21. This summer, there was one name on every pair of lips in South County: Elizabeth Beisel. The Saunderstown native won a silver and a bronze metal in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, and is the only Rhode Islander to ever medal in the games. From the Team Beisel t-shirts to the massive homecoming events at Twin Willows and North Kingstown High School (which was so huge that it needed five parking areas and shuttle service), the energy and pride swirling in the air over her achievement was contagious, and we love that.
22. Chances are, if you see a really spectacular garden somewhere around Kingston, it’s tied somehow to the URI Master Gardeners. This group of passionate green thumbs hosts garden tours, educational seminars, massive plant sales and fun family events every year – and that’s on top of the arduous training program (1400 people have trained since 1977; only 483 have earned the title) and maintaining the URI greenhouses.
23. Jhumpa Lahiri has a host of awards under her belt. The author of The Namesake (which was adapted into a movie of the same name), Unaccustomed Earth and Interpreter of Maladies (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, named The New Yorker’s best debut of 2000 and firmly placed on Oprah’s Top Ten Book List) bases much of her writing on her formative years growing up in an immigrant Indian family. That growing up happened right here in South Kingstown. Makes you think differently about her writing, no?
24. If you want to meet Peter Pan, don’t bother with Neverland and all of that “second star on the right and straight on ‘til morning” business. You can spot him any day of the year on Narragansett Town Beach, slicing into some waves. Pan is a surf legend who near singlehandedly popularized the sport in New England, was one of the first inductees into the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame, and who teaches future generations at Peter Pan Surfing Academy. You can thank him later – if he ever gets off his board.
25. We love a good scary story, and it doesn’t get scarier than Mercy Brown, Rhode Island’s very own vampire. The Exeter girl, who died of consumption in 1892, was believed by locals to have caused the death of her other family members. When her body was exhumed months later for the villagers to perform all sorts of anti-vampire rituals on it, Mercy still had blood in her heart and showed no signs of decomposition. It’s even rumored that Bram Stoker based the character of Lucy in Dracula on Mercy. Brave legend-seekers still visit her grave near Exeter’s Baptist church.
26. A different kind of bravery altogether is what it took for Westerly’s Joseph Cross to survive being stranded at sea this past July. Cross was knocked off his boat, three miles off Point Judith, and treaded water for nine hours before being rescued by the Coast Guard in the middle of the night. It’s the stuff of movies, and it happened right here.
27. As the head of the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum in Exeter, Loren Spears has a tough job: running the programming at the museum, handling the day to day operations, interpreting Native culture to tourists from around the globe and keeping a tiny, often overlooked but vitally important cultural institution solvent. She does it. And she does it well. Spears brings Tomaquag heritage to the entire state with her speaking engagements, and for a time ran the Nuweetooun Education Center at the school, which was an elementary school centered on Native culture and education, until it was closed in the floods of 2010.
28. Sometimes good things happen because of terrible things. When Debra and Richard Siravo lost their young son Matthew to an epileptic seizure, they set out to make sure that would never happen to another family, and the Matty Fund was born. Now, the organization provides resources, family support and a massive amount of fundraising to research about the disease. We love how the two of them took what would devastate most other people and turned it into something positive for countless others.
29. There are few Rhode Island mascots so iconic as Rhody the Ram, the beloved spirit leader of the University of Rhode Island. He’s been cheering on teams and leading crowds since 1923. While for decades there was a real ram, we much prefer the oversized one we see going crazy at the URI/Providence College men’s basketball games.
30. We live here. We know why South County is such a remarkable place. Other people – those unlucky enough to be born and bred other places – might not have gotten the message. Myrna George, head of the South County Tourism Council, makes it her mission to get that message out to the rest of the world. Considering the beach traffic on Route 1, we think she does a pretty good job.