2016 It List

In our time of fact-checking the fact-checkers and second-guessing the experts, how do you know when someone is making a real difference in the world? Meet our 2016 It List: 17 Granite Staters who can show you where it's at.


May we introduce you?

Joel Christian Gill | Nancy Pearson | Cheryl Wilkie | Building on Hope | Lily Hevesh | Kate Luczko | Jennifer Lee | Matthew Guruge | Corey Lewandowski | Renny Cushing | Dan Habib | Robert Morin | Jay & Vicki Philbrick | Seth Meyers

Joel Christian Gill

Illuminating Both Future and Past

Photo by Cydney Scott, courtesy of Boston University

Just about every student to pass through the New Hampshire Institute of Art in the past decade knows Joel Christian Gill. As chair of the Foundations program for first-years, Gill provides some of the young artists’ most crucial lessons in both craft and life.

But, thanks to a series of high-profile accomplishments in recent years, NHIA students aren’t the only people learning from the New Boston illustrator.

In October, he released his third graphic novel, the latest in a string of books that have garnered nationwide acclaim for their depiction of the thrilling and quirky lesser-known stories of black history.

Along with a Twitter campaign urging study and recognition of African-American narratives beyond the 28 days of Black History Month, the comics have cemented Gill as one of the country’s foremost activist-artists, with coverage ranging from NPR to MTV.

“I want students to look at me and go, ‘That’s what you’re supposed to do’,” Gill says. “I’m not just saying it. I’m actually out there doing it.”

NHIA president Kent Devereaux says that example has sparked a new wave of students choosing to stay in New Hampshire after graduation rather than decamping to Boston or New York.

“They want to invest in the community and invest in the scene,” he says. They just needed a model of how to garner big-city success from a Granite State home — and Joel Christian Gill is it.

Nancy Pearson

A Voice for the Arts

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It didn’t take long after moving to New Hampshire in 1995 for Portsmouth city councilman and arts advocate Nancy Pearson to dive headfirst into the eclectic creative culture that rules supreme on the Seacoast. Pearson dipped her toe into the Seacoast theatre scene with the Players’ Ring in 2001, and 10 years later she moved to Portsmouth and joined Art-Speak, the City of Portsmouth Cultural Commission.

As she made her way from board member to board president — and then its director in 2014 — Pearson’s mission became clear: She needed to take the next step and run for City Council. “I was lacking a voice,” says Pearson. “As board president, and then director of Art-Speak, I know firsthand how much Portsmouth’s identity is wrapped up in arts and culture. However, as gentrification and soaring property values threaten the viability of Portsmouth’s creative class, I didn’t see the city putting as many resources toward strengthening and protecting it as they could.”

Pearson’s “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach helped her win her bid for a council seat while continuing her advocacy to preserve the creative culture of Portsmouth. What advice does Pearson have for other NH communities that would like to promote the arts? “To be bold. Like other industries, I think how we view, fund, and protect the arts needs a little disrupting. Per capita, Portsmouth is the cultural capital of northern New England, but I have my eye on the rest of New England and beyond.”

Cheryl Wilkie

Hope for the Future

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It’s not like any of the others — the substance abuse program at the Farnum Centers in Manchester and Franklin takes a very different approach to treatment. A client’s past isn’t explored; counselors aren’t trying to figure out what’s wrong. Instead, says Cheryl Wilkie, “We are starting fresh with the understanding that they have innate health inside and we are going to help them find it.”

Wilkie, who has a doctorate in forensic psychology, has been developing the program since 2008, when she took over Easterseals NH’s Farnum Center in Manchester in the midst of a widening opioid epidemic. She was instrumental in turning the center into a recognized drug treatment facility that offers medical detox, residential inpatient and intensive outpatient services. This past summer, the program was expanded with the opening of an additional facility in Franklin. And in the near future, long-term, low-intensity programs will be offered to people who need more structure or who are homeless.       

The seeds of her award-winning work were planted 30 years ago, when she was struggling with addiction herself. “I know what it is like to lose everything,” she says. “I know I am not special.” She also says she knows there is hope for every person who seeks treatment to have the life they want.

Building On Hope

The Good Fight

Photo by Jenn Bakos

Since channeling donations and volunteers to help rebuild and equip an Easter Seals NH home for boys in 2010, the can-do executive committee of Building on Hope has upped the ante every two years, selecting a worthy nonprofit group with a facility that was in need of extensive upgrade to benefit a core mission. Co-chairs Karen Van Der Beken and Jonathan Halle (center and right in the photo at right) worried they may have reached too far when they selected the Michael Briggs Center of the Manchester Police Athletic League for 2016.

It was apparent that restoring the decrepit former St. Cecelia Hall on Beech Street would cost more than a million dollars, but it was also exactly what they were looking for: an organization doing important work for thousands of at-risk kids in NH’s biggest city and bringing young people and cops together to forge bonds of friendship and respect. No one knew the need, and the benefits, better than Officer John Levasseur, the MPAL coordinator and head boxing coach.

“It really is a miracle,” says Levasseur (left), after touring the center, revamped with a fully functioning HVAC system, institutional-scale kitchen, game room and homework center. He notes that since the building was completed, his work could really begin, fighting the good fight for kids in the neighborhood.

Lily Hevesh

Professional Pushover

Photo by David Mendelsohn

There are probably real, professional domino players somewhere in the world, but the most exciting happening with those little uniform tiles has nothing to do with counting spots and everything to do with counting page views. That’s how Lily Hevesh, known to her multitudes of fans on YouTube as Hevesh5, has become internet famous (with more than 200 million views) and in-demand by marketers and movie makers for her fabulous works of domino art. Her creations appear in the new Will Smith movie “Collateral Beauty” (in theaters this month), and she was one of a group of domino artists invited to participate in Common Ground, a weekend-long collaborative project that in October connected the entire country in a massive Rube Goldberg chain reaction that traveled from city to city in the course of five minutes. Domino artworks that were toppled along the way highlighted various contemporary issues. Hevesh chose to highlight her dedication to STEM education for girls. “The goal is to spark girls’ interests,” she says.

Kate Luczko

The Rejuvenator

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Kate Luczko is trying to make New Hampshire cool — so cool that the state’s young people won’t take off for the bright lights of big cities. When they leave, says Luczko, president and CEO of Stay Work Play New Hampshire, “the important balance of the age of NH’s talent” tilts older, making the state less dynamic, less vibrant. It also makes it harder for employers to fill jobs.

Maintaining that balance is the mission of Stay Work Play, and, in the past few years, the mission has become more challenging because there’s been a significant exodus of people in their 20s and 30s. We now have the second highest median age in the country (only Maine skews older).

To stem the flow, Luczko and her organization are working to clear up misconceptions about the state that drive young people away (or keep them from moving here): a perceived lack of jobs, quality of life (mostly nightlife) and high housing costs. One effort to tout the state’s advantages can soon be found at on Route 93 in Hooksett in the southbound rest area. On their way home from exploring the Granite State, visitors will be able to see the benefits of NH as it relates to jobs, internships, quality of life and more.

Other initiatives to retain young workers include building the state’s brand online, supporting the young professionals networks, promoting jobs and companies in NH, internships to connect students with the community and an awards competition. Luczko says, “We want to make New Hampshire the kind of place that young people want to live and launch their careers.”

Jennifer Lee

Making Movie Magic (Again)

Photo by Mark Bolton

University of New Hampshire alum Jennifer Lee is no stranger to the “It List.” She appeared here in 2014 for a little something you might have heard of (and probably over and over again if you have young kids) — “Frozen.” The first woman to direct a Disney animated film both wrote and co-directed the monster hit, snagging a Golden Globe and an Oscar for her work. Now, Disney has entrusted her with another huge project (one that’s garnering buzz even before filming starts), the adaptation of beloved young adult classic “A Wrinkle in Time.” Madeleine L’Engle’s science fantasy novel has delighted kids since the ’60s. Lee’s task isn’t easy — write a screenplay that not only captures the book’s magic, but that also satisfies generations of nostalgic fans. There’s already big star power attached to the movie. Acclaimed “Selma” director Ava DuVernay is set to helm the film; young Storm Reid of the Oscar-winning “Twelve Years a Slave” landed the lead role of Meg Murray; Meg’s scientist parents will be portrayed by Chris Pine and “Black Mirror’s” Gugu Mbatha-Raw; Zach Galifianakis will play the Happy Medium; and the Three W’s — Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Whatsit — will be played by Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling and Reese Witherspoon, respectively. The downside? We have to wait way too long for the premiere.

Matthew Guruge

Solving the Happiness Equation

Photo by Jenn Bakos

Matthew Guruge wants people to be happy. Specifically, he wants them to love their jobs. Love what you do, and happiness (hopefully) follows. Helping people achieve that professional ideal is the driving force behind Awâto, the company he co-founded. In a recent competition sponored by the NH High Tech Council and startup incubator Alpha Loft, Awâto was awarded the top, $50,000 prize. Awâto is an online platform that, simply put, helps people figure out what career suits them best. The main feature is a series of dynamic questions that actually learn about you and adapt as you answer. There are thousands of questions, explains Guruge, but each user will see only a handful depending on his or her responses. Then, he adds, they help people turn something overwhelming — understanding the job market and how to actually get hired — into a series of manageable tasks.

The goal, he says, is to eventually make it available to kids in high school all the way to retirees. Right now, the focus is on new college students who might be started down the wrong road, a situation Guruge is all too familiar with. During an internship at the New Hampshire Business Review during his junior year, the journalism major realized he didn’t actually like journalism. “I had no idea what to do,” says Guruge. He eventually found his true passion, but the hope is to help others avoid earning expensive degrees — and likely big-time debt — that either aren’t what they really want or don’t come with decent job prospects.

Corey Lewandowski

Man Behind the Curtain

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Donald Trump was impressed when he met Corey Lewandowski, a Windham resident, at a political event in New Hampshire in the spring of 2014. So much so, the following January, the not-yet-announced presidential candidate invited him to Trump Tower and asked him to be his campaign manager. 

Lewandowski — a lover of politics and an admirer of Trump — accepted. “I think he truly wants to make America great again,” he says. “I hoped to help shed light on a broken and rigged political system, one that has long forgotten about the average American.” He got to work electing the billionaire businessman, drawing on his significant political experience, including high-level positions with a Koch brothers-backed advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity.

After guiding Trump through a string of primary victories, the road to the White House came to a sudden end for Lewandowski. Controversies (including allegedly grabbing a reporter forcefully) and questions about the direction of the campaign led to his firing in June. He would soon move to CNN as a commentator. Even that has generated a measure of controversy.

But Lewandowski doesn’t necessarily see controversy as a bad thing: “I like to think of my role as more of a disruptive technology, one that doesn’t allow the status quo to prevail, one that pushes the boundaries in order to achieve things no one thought possible.”

As for Trump, Lewandowski says, “I am honored to have been able to work for Mr. Trump. God works in mysterious ways, and I have been so blessed to have had a first-row seat to history.”

Renny Cushing

Seeking Social Justice

Photo by Jared Charney

Renny Cushing calls himself “an aging revolutionary and a fading romantic,” but despite his 60-something age, he continues his lifelong fight for social justice.

Just this year, Cushing, as a five-term state representative from Hampton, worked to reform prison policies for the mentally ill, promote the use of body-worn cameras by New Hampshire police and to allow a terminally ill woman to cross state lines for medical marijuana. He also worked with women’s groups to get the first portrait of a woman hung at the Statehouse. And, as a Bernie delegate and whip at the Democratic convention, Cushing helped push reform of the delegate selection process.

The centerpiece of his social activism, though, is his ongoing work for the rights of victims of violent crime, the work animated by the murder of both his father and brother-in-law. “Our criminal justice system re-victimizes, and too often society neglects and abandons victims,” Cushing says. But, despite “the most searing and humbling experiences” of his life, he has also worked to repeal, unsuccessfully so far, NH’s death penalty. Cushing says, “If we let murderers turn us to murder, we become what we say we abhor.”

The man who began his fight for social justice as a teenager protesting the Vietnam War and then leading the anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance today finds himself most passionate about “dismantling” homophobia and other forms of bigotry and inequality. “I am inspired,” he says, “to try to understand history and honor justice, save our planet and work to build the beloved community.” 

Dan Habib

Disability Rights Advocate

Photo courtesy of Bud Buckout

When Dan Habib began his fight for inclusion of people with disabilities, he didn’t know that one day his work would be translated in 17 languages and used as a catalyst for discussion around the world.

What he did know was that he wanted to tell the story of his son Samuel, who was born with cerebral palsy. So he produced a documentary that explored the social and educational experiences of his son and others with disabilities.

Including Samuel,” which debuted in 2008, would win international acclaim. Another documentary, “Who Cares About Kelsey?,” was released in 2012, and a third, with the working title “Intelligent Lives,” is due out next fall.

“Through films, I bring people into the epicenter of the inclusion rights movement,” says Habib. “We have to see the separation of students as segregation, just like we did with color and women in the past. It will benefit society as a whole to see disability as part of a natural diversity.”

Habib says attitudes are changing, but he’s “impatient for it to happen more quickly.” To that end, he’s working as filmmaker and project director at the Institute on Disability at UNH, serving as a member of the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities and traveling far and wide to speak on the issue.

Son Samuel is now a junior in high school, himself an aspiring filmmaker and disability rights advocate. “It’s important to have high expectations,” Habib says. “Low expectations are the biggest barrier; they make it easier to continue to segregate.”

Robert Morin

A Frugal Life and Secret Fortune

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Normally, the death of a 77-year-old state university library employee does not make national news. Robert Morin’s passing, though undoubtedly sorrowful for those who knew and loved him, would likely never have been noted outside of the local paper’s obituaries if not for one huge surprise — a secret $4 million fortune that he bequeathed to his former employer, the University of New Hampshire. For nearly five decades, Morin worked at Dimond Library as a cataloger, never letting on to the fact that he was a millionaire. Yet, this story still doesn’t have the chops to get picked up by national media. It wasn’t until UNH announced how they would divvy up the money that this story burst onto the national scene. Out of the $4 million, just $100,000 — the minimum Morin requested — would be given to the library he loved. The rest was split between a new career center ($2.5 million) and for a scoreboard ($1 million) at the new football stadium. It was, as you’ve probably guessed, the scoreboard that sparked immediate and harsh criticism. Op-eds were written, Facebook posts blew up with hundreds of comments, and letters proclaiming, “I’ll never donate again!” were dashed off to the alumni association, but, as often happens with these things, attention quickly moved on to the next outrage du jour. For a while, though, one quiet man unintentionally reignited a debate that’s raged in higher education for years — whether institutions should invest more in athletics or academics. 

Jay and Vicki Philbrick

Pushing Photography to the Edge

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“It’s nuts.” Photographer Jay Philbrick is talking about the national and worldwide press his photo shoots have garnered in recent months, but you could (and those who are afraid of heights do) say that it’s the shoots themselves that are nuts. Last fall, Philbrick and his wife and photography partner Vicki were featured on WMUR’s “Chronicle.” The Emmy Award-winning segment covered some of their extreme cliffside photo shoots, where newlyweds or models are lowered over Cathedral Ledge in North Conway. Since then, the dizzying and breathtaking photos went viral, and appeared in Cosmopolitan, the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Britain’s Daily Mail. Most recently (as of this issue’s press deadline), the Philbricks and their team were featured on ABC News’ “Nightline” with a possibility of landing on “Good Morning America.”

Believe it or not, this fall he raised the stakes even higher. Model Kristina Marie Folcik-Welts, who’s worked with the Philbricks in the past, emailed Philbrick a simple sentence: “How about the Eaglet?” Instantly, says Philbrick, he knew he had to make it work. The Eaglet Spire, which happens to be the only freestanding spire on the East Coast, sits high above Franconia Notch. Expert climber Marc Chauvin, who has worked on numerous cliff shoots, climbed up with Folcik-Welts — both sleeping on the spire overnight to be able to take photos with the dawn light. The result is stunning: a woman in a flowing purple dress catching the sun atop a lofty perch. The previous photos went viral, but these just might break the internet. 

Seth Meyers

Heir to the Political Satire Throne

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Windham may have produced one of Donald Trump’s closest allies (Corey Lewandowski), but Bedford gave us his fiercest and funniest adversary.

The repeat “It Lister” and Manchester West High School graduate hit his stride on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” in this election year. The Donald was a frequent subject of takedowns on the show’s “A Closer Look” segment, continuing a comedic enemy-ship that dates back to Meyers’ famous Trump burns at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. “Late Night” gave Meyers an Emmy nod — his 15th — and a review from The New York Times as “our generation’s smartest talk show host” this year, and it’s positioned him as the likely heir to the Colbert and Stewart tradition of political satire.

But the funnyman hasn’t stopped at sitting behind the hosting desk. In 2016, he’s added to his long list of “Saturday Night Live” writing credits, appeared on “The Mindy Project” alongside fellow one-time New Hampshirite Mindy Kaling, and racked up sterling reviews as creator, producer and writer of the IFC parody series “Documentary Now!”

Oh, and, thanks to the birth of son Ashe in March, this year also earned Meyers a new personal title: Dad.

Categories: It List