Tara Hefner Bland and Brian McCree Hefner
Tara Hefner Bland
Family: Husband Travis, children Marley and Tucker
Occupation: Executive Director, SALT Block Foundation; Owner/Wedding Planner, Tara B’s Eventful Planning & Floral Boutique; Co-owner, It’s My Party
Brian McCree Hefner
Family: Wife Nicole, children Connor and Caroline
Occupation: Principal, Maiden High School
McCree. We’re guessing that's a family name?
BRIAN: Yes. All firstborn males for four generations have had the same middle name.
TARA: In the Hefner family.
BRIAN: Yeah. My grandfather, my dad, myself and my son.
Does the name have a significant family meaning?
BRIAN: Supposedly a connection to Scottish heritage.
TARA: We're pretty much historians. We know a lot about our history and where we come from. We're from Catawba County, I guess as far back as the Revolutionary War.
BRIAN: As far back as you can find those records. My grandmother married a Hefner, but from her line, we can go all the way back.
TARA: We’re actually maternal and paternal Moretzes on my grandmother's side.
BRIAN: We're related to Isenhowers, Clines, Moretzes…
TARA: You name it, we're somehow related. If we visit a graveyard here, we have somebody in that graveyard.
BRIAN: We really do, because our grandmother had four siblings. Five total. Four girls and a boy. We have a lot of cousins and relatives throughout Catawba County or anywhere we go.
TARA: From Springs Road down towards Catawba Springs, even down towards St. Peter's Lutheran Church.
BRIAN: Our grandmother's house was here, and there was a piece of land in the middle and our parents’ house was right next door to it. Our grandmother and our cousins were all right there.
TARA: A garden divided us. We all farmed it together.
BRIAN: Except for Uncle Brent who moved to Charlotte, everybody else still lives here.
Where was that?
TARA: Right off Springs Road, in Hickory.
BRIAN: We say right near the three churches. The three churches of Springs Road.
TARA: Where the Little Caesars Pizza is on Springs Road, our grandmother's house, our great-grandmother's house, was built there. It's a three-story brick house that was the center of our family life. We had Easter egg hunts there, we had family get-togethers there.
BRIAN: We got in trouble there, lots of trouble.
TARA: Our dad had a small appliance repair shop right there. Our grandmother ran that store for him because he had a full-time job during the day. He repaired toasters and lawnmowers, all kinds of different things, later in the evening. Our childcare time was there, too.
BRIAN: With our grandmother.TARA: She sold china out of that same shop, which was always odd. There was a potbelly stove to keep us warm. We had fun. We had a very creative childhood. We played outside. We had lots of great places to experience.
BRIAN: What is now McDonald Parkway used to be a river basin. We would go to the back of our neighborhood and through the woods for what felt like forever, but it was probably 10-15 minutes.
TARA: We would ride our bikes and walk down there.
BRIAN: There were huge boulders the size of this room behind those three churches, and we would play there with our neighbors. It was cool to go hide out there and build forts.
TARA: And have that freedom. We worry about our kids walking out the front door, but for our parents, it was, "Just be back before the sun goes down."
This place is really home to you.
TARA: I think the neat part for us is that we came back. Not a lot of our friends came back. They went to Carolina [University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill], Asheville or wherever and they stayed there. We came back. Even now, our children grace the halls of Arndt Middle School and St. Stephens High School, and those were the places we went to school. It's a little scary when you go back as a parent. It's a different experience. I've always felt the love of Catawba County and of this place. I've never seen myself anywhere else. Have you?
BRIAN: No. There are great people all over the place. You learn so much being as connected as I have been with the schools, with the buildings where our families went to school. I still have my dad’s yearbook from fifth grade when they used to have friends sign. I have his old high school algebra book in my office. In my front yard, I've got my grandpa's plow. I've got a piece of Appalachian's administration building that my Uncle Brent brought here. We're prideful about who we are and who we were.
TARA: I think our grandmother probably -
BRIAN: - had a lot to do with that.
TARA: Had a ton to do with that, being proud of where you're from. Caring about this area is a big part of us being involved in lots of different things. Brian is involved on the education side, and I've always felt a great need to be involved in the community. Right now, I'm the president of the Service League of Hickory and I'm involved in Rotary.
BRIAN: And the Salvation Army. That's where we went to summer camp.
TARA: Our mom took us there before it was the Boys and Girls Club. We went to summer camp there every year.
BRIAN: They had bumper pool and all that stuff.
TARA: We would go to the movies and go swimming.
BRIAN: It's so funny that you're involved in that now.
TARA: We've just always felt a need to give back. It's from our parents and our grandparents who always said, "You get what you put in." It's a lot of who we are. We actually went to Appalachian [Appalachian State University] together. We have a funny story as far as that's concerned. I graduated from St. Stephens [High School] two years before Brian. I went to CVCC [Catawba Valley Community College] for two years.
BRIAN: Which was smart, because she saved money. I'm still paying off school.
TARA: I had a scholarship to be involved in the show choir there. When Brian graduated, we both knew we would go to Appalachian State. We lived in dorms side by side. We rarely saw each other, though, unless I needed him to take laundry home.
BRIAN: She was right next door and both of our cousins from our dad's brother went there.
TARA: Our whole family went to Appalachian. Even when we came home, Brian knew that he would be involved in education. I had worked at Lake Hickory Country Club for many years waiting tables, and they had a position come open so I worked there for almost 15 years. I became a marketing and event director before I came here [to the SALT Block Foundation].
BRIAN: She got me a job when I came home. I was student teaching at Sweetwater and I bartended for Lake Hickory Country Club at night because my sister got me the job.
TARA: It was free golf. We got to play golf that way.
BRIAN: I loved it.
TARA: I guess we both believe in hard work.
BRIAN: I think we're driven to be successful. Our dad had a lot of ideas, and he had that entrepreneurial spirit that Tara has in her. Tara's followed through on that. We would go to all the race tracks. That's what I did with my dad when I was little. He would tell me stories about how before the cemetery was built beside Hickory Motor Speedway, they didn't have money so they'd climb up into the trees that used to line the back of it and watch the races. We didn't have a lot of money growing up. We maybe had a new pair of shoes every year. I'm very much driven to provide for my kids and my family. I want to make sure they have the things they need. I think that comes from being self-reliant. We both paid for college on our own. We both paid for our Master's on our own. Not a lot was given. We're not trying to say that that's a good or bad thing.
TARA: We didn't have any money.
BRIAN: If you wanted food, you had to plant it in the garden beside the house.
TARA: That's something we're still trying to instill in our kids, the need to be more self-reliant. We're both Christian, and we believe in what the Lord gives you and what you're given daily. I wish I could tell my kids they only needed one pair of shoes every year, but they run through them a little bit quicker.
BRIAN: Both of our sons are seventh graders together, they were born a month apart.
TARA: For the longest time, they didn't know they weren't brothers.
BRIAN: Are we eighteen months apart or 20?
What was it like growing up together?
TARA: I used to come up with all these ideas when we were little. I would say, "We're going to build this," or "We're going to make this." I was such a leader, and I'd make Brian do all the work.
BRIAN: She's like our father.
TARA: One time he was so mad. He was probably 13 or 14, and he threw down the hammer and he said, "I'm done. Until you complete one project, I'm not going to do it."
BRIAN: She said, "Oh, we should repaint the cabinets for mom," and I'm taking this stuff down and I turn around and I'm by myself doing it.
TARA: Brian taught me the goal and the gift of project completion when I was very young. What I do now is project management day in and day out. Now I say, "We don't do anything until we complete it. It's a multi-part job, but we are going to complete it."
BRIAN: We built forts. We would literally build a fort in a tree.
TARA: We would go steal stuff out of our grandmother's garage.
BRIAN: Oh yeah. She had the best garage. Oddly enough, we both love music so we both sing. There's a lot of ways we're similar, but a lot of ways we're not. If I think about my sister and about how we grew up and some of the struggles we both faced, good or bad, we'd stick up for each other but we also had some good fights.
TARA: Oh, you hate each other until you have to love each other.
BRIAN: You grow older and you appreciate the other one more and more, especially since our dad passed. We used to go to Sunday lunch at mom and dad's house every Sunday for 10 years after we first had our kids.
TARA: You didn't have to worry about connecting so much then, because it was rote. Now we have to make more of a plan to see each other and be involved in each other's lives. I guess I'm a little bit of a matriarch. Since our grandmother passed, I host events at our house. We get together at Christmas. It's harder to be more attached as a family, but we can pick up from the moment we see each other, even with our cousins who live in Charlotte.
BRIAN: What's funny is that Tara and I, we both went to a church right up here as little kids. Now we go to different churches, but what's ironic about that is she goes to church at Sandy Ridge Baptist and our family's there, the Clines are there and people we went to church with as kids. I go to church at Concordia. I don't have any family there, but I see the connections through Catawba County. Stine Isenhower is a member at our church and he's got a famous quote, "A day spent outside of Catawba County is a wasted day."
TARA: That's a good quote.
What do you like about living here as adults?
BRIAN: As you get older, you find how much you love living here. Even my wife likes it. She’s from Long Island originally and lived in Charlotte, but she loves living here now. If I ever got a job somewhere else, she'd say, "No. We can't leave." It's because you have these connections with people. I think that's what's best about our lives here. We have so many relationships and connections to people.
TARA: We want our kids to know how great Catawba County is, that if they want to stay in Catawba County they can. You are so close to the mountains and so close to the ocean. You don't have to sit in traffic every afternoon. The water, the mountains, nature and all those things they have the ability to enjoy are here.
BRIAN: I didn't know a lot about anywhere besides [Hwy] 127 and Springs Road as a kid growing up. Through my job, what's been neat is that now I know all sorts of places like camp meetings. I've been able to see so much of the county that I really didn't know about, like the town of Maiden or the town of Catawba. As I've gotten older, I've been able to connect with different things.
TARA: I've always tried to be a connector. I know he probably feels that way, too. If we know somebody who can help somebody else or if there's somebody who needs this or that, I think that's a gift we've been given. It's like, "Hey, I know somebody who can help you," or, "This person is the person you need to talk to." That intertwines us in the community.
That really ties back into what you were saying about how connected you feel here and that's what makes it feel like home.
BRIAN: Yeah. If we go out to dinner... I can't go, literally, without seeing a kid I've taught or somebody I've worked with or somebody who knows Tara or vice versa.
TARA: I wouldn't know what it would be like to live somewhere where I didn't know people. That would be odd to me.
BRIAN: For my entire life, other than a few years, my address has always been in Catawba County – on Springs Road or somewhere in the St. Stephens area or in Conover. I've got this thing I do every time I come home. Any time my family goes to the beach, as soon as we hit the bridge coming in on I-40, I honk my horn when I see that Catawba County sign. My wife thinks that's so redneck. I always tell them I'm coming back home. I think everybody has that sense. I have a lot of friends who didn't realize it until after they were gone for a little while. They come back with their kids saying, "Gosh, this is a great place to have kids and grow up." I’ll say, “It took you that long?"
You’ve talked a little bit about how you both consciously chose to come back to Catawba County. Talk a little bit more about that decision for you – or was it even a decision for you? Was it just a given?
TARA: I don't know that I even thought about it. It was just part of what I was supposed to do. I had a job when I came back. Otherwise I would have been coming back to live with my parents and trying to find a job. We've always been very independent and knew that once we left the house, we left the house. We had to find our way. Our parents gave us that feeling, that independence, that we were responsible for who we were and what we did.
BRIAN: They didn't check on our grades. You were just supposed to do good. You just do your work. My wife checks my son's work all the time and my daughter's stuff, but I don't because I wasn’t raised that way. That's what you're supposed to do. Do your homework and do your best on it. Don't come home with a bad grade. Work hard. For me, I wanted to be a teacher in Catawba County. My senior year of high school I did an internship at St. Stephens Elementary with music. I thought I wanted to be a music major. I fell into teaching, really because there were a lot of girls in that major. As I got into it, I loved it. I always wanted to be a teacher where I went to school because of all the great teachers I had. I also had a real strong sense of being near my parents and my family.
TARA: Our parents were always taking care of their parents and their parents were taking care of their parents.
BRIAN: I can't imagine not being near my family. It just doesn't register.
Your roots here are so deep, it would take a lot of energy to pull them out and take them somewhere else.
TARA: We knew back maybe a generation or two, but it wasn’t until he and I started doing our genealogy research that we learned more about our history. I don't know why we both love history. We both love music and we both love history. Maybe those were the things we were really good at. We got good grades in those classes, too.
BRIAN: We had to work hard. Nobody would ever say, " That's knocking it out of Catawba County, kid." We both had to work hard for what we got. It's an internal drive. I think some of it's competition.
TARA: Oh, we're very competitive.
BRAIAN: Oh, yeah. I got my Master's before her, but she's got hers now.
TARA: I don't see any purpose in that.
BRIAN: See, there you go.
TARA: I have other things in my pocket.
BRIAN: I tell people all the time, "This is what my sister does," and they go, "Oh my gosh." She does this, this, and this. That's just Tara.
TARA: We wear a lot of different hats.
BRIAN: I just wouldn't think of living anywhere else because it's what you do. You graduate, go back home, stay at mom and dad's so you could see them. That’s what we did. We saw family all the time. We went to the same church forever, and I think one of the hardest things we ever -
TARA: - left our church.BRIAN: Our family church. I had moved to Conover, and it was a half hour drive every Sunday morning. I was the first to do it. I remember talking to my dad and just -
TARA: - it hurt him.
BRIAN: I felt so guilt-ridden because all those people who raised us -
TARA: - they thought we would be there to perpetuate the life of the church.
BRIAN: Right. It's just that our lives had changed. For us, that was our -
TARA: - our break.
That was your moving. That was your leaving.
TARA: It was.
BRIAN: I remember the Sunday morning I was calling my dad to tell him, "Hey Dad. I won't be at church today." "Where are you going to be?" "Well, we decided to join this other church.” I don't think Dad and I talked about it after that phone call ever again.
TARA: They knew we cared about our children being raised in a Christian dynamic like they had done for us. We had a great youth group growing up. Our friends were our youth group. We did everything together. We wanted that for our kids, to find their place with a group of people. I feel they have that now and they have this strong fort of people who support them and love them and care for them. That makes me the happiest, to know they have that.
BRIAN: Our big move? Tara moved from Springs Road to 127. My big move was from Springs Road to Conover. Those are our major moves of our lifetime, and we didn't even leave Catawba County. What, 10 miles maybe? I don't know how we'll both react when our children grow up.
TARA: Oh, they're going to leave and it's going to make us upset. We're going to have to deal with it. We'll have to figure it out and hope they come back.
What were your career paths like?
TARA: I think a lot about music and heritage as a big part of our lives. He wanted to be a music teacher. I went to school for music at Appalachian. I realized I didn't want to be a music teacher.
BRIAN: I realized it was hard.
TARA: It was hard. I decided to go into communications and public relations. I had no idea what I would be. Even when I was at CVCC, I had a really good friend and she would say, "I'm not good at anything. I don't know what I want to be in the world," and I'm on the other side thinking, "But I like everything and I want to do everything. What do I do in the world?" I think our paths have been laid before us. It's a neat thing to see all the things we get to experience as we go along the way that we had no idea about. I never thought I would take care of the SALT Block. I find a lot of pride in that, that this building is going to be 100 years old and it brings together so many types of people each and every day. Or that I would be a wedding planner. I had no idea that would happen or that my husband and I would own It's My Party. My husband was a golf pro, and we were offered that business. The couple said, "We want you to buy this business," and he said, "Okay. I'll run the business." Every day is different, but it still keeps us here.
BRIAN: I am the principal of Maiden High School. I've been employed by Catawba County schools for 20 years. I did my student teaching at what is now Sweetwater, but back then it was an elementary school. I did student teaching in the room that my grandmother, 70 years earlier, was a seventh grader in. I taught sixth grade for four years at Blackburn. I had the honor of being the assistant principal of Fred T. Ford High School for a year, and I was the assistant principal at Oxford. Then I was principal at Blackburn for six years, principal of Maiden Middle School for four years and this is my first year at Maiden High School as a high school principal.
TARA: Each school is upset when he leaves. Talk about being proud of you. I have so many people that will tell me, "Do you know what your brother did today? He's so much fun. He rewarded the kids by dressing up in a sumo outfit and walking around campus." The kids just love him. His staff loves him. If you're in administration of any kind, I think that’s the best thing you can say about someone.
BRIAN: I’m also vice president of the Catawba Valley Soccer Association. We're getting our turf field. I sing in the praise band at my church, and I've been on different boards for different organizations throughout my time.
We’re curious to know when you two found the formula for that 25th hour in the day, because it sounds like you guys have it.
TARA: We sleep very well.
BRIAN: Oh, I do.
TARA: I have eight hours of sleep a night. I don't usually wake up in the middle of the night.
BRIAN: I go to bed at 9:00 and I wake up at 5:00 every day.
TARA: I wish I could wake up at 5:00. I don't like waking up early. I've not got that gene. He has that. I guess being a teacher makes him that way.
BRIAN: It's beat into you, it is. We're like farmers.
TARA: We're really good multi-taskers. I believe that’s a big part of it.
BRIAN: I think, too, we've been blessed to be surrounded by good people who help us do what we do. I've got the best staff and people who do things for kids that I just can't. They're taking care of my building right now while I'm able to sit here and talk with you. Tara's the same way. She's mentioned her staff, too. The only good leader is someone who recognizes that other people can do just as much as you can and probably do it better and lets them do what they do and gives them the resources they need and gets out of their way.
TARA: And doesn't ask them to do anything you wouldn't do. That's a big part of it.
As two people who grew up here with deep roots, you've seen an enormous amount of change in this area in your lifetime. All the progress that's happening around here now, how does that make you feel?
TARA: It makes me proud and happy. I think with the downturn of the economy, there were so many people who were just so down on their luck, down on who they were. I've always seen furniture and hosiery as part of our lives. It's heritage here in Catawba County. That's what makes us. I love to see how people remade themselves. We still create, we still craft, we still do all these great things, but it's just in a different way.
BRIAN: I think it's just the pride of the people in terms of -
TARA: - resiliency.
BRIAN: Retooling themselves, rediscovering that determination, that grit so to speak. That's just a microcosm of the entire nation. Furniture was gone, but then it came back. If you look at the economy now, the trades are growing. That's pushing a lot of my students. You can make $70,000 being an electrician after two years at CVCC.
TARA: When we were in school it was, "You go to college." My daughter is in the ninth grade and I tell her, "You do not have to decide today what you're going to be. If you decide you want to go to a four-year college, do that. If you decide you want to be in a trade, do that." Now, it's a totally different dynamic. We saw those two mills [Hollar and Moretz] as dilapidated buildings almost our entire lives. Now there’s something there, and that makes us happy. Springs Road has changed a ton. It's not really the Springs Road we remember.
BRIAN: I can't drive on that road anymore and say, "That's where I went to school." That’s progress, but I think it's important to share those things. I'm just proud of our community in general for working together. You think about K-64, you think about the Chamber of Commerce, you think about businesses and all the people who are working together to make things better. That doesn't happen in a lot of places. I think that's really unique. People are finally standing up and saying they're proud. You have all these opportunities here now that people can find outside their own front door instead of looking for what's better somewhere else.
TARA: We do reinvent ourselves, but we don't have to be entirely reinvented. It's nice to be able to find a parking space when you go somewhere, it's nice to know you don't have to stand in line. There's something to be said about what we're trying to do in bringing in new people. Public relations is about knowing who we are and why we're great. I think a lot of that is just reconnecting to people who are already here. I think we're just about right where we are.
BRIAN: I think it's important to be proud. I'm proud of my sister.
TARA: Oh, thank you. I'm proud of you too.
BRIAN: When people say, "What does your sister do?" I'm very competitive with my sister and all that, but it does give me a great sense of pride to tell them, "That's what my big sister does. Isn't that neat?"
TARA: I'll say, "My brother is principal at the biggest football school in Catawba County." I feel for him.
Tell us about your kids.
TARA: I have two. I have a 15-year-old daughter, Marley. She goes to St. Stephen's. She is amazingly smart in math and science. I really don't know where that came from.
BRIAN: Somewhere down the line. We'll figure it out.
TARA: Somewhere down the line. She's artistic and she plays soccer and she embraces life every day. I think she gets a little stressed out about things more than she probably should.
BRIAN: Like her mom.
TARA: She gets that honestly. My son Tucker is 12. He goes to Arndt [Middle School]. He's in seventh grade there. He is fun and musical, he plays the guitar and he sings. My goal is that he'll be famous enough one day to take care of me. He plays soccer as well. We have great kids. We have kids that don't get in trouble.
BRIAN: I think I took care of that for all of them. My oldest is Connor. He's 12. He's a month younger than his cousin Tucker. They were both babies together so they grew up together. He's a seventh grader at Arndt. He plays soccer and he wrestles now. He's a hard worker. My Caroline is 10. She's my artist. She plays the piano, she does crafts like her aunt. She loves to draw and crochet. She has a neurological issue, hydrocephalus, so she had lots of brain surgeries as a baby. We had that experience of family taking care of us when we were going through that, including the people of this county and former assistant principals of mine helping with taking care of us. I'm always grateful to those people at the schools I've worked at. My wife Nicole, she's from Long Island. She went to Gardner Webb. Her family moved down here.
TARA: My husband, Travis Bland, is from Taylorsville. He played golf at CVCC. Two years before I met him, he left and went to UNCW [University of North Carolina at Wilmington] and I came home from Appalachian. We randomly met and drove back and forth for a long time, then he came here. I think he loves Hickory and Catawba County just as much as I do.
How would you describe Catawba County to someone who doesn’t live here?
BRIAN: If you think about Catawba County, you think about furniture.
TARA: Our father ran a furniture factory.
BRIAN: You think about hosiery.
TARA: Our mother made socks.
BRIAN: You think about racing and NASCAR, which is what me and my dad did. When you think about the story of Catawba County, people don't leave, they stay. It's the story of our lives.
TARA: It’s about embracing the people who have lived here forever and the uniqueness of people who haven't and how we all become this integrated, meshed society. I think that’s the neat part.
Interviewed on January 16, 2020