Six lives in motion

What do a beauty queen, a congressman, a preacher, a restaurateur, an actor and a carpet maker have in common? They were all featured in Personal Journeys this year.

» Read more from this series on our Personal Journeys page, which includes some of the best stories from this award-winning series, along with video and photos. You can also find it by typing into your browser on your desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone.

Next week: Check in with five more people featured in Personal Journeys from 2013.

When I talk to our writers about an idea for Personal Journeys, I invariably ask, “So, what’s the journey?” The people we write about negotiate some amazing challenges in their lives, usually with plenty of detours. We think hard about those journeys, where they begin and where they end.

In truth, however, the journeys never end. Lives go on. People continue to change and face new challenges.

Today, we report back on some of the fascinating people we followed in 2013 and tell you how they are doing now.

Dante Stephensen was about to close up Dante’s Down the Hatch when last we wrote about him. Leighton Jordan, a former Miss Georgia, was inspiring young girls to develop healthy body images. Freshman congressman Doug Collins was attempting to change Washington. IronE Singleton was nearing the end of his long and successful run on “The Walking Dead.” Oscar Reyes was attempting to bounce back from the recession after layoffs in Dalton’s carpet industry. And Stockbridge pastor Doug Drucker was facing a test of his faith after his son landed on Georgia’s Death Row for a double murder.

How each has carried on is as inspiring as when we first wrote about them, and you'll enjoy learning about how they are doing now.

Ken Foskett
Assistant Managing Editor

Beauty and the Beast: Leighton Jordan

Breaking free from an eating disorder can take time and often involves setbacks.

In August, I reported on Leighton Jordan, former Miss Georgia, who wrestled with anorexia and bulimia for seven years. Following an encounter with a severely underweight teenager who displayed classic eating disorder signs, Jordan decided to go public with her struggle in hopes of helping others.

This fall, Jordan looked forward to beginning a new chapter in her life as a full-time college student at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. She was on her own. And recovery was still new. Too new.

After the story ran, Leighton slipped back into a pattern of restricting food and skipping meals. It wasn’t long before the eating disorder was back in full swing.

“I knew I needed to do something, and I needed to do something quickly,” said Jordan.

In mid-September, Jordan voluntarily checked herself into Ridgeview Institute for five days. Since her release, she has assembled a support team that includes weekly therapy sessions.

“Yes, I relapsed,” said Jordan, of Suwanee. “It happens in recovery. I am proud of myself for accepting I needed to go to the hospital... I bounced back quickly and didn’t let it ruin my first semester back at school. I have learned things obviously don’t go as planned, but we have to take what happens and do what we know we need to do, not what we wish we could do — like getting out of a relapse on our own.”

After a bumpy start, Jordan, 20, has settled nicely into college life. She’s trying to overcome her perfectionist mindset. For her, that means forcing herself to occasionally take a night off from studying microbiology, infectious lab and other classes, to just chill and watch TV. Jordan, who is studying to become a pediatric oncology nurse practitioner, is also active in the Baptist College Ministry. And this young woman with a big heart continues to volunteer and help others. She recently started a collection to help a young college student with autism buy a computer.

Since her hospital stay, Jordan said her life has made a complete turnaround.

"I am beyond happy, and I feel so at peace with life," she said.

Helena Oliviero

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The Last Act: Dante Stephensen

While the ship that docked for four decades inside Dante’s Down the Hatch is gone, Dante Stephensen’s thoughts these days have sailed to another vessel.

The paddle wheeler Orlines St. John sunk in the Alabama River in the 1840s. Treasure hunters believe its rotted hold may still be rich with gold bullion that was en route to the east from California.

The wreck and its promise have glimmered in the back of Stephensen’s mind for the decades since the former Navy frogman made a dive to it and touched the hull.

He pondered this adventure as well as the more prosaic facts of his life the other day at his desk in the ornate bar of The Survivor, the 87-year-old luxury rail car that serves as his home.

It was a rainy December afternoon, a bit more than four months after he shut down his restaurant and jazz club in Buckhead. He used to call the restaurant his wife and its employees his children. Though the wife has met her end on the wrong side of a wrecking ball, the kids remain in the picture.

They threw a surprise birthday party in November for Stephensen, who turned 78. He has seen his employees frequently since shutting down — in his mind only forestalling a future without them. “I cherish and will miss the relationships that will be broken,” he said, with a long draw on his extinguished pipe.

The party came a month or so after he watched the restaurant he ran for 43 years reduced to rubble. It hurt. “I felt what it would be to be a composer who sees his only concerto torn up in his face,” Stephensen said. “Like a painter who sees his painting torn up by rebel forces.”

But sensing that he was moving toward the melancholy, he stopped and relit his pipe. “But my Montessori teaching keeps me from turning to depression,” he said. His mother, who died at 102, was a Montesorri teacher.

Even without a restaurant to run, he has been busy. In an office in a small building near The Survivor, Stephensen and a few assistants pore over boxes of financial records. He wants everything to be shipshape for an IRS audit that he sees as inevitable.

Stephensen still keeps the nocturnal sleep cycle he developed over four decades in the restaurant business. “I go to bed at 2 or 4 in the morning and sleep six hours,” he said. “I never had rush hours.”

He’s perhaps most pleased over the happy resolution of the crocodile situation. In the days before closing last summer, Stephensen worried a lot about what would become of Jerry, the 7-foot croc that lived among the turtles in the moat that surrounded the ship. While wrangling Jerry, experts determined that he was a male Nile crocodile, details that surprised Dante. Jerry was relocated to a sanctuary in St. Augustine, Fla., and seems to be doing fine.

Stephensen still has the IRS to battle, if an audit does in fact materialize.

And then there’s that wrecked paddle wheeler. Not many people know this, but in the late 1960s when Stephensen first thought of opening a club in Underground Atlanta, he imagined it with a paddle wheeler at its center instead of a sailing ship. The vision has returned.

"In my mind," Stephensen says as he relights his stubborn pipe," that boat's there to be found."

Bert Roughton

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Book of Job: Doug Drucker

The troubles that came to characterize Doug Drucker a “modern-day Job” have not diminished.

Neither, it seems, has his faith.

The Stockbridge pastor’s 35-year-old son remains on Death Row for committing a double murder in Cobb County. His 33-year-old daughter still requires round-the-clock care for a permanent brain injury. He continues to mourn for a 6-month-old grandson who died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome while he was babysitting the boy in 2002.

But Doug Drucker and his wife Wanda were dealt yet another blow when their eldest daughter died unexpectedly on Dec. 7.

The 62-year-old pastor is still in disbelief that his freewheeling, Spandex-loving, bad-boy magnet of a daughter, Wendy Elaine Drucker, 39 — who seemed to survive every close scrape with disaster — is gone.

“For the first time in heaven, there’s going to be an angel with skin-tight leopard-skin pants on,” Drucker joked feebly during a recent phone conversation, adding that his daughter “never fit in a box.”

The family pulled the plug on life support three days after she was admitted to Piedmont Henry Hospital. She went into cardiac arrest in the Henry County jail, where she had been held on a probation violation charge since Nov. 11, and never regained consciousness. (The charge was dropped for insufficient evidence the day after she was hospitalized.)

The family says there are still many lingering questions about what prompted their daughter’s medical crisis. The Henry County Sheriff’s Office is conducting an internal investigation into the incident, according to Sheriff Keith McBrayer. Autopsy and toxicology test results are still pending.

Doug and his wife Wanda were already caring for Wendy’s adult son, who suffers from a chronic kidney disease. But since her death, they also have taken in Wendy’s two daughters, ages 6 and 16.

“I’m not mad at God,” Drucker said when asked how his faith had been tested. “Am I weary? Yes.”

Drucker said he and his wife need patience, prayer and, perhaps most of all, more room. Space is at a premium now that six people are sharing their three-bedroom home, and Drucker has been relegated to the living room couch.

Throughout these hectic few weeks, he has faithfully continued his ministry, even performing a funeral for another family in Lake Oconee the day before he performed his daughter’s. He has also continued posting sermons on his website twice a week.

He said he learned long ago not to ask God “why,” but to ask “what now?”

"Where do we go from here?" Drucker asked rhetorically. "The only thing I can say is, keep going forward. Keep doing what I've been doing."

Andria Simmons

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Mr. Collins goes to Washington: Doug Collins

The broken Congress that Rep. Doug Collins fought so hard to join this year completely shattered when an impasse over the new health care law led to a partial shutdown of the government in October.

A job that already kept the freshman Republican away from his family more than he liked, as I reported in May, now required frantic weekend sessions in Washington. He missed two of his sons’ Friday night football games as a result.

“Ten or 15 years from now when we sit back and we talk about this, my hope is that they will understand Dad was up there fighting for something that meant something,” Collins said.

With most of his staff furloughed during the shutdown, Collins answered the office phone himself — an extraordinarily rare practice in Congress.

Even at the end of the shutdown, when many Republicans reversed their positions and voted to continue funding for the government without scuffing up the Affordable Care Act, Collins joined a united Georgia House GOP front in voting against the deal.

He believes history will validate Republicans’ crusade against the health law, even if the Democrats gained a short-term political advantage out of the shutdown.

Acrimony — amplified by the shutdown and Obamacare’s stumbling rollout — remains the ruling emotion on Capitol Hill. This year Congress will pass the fewest laws in history.

But as Collins charged through his first year on the job, he learned how to get things accomplished beyond the major fights of the day.

Take H.R. 1992.

Collins told his staff to make Israel a priority. Staffer Vernon Robinson came up with a bill to make the executive branch submit a report on Israel’s “qualitative military edge” over its neighbors every two years instead of every four, a way to help strengthen ties between the nations.

Collins worked with a fellow freshman on the Democratic side, Illinois’ Brad Schneider, to draft the bill. It passed this month 399-0.

The bill arises as the U.S. and Israel are at odds over high-profile nuclear negotiations with Iran but is the result of months of work away from the spotlight.

Collins compares navigating the dysfunctional Congress to chaos theory: “You must find the discernible pattern.”

“It’s finding things that get overlooked. The big stuff will be the big stuff.”

On the big stuff he usually votes with the most conservative of his colleagues, but a few times he has sided with the House GOP leadership over the loudest voices of the right. With activists in Washington and Georgia tracking each "yea" or "nay," Collins' biggest surprise his debut year was that "things are watched even more closely than I thought they would be."

Daniel Malloy

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Streetwise and camera-ready: IronE Singleton

It’s been a long, strange journey for IronE Singleton, the one-time street tough who survived Atlanta’s infamous Perry Homes and gained a foothold of fame on the apocalyptic TV hit, “The Walking Dead.”

As a teenager, the former Robert Singleton hustled working at Subway restaurants to get out of the projects, played football at UGA and bounced around in acting until he got noticeable roles like the thug who menaced Sandra Bullock in the “Blindside” and the straight-up, mysterious T-Dog on “The Walking Dead.” He appeared on some 20 episodes of the AMC series and became a bit of a cult favorite. When I visited him in May, his character had recently been eaten by zombies and he found himself looking for a new job. Singleton must continue to peddle himself if he wants to springboard his career into the next level: He wants to be a leading man.

This year, Singleton said he bypassed a couple smaller acting gigs in hopes of landing a meaty leading role in a couple independent movies, films that are in the pipeline looking for funding. One is a civil rights saga, the other is a horror movie.

That recurring TV role “expanded my platform and put me in a place for something more,” he said. “Now I have a bigger stage and I’m waiting for a lead role.”

Singleton said he will take a lesser role if Hollywood comes calling with something good. But he wants roles with “positive energy.”

Singleton has paid the bills the past year by appearing at sci-fi conventions where all things "Walking Dead" are a hit with the faithful and T-Dog still maintains residual love with the fans.
Recently, Singleton retooled his one-man autobiographical show where he plays a host of characters in his life. The show, called "Blindsided by the Walking Dead," played in Athens but plans to take it to Americus, Birmingham and Macon fizzled because of low ticket sales.

Bill Torpy

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Rebound: Oscar Reyes

After the bottom fell out of Dalton’s carpet industry beginning in 2007, Oscar Reyes wanted to make sure he was ready for the rebound. His gamble paid off.

Having worked his way up the ranks of the manufacturing plants that dot Dalton’s landscape and then starting a lucrative real estate business, the Mexican immigrant who came to the United States legally with his family in 1997, endured one financial setback after another during the Great Recession.

He and his wife Claudia lost their three-bedroom house with a swimming pool in the backyard and moved into a two-bedroom house in an edgy neighborhood. But it helped them save enough money so Oscar could return to college.

As Oscar says, sometimes it takes a crisis to see an opportunity.

It wasn’t easy. The father of two discovered that going to school full-time at age 32 proved more challenging than anticipated. Time and again, his temptation to earn a steady paycheck complicated his long-term goals. More than once, he toyed with the idea of dropping out of school and returning to work a night shift.

But he stayed in school at Georgia Northwestern Technical College and graduated this summer with a newly minted degree in business administration. At first, his dreams seemed to conspire against him. The only work he could find was a job at a rubber mat company that he received through a temp agency.

But his fortunes would quickly change. He landed a supervisory position at a carpet plant in September.

In some ways, Oscar’s story mirrors the plight of Dalton. The “Carpet Capital of the World” lost tens of thousands of jobs when the housing industry came unglued in the late 2000s.

Unemployment rates still hover well above 10 percent, but with the housing market beginning to recover, some of the biggest firms are expanding once more.

For Oscar, the rebound is coming at an opportune time. Just days into training for his new job he was summoned by his managers. They awarded him a promotion.

Greg Bluestein

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