Instructor Bios

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Cheray Bixler started learning sign language at the age of seven, when her sister was born deaf. By the age of fourteen, she was interpreting at a special needs school for deaf students in upstate New York. When she entered high school, Cheray took American Sign Language as her language requirement for graduation. After moving to Alabama in 2004, she studied ASL at Bishop State Community College for four years and worked as an aide for the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Mobile. She has also worked as an interpreter in the Pensacola school system, with people who are both blind and deaf. Cheray sees a great need for people who can sign and learn ASL and believes this is especially important for professionals who may come in contact with the deaf.

Anne Brooks earned a Bachelors of Interior Design degree from Auburn University and an M.A. degree in Art from Spring Hill College. She is a member of the American Society of Botanical Artists and the Watercolor and Graphics Society of Mobile. Her work has been exhibited in various venues in Demopolis, Mobile, Dauphin Island and the Eastern Shore. Anne has taught art at the Sybil Smith Family Village in Mobile and the Fairhope Artists Co-operative Gallery.

John Brown holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Marketing and Finance from Florida State University and is a Certified Financial Planner. In 1986, he founded Brown Financial Advisory, a fee-only financial planning/investment firm located in Fairhope. During his career, he served on a number of local and national professional boards, wrote financial columns for a local newspaper, presented financial and retirement planning seminars for employees of various companies, and taught financial classes for the University of South Alabama. Since selling his business in 2010 and retiring, he has served as a Certified Financial Mentor. After his retirement, Brown met author Mitch Anthony and read his book, The New Retirementality, about achieving a fulfilling, purposeful retirement. He found the work both inspirational and practical and is basing his course on its methodology for guiding anyone who is already retired or planning to retire soon.

Christina Caprez is a Yoga Alliance certified instructor. Since 2000 she has shared her unique approach to yoga with the people on the Eastern Shore, including at the Grand Hotel, the University of South Alabama in Fairhope and the Eastern Shore Art Center, as well as at ESILL.

Loran Chavez-With a father in the Air Force, Chavez traveled extensively as a child. The zest for life she acquired with those experiences followed her into adulthood and has been a major influence on her artwork. She is a self-educated artist who works with a limited palette of non-fugitive colors, providing her work a crisp quality. Her style tends toward photorealism and is inspired by the world around her. She is now in her second series of "100 Paintings--100 Days" and maintains a blog about the paintings ( Chavez teaches for the Mobile Museum of Art's Art Blast summer program for children, the Daphne Art Center, Eastern Shore Art Center, Space 301, and the University of South Alabama Continuing Education program. She has run workshops in watercolor and oils/acrylics for groups from Dauphin Island to Ocean Springs, MS. Her work has been in several galleries on the coast, including Cathedral Square Gallery and Fairhope Connections.

Barb Comstock comes from a green thumb family: her father was a research geneticist with the USDA and her mother was a florist. Along with her husband Peter, she raised her three children on an apple orchard and small crop farm in Minnesota. While her degrees are animal oriented, and her career was in human resources, when they moved here six years ago, she fully embraced the “gardeners paradise” of gardening in the South. Her specialties are tropical and sub tropical plants and propagation. She is a Baldwin County Master Gardener and on their Speakers Bureau.

Carl Couret, a retired fish and wildlife biologist who worked in Hawaii, New Mexico, Alabama, and Florida, has been a resident of Mobile Bay’s Eastern Shore for over 30 years.  Although he played woodwind instruments in the school band while growing up in New Orleans, it wasn’t until 2010 that he became interested in playing music again, bought his first ukulele at a flea market, and took an Introduction to Ukulele course with ESILL.  He has been playing ukulele since then with local folk music groups and clubs at various venues in Fairhope, Pensacola, Albuquerque, and Hawaii.  Carl is a longtime member and “luna” of the Eastern Shore Ukulele Club (on Facebook), which has open, informal jams most Mondays at the Unitarian Fellowship in Fairhope.

Margaret Davis  Davis is a retired professor from Spring Hill College where she taught courses in Latino/a-American literature and American literature of all genres.

Ron Driesbach, a retired Naval officer, was trained in the Chinese Mandarin language by the Defense Language Institute East Coast and brings a world of experience to his teaching by virtue of his service in Europe and the Middle and Far East, including Southeast Asia. He holds a B.S degree in education from the University of Cincinnati and has teaching experience in Florida middle and high schools. A member in good standing in the National Qigong Association, he has practiced and taught T’ai Chi for over 25 years. He holds the principles of the art of T’ai Chi in the highest esteem and is dedicated to sharing his love for the ancient art with his students.

Donna B. Esslinger holds degrees in history, English, and education from Michigan State University, with further advanced work in English and psychology at the University of South Alabama.  She has taught in public, private and accelerated schools, community colleges and adult education programs. Her career in history began as research historian and editor of all historical publications for the State of Michigan’s History Division during the 1970s, including Michigan History Magazine.  She wrote a variety of articles, monographs, booklets and pamphlets on Great Lakes history and is the author of two books, Heritage of Grand Traverse Bay: The City and Its People and Pines, Prayers, and Perseverance: The Evolution of Alma College. Later she was a commercial writer and public relations consultant for over twenty years for municipalities, restaurants, architectural firms and ski and golf resorts. With husband Harry Bollinger, she owned and operated Talponia Press (private letterpress printing) and later opened Talponia Books (antique and rare books) with her husband, Dr. John  Esslinger.  She has been a public speaker for over twenty years and has attended St. Paul’s Chapel since 1988, creating the position of Parish Administrator which she has held since 2004. 

Joe Formichella is a Hackney Award-winner, Pushcart-nominated author who lives in Fairhope with author and wife Suzanne Hudson. He has published three novels, including his latest, Schopenhauer's Maxim, and four nonfiction books. A Condition of Freedom is the most recent. Formichella has worked as an editor for the literary review Negative Capability; for the USA graduate school on the short story anthologies Blue Moon Cafe and The Shoeburnin; and and on a novel Salvage Man. He has also judged several creative writing contests.

Richard Geiger is a native Mobilian with degrees from the University of Southern Mississippi and Auburn University. After graduation, he worked in the computer industry for over 40 years as a design engineer, support engineer, technical architect and global technical support manager before retiring in 2013. After living in several different locations, he and his wife returned to the Eastern Shore in 2002. An avid sailor, he and his wife have sailed in most oceans, seas and bays of the world. He also teaches computer classes to senior citizens, is a Kiwanian, a private pilot and a Coast Guard certified Coxswain.

Blair Heald is a specialist in gifted education with the Baldwin County School System. She will soon be awarded a Ph.D. in education, with an emphasis on gifted education, from Northcentral University. Blair began making Temari in the late 1990s in an ESILL course. Since then, she has become a Temari instructor and teaches it to her intermediate school students. She is certified through level two (Koutouka Shuuryou) with the Japanese Temari Association and plans to pursue the final two levels of certification. She has visited the Temari Museum in Tokyo on two separate visits to Japan.r still teaches gifted education at W. J. Carroll Intermediate School where her students work on Temari every year.

Michael Healy's lifelong personal and professional interest in plants began with plant tending at an early age, and, by the time his formal education was complete, he had three degrees in plant science. His first job after graduate school was in the R&D division of a large agrochemical corporation, and from there he migrated to smaller and smaller companies. In 1973, he began a part-time business that became full-time self-employment two years later. He has been self-employed for the majority of his career and has also taught plant science courses at both the community college and university levels. 

John Helmstadter has been sailing for over 60 years, owning and sailing several types of small sailboats: Snipe, Sunfish, Thistle, Lightning, Butterfly, Catalina 22, and an S2-6.7. He has been active in a number of yacht clubs, most recently including the Fairhope Yacht Club, where he is in charge of the Adult Sailing Program, and scorekeeper of Sunday and Thursday night races. He says, “Sailing has been a very important and exciting part of my life, and I enjoy sharing my experiences with others.”

Brenda Huchingson holds a Ph.D. degree in English literature.  She taught college English for over 30 years at Tulane University, the University of South Carolina, and Hampton University in Virginia.  Brenda is the ESILL Registrar.

John Jackson holds an M.A. degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Alabama and an M.A. degree in History from Jacksonville State University. He is currently completing the requirements for his Ph.D. degree in History from Auburn University. For nine years, John served as the Director of the Baldwin County Department of Archives and History and was involved in such projects as local oral history, the Baldwin County Archives facility, and the creation of Stockton’s Bicentennial Park. Since 2014, he has been the Director of the Foley Public Library.

Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan is the Interim Rabbi of the Springhill Avenue Temple in Mobile,  His rabbinic ordination is from Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem.  He also holds a Ph.D. in American Jewish History from Tel Aviv University. From 2001-2011, he led Temple B'nai Israel in Albany, Georgia, and from 2011-2015 he was the Rabbi of the United Congregation of Israelites in Kingston, Jamaica.  Rabbi Kaplan is the author of The New Reform Judiasm; Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal; The Cambridge Companion to American Judaism; American Reform Judaism: An Introduction; Platforms and Prayer Books; and Contemporary Debates in American Reform Judaism.

Mara Kozelsky, who holds an M.A degree from West Virginia University and a Ph.D. degree from the University of Rochester, is a Professor of History at the University of South Alabama. Her research focuses on Russia, Ukraine, and Crimea, where she has lived, visited, and worked. She has published numerous books and articles relating to religious and political history, with a book forthcoming on the civilian experience of the Crimean War.

Robert R. Maldonado, PhD, BBHS, CEMP/I, CHTP is a Certified Energy Medicine Practitioner/Instructor, Reiki Master Teacher, Barbara Brennan Healing Science Practitioner, Shamanic practitioner, Certified Healing Touch Practitioner, and teacher of Chinese Integral Qigong and Tai Chi. He has also completed additional studies in Bert Hellinger’s core constellations; mediumship and crystal healing. Robert is a retired military officer and teacher dedicated to helping people discover their innate abilities and their potential to heal themselves and find their true purpose in life. He is the author of The Calling of the Heart: A Journey in Self-Healing describing his spiritual journey as a healer and international travels with Energy Medicine Partnerships. Additionally, he is the author of “My Maori Experience: New Zealand2007”; “A Spiritual Journey to the Sacred Land of Mystical Peru”; and, “A Healers Journey: My Return for the Deactivation of the 20th Special Operations Squadron and the Retirement of the United States Air Force MH-53M Pave Low Helicopter.” His hobbies include traveling, Qigong, writing, reading, pastel painting, triathlons, and walking his dog Buddy.

Mary Gorton McBride received a doctorate in English literature from LSU and was a professor of English/administrator for more than 35 years in Louisiana and Florida. She loved Emily Dickinson's poetry from elementary school, but when she began a serious study of the poems a few years ago, she realized that most of what she had learned about Dickinson’s life and work in graduate courses in the 1960s was outdated by the work of the scholars and critics of the 21st century. This brief seminar will bring the new scholarship to our reading of our greatest American poet.

Ann McLaurin received a PhD from the University of Oklahoma and was a Professor of History at LSU in Shreveport and Chair of the Department of History and Political Science, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and Director of the Civic Leadership Center.  She has authored/edited/coauthored five books on various historical topics. After retirement she became an accomplished birder, and birded virtually every state in the Union including Hawaii and Alaska.  Her field trips included seminars and field sessions with the top ornithologists in the country. For the past several years Ann has been one of the field trip leaders for the Mobile  Bay Audubon Society and the Eastern Shore Birders.

Fred Nation, who lives in Daphne, is a field botanist and environmental consultant and is certified in herbicide application. He has documented and photographed the wildflowers and native plants of South Alabama for 20 years. Nation teaches for the Baldwin and Mobile County Master Gardener intern classes; has offered courses for ESILL; conducts regular classes on habitats and ecosystems for the Friends Groups at Weeks Bay Reserve; and has conducted numerous workshops and seminars on native and invasive exotic plants for national and state groups. Currently, he is a member of the Baldwin County Forestry Planning Committee. Nation has nominated or co-nominated more than 20 Alabama State Champion Trees and is the author of.

Pat Norton holds an associate degree from the Southern Institute of Design, Birmingham, and a B.A. degree in Family and Consumer Science Education from Alabama A & M University. While in Design School, she worked for the President of the American Society of Interior Designers. She has owned businesses in Fairhope since 1982, including Pat Norton Interiors, Consignment Furniture Shop, Architectural Consignment Shop, and, currently, The Kitchen Shop and Success Weight Loss.

Giulia Pejka was born in Naples, Italy and traveled a lot in her younger years because of her father's job. That gave her the chance to experience the beautiful differences of her country. The family settled in Naples when he finally retired. Giulia came to the United States 14 years ago and is proud to call South Alabama her home.  She says she will never forget her roots and by teaching her beautiful language she hopes to give others the chance to experience a little of her country now, and maybe let the desire to visit Italy grow in their hearts. She adds, “In the last few years I tutored and helped travelers getting familiar with the language to make their stay more comfortable. I love teaching the language, but I also enjoy discussing everything about Italy, from customs to food, from art to tourist attractions and locations.” 

Billie Reinhart, at the age of 17, was drawn to the spiritual, non-competitive, and pain relieving aspects of yoga.  A Hatha certified instructor, Billie has been studying Anusara since 2006, the same year she began teaching yoga. She is certified with Yoga Alliance, ACE and AFAA. Her special interest in therapeutics and anatomy led her to study Thai Yoga Bodywork in 2010. Her style is also influenced by her personal Anusara, Acro-yoga, and partner yoga practice.  When she's not in class, she's sewing, camping, getting ready for her next concert or music festival, or in a lounging lawn chair with her feet in the creek. 

Tony Rhodes- graduated from Florida State University with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering and has done graduate work at the University of Tennessee. He served as a Naval Aviator for 21 years, with tours at Top Gun, CIA, and Air Force Exchange in Europe, and flew four cruises, including a combat tour in 1972 over North Vietnam. After retiring, he served in the Federal Aviation Agency as an Automation and Safety Engineer and as an Air Traffic Controller. Since 2010, he has taught lifelong learning courses at the University of Southern Mississippi..

Charles Scovil graduated with a degree in geology from Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA, and was Curator of Stamford Observatory in Connecticut for 50 years. He has taught astronomy at both the grade-school and adult levels. His hobbies are astronomy, archaeology, and photography.

Gene Sellier is a founder of a computer company that developed hardware and software solutions for small business systems. After selling his computer business, Gene managed the largest independent camera store in St. Louis for almost two years before retiring. He is a photography enthusiast and former ESILL board member.

Jane Sellier is a teaching artist who believes in the freedom and fun art can provide.  Her philosophy is to “have fun, be experimental and share it with others.”  Painting in soft pastels, watercolors, oils and acrylics, she enjoys switching mediums because each one stays new, fresh and exciting.  She continues to take classes and workshops and says, “If I’m not teaching, I’m taking a course.  Art is a never-ending learning process and so much can be learned from other artists.” Jane has won awards that include ribbons, cash prizes and best of show.  Her paintings are in private and corporate collections both in the United States and in Canada.  Her work has been published in The Artist’s Magazine and Artist’s Sketchbook Magazine.  Jane’s paintings can be seen at Eastern Shore Art Center.

Rabbi Steven Silberman: Before he received his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Rabbi Steven Silberman received a B.S. degree in psychology from UCLA, pursued rabbinical studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and studied in Jerusalem at the Neve Schechter campus. He has lived with his wife and their four children in Mobile for the past 25 years. Rabbi Silberman values family time and the opportunity of learning and spiritual growth, and he appreciates the significance of sharing special life moments and ordinary time with his synagogue members (Cong. Ahavas Chesed) and members of the local community. He is active in Jewish-Christian Dialogue and five years ago was asked to help start the Muslim/Jewish/Christian Trialogue. He also writes occasional newspaper columns and teaches in various communal settings. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, music, and traveling with his family.

Gwen Snyder grew up enjoying gardening and studied entomology, with a specialty in beekeeping, at Auburn University. She taught Agriculture while serving in the Peace Corps, and, for 20 years, she and her husband ran an organic market-garden business in Fairhope. Now retired, she continues to garden on a smaller scale and has renewed a long-held interest in the joys of flute playing—an interest she would now like to share with others.

Jere Trigg, a resident of Spanish Fort for 33 years, was born in Mobile and graduated in 1975 from the University of Alabama with a degree in Chemical Engineering. Until his retirement in 2009, he worked for the UOP Molecular Sieve Manufacturing Plant in a number of positions, most recently as the Health, Safety, and Environmental Manager. Trigg became interested in growing African violets when he was given a plant 40 years ago, and he quickly developed an appreciation for their beauty and ease of culture. Since his retirement, he has been experimenting with African Violet hybridization and has produced hundreds of seedlings from his cross pollinations. As a member of the African Violet Society of American and the Baldwin County Master Gardeners, he volunteers for the Master Gardeners Speakers Bureau and has given presentations on African Violets to numerous area garden clubs. His goal when speaking about violets is to create interest in this rewarding hobby and to encourage others to give it a try.

Irene Wegner has been telling stories for over 39 years and has used education grants to share stories and teach storytelling in schools throughout the mid-western rural areas of the U.S. Now a happy resident of Fairhope, she would like to share tips and techniques so that others can continue this age-old tradition.

Maria Whatley, who moved to Fairhope in 2010 with her husband and two children, is a native Spanish speaker from Loja, Ecuador. She holds a B.A. degree in Linguistics from the Central University of Ecuador and an M.A. degree in Spanish Literature from the University of South Carolina. Maria has taught basic, intermediate, and advanced Spanish, as well as literature courses, at Samford University, Montgomery College, and the University of South Carolina.

Vincentine Williams is an accomplished pianist and the teacher of approximately 35 piano students, many of them gifted.   She belongs to six professional organizations and chairs three local music events for students.  Much in demand as a musical adjudicator of student performances, she has studied in France and holds music degrees from Tulane University and the University of Southern Mississippi.  In 2008 she was the recipient of the Alabama Music Teacher of the Year Award.  Since 1982 she has been the organist and choirmaster at Ascension Lutheran Church in Daphne, and as our longest serving ESILL instructor, since 1980, we couldn’t do without her!

Christine Zuercher holds a BA in speech communications and worked in the broadcasting industry until she decided to be a stay-at-home mom. Her interest in cake decorating and design started over 20 years ago as she began making novelty cakes for her young children.  She enrolled in the Wilton classes and found a passion for making edible art.  Over the years Christine increased her skills by taking many advanced decorating classes from master cake decorators and chefs.  She returned to school and specialized in pastry arts and is a certified Wilton instructor.  Her favorite thing about teaching cake decorating is seeing the excitement on students’ faces when they realize how easily they can personalize desserts for special events and occasions. Making special memories for family and friends is very rewarding. 


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