Frankly, the headlines in Knoxville have been pretty bleak these days, from race relations to plant closings. It's enough to make you feel as if nothing positive is happening here at all. But, of course, that's not the case—there are still people out there doing good things, filling needs in unique ways. Here are a handful of Knoxvillians helping to make our city a better place to live, each in a different manner. This isn't meant to be a comprehensive list, and these aren't the only people who've taken it upon themselves to fill certain niches. This is just a reminder that good things do still happen when good people work hard.

Cathy Halpin

Cathy Halpin loves life. That much is apparent to everyone who meets her, almost instantaneously. She's the type of person who can make you believe in the existence of "vibes"—hers are strong, warm, and welcoming. She clearly has an abundance of what can only be called joie de vivre. How odd, then, that's she's chosen to devote her life to dealing with death.

As a full-time hospice chaplain for Covenant Healthcare—a position she's held since 1993 when she pioneered the position at what was then Fort Sanders—she's in the business of helping people die. The patients she councels (and she deals with about 100 at any given time) have all received, in effect, a death sentence—hospice clients must necessarily have been diagnosed by a medical doctor as having only six months to one year to live.

She is also a Sister of the Divine Compassion, a Catholic nun, and as such can offer the hospice patients the one commodity they most need, the thing that the rest of the entire Covenant Healthcare system—with all its vast resources—cannot provide: faith.

"I think faith is left out of the process of dying because of our medical system," says Halpin, who spends her days traveling to the homes of her clients under the auspices of Covenant's Homecare division. "We put all our trust in doctors, and when people are dying, they need something else. They need faith.

"You can have physical pain, and that can be controlled," she continues. "But people also have emotional and spiritual pain—and that, no medication is going to take care of. Faith makes dying gentler—and I want people to die more gently.

"But even people who have a strong religious conviction that there is an afterlife have fears," she says. "What they are afraid of is—are they forgiven? Do they deserve to meet God? What's going to happen to their family when they die?"

Halpin doesn't have the answers to those questions, but she's more than happy to help her clients grapple with them. This, she says, is the key to a gentle death. "I've seen people die horribly—not reconciling with people, not talking to people, and really dreading that at the end," she says. "And I've seen people die who have taken care of what they wanted to take care of, they've said good-bye, and they see a loving God waiting for them."

And the latter, she says, is her goal. "I try to present a loving God because I believe in Him," she says. "But I meet people where they're at. I never, ever try to impose my beliefs. I'd say 99 percent of my patients think it doesn't matter what religion we are because we all have the same God. I agree."

It's rewarding work, but her job comes with an inevitable downside: her patients die (to the tune of 300 or 400 per year). But the upside makes it worth it. "I just love the people," she says. "I love to hear their stories."

In particular, she loves working with children and teenagers, hosting support groups to help them deal with the deaths of parents, siblings, and friends. She has also, with Rena Walters, a guidance counselor at Brickey and Powell Elementary Schools, instituted a peer-support program for teenagers. Its name? Volunteen.

How does she make peace with all the death that surrounds her? "Death is as important to me as birth—it's another phase of life," she says. "We prepare for birth, and so often we don't with death. I help people prepare for death."

—Hillari Dowdle

Ashley Capps

Make no mistake: Ashley Capps is in business to make money. If you were to peek into his offices in the brownstone walkup off Market Street downtown, you'd most likely see him on the phone working a deal. His mellifluous voice—honed after 25 years as a WUOT disc jockey—burbles over the line like warm brandy, insistent yet friendly: What's the band like? What kind of support does it need? What about lodging? Any riders in the contract?

Capps is a promoter. That is to say, he books musicians and events for local venues. But he is a promoter like no other in town. For the past seven years, he and his company (A.C. Entertainment) have made Knoxville a more culturally attractive town, bringing in performers of rare artistry and appeal. Whether it's jazz and blues at the Bijou Theater, bluegrass at the Tennessee Theater, or all-day, open-air music festivals on the World's Fair Site, he has combined business savvy with a deep passion for music to increase this city's quality of life. Without Capps, Knoxville would be a much more boring place to live.

"What's enabled us to build our business to the point that we have is the fact that there was a real vacuum in Knoxville," says Capps. "We've learned from other communities we've visited that the role cultural events play in a successful community is extraordinary—it's very important. Many companies will base their decisions on whether to relocate to a community on not merely schools, and not only the economy, but also the array of cultural activities that are available. Does it have a good symphony? Does it have a good opera? Are there exciting events going on? And because there's been this void in this community, we've been able to do a lot that I think is starting to have an impact on downtown—and could have more of an impact in the future."

A.C. Entertainment's impact on Knoxville's cultural scene wasn't exactly immediate. The company was formed in June of '91, not long after Capps finally gave up trying to keep his legendary nightclub, ellaGuru's, afloat. ("That's where I really got my education in the music business. Some of it was really painful.") Not quite sure what to do with himself, he started getting phone calls from agents who still wanted him to book their artists. He had some experience organizing small concerts back in the '70s during his "music geek" period as a UT grad student, so why not try something bigger? His first show was Wynton Marsalis at the University of Tennessee—and it sold out. From there, the company has grown to seven employees tackling an eclectic array of cultural attractions, from Bob Dylan to Carrot Top.

"We're in the unique position of having both a popular music agenda and something that's more of a fine arts agenda—and I love that," says Capps. "But I do try to look at everything as a business deal. That's not to say I don't have a vision or a desire to bring certain performers to town; sometimes I'm wrong, and sometimes I get my butt kicked. But by necessity, I judge things in terms of what people are interested in. That's the job I'm in—the audience dictates the moves we make to a large degree. If the audience isn't there, we're not doing anybody a favor."

Practical as he may profess to be, Capps has been doing a lot of favors for a lot of people. His annual "Hot Summer Nights" concert series raises money for The East Tennessee Foundation; last year's inaugural Smoky Mountain Jam benefited the Friends of the Smoky Mountains; his concert with Lee Ann Rimes and Bryan White was a fund-raiser for the News-Sentinel's Empty Stocking Fund. And, in an important move for downtown's revitalization, his management of the famed Tennessee Theater has made it an entertainment destination once again, not only for live music but for—yes—movies. This has become Capps' fondest accomplishment so far.

"I'm proud of what we've been able to do with the Tennessee Theater. Having grown up here, the first movies I remember going to see were at the Tennessee. I think it's a major asset to our community, and just the opportunity to be involved in making the theater more active and hopefully bring it back to the point where it's a real jewel—not only for Knoxville but East Tennessee—that thrills me to death."

Of course, booking shows of any sort is a risky business. Balancing the profit motive vs. aesthetic considerations can be a one-sided battle, but Capps—even though he might protest otherwise—has consistently shown vision and patience in bringing great music to town.

"Some of this boils down to my philosophy: People will come see quality stuff if they're exposed to it. And it takes a while to build [interest] up," says Capps. "We do a lot of things along those lines that other major promoters generally don't fool with. And it has to do with our interest in music and our relationship to the community—and the fact that it works, a lot of the time."

Perhaps it's this relationship with the Knoxville community that has kept Capps here, slugging it out, sometimes getting his "butt kicked." A lifelong native, he truly loves Knoxville even as he sees its shortcomings.

"I like to tell people that Knoxville's one of the best places in the country to live. And it's a big secret—some people laugh in your face when you say that. But I really believe it. Having spent the last week in Los Angeles, where there's certainly more to do, I'll reiterate that: Knoxville's just a great place to live. And I'm glad to see that there's dialogue about making it a better place to live and realizing some of the assets we have in our community and making the best of it."

—Coury Turczyn

Mike Lewis

When Anne and David Inman moved into the Lakewood apartment building in November 1995, they didn't plan to stay long.

Built in 1931, the Magnolia Avenue building was infested with roaches and rats. Tenants tossed their garbage in the hallways. Drug dealers and prostitutes made their livings there. Menacing strangers loitered outside their apartment door.

"It was awful. A drug dealer lived next door. She had traffic in and out at all hours of the night," Anne Inman says. "It was always real dirty. I was pregnant at the time, and it was not a good place for kids."

But eight months after the Inmans moved in, things began to change.

A new owner evicted all the riffraff, exterminated the bugs, and began to fix up the Lakewood and its neighbor, the Shenandoah, both in the 2700 block. He paved the parking lot, put streetlights out back, planted flowers in the yard, and built an office the police could use at any hour of the day.

Anne had her child—a boy named Isaiah— and the Inman stayed in their cozy two-bedroom apartment. She doesn't worry about the safety of her son and her sister's children, as she baby-sits them on a snowy Wednesday afternoon.

The main force behind the changes at the Lakewood and Shenandoah is Mike Lewis and his partners, Fred Meunier and Darrell Tipton, both of Maryville. They estimate they have spent $250,000 fixing up the buildings since they bought them in June 1996. There is always a renovation project underway. Now in the works are a laundry room and an ID-card entrance system.

Although they are profiting from the venture, their main motivation in buying the buildings was altruistic, they say.

"Every human being is entitled to have a safe place to live," Meunier says. "A child doesn't need to listen to gunfire overhead or watch their mothers turn to prostitution or have cockroaches crawl over their food."

Just as important as the money they've spent are Lewis' determination and commitment. A Powell resident who lived in a project as a teenager, he spends 10 to 12 hours a day at the buildings, seven days a week.

An easy-going man with a full head of gray hair and mustache, he could bend your ear for hours. But he knows how to play tough as well, he says. Despite several death threats, Lewis has stood his ground against the gangs and thugs who controlled the building before he arrived.

That boldness nearly claimed his life.

Lewis had kept warning one drug dealer to stay off his property. But the dealer persisted. So when he caught the man selling drugs one Friday night, he went at him with a baseball bat, slugging him in the ribs. As the dealer fell to the ground, he pulled a pistol and fired. The bullet grazed Lewis' arm, but he was uninjured. The dealer ran off and has yet to return, Lewis says.

"A tough stand had to be taken. If you don't follow the rules, you're not going to live here. I don't tolerate drugs, prostitution, people beating up on people, domestic situations," Lewis says. "It's my way or the highway."

The Rev. Larry Brinson, who lives in a home behind the apartment buildings, says Lewis' efforts have had a tremendous effect on the neighborhood. "Before he got there, our property values had dropped because of all the crime and shootings," Brinson says. "He has eradicated that."

Walking through the building, Lewis brags about its architecture and sturdiness. Solid red brick, the outside walls are 36 inches thick; the walls separating apartments are 18 inches, he says. A soon-to-be occupied apartment is in good shape, with both hardwood floors and new carpeting. The bathrooms are as they were 67 years ago: with cast iron tubs, a cast iron pedestal sink and checkered ceramic tiles.

Tenants come through Knoxville's Community Development Corporation. Applicants must not have any drug or violent convictions and must meet low income guidelines, says Debbie O'Mary, program coordinator for KCDC. Those who qualify get help paying for their rent.

The program is slated to run at least into 1999, O'Mary says.

When it ends, Lewis hopes to take advantage of another federal program and turn the buildings into condominiums for the poor.

Lewis envisions the residents slowly taking over his responsibilities. They would establish an association, elect officers, and take control of their community.

"I don't want folks to live in a government-funded project," Lewis says. "I want them to have their own place."

—Joe Tarr

Jim Ford

It's Monday morning and time to make introductions in Jim Ford's "learning skills" class at the old Knoxville High School on 5th Avenue. After hearing from the veteran students, those who have been here for a week or two, Ford turns to his two newcomers, a man in his 30s and a woman somewhat older.

The man, speaking in a strong, low voice but shyly keeping his eyes averted, says his name is David. He has a high school diploma and had a successful career training dogs in a military K-9 unit. He now trains dogs for the blind. But he has accomplished all of that without really learning how to read or write. "I pay people to write things for me, letters and applications," he says. He's here this morning to take the first step toward changing that.

It's what Ford wants to hear. When David finishes speaking, Ford leads the small class in an enthusiastic round of applause. A compact man of 52 with the build and agility of a dancer—a profession he at one point pursued—he settles quickly into his role as teacher. He tells the class he loves working with adult students, and his demeanor shows it. He is friendly with them, cajoling but not condescending, striking a tone between peer and mentor that gives him authority without seeming threatening.

Ford is the first full-time teacher in Knox County's Adult Literacy program, which is funded by the school system. But he's a lot more than that. He's helped shape the whole approach of literacy education in Knox County. "To me, things don't stop at eight hours," he says with an easy smile. "There's always something to do. I'll wake up in the middle of the night, or my body wakes me up, and you start to work on things. 'Cause there's just so much to do."

He speaks in a quick, flat cadence that gives away his New Jersey upbringing. What it doesn't give away is the colorful and varied career that followed. Born in Montclair, he was raised with a purpose. His father and grandfather had been semi-professional steppers, and for years—starting at the age of 7—Ford planned to tap-dance in their footsteps. But a few years out of school, after struggling through the Catskills circuit, he concluded reluctantly that the competition was too strong and the opportunities too few. It was the late '60s, so he got a jump on the draft board and enlisted in the Air Force, serving four years (he was in Vietnam during the 1968 Tet Offensive). When he got out, he put his military police experience to work as an investigator for defense attorneys. He also married his wife, Blossom, and had a son, Darin, now 25.

He missed the military, though, and re-enlisted part-time with the Air National Guard. That eventually led to a training stint at McGhee Tyson's airbase, which in turn inspired him to become a full-fledged military instructor. It was after moving to Knoxville in that position eight years ago that he began several community volunteering efforts, including with the fledgling Friends of Literacy, a non-profit group that provides volunteers and raises funds for the Adult Literacy program. In the literacy classrooms, Ford found his long love of learning and teaching rewarded.

"What gets me is when you really say 'You can' to somebody and you really watch the light turn on and you really see them take their first step and try to write something out and realize that they have something to say," he says, seated in the snug classroom that he has decorated with all manner of inspirational posters and proverbs.

He eventually earned his teacher certification, and after a year or so working with talented and gifted children, he made his way back to the literacy program as a full-time instructor.

But Jane Cody, the program's coordinator, says Ford's impact is just as great outside the classroom as inside. He had been involved in "total quality" assessment with the Air Force—he's still a quality adviser for the Air National Guard unit at McGhee Tyson and was named one of the Air Force's "12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year" in 1996 for recruiting efforts—and is a certified state quality examiner. "What Jim has been able to do," Cody says, "is really focus us in and help us get within a framework where we can...start asking hard questions from an organizational standpoint: How do we really do this? Could we do it better?"

The "learning skills" class Ford teaches four days a week is one outgrowth of those kinds of questions. Before last September, the literacy program had an orientation of just a few days for incoming students. Now, it puts them through a month-long course to learn how to learn. By all accounts, its effects have been dramatic—and students give a lot of the credit to Ford.

"If I didn't understand something, he'd explain 'til we get it," says Annie Shoopman, a young mother who just finished Ford's course and has moved on to a reading class. "He lifted my spirits up, [that] there ain't nobody better than me. Before, it was like everybody was better than me. He taught me to be myself."

Ford—whose own reading preferences tend toward science fiction and fantasy—is hard at work on that even on a sluggish Monday morning. "How are y'all doing today?" he calls merrily to his class. "Terrible," one woman responds. "Terrible?" he asks, raising his eyebrows. "But can we do better?" "Yeah," the woman reluctantly concedes. "We've got to," Ford says, spinning in place and then planting his feet and pointing both hands forward, forefingers extended like pistols of positive thinking. "We've got to do better."

—Jesse Fox Mayshark

Tina Robinson

She's always been a praying woman. She prays for the sick, for the poor, for prisoners in jail; for the struggling young working women whose children she cares for all day long, for the President of the United States. Long before she preached her trial sermon in 1995, Tina Robinson believed in the power of prayer.

"I'd been called to serve (as a minister) since 1986, but didn't do it, because I couldn't believe that God would call me—I never believed that I was that special, that God would allow me to do something so great. It's the most important job a person could have."

The first thing you notice about Tina Robinson, evangelist at Peace and Goodwill Missionary Baptist Church, is that—after she's kissed the babies good-bye and picked up the toys and washed the linens and the dishes at the end of a long day at Tina's Tiny Tots—she is drop-dead, dressed-for-success gorgeous as she gets ready to make her hospital rounds.

The next thing you notice is her non-stop smile.

"She lives her life for others," says county commissioner Diane Jordan, who is Robinson's sister-in-law. "Tina is always on call, 24 hours a day, and she helps people wherever she finds them. She helps with light bills, clothes, food, lays hands on the sick ... even in her daycare center, she teaches those kids moral principles and that God loves them..."

Robinson, 51, grew up in the now-vanished, pre-urban renewal East Knoxville area called "the Bottom," where nobody had much, but neighbors looked out for one another. One of 11 children, she recalls without a hint of bitterness the hard times on Florida Street, where the family lived in a series of rental homes.

"My mother always rented," she says. "We could never afford to buy. I think McSpadden owned everything we rented... We went without a lot, but God would always send somebody with a bag of groceries or used clothing that would be like new to us..."

Times are better now, and Robinson, a graduate of Austin-East and Knoxville Business College, and her husband, Paul, work hard at sharing what they have with others. They shop for senior citizens, take food to homeless shelters. Her Jeep Cherokee with the "WITNESS" license plate is, literally, a vehicle to do good.

She is deeply concerned about the families of the children she keeps.

"These are mothers trying to get off welfare," she says. "And it's so hard for them because when they go to work, the system takes their benefits away. I believe that if the system would allow these little mothers, who are so young, to stay on food stamps for awhile, and have classes on how to budget their salary, it would be such a help. They have no experience, and putting them out there on their own is like trying to give a newborn adult food. They feel like they are being punished for getting a job..."

She knows there are some who believe women have no business preaching; and she knows they are wrong.

"I think they need to read the Bible," she says, still smiling the non-stop smile. "If God can use a donkey, he can use a woman. If it weren't for the women today, there probably wouldn't be a church. Women have been upholding the word of God more so than the men; and we don't have to do anything but do the right thing. Then Christ will show up in us, and people will get to see who we really are."

—Betty Bean