PROFILE: 100 People to Know in Shelby County: Part 1

Published 12:01 pm Thursday, February 28, 2019

Our Profile magazine 2019 featured 100 People to Know in Shelby County. Here are numbers 1-25. Find the rest here.

1. Keith Richards

Taziki’s Founder

Little did Richards and his wife, Amy, know when they travelled to Greece in 1997 that the vacation would inspire them to start a Mediterranean café that 20 years later would have more than 80 locations. Today he works to employ students with special needs through Taziki’s HOPE project and leads the company’s culinary research and development. He and Amy also are the parents of two sets of twins and still make their home in Shelby County.

2. Diedre Downs Gunn

Miss America 2005 + UAB OB/GYN

If your new reproductive endocrinologist at UAB looks familiar, it might be from watching Miss Alabama crowned Miss America back in 2005. Since that night of fame, Gunn went on to travel the country speaking to her passion, and platform, for childhood cancer, the CureSearch National Childhood Cancer Foundation in particular, with her crown in tow, as well as to create the Curing Childhood Cancer specialty license plate in Alabama to benefit research at Children’s of Alabama. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that after finishing a bachelor’s degree in history from Samford, this Pelham High School graduate earned a medical degree from UAB, where she also completed her residency in OB/GYN and a fellowship in reproductive endocrinology and infertility. Today she specializes in reproductive endocrinology and infertility, seeing patients in her clinic as well as performing in vitro fertilization and other surgical procedures.

 3. John Green

Bestselling Author

Green’s young adult novels have been published in more than 55 languages, more than 24 million copies of them are in print, and he has more than 5.1 million Twitter followers. His characters Hazel and Gus made it onto the big screen in a 2014 adaption of The Fault in Our Stars, and Alaska and Miles are up next in Looking for Alaska—set at Culver Creek, a school remarkably similar to Indian Springs, where Green graduated.

4. Susan Johnston

Family Connection Executive Director

Being named to Positive Maturity’s “Top 50 Over 50” list in 2018 for making a difference in her community was fitting given Johnston’s work as the executive director of Family Connection Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides counseling and shelter services to young people and families in crisis.

5. Bud Cason

Bud’s Best Cookies Founder & Chairman

Cason knows cookies. He’s been in the business more than 50 years and in 1991 launched a line of bite-size sweets that bear his own caricature on its branding. Today Cason has been inducted into the Baking Hall of Fame by the American Society of Baking, and Bud’s Best’s 130,000-square-foot facility in Riverchase can produce about 1 million cookies per hour and employs 175 people. It’s also open for tours and welcomes about 25,000 people through a year.
Photo by kp studios

6. Yvonne Murray

58 Inc. Managing Director

A woman with big dreams is now changing the economic landscape of the county she has long called home—and still finds time for off-roading along the way. Read her story here.

7. Taulia Tagovailoa

Star Thompson Quarterback

Much like his brother Tua has taken the college football world by storm as quarterback at Alabama, Tagovailoa has been among the best high school players in the country in leading the Thompson Warriors. Originally from Hawaii, he enrolled at THS when his family moved to be closer to Tua, and has passed for almost 7,000 yards and 65 touchdowns in two seasons at Thompson—and committed to follow in his brother’s footsteps at UA after high school.

8. Gretchen DiFante

Pelham City Manager

DiFante nabbed the title of Pelham’s first city manager in July 2017, and since then she’s been instrumental in helping the city jump start its comprehensive planning process and improving efficiency within city operations. DiFante says there’s a lot of work to be done in Pelham but looks forward to the challenge.

9. Sonia Bertolone

Bertolone’s Italian Owner

Bertolone helped her parents run the original Joe’s Italian restaurant in California, and then the one they opened in Alabaster in 2008. The family sold the Alabaster location in 2015, two years after Sonia’s father died. Then in 2018, she opened Bertolone’s Italian in Calera, the latest testament to her love of sharing the sauces, pasta and pastries that define her family’s heritage.

10Greg Sankey

Southeastern Conference Commissioner

The Southeastern Conference is perhaps the premier organization in intercollegiate athletics—with the national championship trophies to prove it—and Sankey is the man at the front of it all. He was named commissioner of the SEC in June 2015 after serving on the conference staff for 13 years in various leadership positions. He came to the SEC from his position as commissioner of the Southland Conference. A native of Auburn, New York, and graduate of Syracuse University and the State University of New York College at Cortland, Sankey has promoted efforts including implementing a collaborative instant replay process in football and men’s basketball, introducing the “SEC Graduate Patch” worn by graduates during games and crafting a new autonomy governance structure of the NCAA. He is also active within the NCAA committee structure, including serving on the Gender-Equity Task Force and the Division I Committee on Infractions.

11. Sanchez Tanniehill

Author + Gospel Singer

At just 6 weeks old, Tanniehill suffered a stroke, and there was little hope that he would walk or talk as he got older. Following the stroke, he developed spinal meningitis, causing him to spend three months in the hospital. He defied the odds though and is now a well-known local gospel singer at festivals throughout the region. In July 2018, he released a self-published book, “God Did It,” which tells his story of overcoming struggles.

12. Dr. John Stewart

President of the University of Montevallo

Stewart set his sights on raising the national profile of UM when he was named president in 2010, and he’s done just that. UM now attracts students statewide and nationwide. Under his leadership, the number of first-year students living on campus has increased, and the school’s financial health has improved. Standard and Poor’s Ratings Service has upgraded the university’s bond rating multiple times during his presidency and ultimately gave it an A+ rating in 2016.

13. Stephanie Douglas

American Heart Association Certified CPR Instructor

Douglas’ life was saved by a bystander performing CPR until first responders arrived with an automated external defibrillator (AED). Today this sudden cardiac arrest survivor is a certified American Heart Association CPR instructor. She’s made it a goal to advocate for more AEDs in public spaces and to teach more people about how they can be instrumental in saving lives.

14. Kenneth Dukes

Pastor, Mentor and Founder of the Shelby County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

A grandmother’s steadying, inspiring influence in the midst of a difficult childhood started a determined boy on a path of leadership. Read his story here.


15. Rachel Hyche

National Braille Competition Participant

Rachel Hyche, 14, is almost completely blind, but she certainly isn’t letting that get in her way. Last summer, she competed in the regional Braille Challenge in Atlanta and advanced to the national Braille Challenge in California, winning the Speed and Accuracy Award in her age group. “It was a good learning experience,” she says. “It was good to meet new friends, too, that were blind. That was cool.” Lately, the Oak Mountain High School freshman has been immersed in music projects. She sings and plays the piano, and several of her recordings are available on iTunes, YouTube and Spotify. “It’s been a really fun thing for me,” she says.

16. Rick Burgess

Radio Personality

One half of the popular radio show “Rick and Bubba,” Burgess is known for his on-air humor—but also uses his platform to address important topics. The show began in January 1994 and is now heard by more than 1 million people each week. He and his partner, Bill “Bubba” Bussey, don’t shy away from their Christian faith and conservative beliefs. The pair have authored several books, and Burgess makes frequent speaking engagements.

17. John O. Freeman Sr.

Mt Laurel’s Honorary Mayor

You can’t talk about the history of Mt Laurel without mentioning Freeman’s name. Known as the unofficial mayor of Mt Laurel, Freeman oversaw the town’s transformation from a 12-home neighborhood in 2001 to a thriving community with two schools, a vibrant town center and dozens of homes nestled among the trees off Dunnavant Valley Road. Freeman and his wife, Marie, are both considered pillars of the Mt Laurel community.

 18Rebecca Luker

Broadway Actress

A Broadway star and three-time Tony Award nominee, Luker made her Broadway debut in 1988 when she played Christine in “The Phantom of the Opera.” Since then, this Helena native and University of Montevallo honorary graduate snagged roles in popular productions such as “The Secret Garden,” “The Sound of Music,” “The Music Man” and more. She also performs in concerts with symphony orchestras around the world and is a cabaret performer.

19. John Solomon Sandridge

Artist & Entrepreneur

Painter, sculptor, writer, trailblazer, entrepreneur. All of these describe Sandridge, but the nationally acclaimed artist can’t be constricted by mere titles. He is the first African American to secure a contract with the Coca-Cola Company and has produced many images on different objects. His artwork has been featured at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Based in Chelsea, he is the founder of the Number 2 Pencil Foundation and the author of !One-Great-Thing!

20. Frank McEwen

McEwen & Sons Owner

What started as an effort to embrace a healthier diet of whole grains for Wilsonville’s McEwen and his wife, Helen, led to grinding corn on a stone burr grist mill and the base of some dishes of 2018 James Beard Foundation Award-winner Highlands Bar & Grill’s restaurants—plus Little Savannah, Hot and Hot Fish Club and countless home kitchens who set their bar high with McEwen cornmeal, grits, polenta, rolled oats and golden flax seed.

21Katye Jackson Gonzalez

Cancer Survivor

Two bouts with childhood cancer cost Jackson Gonzalez an arm and facial paralysis but gave her a story she could share to encourage others. The former Greystone Elementary School student, who now teaches third grade in Homewood, returned to the school during Young Authors Week 2018 to share her autobiography, which was published with the help of a GES teacher. Proceeds from the book benefit Camp Smile-A-Mile, which Jackson Gonzalez attended for many years.

22. Carol Bruser

Leadership Shelby County Director

You would be hard-pressed to find someone who’s lived in Shelby County for more than a month and doesn’t at least know Bruser’s name. As the community relations manager at the University of Montevallo and the Leadership Shelby County program director, Bruser is a familiar face to countless people she has worked with, mentored or simply impacted through her leadership roles. She’s known for her compassion and her love for her family and friends—plus her refreshing sense of humor. She even agreed to be the “guest of honor” and endure an evening of good-natured jokes from friends at The Arc of Shelby County’s first Roast and Toast event that raised $15,000 for the advocacy agency.


23. Alejandro Chavez

Zapopan Mexican Restaurant Owner

After doing business in Calera for 17 years, Chavez, pictured third from left, decided to take leap of faith and broke ground on a new restaurant in September 2018. The 7,500-square-foot space behind Zaxby’s will seat 295, and Chavez is looking forward to serving the community for many more years to come.

24. Daniel A. Moore

Sports Artist

Moore has likely been in more homes in the state of Alabama than the best politicians or preachers. Best known for his iconic paintings commemorating historic moments in University of Alabama football history, he has also been commissioned to create paintings for organizations including the Southeastern Conference, Major League Baseball, the National Football League and more—including the United States Postal Service, for which he created paintings for the commemorative stamp series “Legendary Football Coaches.”

25. Pat Hamrick

Thompson Baseball Coach

Hamrick, pictured on the far right, has won more than 500 games as coach of the Thompson High School baseball team, but his impact is better measured by the people he has influenced rather than wins and losses. A native of Bibb County, he played baseball at Bibb County High School, Shelton State Community College and the University of West Alabama before beginning his coaching career, which includes more than 20 years at THS.