Living Here Guide

Famous faces on Columbia places

Leeza Gibbons

Leeza Gibbons, co-host of “America Now,” shown daily on WIS-10, also is a best-selling author and advocate for caregivers for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

She grew up in Irmo, graduating from Irmo High School and the University of South Carolina. She returns often to see her family, which includes her father, Carlos, who lives in Chapin. Leeza filmed a report recently at the Barnyard flea markets in Lexington on how to find a bargain, with her father, who owned an antiques store in Chapin.

You also can see Leeza and her family in videos posted at, in which they share memories of taking care of her mother, Gloria Jean Gibbons, who died in 2008. Leeza created a foundation that led to the creation of Leeza’s Place, facilities that offer supports for caregivers and their families.

Her latest book is “Take 2: Your Guide To Creating Happy Endings and New Beginnings.” The audio version is out in June.

Did you ever go to the Okra Strut? Do you eat okra?

Gibbons: Oh, you bet I went to the Okra Strut! In fact, I was the grand marshal of the parade one year, which I have very liberally interpreted as being one of the highest honors the state can bestow upon an individual.

Personally, I think fried okra is a close second to chocolate when it comes to my favorite things, but I also like it boiled, pickled ... you name it. I’ve never met an okra gumbo that I didn’t like and if you’re a purist, broil it in the oven with just a little sea salt and olive oil . So , yes ... I love okra!

Did you spend time at Lake Murray? What did you do there? Was there a favorite spot?

Gibbons: I hatched a lot of dreams at Lake Murray. From the summer I learned to water ski to spraying Sun-In on my hair, many of my girlhood memories are centered around friends and family at the lake. We’d look forward to the first weekend of summer when Mom and Dad would put the boat in at Johnson’s Marina and for the next three months it was an endless stream of parties and picnics.

When my brother was a teenager, he would take the controls of our little inboard/outboard boat, and I would be scared out of my mind as he would speed along spraying innocent sunbathers on the shore while I squealed hanging onto my macrame headband.

I remember going to Bomb Island to see the purple martins and swinging from ropes way out over the water and letting go in what seemed like a rite of passage for summer.

What are the biggest changes you see when you return to the Midlands to visit?

Gibbons: Well, it’s busier, of course and traffic is more congested, but there is still that sense of community and a feeling that people somehow look out for each other. I love seeing the downtown revitalization projects and the arts districts that have emerged. It’s great to see historic buildings rehabbed to become a gallery or restaurant.

What’s happening along the Congaree Vista is spectacular. Every time I go home, I have to check it out to see what’s new, along with the expansion of the Carolina campus, which is very exciting. I’m a very proud Gamecock and I’ve always loved the campus, but when I was at USC, the highlights were Capstone, the Coliseum and The Horseshoe.

Special memories at Irmo High School?

Gibbons: I loved my time at Irmo. I was there so long ago we weren’t even allowed to wear pants! I remember getting the first memo announcing that it would be allowed for girls to wear pants to school ... actually “pantsuits” with matching tops and bottoms being “acceptable.” Amazing, right?

Cheering with my squad at the football games was the quintessential Friday Night Lights experience. I was the head cheerleader, and I remember the principal, Phil Spotts, called me into his office one time to tell me that he thought I should get the cheerleaders to loosen up a bit. That’s how straight-laced I was! We were the “Yellow Jackets,” so our version of the dance party/sock hop was called the “Sting Out” where we tried to dance out of the view of the chaperones in the gym.

I was the same height then as I am now (about 5 feet, 8 inches) and I towered over most of the boys for a while. My two dear friends Terri and Zaidee are still my dearest friends now and we look back on what we were like in high school and realize in most ways, we’re still those same girls.

We were happy, we loved our families, and we didn’t have to worry about having all our mistakes posted on Facebook or Twitter.

What’s your “must do” activity when you’re visiting family and friends here now?

Gibbons: For food, it’s Piggie Park for a Little Pig Bar B Que sandwich and always a meal at Lizard’s Thicket for home-grown veggies. My dad still lives at Lake Murray in Chapin and my brother and sister are not far from him, so my favorite way to spend a visit is to simply gather together with them and laugh.

They are at the top of my gratitude list and I’m so blessed that my family of origin is also my family of choice. There’s no one I’d rather be with in the world.

Patrick Davis

Camden native Patrick Davis has written songs for Jewel, Darius Rucker and Lady Antebellum. Today, he lives in Nashville.

“My favorite memories from my time living in Columbia would have to be the early fall Carolina game days. The sun shining through the changing leaves, friends packed like Ringling Bros.’ clowns in the cars and trucks lining Rosewood and Assembly, the autumn wind blowing the lil’ black sundresses the USC girls so beautifully wear, the tailgate spreads fit for a king, the excitement that builds with each passing minute and that eternal hope that lives in all South Carolina football fans that this game, this year, is gonna be our year. Nothing’s quite like college football in the South and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t get any more enjoyable than game day at Williams Brice in Columbia.”

Charles Frazier

Charles Frazier, author of historical novel Cold Mountain, who earned a doctorate in in English at the University of South Carolina in 1986.

“I’ve heard a couple of accounts of my time in Columbia during the late 1970’s that claim I “took a room” or “lived in a garret” near the campus of USC. Fact is, we lived in the beautiful 19th-century house that became the Rose Hall B&B near the corner of Barnwell Street and Pendleton. My wife Katherine and I had the entire second floor and our friends Pam and Dick had the downstairs. We had a red convertible, an Austin Healey 3000, which seldom went more than 30 miles without breaking down, but it looked great sitting in the backyard.

“Columbia was, of course, much less sprawling, and I-20 and I-77 were not yet complete. In the summer, after a morning class on campus, I would pedal my green French-made Gitane to Bell Camp, a very old fashioned kind of place on a pond. It seemed way out in the country back then and was owned by the university. I’d take a book, a towel, and a deflated air mattress rolled together and strapped to my bike rack. I would lie in the sun and read, or float dozing on the brown water for a couple of hours and then ride home, about a 30-mile round trip. Maybe I’d find Dick in the back yard working on his wooden sailboat or trying to rig up a gravity-fed solar hot-water shower from the flat porch roof. Other days, I would run a big loop that went from campus around Lake Katharine, past James Dickey’s house. It was a good long run, 10 or 12 miles, and the whole way I’d be thinking about absolutely nothing.”

Dustin Johnson

Pro-golfer Dustin Johnson grew up in Columbia and went to Dutch Fork High School. He now lives in Jupiter, Fla.

On local restaurants: “Back in Columbia where I grew up, Lizard’s Thicket is still my favorite place to go,” Johnson said. “I love that good ol’ country cooking.”

On where to play: “I love being on the water, whether on a boat or riding a board. In Columbia, I love Lake Murray with my friends.”

Kary Mullis

Nobel Prize-winner Kary Mullis still gets together at the beach each summer with his best friends from Dreher High School.

The four of them shared the power of youth and an interest in science. When experiments like building rockets with frogs aboard created a commotion, Columbia police officers dispatched to the doorstep “just kind of laughed and said, ‘Don’t do that.’”

Mullis lived in Columbia’s Shandon neighborhood, 1950-62, with his parents and three brothers. He described a city with woods and creeks to explore, a mother who gave him the freedom to roam and public schools that encouraged his interests.

“The people that I knew in high school, I definitely have a warm relationship with them,” said Mullis, 69, who shared the coveted Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1993.

Chris Potter

Chris Potter, a saxophonist and composer from Columbia, has more than a dozen of his own albums and performed on dozens of others.

“I grew up in the Shandon neighborhood, which was great for a kid; friendly, relaxed, wide streets, lots of trees. In high school, I used to love to ride my bike down to Five Points and go to Papa Jazz records, which is a great resource; lots of cool and sometimes obscure recordings (heavy on the jazz of course). A lot of the music that has influenced me the most I bought there.”

Dawn Staley

When University of South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley was considering the head-coaching vacancy at Ohio State in March, the last thing she expected was a call from Gov. Nikki Haley.

Staley says the call and show of support from someone as busy as Haley was touching and one of her favorite memories as the Gamecocks’ coach.

Though Columbia can be very different from Staley’s home of Philadelphia, Staley has embraced the city because of how it has embraced her. Withdrawing her name from the Ohio State search not long after Haley’s call, Staley continues to call Columbia home.

You’ve seen and lived in a lot of places just by nature of your professional playing career, so what separates Columbia from everywhere else you’ve been?

Staley: “Columbia’s warm. I think the people of Columbia are genuine and hospitable everywhere I go. From the grocery store to just walking down the street, people will honk their horns and really make you feel good about what you do. They’re really appreciative of my accomplishments in just bringing prominence to the university and the state through the success of our women’s basketball team.”

Is there a favorite place that you like to go?

Staley: “I don’t go out a whole lot. The Starbucks in Five Points is the place that when I walk through the door, they automatically have my drink ready. That’s my ‘Cheers’ so to speak, where everybody knows my name. They know if anybody from our staff goes. They’ll know the drink to prepare before we even get to the register.”

What was your perception of Columbia when you first came here five years ago and has that changed at all?

Staley: “My perception of the city was that it was kind of small and there were not too many options. I don’t do a whole lot, but I like to feel that if I decided to go do something, there are plenty of options. I think once I lived here longer, I saw there are a lot of things to do, yet I still haven’t done everything there is to do.

“I haven’t really taken part in the nightlife because that’s just not me, but there is certainly a nightlife. I learned that through some of our players and some of the people on our coaching staff who don’t mind going out and taking advantage of all the wonderful restaurants and the nightclubs. All of those things are readily available if I get the urge, but I just haven’t gotten the urge to really go and do that.

“My nieces and nephews have moved down here and there are tons of things to do down here that are family oriented. That is one of things that have made my stay enjoyable.”

Ray Tanner

Since becoming South Carolina’s baseball coach in 1996, Ray Tanner and his wife have stayed in the same Columbia home off Devine Street.

The now-athletics director says he is a “downtowner,” taking advantage of his home’s proximity to the shops and restaurants on Devine Street and in Five Points. He’s developed relationships with his neighbors in his 17 years there and says it’s the city’s residents that have made the city feel like home for so long.

What is your favorite experience from living in Columbia?

Tanner: “I think the first time we won the (baseball) national championship, we came home to our house decorated by the neighbors with the championship slogans and those kinds of things. It was kind of neat. Then we proceeded to have a block party, so it was kind of special. It always is. That certainly was a highlight. We have wonderful neighbors, and it’s just a great place to live.”

How have you seen the city change since you first moved here?

Tanner: “I think we continue to grow. The aesthetics of Five Points have improved greatly. We continue to make strides in the development and growth of the city. Part of the allure is the fact that Five Points hasn’t been overtaken by the commercialization. There are restaurants and bars and shops and those kind of things, but it’s quaint. It’s a village versus the big-city takeover. I think that’s very special.”

What do you think makes Columbia unique?

Tanner: “I think people make a city and a community. For me, it’s just the friendliness and how genuine Columbia’s people are. People will talk to you even though they might not know you. I think there’s a special friendliness and southern hospitality that exists in Columbia.”

Charlie Todd

Forest Acres native Charlie Todd may live in a city known for its great delicatessens.

But he claims nothing in New York City tops his favorite deli sandwiches in Columbia’s Five Points.

The 34-year-old founder of Improv Everywhere either orders Andy’s Special (at Andy’s Deli) or the STP Dipper (at Groucho’s) when he’s home visiting his folks.

“I know there’s a great debate in Columbia over which one is superior, and people have different loyalties,” Todd said. “I’m a fan of both.”

Contributing: Bob Gillespie, Betsey Guzior, Dawn Hinshaw, Joey Holleman, Isabelle Khurshudyan, Otis Taylor