Explore →

Two Virginians Talk Life Turning Points

Headshots of two men in a split screen
Charlie Bryan Jr. (right) and Drew Cleveland (left); screenshot taken by producer Diana Williams

VPM is one of six stations across the United States partnering with StoryCorps for “One Small Step,” a nationwide initiative that brings together people with opposing political beliefs to have open, respectful conversations. In many instances, the participants discover they have more in common than they thought.


Charlie Bryan Jr. used to dream about the confederates winning the Civil War and had a picture of Robert E. Lee on his wall. After going to college and gaining a broader perspective, he realized he was wrong, and went on to get his Ph.D. in history. Bryan, a grandfather, believes everyone experiences a number of turning points or setbacks that shape their life. He shares some of his with Drew Cleveland, who has had a few turning points of his own. The two discover they have similar experiences.

Growing up in a conservative military family, Cleveland got used to frequently moving to a new town. “Moving around does prepare you to make friends with anyone, you get that exposure to the world,” said Cleveland. Instead of going to college right after high school, Cleveland bounced around multiple countries, including Europe, Africa and Latin America. “To say that you know you can take a big risk and hop off the cultural script and life doesn't fall apart,” said Cleveland. He lived in hostels abroad until his father called saying to “just graduate from somewhere.”

Cleveland ended up graduating from Virginia Tech. During his senior year, Cleveland lost his father, and that same year the Tech massacre occurred. “I definitely think grief is not necessarily a point in time, it just is a part of your narrative,” said Cleveland. He feels like he missed out on forming an adult relationship with his father, saying he oddly doesn’t get emotional around the holidays. He gets emotional when he wants his dad’s advice.

Bryan knows that feeling of grief all too well. When he was eight years old he watched his father die from a heart attack. “I know had he lived, my life would have been very different,” said Bryan. Bryan wonders if he would have followed in his father’s footsteps and be a musician if he grew up with his father.

Similarly, Cleveland almost followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a marine. But while reading the paperwork he saw a disclaimer, saying to sign this paper without a hint of reservation, and he did have some reservations. “The training requires you to dehumanize anatomy in order to learn how to kill,” said Cleveland, who now works for a local church in the Richmond area.

While Bryan didn’t become a musician, he became a public historian and served as CEO of the Virginia Historical Society for 20 years. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at 56 and retired earlier than he wanted. “All of a sudden it’s just like the world turned upside down,” said Bryan. Though he wasn’t going to let Parkinson’s, which he refers to as his demon, get the best of him, saying “I fight the bastard every day.” After retiring, he founded a consulting business and helps others with Parkinson’s cope with the diagnosis.

Bryan says his refusal to feel sorry for himself and fighting mentality comes from his grandfather, who didn’t have past an eighth-grade education but was an intelligent man. After his father died, Bryan moved in with this grandfather who became a father figure, which he wrote about in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

His grandfather also instilled the importance of caring about others and those in need of help, which led Bryan to consider himself a Democrat. “I believe the government does have a role in our daily lives in a positive way,” said Bryan. People are often surprised to hear Bryan has voted Democrat in nearly every election. While eating lunch at the Dairy Bar it came up that Bryan tends to vote blue, which his acquaintance said ruined lunch. “I didn't fit the profile of who needs to be liberal or conservative,” said Bryan. “That does bother me; people just assume.”

Similarly, Cleveland wishes there wasn’t so much division between political parties. “How do we serve and love our neighbor across political differences?” said Cleveland, who moved to Richmond after reading its residents feel like they can make a difference in the community. After moving around a lot, he realized in order to make a real difference he should plant roots and stay in an area for a period of time.

Bryan believes the turning points and setbacks help shape a person and their life. While these periods in time may be difficult, Bryan finds that had they not happened, their lives would have turned out differently. At 73, Bryan says he’s had at least six to seven turning points in his life. At 38, Cleveland may have a few more to go.


StoryCorps’ One Small Step is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.