiosity, adventurousness, and a desire to “give back as much as I could.”

Oh, and another cool fact? Kinga once won a rap competition at Streeters (RIP to the former music venue!), which led him into hosting events and meeting famous music artists. He says the most down to earth celebrity he ever met was Waka Flocka Flame.

“Whenever I meet celebrities, I tend to just ask them questions like, how did you do it? What was your big break? What was your biggest fear? What advice do you have?” Kinga says. “Most of the time, the advice was ‘believe in yourself.’ So I guess I would just bet on myself at all times.”

JoAnne Beemon: The Peaceful Protester

Perhaps you’ve been in Charlevoix on a Friday between noon and 1pm and have seen a woman, often alone, holding a sign for peace. That’s JoAnne Beemon, and she has been keeping that silent vigil for 20 years as a member of Women in Black, the international peace movement against war, violence, and militarism that has been honored at the United Nations and at the White House.

“The crime is war,” she says, “and it drives waste and climate catastrophe.”

That resolve is just part of Beemon’s advocacy. She pushed Big Rock Nuclear Plant to address its safety issues, and she supports the closing of the Line 5 pipeline. She has led campaigns to protect and preserve natural areas, including Fisherman’s Island State Park from private takeover and Stover Creek from overdevelopment. She secured the Lake St. Clair/Six-Mile Lake Natural Area, founded the Charlevoix County Land Conservancy, and worked to preserve Antrim County’s Grass River area. She was Michigan’s first successful Green Party candidate, and as drain commissioner, she thwarted Walmart’s plans to build in Charlevoix.

There’s more, but space won’t allow. Perhaps the best way to sum it up: Beemon received a record number of nominations to be named a Fascinating Person, and it’s easy to see why. 

Shea Petaja: The Ultimate Wing-Woman

Life coach Shea Petaja is happy to be known as “the ultimate wing-woman” and a “thinking partner” to her clients.

“What I like in coaching is that I can work with anyone, and I’m guiding them to their truth,” Petaja says. “You hire a coach … when you need strategy, accountability, and discipline and to be seen in a really great, but honest, light.”

Petaja’s journey has taken her from biblical studies in college to selling furniture to the world of finance before she went into full-time coaching. She’s now coached over 100 people since she got her certification in 2014. She calls this work “The Holy Shift” (points for the pun!).

“I’ve had to shift so much in my life and transition so many times that I feel like my expertise is helping people know who they are, figure out what they want, and then how they’re going to do it,” she says.

When she’s not coaching, Petaja can be found putting together the latest episode of her podcast, The Honest Edge, where she interviews fascinating people of her own. “My podcast is [about] people who have been through tremendous pain and have come out on the other side and what it looks like to become an authority on your pain and your life,” Petaja says.

Jimmy Tomczak: The Exploring Entrepreneur

Jimmy Tomczak is a multi-hyphenate. He’s a University of Michigan neuroscience graduate. He hosts meditation retreats, themed events, and other in-person gatherings geared toward connections, collaboration, and community. He’s an inventor (see Paperfeet, inexpensive sandals made from recycled billboards). A public speaker. He’s played in bands. He’s traveled the country.

He’s also a writer, having authored Lakeside and Tide: Inspiration For Living Your Best Life Now. The description in part says the topics in the book are “set to the compelling metaphor of water and waves.” That may be the key to it all—or at least to how he got Up North.

Tomczak and his partner, artist and photographer Katelyn Wollet, landed in Traverse City because of its connection to water and the outdoors. A mass layoff of the innovation staff at the company where he most recently worked has given him time to pause and consider what’s next, likely in the product/marketing/strategy space. Of course, he’s also working on another book, and there’s always that saxophone in the basement.

Above all, he says he wants “to make our collective home a better place: house, community, town, state, nation. I try to help [others] as I can with their careers and get the most out of their life.”

Celeste Lovely: The Camper Queen

Celeste Lovely of Gaylord, at loose ends during the COVID lockdown, told her husband she wanted to go camping, a non-starter for her spouse.

But it gave Lovely an idea: She knew folks were escaping to northern Michigan rather than staying locked down in the city. This self-described “very stubborn, ambitious go-getter” was speaking in the parlance of entrepreneurs everywhere when she told her husband that she was “going to make us some money.”

The idea was to buy some travel trailers and rent them to visitors. (Thank you, Brewbaker’s of Onaway.) “They believed in me,” she says. With a website and a Facebook page, Celeste Lovely Camper Rental took off. “I knew right away that I had something.”

Lovely started with one camper, and today she owns three and represents five more through a consignment arrangement, sort of a rolling Airbnb for owners. Campers are delivered to state parks and campgrounds between Roscommon and Mackinaw City, set up on site, and then picked up on the day of check-out. Clients come from all over, including internationally.

Lovely would like to expand this one-woman operation, “but slowly.” She also has a very busy photography business for weddings, families, and high school seniors, plus a photo booth and rentable studio space in Gaylord for photographers and other creators.

Karen Zeeb: The Mapmaker

“Maps are amazing,” says cartographer and designer Karen Zeeb. “We all have phones and GPSs, but they don’t generate cool.”

Zeeb’s passion was ignited when her cartographer brother gave her some work to do in Illustrator. “I didn’t know it was a career. I got into it because I love graphic design.” That lightbulb moment took a while to become a business. “I had to go to school for six years,” she notes ruefully of achieving her Master of Science in Geospatial Technologies from the University of Washington.

Today, the owner of AltaTerra Cartographic calls the Mancelona area home, after working and living in Colorado, Seattle, California, and elsewhere. “I’m from Ann Arbor, my dad lives in Michigan, my mom and sister in Traverse City. I wanted to get away from the city,” which at the time was Scottsdale, Arizona. “I love being out in nature.”

Many of Zeeb’s maps are done for the U.S. Forest Service, such as those for the Rocky Mountain region; others are visitor maps for the U.S. Geological Survey. She also gets a chance to indulge her whimsical streak with pet portraits and maps showing attacks by Godzilla, Mothra, and other such monsters with the movies from which they came. 

Malachy Godfrey: The Karaoke Chauffeur

What do teaching, theater, limousine service, science fiction, and karaoke have in common? Two words: Malachy Godfrey.

The transplanted Brit owns and runs Car Trek Karaoke, providing a unique experience for those interested in wine, brewery, or color tours, graduation or bachelorette parties, even mundane taxi rides or airport shuttles. With an onboard karaoke machine with some 10,000 songs, plus another 8,500 on the vehicle’s hard drive, every ride’s a party.

The science and math teacher came to the U.S. as part of a teacher exchange, and a traveling science show landed him in Traverse City. Facing budget cuts, Godfrey looked around for the next step. “A friend said, ‘Have you considered driving a taxi?’ I thought, ‘What a stupid idea that is.’”

Then he began to think about it—he could relax, talk to people—and “It didn’t sound so terrible.” That led to outfitting his own vehicles with a karaoke system and often a space theme. (Wait, did we mention Godfrey is a sci-fi enthusiast, who worked on London’s West End theater scene and was in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation?) He still keeps his hand in many pies, including work as a producer on various sci-fi films.

Lauretta Reiss: The Designer Chef

Lauretta Reiss, a former footwear designer-turned-chef, owns and operates Small Batch at the Cupola, one of Harbor Springs’ most intriguing culinary spots. Originally from metro Detroit, Reiss retired to Harbor Springs in 2012 after a high-powered design career that took her around the globe, much of the time spent in Asia and Europe.

Like several of the folks on this list, she didn’t stay retired long. The move north reignited her passion for baking and cooking, and in 2014 she opened a bakery. Then within a year she launched her restaurant, Small Batch at the Cupola. With an eclectic, ever-changing menu, it’s been a hit from the start.

Reiss’ most recent success came in December 2023, when she competed against two other chefs in the Marty Van De Car Chef Challenge at Sage Restaurant at Odawa Casino. Each chef prepared hors d’oeuvres, an appetizer, and an entree course. “We did a pork belly, apple, cheese skewer, scallops in a sauce, and a mini pork Osso Bucco,” recalls Reiss.

The creations were served to some 150 diners who did the judging. Reiss won all three categories and has been invited back. Of course, she’s ready to defend her title. “I’m incredibly competitive,” she says with a laugh.

Phylicia Masonheimer: The Modern Theologian

It’s an Instagram world, and theologian Phylicia Masonheimer of Petoskey is using it, and her Biblical studies degree, to great success as a platform for Every Woman a Theologian, her online ministry with 140,000 followers and growing. (There are also books, blogs, speaking engagements, an annual conference, and Verity with Phylicia Masonheimer, her popular podcast.)

Every Woman a Theologian has deep intellectual heft and a level of spiritual sincerity that women (and men, too) often find lacking in patriarchal ministries. Specifically, Masonheimer uses her voice as a counter to “legalism,” the rules- and fear-based Christianity practiced by a number of well-known Chrisitan leaders, which has proven to be a slippery slope.

“…[I]f you are only interested in protecting your ministry, advancing your personal interests, making money, etc., [then] corruption is the natural next step,” she says. (For an eye-opener, watch Amazon’s Shiny Happy People.)

Masonheimer is part of a growing movement of female ministers who are peacefully, but firmly, pushing back against the patriarchy, using the “female voice…as a sort of ‘spiritual mother’ on the road to healing” to prove that, in this fractured—and fractious—world, there might be hope after all.

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