by Jean Gordon

Wearing his Santa Claus hat, Rudolph’s antlers or Elf ears on his head, Ackie Okpych was most always the Bingo caller at the annual Chimney Rock Village Chili Cookoff. His wife JoAnne was there too, helping in the kitchen, making a pot of chili, cornbread or dessert and cleaning up after the event.

 The couple was a staple in Chimney Rock Village moving here in 1990 when they bought the Esmeralda Inn. Owning and operating a bed and breakfast was a dream come true for the New York City natives.

We said good-bye to this couple in November as they passed away 11 days apart. We cherish the memories of them and their love for Chimney Rock and the compassion they showed to others.

The couple had been battling serious health issues for years and on Nov.19 JoAnne went to heaven. On Nov. 30 Ackie, joined his wife. Their deaths so close together was no surprise. The couple’s children and close friends knew he wouldn’t live long after the love of his life passed on. They were married 57 years. They had three remarkable children who looked after their parents, also a testimony to their lives.

When the couple moved to Chimney Rock around 1990 it was more than a move from one place to another. They had found their final home on earth and quickly became involved in the Village. They became involved in all aspects of this little community and made forever friends. 

“How do you describe “Ackie” and JoAnne?” Close friend Mary Jaeger-Gale asked.  “They were part of the fabric of Chimney Rock Village. It is difficult to imagine life here without them. They cared passionately about their family, friends and the community and participated in every way that they could to help us all do better together. They made life so much richer. Their personalities were so different, yet very much the same – genuine, fun, thoughtful and dear. They may be gone, but their beautiful spirits and our memories of them will live on for years to come.”

Steve Gale, who was among the first to meet the couple tells the story of inviting Ackie to join the fire department as soon they met.  Ackie joined and he and JoAnne would serve the department well.

Ackie was diagnosed with leukemia several years ago, but in spite of that he kept the faith and did all he could for his family and fellow man. Twenty-two years ago, JoAnne had a heart transplant and before her death on Nov.19, she was a six-time cancer survivor. 

In April 1997 when the Esmeralda Inn was destroyed by a fire, the Village friends were heartbroken for the couple. Ackie and JoAnne had put so much into their dream and saw it go up in flames. 

 I remember watching Ackie, the firefighter, holding a large firehose trying to put out the fire in the back of the Inn. I saw JoAnne and good friend Barbara Meliski  running up US 64/74 to make their way to the Inn. Their faces personified great sadness. We all cried with this couple.

It wasn’t long afterwards, the couple made a promise to the Village, to themselves, family and friends. They would rebuild. They did. 

Barbara Meliski, former Chimney Rock Village mayor, recalled the devastating flood of 1996 that closed the Village down for two weeks. She said she and Buck were in their shops cleaning when they discovered mud in the carpet. “I said we’ll have to get rid of this but Ackie was there and said, ‘no, no’. He brought a machine from the Inn and cleaned it up,” Barbara said.

Mayor Peter O’Leary said the couple was an integral part of the community.

“They were supportive especially in times of need, floods, natural disasters and were the first ones to chip in and help out.  If they heard of individuals needing help they were there,” Peter said. He remembers the couple walked into his Bubba’s General Store building 28 years ago as he and wife Ann were painting getting ready to open. “They walked in and wanted to know what they could do. They grabbed a paintbrush and started painting and spent several hours helping. We didn’t ask them to come. They just showed up.” 

Peter also talked about how the couple helped others in the aftermath of the 1996 flood. Village shop owners and community residents were working every day for more than two weeks to clean. “Everybody was pretty much helping. At the end of the evenings, Ackie would invite all of us to come up to the Inn and he would fix dinner for 20 or so people each night.”

As we look to 2021 we will likely continue to face life changing challenges during this global pandemic and yet, we will look faithfully toward a recovery. Perhaps, like this Chimney Rock Village couple, we can reach out to others needing help and do so willingly. Don’t wait to be asked. Just go.

We can face tough times and yet find joy as Ackie and JoAnne did in everyday life. How blessed we are to have walked part of this road with them. 

 Entering this new year may we be committed to be a part of the solution rather than the problem. Like them, and others who have passed on, we can claim their lifestyle, Just Show Up.

Happy New Year. Stay Healthy.

Donations in memory of Ackie and JoAnne can be made to The Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, PO Box 130 Bat Cave, NC  28710 or Hickory Nut Gorge Outreach, 2556 Memorial Highway Lake Lure, NC 28746.