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Anson and M'Liss Dorrance.
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Jodi and Mike Wiley with their two kids, Coleman and Jordan.
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Shell and Bob Brownstein.
Originally published November 2013
Anson and M’Liss Dorrance
Eight-year-old M’Liss Gary was sure she’d outfoxed him.
Playing flashlight tag one night more than 50 years ago in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, she crouched at the bottom of the slope, right under playmate Anson Dorrance’s nose.
And yet, when he was finished counting, he made a beeline for her hiding spot.
“I was flabbergasted,” she says. “I said, ‘How did you find me?’ He said, ‘Your hair was shining in the moonlight.’ To me it was the most romantic thing that a 9-year-old boy could say.”
M’Liss held onto that cinematic moment for more than a decade as her and Anson’s families parted soon after, though they kept in touch over the years. (Her dad was an Air Force attaché in Ethiopia at the same time Anson’s dad was there working for Mobil Oil. The parents and all the children became fast friends.) M’Liss excelled at dance. Anson, of course, at soccer. He found his way to UNC – an English and philosophy double major – while her family settled in Greenwich, Conn. She was a standout performer with several New York City dance companies when they rekindled their romance during a Thanksgiving party. “That’s really where we fell in love,” M’Liss says.
He returned to Chapel Hill, where he was a standout on the soccer team, and hitchhiked as much as he could up to New York to see her dance. She moved to Virginia, close enough for her to catch a few of his games.
They married in 1974 and moved to Chapel Hill, where M’Liss immediately found work teaching dance – first in Chapel Hill and soon after at Duke, where she continued teaching for more than 30 years – while he sold insurance as he pursued a law degree.
His make-ends-meet job led to a fateful encounter that changed the Dorrance family forever.
At Old Well apartments, Anson and a colleague were making door-to-door sales calls. They ran into a couple of other guys, dressed similarly, also making sales calls of sorts.
They were Mormon missionaries, and Anson, raised Catholic, agreed to meet with them to learn about their faith, mostly out of professional courtesy. “Salesmen are so used to getting doors slammed in their face that, obviously, you will have empathy for anyone in sales,” Anson says.
M’Liss wouldn’t even come out of the bedroom, and Anson was mostly just curious as he heard them out. But he was struck by the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead, in which a living person receives the sacrament on behalf of a deceased person. Anson had lived in Addis Ababa, Calcutta, Bombay, Singapore and Brussels, meeting people from all religious backgrounds. So he could never quite get on board with the idea that the majority of them wouldn’t go to heaven.
The Mormon idea of near-universal grace “just made great sense to me. I started going to a local church and meeting all these wonderful people.”
M’Liss soon joined him, and the two were remarried in the Mormon church. “The theology embraces everyone and challenges all of us to live on this never-ending ascension,” Anson says. “It’s not only made me a better husband and father, but also a better coach.”
Oh, right. The coaching thing.
Anson was in law school at N.C. Central when he was offered the head coaching job of the men’s soccer team at UNC in 1976, which was a part-time position at the time. He agreed, continuing to go to law school while coaching. In 1979, he was given the chance to take over the brand new women’s soccer team. He dropped out of law school six credit hours shy of a degree and never looked back.
Within three years, he’d coached the women’s team to its first of 21 NCAA National Championships. Anson continued to coach the men’s team until 1988, compiling a 175-65-21 record.
Meanwhile, M’Liss’ dance career was thriving. She not only enjoyed a faculty position at Duke, but in 1980 she also co-founded the Ballet School of Chapel Hill, which still operates today out of its East Franklin Street studio.
The Dorrances raised three children in Chapel Hill: Michelle, now 34, who is, her dad says, “one of the best rhythm tap dancers in the world. Google her.” Natalie, 31, a Greensboro resident and UNC graduate, gave the Dorrances their only grandchild so far, Finley. Son Donovan graduated from UNC in May and is an aspiring musician in Winston-Salem.
“Two out of three of our kids are Tar Heels,” Anson says proudly. Indeed, the Dorrances all are dyed-in-the-wool Tar Heels and Chapel Hillians.
“[Anson] has such a passion for this school and loves his university so much,” M’Liss says. “And our children, there’s nothing to them like coming home and being in Chapel Hill.“
The Dorrances, who live in a “tree house” in the Ironwoods neighborhood, have led a blessed life. They say that even as M’Liss battles TTP, a rare autoimmune disease. She was diagnosed last year and spent a month in the hospital before another nine months of dialysis treatments. She’s recently transitioned to a home version, where she can hook up to the machine once during the day and then overnight. She has more energy, though only about half of what she used to have.
She’s on the list for a kidney transplant at Duke. But, she says, “I don’t think about it. I just live my life.”
Anson and M’Liss do regular movie nights – their favorite is Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley – and they also take in about six shows at Carolina Performing Arts per year. “Anson’s the best companion in the world,” M’Liss says. “We just love each other’s company.” – M.D.
Mike and Jodi Wiley
Lizzie the Iguana could have been the undoing of many couples.
Mike Wiley will never forget the time he heard a scream come from the spare bedroom, which he and then-fiancée Jodi Neely had fixed up to be part-home office, part-living space for their six-foot-long lizard. When he flung open the door, he was shocked by what he found inside: Lizzie perched on Jodi’s shoulder, his mouth clenched tightly around her ear.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” Mike, an actor and playwright, recalls thinking to himself. While Jodi spent her childhood taking in every abandoned or injured animal she found (“I had very supportive parents,” she says. “The only rule that my mom had was no snakes.”), Mike’s family had never owned so much as a dog. Yet here he was: engaged to a zoologist, who found herself in a very precarious position.
Remembering something Jodi had once told him, Mike grabbed the iguana’s dewlap (“Very good, sweetheart!” Jodi interjects as he recounts the story) and used his other hand to pry its mouth off of Jodi’s ear and toss it to the floor. “We got out of there and closed the door. My fingers are bleeding, and she’s got blood all over her ear,” Mike says. “It’s like something out of a Tarantino movie.”
When Mike saw a doctor a few days later for a tetanus shot, he complained of pain in his thumb. “And he squeezes it, and this little tooth goes pop!” Mike says, laughing. “He’s like, ‘Well, there’s your problem: You had a tooth in your thumb!’”
Mike then points to Jodi: “And yet I still married her.”
Pushing the Envelope
Jodi and Mike met in the fall of 1999, when they both waited tables in Cameron Village. Mike, who was raised in Roanoke, Va., says he was “always an actor,” attending Catawba College in Salisbury before moving to New York to pursue theater. But when a college buddy invited Mike to come down for a few months, Mike – missing North Carolina terribly in the Big Apple – jumped at the chance.
Jodi had just moved to Raleigh from her hometown of Pittsburgh to obtain her zoology degree at N.C. State. She and Mike started off as friends, but when Mike returned to New York, he found himself still thinking of Jodi. He mailed her an “I Heart NY” postcard with “nothing extremely romantic in it” and hoped to hear from her soon.
A few weeks later, a Christmas card from Jodi arrived, which Mike took as a sign that she received his postcard. He came back to North Carolina for New Year’s Eve and called Jodi to see if she wanted to go to James Taylor’s big millennium concert with him that night. No response.
Turns out she was in Pittsburgh for the holidays, so Mike waited to talk to her after the new year when they went out with a group of friends. He asked Jodi if she liked his postcard, and, to his dismay, her response was simply: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I thought, ‘Did you send it to another woman? Did you have me confused for somebody?’” Jodi says as Mike laughs and makes a face.
They started dating after that, and a few months later, Mike returned to the South for good to begin graduate school at UNC. Jodi graduated and went off to spend time with dolphins in Mexico, then came back to N.C. State to work in pathology while simultaneously volunteering at the Duke Lemur Center. Toward the end of Mike’s time at Carolina, things started heating up with his acting career and suddenly he was traveling across the country to perform his one-man shows. He proposed to Jodi during his final year of grad school, and she, of course, said yes.
Jodi’s passion for animals – which she now channels into her jobs as a keeper at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro and as the population manager for hamadryas baboons through the American Zoological Association – has always inspired Mike. One day in 2005, Mike made a paramount career move – a decision he says is largely thanks to Jodi.
“I came home, and I had been training at this restaurant and had been doing shows all over the place. I said, ‘I’m going full time. I’m going to do nothing but my shows,’ which was the best decision I’ve ever made,” he says. “And so I just started, like her, to push myself in so many areas, as far as writing and then getting into film and collaborating with other theater companies regionally as well as nationally.”
Mike began his own production company, Mike Wiley Productions, and never looked back.
Despite their disparate worlds, the Wileys have been happily married for eight years. In fact, the couple, who live in the Chatham Forest neighborhood in Pittsboro, say taking the time to learn from each other as well as provide learning experiences for their two sons, 5-year-old Jordan and 2-year-old Coleman, is the secret to making their marriage – and family – work so well.
“As far as career and things like that, we’re complete opposites,” Jodi says. “But we have the same values: how we want to raise a family; we both love to travel; we love new opportunities.”
“And we love giving our kids experiences that are not common experiences,” Mike adds.
Case in point: Now that Jordan is 5, he sometimes travels with his dad to out-of-town shows, where Mike delights and informs audiences by bringing historical African-American figures – Jackie Robinson and Emmitt Till, among others – to life on stage. “Because of the specificity of the work that I do, he’s sort of intravenously learning about African-American history in a way that most kids would have to look it up in a book,” says Mike.
And the same goes for discovering animals. “Usually each time they come out we can’t see the whole zoo together, but we’ll pick a certain animal, and they get to know the different animals,” says Jodi, who primarily takes care of the gorillas and baboons. “Our oldest son totally knows each individual. … He’s developed relationships with some of them.”
Mike and Jodi spend a good bit of time traveling, often finding ways to mix work with pleasure. Although their vacation to Germany last summer was mostly a chance for them to reconnect, Jodi also managed to squeeze in a trip to Frankfurt to work on an import of baboons, while Mike attended the Berlin Film Festival, where one of his films was showing.
“It’s funny how every once in a while the two things fit together well,” Mike says.
Ultimately, though, it’s how those two things affect their kids’ future that matters most.
“What we strive to impress upon our kids is do whatever it is you love to do in life,” says Mike. “If you think you can make a career out of being a zoologist, being an actor, don’t worry about the money. The money will come. And whatever amount it is, you’ll be happy that somebody just paid you to do what you love to do.” – K.A.
Bob and Shell Brownstein
When asked to work the Friday night shift at Rex Hospital, emergency room physician Bob Brownstein takes a few moments to gaze off in the distance, mental wheels clearly spinning. “Nope, I have to take Kate to the doctor, and Becca’s got a school dance,” he says into his cell phone, referring to two of his four children.
“See, that’s what’s changed,” says his wife, Shell. “I used to know everything about the kids, and now he’s got it all.”
Welcome to the trade-off teamwork approach of the Brownsteins. “We’re just like all the other couples, plogging through one day at a time,” Bob says. That is, if every couple is one half ER doc and one half trauma, acute and intensive care surgeon who also serves as chairwoman of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board of education.
“You get your sleep when you can,” Bob says with a shrug. Shell looks at him a bit incredulously and discloses the true secret: “And you have to have a spouse that’s really awesome.”
Awesome is one way to describe the Brownsteins; passionate and intentional is perhaps more accurate. That change Shell referred to – Bob’s knowledge of the kids’ schedules now – is her decision to stay home during their children’s young life and then re-enter medicine now that they’re adolescents.
“I felt guilty going to work when I first had my kids,” she says, “and I was totally shocked by it. The last thing I would ever have thought is that I wouldn’t go to work and operate on people.”
Bob agreed to pick up extra shifts to enable Shell to stay home and raise Nick, 16, Beth, 15, Kate, 13 and Becca, 11. It was during that time that Shell decided to run for the school board.
“We had so much experience with the kids being in the schools, it just seemed like a natural thing to try to do,” Shell says.
The role allows her to use a different skill set than what’s required of her at UNC Hospitals. “If I had just stayed in the medical part [of town], I would not have appreciated all the other pieces of the community,” she says. “There’s so much richness here in terms of the community and the variety of people that are here.”
Meanwhile, she continued to enjoy full-time motherhood. “I’m so glad I had that time with them,” she says. “For me that was the right thing. I couldn’t do my job as well as I wanted with little children in my house, and I couldn’t do that role [as a mother] the way I wanted either.”
As her little children grew a bit bigger, though, Shell kept revisiting a certain urge. “I loved being a surgeon more than just about anything except for being a mother.”
Bob and Shell are both unwaveringly humble about their own accomplishments and keenly aware of each other’s. Bob is quick to point out that you can’t just up and decide to be a surgeon again. “It was a two-year process,” he says of Shell’s rigorous re-certification. But she deflects to his ability to manage what he calls “a lot of moving parts” (don’t forget, he works in an emergency room), which has made their parenting timing perfect. “If I had stayed home when they were babies, I just couldn’t have done it,” Bob says. “Whereas when they’re teenagers, I can do better, I think.”
The Brownsteins still rely on an au pair to help balance their schedules, which often include nights and weekends. Neither Shell nor Bob plan to leave medicine anytime soon (“It’s a passion; it’s a calling,” she says), and Shell hopes to continue serving on the school board.
They both take it in stride. “In medicine, you never get ahead; you’re always trying to keep up,” Bob says. “Just trying to keep up.” Likewise, this chunk of busy years is “an evolution through different phases,” Shell says. “One day, the kids will be off to college, and we’ll have more than enough time.”
Until then, “you do the best you can and you support each other,” Shell says. “As you put one foot in front of the other, life is unfolding. And then … you realize that being together is where all of the meaning is coming from. It’s kind of neat. You can’t do it all without the other person. I don’t know how people do it all on their own.” – J.A. CHM