Instructor Bios

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Dianne Bernasconi, known in the community as Ms. B., has had a lifelong love for sewing and fashion and enjoys teaching and sharing that love with others. She taught Fashion Design and Family Consumer Science (Home Economics) at Fairhope High School and Spanish Fort High School and won Alabama Family Consumer Science Teacher of the Year in 2015. Dianne has studied with and is a mentee of Vogue designer Sandra Betzina; she studied in Paris in 2018 and in Florence in 2019. In 2020, she will be on a fabric and texture safari in Morocco. She is a certified Home Sewing Association Instructor and Window Covering Association of America Designer.

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.  John is a member of the ESILL Board.

Rick Byrd was born in Pensacola, Florida (his grandfather was a native of Baldwin County). Rick graduated with a B.A. in History from Huntingdon College, an M.A. in History from Vanderbilt University, and an Ed. M. in Education from Harvard University. He taught for 40 years in independent preparatory schools in Tennessee and Georgia. His Master's work was in Borderlands History, specifically the Old Southwest.  His fields of specialization have been U.S. Colonial History, U.S. Middle Period History, and U.S. Economic History. Most recently he has been involved in researching the Battle of Saipan in World War II.

Christina Caprez  has been studying yoga since 1997 in Fairhope and around the country. One of the very first yoga instructors in the area, she started teaching at ESILL in 2000. Shortly thereafter, she began teaching at the Grand Hotel Spa. She also teaches at the Lakewood Club, taught at the University of South Alabama and the Eastern Shore Arts Center among other places. Christina is constantly learning new ways to strengthen the body by using the breath and releasing tense muscles. She firmly believes that a regular yoga practice will give you a deeper understanding of your body’s needs.

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.

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.

Carol Furman,  Having lived or vacationed on the Atlantic or Gulf coasts for most of her life, Carol Furman has always been fascinated by the natural world. After a job in Marine Fisheries at Auburn’s Marine Fish Lab in Fairhope brought Carol to Alabama, her focus shifted to birds and she hasn’t looked back. As a member of the Mobile Bay Audubon Society, she shares her love of all things birds through presentations to local organizations, teaching Birding 101 classes, and offering an Advanced Birding Workshop during Birdfest. Carol is a Certified Master Naturalist, an avid kayaker, artist and photographer, and her portfolio reflects her passion for birds and the natural world.

Rosanne Gulisano is the founder and facilitator of Lifestories: Creating a Memoir, a memoir-writing workshop. She has been writing and speaking about memoir-writing since 1999. Her mission is to encourage people from all walks of life to write their own life story for future generations. She has started several successful ongoing memoir-writing groups and has taught her workshop for lifelong learning programs, women’s clubs, libraries, park district programs and in community college classes. Rosanne is a freelance memoir ghostwriter and has written several biographies as well as a 50th anniversary corporate history and a community memory book.

Toby Gurley holds BS and MS degrees in Chemical Engineering from Auburn University. As a registered professional engineer he has 30 plus years of involvement in professional societies   and has taught many technical and management short courses. He is a Bethel Series graduate, as well as graduating from the Academy for Equipping the Saints. He has taken and taught church-based classes for over 40 years. 

John Helmstadter has been an avid sailor since he was an eighth grader. Through the years, he has owned several types of small sailboats (his favorite is his current one, a Capri 22) and has been active in yacht clubs in Chicago, Texas, Florida, and Georgia. In 2008, he retired from a career in manufacturing management, moved to Fairhope, and joined the Fairhope Yacht Club. John is an active racer and served for over ten years as head of the club's Adult Sailing Program. He was also scorekeeper for the Sunday Fun Races for ten years.

Art Holder has a B.A. in Education and a Master’s in Psychology from third rate institutions.  He has been a laborer, paperboy, gas station attendant (back when they actually washed your windshield), Peace Corps volunteer and a member of the FBI.  Art is member of the ESILL Board and serves on the Publicity Committee.  

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 serves as the ESILL President, as Chair of the Publicity Committee and as Registrar.

Robert Maldonado, Ph.D., is a healer, teacher, and writer dedicated to helping others discover their innate healing abilities and guiding them through life transitions. He is certified in Energy Medicine, Healing Touch, Reiki Master, Brennan Healing Science, Shamanism, Entura Art Therapy, Cayce Meditation and Spiritual Life, and Integral Chinese Qigong and Tai Chi. He is the author of The Calling of the Heart: A Journey in Self-Healing; Children of Atlantis: Keepers of the Crystal Skull; Flying with My Higher Self –Awakening to Self Mastery; and The Impact of the Universal Energies and How to Use Them. Maldonado is an adjunct professor of Complementary and Alternative Medicine and teaches groups and workshops in art and spiritual healing practices.

Dr. Harry Miller was born and raised in Baltimore, MD, and holds a B.A. degree from Wesleyan University and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University. He has lived and explored in Taiwan, China, and Japan and, since 2002, has taught Asian history at the University of South Alabama. Dr. Miller is the author or translator of three books on Chinese history: State Versus Gentry in Late Ming Dynasty China, 1572-1644 (2008); State Versus Gentry in Early Qing Dynasty China, 1644-1699 (2013); and The Gongyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals: A Full Translation (2015). He branched into historical fiction in 2018 with the publication of Southern Rain, a novel of seventeenth-century China. He and his family live in Mobile.

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 30 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 a book, Where the Wild Illicium Grows: Historic Plants of the Central Gulf Coast.

Richard A. "Ran" Nisbett earned graduate degrees in anthropology, community ecology, and public health. Over a 30-year career, he was a faculty member at several universities in the U.S. and served in his final academic appointment as Vice President for Research at Tubman University in Liberia, West Africa. He has lived and worked extensively in several tropical countries in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia conducting research on infectious diseases and community development. Working with native peoples in areas of high biological diversity, he has examined how different faith traditions around the world frame the relationship between humans and nature. Ran is now retired to Fairhope, where he is completing a manuscript entitled “All Creatures Here Below: Communities of Creation, Ecospirituality, and Whole Earth healing.” .

Jeanine Normand was born in New Orleans, with French heritage, and grew up playing in her father's orchestra, the Jack Normand Orchestra, at the Grand Hotel Resort in Point Clear, Al. She has degrees in both French and business and has lived and taught in France, but Jeanine is known primarily as a musician--one who once performed with Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald at the Nice Jazz Festival. She has had an international career as a multi-instrumental recording artist, bandleader, arranger, and composer, from classical to blues to rock to jazz. Jeanine now lives in Fairhope and performs locally as a concert jazz pianist, specializing in the Great American Songbook and in Gershwin, Jobim, and modern French composers. Her bylines are "Twinkling Glamour Piano" and "Le Hot Jazz and Cool Brazilian."

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. 

Manuela Ruggiero was born and raised in Naples, in the south of Italy. She studied Italian literature, art, and design and worked for many years as designer before moving to the United States in 2014. Currently, she is a full-time mother of a young son, teaching him Italian words daily and keeping her Italian traditions alive for him. She enjoys meeting people from different cultures, and is looking forward to teaching Italian to adult beginners.

Alan Samry, author of Stump the Librarian: A Writer’s Book of Legs, fell in love with Fairhope the first time he visited in 2003. Two years later, when he and his wife Susan moved to Fairhope from Cape Cod, he wrote for the Courier when it was still located on Fairhope Avenue. He was smitten by Fairhope’s unique past while volunteering at the Fairhope Historical Museum when it was located in the Bell Building on the former Organic School campus. Although the museum directorship didn’t suit him, Alan’s love for sharing Fairhope history and promoting the power of public libraries continues. Alan is a writer, a media center librarian at Coastal Alabama Community College, a creative writing instructor at the Eastern Shore Art Center, and an independent scholar. When not reading, writing, or teaching, he’s riding his bicycle.

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.

Allen Todd, an Alabama native, is a graduate of Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida. His major was in Secondary Education, with a minor in History, and he has taught at the elementary, junior high, and college levels. For 40 years, he worked in four states for the federal government (NASA, Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard) as an information technology specialist. During that time, he walked all of the major battlefields of the Civil War, as well as many of the minor ones. In 2017, Allen retired and moved back to Alabama. His current volunteer work includes teaching reading in a preschool and serving as an election official for the city of Fairhope.

Jere Trigg, a resident of Spanish Fort since 1993, 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.

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!

John O’Melveny Woods has been writing screenplays, television plays, and books since attending the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts in the early 1990s. His first novel, Return to Treasure Island, received numerous awards, including the Silver Medal for book of the year by the Independent Book Publishers Association. A second book, Jesse James' Secret, a blend of biography, history, and fiction, was the basis for  Jesse James' Hidden Treasure, a two-hour special shown on the History Channel that was written and produced by the author.

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