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Sexton named interim sheriff in Washington County

Washington County commissioners appointed a Johnson City Police Department lieutenant on Monday to be the county’s interim sheriff.

Keith Sexton, who now serves as a training unit supervisor and SWAT team commander for the police department, was sworn into office by Washington County Chancellor John Rambo following a unanimous vote of the commission.

“Thank you for your vote of confidence,” Sexton told commissioners. “I will not let you down.”

In addition to being named interim sheriff on Monday, Sexton and his wife, Ashley, learned of the birth of their newest grandchild during the commission meeting.

Sexton, who promised to run “a transparent” sheriff’s office, will serve the remaining months of Ed Graybeal’s elected term in office. Graybeal retired in September after serving 18 years as sheriff.

He has also said he plans to name former Johnson City Police Chief John Lowry as his chief deputy.

The interim sheriff will serve as head of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office until the voters go to the polls on Aug. 4, 2022, to elect a new sheriff.

Sexton was one of three applicants for interim sheriff that commissioners heard from Monday night. The three also had their credentials to serve in the role vetted by the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission.

The others were Leighta Laitinen, who has been serving as chief deputy of the sheriff’s office, and Michael Templeton, who retired in July as a special agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. All three have indicated they will seek the Republican nomination for Washington County sheriff in 2022.

Candidates for sheriff and other county offices will begin picking up their qualifying papers on Dec. 20. The deadline for qualifying to run in the May 3 primary is Feb. 17.

Laitinen, who has worked at the sheriff’s office since July 1995, beginning as a clerk and working her way up the organization’s administrative ladder, sent a letter to Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy on Sunday announcing she is resigning from the sheriff’s office. In her letter, she told commissioners her decision is not reflective of her desire to be appointed or elected sheriff.

“I did it to clear some things up,” said Laitinen, who has managed the day-to-day operations of the sheriff’s office since Graybeal’s departure.

Before commissioners agreed to cease accepting nominations from the floor and voted to elect Sexton by acclimation, Laitinen said she would make sure there is “a smooth transition” of power in the sheriff’s office.

Earlier in the meeting, Sexton told commissioners that he began his 30-year career in law enforcement as a patrol deputy with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. He went to work for the Johnson City Police Department in 2008.

Sexton told commissioners he has heard from residents who want the sheriff’s office to be “more visible” in their communities.

He said there is no area of the county that he had not been in as a law enforcement officer.

“I have literally shed blood, sweat and tears,” he said, noting he has been planning to run for sheriff for more than 20 years.

“This is not a whim,” Sexton said. “The people of Washington County deserve a sheriff who has law enforcement experience.”

Married without a ceremony? Win a free one

There’s a lucky married couple in the Tri-Cities whose nuptials didn’t allow for a grand event, and a local wedding photographer and florist are trying to track them down.

Why so lucky? They might be chosen for a free wedding. Yes, the whole kit and caboodle — photographer, florist, make-up and hair, dress and tux for the bride and groom, attire for bridesmaids and groomsmen, cake, a charcuterie board and DJ for the reception.

And it’s happening Dec. 12 at the International Storytelling Center, from noon until 4 p.m. Organizers are taking applications now, and the winning couple will be chosen Dec. 1.

Stella Trout, who owns Stellar Photography, and her friend Stephanie Thiel, owner of Pretty Flowers LLC, have worked several weddings together, so they’re pretty in tune with each other. They came up with the idea as a way to give back to a couple in the community.

“This is for someone who got married but didn’t have the whole experience,” Trout said. “It could have been delayed because of COVID, or one was deployed and they had a quick wedding or even if finances didn’t allow them to do it.”

The idea is for the couple to not have to do any planning, although the event can be personalized.

As for her part in the wedding, Trout said there’s just one chance to get those candid moments of a wedding.

“Brides want to see that you can capture those moments in real life,” she said. “With posing people, you can capture what looks like a moment, but capture candidness is huge.”

The chosen bride will also have somewhat of a personal assistant, Trout said. Miss Appalachian Fair 2021 Hannah Maultbay will go with the bride for her dress selection and fitting.

Other vendors participating in the wedding giveaway include Angie Denner at Curvaceous Consignment for the dress, PBJ for the reception DJ music, Cake Art by Marti Chambers, Jessica’s Updos for hair and makeup by Angie Ryder.

Trout said they are still looking for a tuxedo vendor, but should have something firmed up soon.

Thiel said there were so many people affected last year and this year by COVID — either having the virus, losing relatives or jobs — and “we thought this would be a perfect opportunity to give them something they never had.”

“Maybe they got married at the courthouse or couldn’t have a ceremony for some reason. We wanted to do this to support our community after the hard times we’ve had; if we can bring joy to someone, that’s what we want to do,” Thiel said.

To enter the wedding giveaway contest, contact Trout on her Facebook page, Stellar Photography, or Thiel on her Instagram @prettyflowersbystephanie.

“We want this to be a dream come true for someone. We’re spending a lot of time and money planning this,” Trout said.

Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park offers art, music, exercise and Christmas house tours

ELIZABETHTON — Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, 1651 W. Elk Ave., always has a lot of things going on besides telling the history of the region. That is particularly true as the holiday season begins.

The Watauga Valley Art League has just opened its annual Winterfest Art Show, which is set to run from Nov. 21 through Dec. 5. Other events include an After Thanksgiving Day Hike through the park grounds on Friday, Nov. 26, to help walk off some of the extra calories of the holiday feast. There are also some early tastes of Christmas in store, including Christmastide Tours of the Carter Mansion Dec. 3-5.

The Christmas Art Show provides an opportunity to find a really unique gift for someone special. The Art League was founded in 1969 and has over 100 members in six counties of Northeast Tennessee. The league’s mission is to encourage artists and promote public interest in fine art through education, networking and fellowship among artists. League members include art teachers, professionals, hobbyists, amateurs, and some who just love art.

Most of the items in the Christmas Art Show are for sale and the wide variety of subjects by the many artists whose works are on display make it likely that the search for a really memorable gift can be completed. The art is on display in the gathering room of the park’s Visitor Center from Nov. 21-Dec. 5. The Visitor Center is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Sunday from 1-4:30 p.m.

The calorie burner will begin at 9 a.m. Friday. Ranger Jason Davis will lead the interpretive walk through the park’s grounds and along portions of the walking path. He will show some of the sites of historic events that took place around Sycamore Shoals and will discuss the significance those events had on the formation of Tennessee and the United States.

Participants are asked to dress appropriately for taking a casual stroll in the November weather. The footing is a bit uneven in areas. The group will meet in the picnic area beside the Visitor Center. Pre-registration is required and may be done online at: www.tnstateparks.com/parks/events/sycamore-shoals. The event is free.

Music will be the order of the day on Sunday, Nov. 28, as Art Lang and his friends hold an Old Time Music Jam from 1:30-4 p.m. Old-time musicians of all skill levels are welcome, and those who don’t play are welcome to sit back and listen to the tunes.

The Christmastide Tours of the Carter Mansion will take place on Friday, Dec. 3, at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 4, at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 5, at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.

One of the park’s historical interpreters will guide the groups through the festively decorated rooms of Tennessee’s oldest frame house as it would have been decorated with natural greenery during Christmas 1780. Participants will learn about Christmas customs, traditions of the frontiersmen, and about the historically significant Carter Family and the role the family played in Tennessee’s settlement.

The Carter Mansion is located at 1031 Broad St Admission is $10 for adults and $6 for children 17 and under. Pre-registration is required and can be done online at www.tnstateparks.com/parks/events/sycamore-shoals.

Overmountain Christmas Open House will be held on Saturday Dec. 4, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The event will be held at the Visitors Center, with historically dressed carolers, Christmas stories, the art show, and more. There will be a special activity or project the whole family can participate in making. There will also be a chance to pick up a gift at the park’s gift shop and bookstore.

Four area school systems win part of $800,000 in Tenn. grants

NASHVILLE — Four Tri-Cities school districts are among nearly 40 systems across the state to win grants from the Tennessee Department of Education.

Hawkins County led the way with the highest number of grants and highest overall dollar amount.

‘’This funding will be used to purchase VEX IQ robots for each school and teacher professional development and training,” Debbi Pressnell, grant writer for Hawkins County Schools, said Monday afternoon.

The other three systems are Washington County with two grants for the same school, giving it the most grant money of any single school in the region, followed by Johnson City and Bristol each with one grant.

“This (middle schools) grant will allow teachers to address coding standards in a hands-on and engaging manner,” said Brittney Rhoton, STEM or science, technology, engineering and math academic coach for Hawkins County.


The Department of Education on Monday announced more than $800,000 in grant funding has been awarded to 38 districts for STEM education, middle school career and technical education and High School School-Based Enterprise projects.

In the middle school start-up and expansion category, in Hawkins County Bulls Gap School, Church Hill Intermediate and Rogersville Middle received $6,197 each and Clinch School, a pre-K-12, received $3,948. That makes for a total of $22,539 among the four schools.

Pressnell said of the lesser amount for Clinch versus the other three schools reflects the smaller size of the school and its lower class sizes.

“We are proud of each person that was involved in getting this funding for our district,” Hawkins County Director of Schools Matt Hixson said. “Any STEM training for our students prepares them for the future and makes them a competitive force within a college or career path.”

Elsewhere in the region, the new Tennessee Middle School in Bristol got $10,000 in the same category, while Sulphur Springs Elementary School in Washington County got $9,251 in that category.

In the middle school CTE career exploration grants, Johnson City’s Indian Trail Middle School won $9,418 and Washington County’s Sulphur Springs Elementary got $9,251.53.

That makes for $18,503.53 for Washington County, all at Sulphur Springs. No Tri-Cities school won in the high school category.


Funding is being provided through Gov. Bill Lee’s Future Workforce Initiative, which is aimed at increasing access to CTE, STEM and Work-Based Learning in the classroom. For the past two years, the department awarded start-up funding for middle school STEM and CTE programs.

This year, in addition to start-up grants, schools that previously received funding were eligible to apply for expansion STEM and CTE grants, while high schools had the opportunity to qualify for SBE funding to increase enrollment in WBL courses.

Middle School STEM Start-Up & Expansion Grants have been awarded to schools in 26 districts, and Middle School CTE Start-Up & Expansion Grants have been awarded to schools in 15 districts. Eight districts will receive High School SBE grant funding, with a total of 89 schools receiving grants.

To view a list of all grant recipients, go online to https://www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/education/ccte/FY22_MS_and_HS_Grant_Awards_upd.pdf.

”Ensuring our students have access to high-quality work-based learning opportunities, STEM, and career and technical education is essential to building college and career readiness,” Commissioner Penny Schwinn said in a news release. “Tennessee has worked diligently to align STEM and CTE coursework that provides students with clearer pathways when transitioning from middle to high school. We are thrilled to now provide high school school-based learning to further improve students’ transition from high school into postsecondary education and the workforce.”

For the past three years, middle school grants have directly supported the goal of the Future Workforce Initiative to add an additional 100 new middle school STEM programs by 2022, a news release said. Adding High School SBE grants will help eliminate barriers for students who can’t participate in off-campus WBL placements due to transportation and scheduling challenges, it said.

Districts were allowed to apply for all three grants this year.

Grant funds will be available to districts Dec. 1.

For more information about the Middle School STEM Start-Up Grants, CTE Career Exploration Grants, or High School School-Based Enterprise Grants, visit the department’s website at https://www.tn.gov/education/career-and-technical-education/career-clusters/cte-cluster-middle-school-cte-coursework.html.

To learn more about the Governor’s Future Workforce Initiative go online to https://www.tn.gov/education/news/2021/11/18/governor-lee-s-future-workforce-initiative-impacts-nearly-400-000-tennessee-students---2-000--educators-.html. It already has impacted nearly 400,000 Tennessee students and more than 2,000 educators.

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