Most Interesting People: 10 Chattanoogans that prove the many ways to make the most of life

At Chatter Magazine, our archives read like a catalog of interesting people who've helped shape our city's culture. We'd like to shine a spotlight on a few of them, again.

What makes these people noteworthy isn't just their jobs or their hobbies, but their abilities to make their own way, to create art, community or compassion in places where it wasn't before. They are professors, teenagers, retirees and death doulas -- with backstories to boot.

Here are 10 locals that prove the many paths one may take to making the most of life.

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Alexis Hughes

Alexis Hughes, death doula

In 2014, Alexis Hughes had a loved one die by suicide. The tragedy rocked her, and Hughes, a former school teacher, fell into a depression that lasted for several years. But the pain gave her empathy for those struggling with death. She wanted to shine a light on end-of-life issues, often taboo topics. Eventually, her healing path led to a new career: death doula -- or, as her husband describes it, "a wedding planner for death." Among her services are notarizing documents, giving eulogies, closing social media accounts, organizing estate sales, filming "last messages," making scrapbooks -- anything a dying person or a family member needs.

Since launching her business, Without Fear, based in Ringgold, Georgia, Hughes said she is most passionate about educating and helping alleviate anxiety for those dealing with death. This year, she has classes planned with The Chattery and will speak at a summer conference on death traditions.

Tell us something interesting about yourself we don't yet know.

"I'm actually an experienced exotic animal rehabber! I worked for quite a while with an exotic rescue in Georgia that gave permanent homes to animals who were previously in the entertainment industry. So I have been best friends with tigers, wolves, bears, cougars and other exotics living their retirement out under loving stewardship by the staff!"

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Christopher Johnson

Chris Johnson, bagpipe player

Most weekdays, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior instructional designer Chris Johnson spends his lunch break playing bagpipes at the Citizen Cemetery near campus, seemingly to an audience of headstones and squirrels. Johnson has been playing the wind instrument on and off since he was a teenager. He even went to bagpipe camp as a kid. Now father to two young children, his lunch breaks offer the best time to rehearse his repertoire of about 30 songs, which he plays in competitions with his friends in the Chattanooga Pipe Band, a bagpipe and drum ensemble that travels around the South.

"People say it's a haunting sound," Johnson said of his instrument, "so I guess [the cemetery] is an appropriate place."

Tell us something interesting about yourself we don't yet know.

"I lived in Scotland for six years but have also lived in the Bahamas, North Dakota and Wisconsin. I'm also the new president of the Chattanooga Pipe Band, a nonprofit that consists of over 30 pipers and drummers who compete and perform in the region. We're always interested in performance opportunities in the Chattanooga area!"

  photo  Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Beverly Foster

Beverly Foster, local historian

Beverly Foster began telling the story of Black Americans in Walker County by setting up exhibits at events and even banks. Beginning with what she called a poster-board museum, her passion for sharing such historical cultural moments continued developing through the years. In 2020, she began hosting a cable access television show called "Beverly's Historical Moments" on Fort Oglethorpe's UCTV and Facebook. This December, she founded the Walker County African American Museum and Cultural Center, giving a permanent home to the preservation of North Georgia's Black American history.

Initially, she said, her goal was to get more Black students interested in history, especially their own.

The museum focuses on the post-slavery history of Black Americans in the region -- the time when Black Americans worked to reunite their families and build their own community institutions. There was more friendship than many young people realize between post-slavery Black and white communities, Foster said.

"Most of what I'm telling is positive things, but for me to leave out some of the things that wasn't positive that happened in Walker County -- that would not be an honor to history," Foster said. "I don't want to dwell on them, but they need to be told."

Tell us something interesting about yourself we don't yet know?

"I live on a property that's been in my family for 100 years in Chickamauga. It was a farm, but my mama turned it into a kind of subdivision. My brother, two sisters, me and my sister-in-law all have houses here. I live in my mama's house. We call it Mitchell Hill -- that's my maiden name. We call my brother the Mayor of Mitchell Hill."

  photo  Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Blake Pierce

Blake Pierce, bike builder

A few years ago, Blake Pierce noticed a 10- or 11-year-old boy in his Red Bank neighborhood with worn-out sneakers.

"Why? Because he didn't have brakes on his bike," explained Pierce, who noticed the boy dragging his feet to slow down. So, without fanfare, Pierce took a pink bicycle that had belonged to his daughter and repainted it crimson and white because he knew the boy was a University of Alabama football fan.

Then, during COVID-19 isolation, Pierce, an exercise science lecturer at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, had an epiphany: Why not use his extra time at home to recycle bicycles for people in need? He gathered a group of fellow bike enthusiasts and launched White Oak Bicycle Co-op, a nonprofit that recycles and refurbishes bikes for locals in need.

The group comprises about a dozen volunteers who gather on Monday nights to work on bicycles in the converted garage behind Pierce's cottage-style house.

At the end of 2022, the nonprofit had given out 400 bikes to the community, bringing the total to over 610 bikes since its inception in 2020.

Tell us something interesting about yourself we don't yet know?

"I'm an artist. Currently, I take unusable bicycle parts and turn them into art. On Feb. 27 I'm conducting an art session with Red Bank High School students through another local nonprofit, Be The Change Youth Art Initiative."

  photo  Photo contributed by Daniela Peterson / Daniela Peterson

Daniela Peterson, cultural bridge builder

More than 10 years ago, Daniela Peterson fell in love with an American climber while visiting from Chile through a college travel abroad program. When Peterson returned home, she wasn't sure a long-distance relationship with Paul was possible. But several years later, she was back in the States -- in Chattanooga where Paul worked at Crabtree Farms.

The two have now been married for 10 years, all the while, Peterson has been building a reputation as a cultural bridge builder. She sharpened her English skills by taking a class at the Public Library, helped form a story collective for immigrants and eventually became a U.S. citizen.

On the eve of her citizenship ceremony, some of her friends and acquaintances banded together and raised $1,600 through crowdfunding to pay for her immigration fees, with money left over for her to buy a new outfit for the ceremony.

Today, Peterson is a senior advisor for Trust for Public Land, where her work involves "place-building," a strategy that seeks to bring cultures together by transforming public spaces into hubs for activity and interaction.

Tell us something interesting about yourself we don't yet know?

"I have an obsession over ice cream and hot dogs. In each new city, I look for their ice [cream] shops, and my favorite hot dog is the Chilean way, the right way. We add tomato, avocado, and I like it with mustard and ketchup. We call them 'completos.'"

  photo  Photo contributed by Matt Schweiker / Matt Schweiker

Matt Schweiker, world bikepacker

When Matt Schweiker is not overseeing Chattanooga-based Capital Payments, a credit card processing company he co-founded in 2017, he might be bikepacking across any given country. In August, he finished his most grueling ride to date: the Silk Road Mountain Race, a 1,100-mile bike race through the rugged terrain of Kyrgyzstan, an Asian country that was formerly part of the Soviet Union. The self-support race is so arduous that about half of the 200 or so participants don't finish. Not knowing where your next food and water are coming from is part of the experience. Schweiker said he lost about 15-20 pounds during the race, which took him 12 days, 23 hours and 23 minutes.

"I got pretty sick," he said. "[The race] took me to a new level of suffering, and it's taken me a long time to wrap my head around it." However, it took him less than 24 hours after crossing the finish line to get back to work.

"I hadn't even left Kyrgyzstan before I started checking email," he said. "Kyrgyzstan is a pretty desperate country. But despite their circumstances, the people are happy and friendly." The experience, he said, "made me feel happy to have a job, to have a home, to have my needs taken care of. I felt lucky to be able to step back into that."

Tell us something interesting about yourself we don't yet know.

"My girlfriend and I went to Oaxaca, Mexico, last month, making it the 20th country I've ridden my bike in. In my life so far, I have visited 50 countries total."

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Erika Burnett

Erika Burnett, community maker

While at Tennessee State University, Erika Burnett majored in English education. Her plan was to teach, but while student teaching at Glencliff High School, one of the most culturally diverse schools in Nashville, she developed a deep empathy for her urban students and found herself wanting to look for systemic solutions to help them.

She remembers one student who identified as Latina but presented as white.

"To see the way she was othered by other LatinX students -- they wouldn't speak Spanish to her. It led me down this path of curiosity: How do we curate belonging?"

She went on to get Master's degrees in Education and Community Development Action from Vanderbilt, and in 2020, moved to Chattanooga to become executive director of the Women's Fund of Greater Chattanooga. That same week, she found out she was pregnant.

The past two years have been busy for Burnett, but she said she finds purpose in her role, which is deeply personal.

"When you do such identity-specific work, pleasure is part of what refills your bucket. I enjoy creating space for women of color. That to me is fun."

Tell us something interesting about yourself we don't yet know.

"I was Mistress of Ceremony [at my] kindergarten graduation. My mother said I came out the womb with a plan and opinion."

  photo  Photo contributed by Barry Twitchell / Barry Twitchell stands with his wife, left, and daughter, Sydney.

Barry Twitchell, neon-signmaker

Visiting Barry Twitchell's hilltop garage off East Brainerd Road is like walking into a Technicolor dream. Twitchell is a pilot for a major airline, who in his spare time makes neon signs with his teenage daughter, Sydney. He also collects vintage Porsche sportscars and pinball machines.

Their company, Gizmo Gadget's Garage, is a father-daughter enterprise that began about two years ago when the two visited a neon sign craftsman in Atlanta to learn more about the signmaker's art. The Twitchells soon discovered they could make attractive signs using LED neon instead of the traditional gas-filled tubing.

"I had read a lot of books on traditional neon, but I knew I would never have the spatial orientation [to make them]," Twitchell said. LED neon is inexpensive and runs on household electric current, and the tubes are almost indestructible, he said.

The company recently built a sign for a drive-through wedding venue in North Georgia.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that you don't yet know.

"Most people don't know that before joining the United States Air Force, I was a volunteer firefighter/EMT for my hometown of Saint Peters, Missouri."

  photo  Photo contributed by Erin Daniels / Cash Daniels

Cash Daniels, teenage conservationist

Cash Daniels is a public speaker, author and conservationist. His resume is impressive, and not just for a 13-year-old.

For as long as he and his mother, Erin Daniels, can remember, Cash has cared about the environment -- aquatic environments, especially.

At age 8, Cash founded The Conservation Kid to sell art pieces and other items to raise money for anti-whaling organizations. At age 9, he wrote and illustrated "One Small Piece," a book about ocean pollution and how children can get involved in cleanups. At 10, he and his best friend, Ella, who lives in Canada, started nonprofit The Cleanup Kids, creating educational videos for their YouTube channel.

To date, he has helped remove 22,000 pounds of trash from the Tennessee River through self-organized cleanups.

And his efforts have not gone unnoticed.

In both 2019 and 2020, Cash was named Youth Conservationist of the Year by the Tennessee Wildlife Federation. In 2021, he was one of America's top 10 youth volunteers, selected by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards from a field of more than 21,000 candidates across the country. That year, he was also among the top five honorees for Time Magazine's "Kid of the Year."

His 2023 goal is to launch a new campaign in which he will ask local businesses to pledge to keep their parking lots litter-free.

"Eighty percent of ocean trash actually starts on land and flows into our rivers and into the ocean, so we need to stop it at its source," he said.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that you don't yet know.

"I love to scuba dive and was certified at the age of 10. I did my first shark dive at 11."

  photo  Photo contributed by Anne-Marie Fitzsimmons / Anne-Marie Fitzsimmons

Anne Marie Fitzsimmons, friend of the homeless

When Ann-Marie Fitzsimmons is not recovering from a long-distance run (most recently the 21-mile Grand Canyon rim to rim) or spending time with her five children, ranging in ages 11 to 22, she is making rounds in the city, checking in on the homeless.

In 2019, Fitzsimmons and friend Niki Keck launched Help Right Here, an outreach to help deliver survival support and housing assistance to those in need. Their grassroots effort soon grew into a nonprofit, and last summer, they entered into a $120,000, one-year contract with the city to run a fenced, sanctioned homeless campsite near the corner of 12th and Peeples streets.

Until then, both Fitzsimmons and Keck worked at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, but last year, Fitzsimmons left her longtime position as middle school librarian.

"Niki and I had accepted the bid. [We] were both really burned out from working two jobs. Help Right Here really needed one of us to go fulltime, so I made the leap," said Fitzsimmons. "I consider this my dharma, my purpose. I'm almost 48 years old, and I didn't figure out what I was going to be when I grew up until I was almost 45. You're never too old to find your purpose. Never."

Tell us something interesting about yourself we don't yet know.

"I yell 'Play ball!!!!' at the end of the Pledge of Allegiance no matter the venue."