thanksgiving stock

By Beth Lawrence


French journalist and author Alphonse Karr wrote, “Some people are always finding fault with nature for putting thorns on roses; I always thank her for having put roses on thorns.”

The year 2020 has been full of thorns, so this Thanksgiving The Herald spoke with two local leaders who have experienced adversity. They shared their thoughts on looking for roses among thorns.

Sylva Town Board member Mary Gelbaugh’s life took a turn for the worse and the better when she and then-boyfriend Adam Gelbaugh were in a car accident in 2006.

The couple were active and outdoorsy teaching skiing in Colorado in winter and leading rafting expeditions in Jackson County in summer.

The accident and a later rafting accident which injured Adam put a stop to that.

“I went into a depression,” Mary Gelbaugh said. “I was just out of college. I didn’t have a lot of income. I dwelled on the accident and saw the shaping of it negatively. My friend helped me see the shaping of it positively, and it really changed the format of how I live my life.”

The friend shared a quote to encourage her. It begins, “Whatever you focus on expands.”

The longer quote says focusing on a thought or feeling brings it to the forefront of your life and makes it more real whether the thought is good or bad, right or wrong. It ends with a reminder to focus on positive things and show gratitude.

“This friend helped me get out of my slump by looking at all the things I had to be grateful for,” she said. “I had a wonderful family that was glad to have me back home. I had an outdoor education and travel and tourism degree. I had someone give me a job.”

Practicing that perspective is not always easy; it takes work.

“We have to stop focusing on ourselves,” Gelbaugh said. “If we’re just looking at ourselves – me, me, me – then you’re going to fall into a slump. I think it’s important to focus on others.”

It could be as simple as being a listening ear, writing encouraging letters or making positive phone calls to others.

The act of focusing on others can help heal you, she said.

Despite the economic issues and the virus, Gelbaugh tries to see the good side of the pandemic: people working to stay healthy, being respectful and careful of their actions and how they might impact others. 

“On the economic side of things, I like the idea of being grateful to our small businesses or anybody offering excellent customer service,” she said. “And let them know because by doing so, it boosts their confidence.”

She proposes leaving positive reviews on a social media platform.

One positive thing she will take from 2020 is that the shutdown caused her to slow down and focus less on her job and more on family and friends.

“Sometimes we just need to be still,” she said.

County Commissioner Ron Mau’s first experience focusing on the good in a difficult situation came 36 years ago.

“I broke my neck in a skiing accident on Dec. 29, 1984,” he said. “Based on the type of the fracture, the doctors told me I should be dead or at least a quadriplegic. After having been told something like that and surviving, my perspective on rough spots is, they can be smoothed very quickly.”

While Mau hasn’t specifically relied on that philosophy during 2020, he has tried to keep a positive attitude during the pandemic.

He, like others, has missed activities such as going to the gym, attending church in person and social gatherings.

Mau accepts the adjustments because change is part of life, he said.

He and his wife, Rochelle, and their circle of friends work to keep each other positive and try to do so without being trite. He believes if he ever came off as trite or patronizing while trying to uplift them, his friends would call him on it.

Mau is grateful for his family, but this Thanksgiving he and Rochelle have something special to be grateful for.

“Despite 2020 being such an odd year, 2020 will also go down as one of my favorites,” he said. “Luna, our first grandchild was born in June. So if I need a change of attitude, I can pull out my phone, access photos of that sweet baby, and all seems well.”


Readers share what they are grateful for this year despite COVID.

I am thankful for a caring employer like Western Carolina University. They have provided flexible options between work at home and work at the office, and have made their buildings safe as possible.

 Betty Dishman


I am thankful for all the nonprofits in our area that have been working overtime to meet the needs of our community. I am also thankful for my job at Great Smokies Health Foundation. We get to grant funds to nonprofits to meet the increasing needs.

Melanie Wilkinson


I am thankful for all the years I have spent here, for the family I still have, for God touching my family during this year, mostly for giving me another year to be with them, even if we couldn’t visit, and for ways I could talk to my grandchildren when we were apart and see pictures of them. I am grateful for all the blessings God has given me.

Tammy Mendenhall


I am thankful for my wife. She had a liver transplant 27 years ago, and she is still doing great thanks to the Lord.

David Nicholson


I am thankful that my son was home from college for five months. What a rare opportunity to get to spend so much time with a college-age kid. We played games, hiked, went to the lake, stargazed, cooked and had family meals together. While COVID has been rough on everyone, I would definitely say we made the most of it.

Nancy Crawford.