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LEAP of FAITH

by Robert Lopez

Simonne Ritchy McClinton stood on a dirt road, a car speeding toward her at about 80 mph.

She was working as a stunt double for Roma Downey on the set of “Touched by an Angel.”

Downey’s character, the titular angel, was not afraid of getting hit by a car.

“So you can’t flinch,” McClinton said.

“You just have to trust the driver isn’t going to hit you.”

Running a business is sometimes like that.

McClinton, who spent much of the 1990s working in Hollywood, now runs M’Coul’s Public House in downtown Greensboro.

“You’re exposed, it’s a gamble, it’s a risk,” she said. “Some years you make money, some years you don’t. You wonder, ‘Do I keep going in this direction?’ It’s a lot of pressure.

“But I also constantly have people say, ‘You matter to me. I met my wife here,’ or ‘We got engaged here.’ Even somebody coming and choosing your place to cel ebrate their birthday—it always touches me.”

McClinton opened M’Coul’s in 2002 when downtown was, as she recalls, “a ghost town.” New development in the years since brought new faces. But the changes haven’t always been for the best, she says. Parking can be a hassle for her patrons. She’s also had disputes with the city over the noise ordinance.

But she also “loves how eclectic downtown is.”

“It obviously has its pros and cons,” she said. “But mostly you develop such great relationships, especially with other restaurant owners. If you need to-go boxes or a box of (Coca-Cola), because you had an unexpectedly busy weekend, you know you can come borrow them from me. And really downtown is for everyone, and that’s what I want my pub to be, a place for everyone.”

Used to long days

McClinton, 45, takes a seat in a booth next to the door at M’Coul’s, mug of Earl Grey tea at her side and an orange binder in front of her, labeled “Daily Duties.”

Her own duties are many – running food, barbacking, taking out the trash, in addition to her managerial duties. On this day, before the pub opened at 11 a.m., she was also scrubbing a spot on the floor where a booth had just been moved, taking measurements on a refinished deck upstairs, and picking up dust on the windows with a tiny vacuum.

“It’s a very quirky 130-year-old building,” she said pointing out dust that’s accumulated at the ends of some bars on a window. “Sometimes it looks like the building is melting. You’re always finding some new weirdness.”

Her day typically begins at 6:30 a.m.

She makes lunches for her kids (she has two daughters and two sons), wakes everyone up, prepares breakfast and then gets herself ready.

She’s usually at the pub by about 9 or 9:30 a.m.

“A lot of the time I’ll sit in the car for about 15 minutes,” she said. “It’s my quiet time.”

The daughter of Simon and Lynn Ritchy, who have had a business presence in downtown Greensboro since the 1960s, McClinton is an alum of Grimsley High School and studied political science and television and radio at UNC-Chapel Hill.

On the day after she graduated from college in 1993, she took her first airplane trip, flying to Los Angeles with $200 in her pocket and no place to live.

She worked in a restaurant, quickly landed a television gig and got housesitting jobs, which gave her places to stay.

“I was really lucky when I went, because it was sort of the beginning of the (entertainment) business using computers for a lot of things,” she said. “And my first boss handed me a box, because he’d never even worked on a PC before, and said, ‘Do you know what to do with this?’ So I set up his computer. Because I knew how to set up computers, I got jobs very easily and quickly.

“And there are a lot of flakes in Los Angeles. If you show up to work, you’ve got an edge on half the people there. Coming from a background of family businesses I was used to long days.”

Stunt double

During her early days on the West Coast, she worked as a production assistant on “Harts of the West,” a modern-day western starring Lloyd and Beau Bridges that aired on CBS.

“I used to drive Lloyd Bridges to the set everyday in this giant Lincoln,” she said. “And we were shooting on a ranch, which was really cool. You could ride horses sometimes to the sets that were further away from our headquarters, our production office.”

She also managed to get some bit parts on sitcoms and still retains membership in the Screen Actors Guild. She was among those chosen by lottery to help select this year’s SAG Award winners.

“They sent me sacks and sacks of movies,” she said. “But there are also opportunities to go to New York City and meet some of the actors and have Q&A’s with them, which was a lot of fun.”

Simonne Ritchy McClinton served as the stunt double for actress Roma Downey in Touched by an Angel in the early 90’s.

After her first year in Los Angeles, she got a job on “Touched by an Angel” starring Downey and Della Reese as angels helping those in need.

McClinton moved to Salt Lake City, where the show was shot, and lived there for two years. She worked in production, but with her long dark hair, she resembled Downey and wound up doing some stunts for her.

“The first time they needed her to have a stunt double was, I think, the second episode, which was about baseball,” she said. “And I grew up playing Little League. There’s a shot where it looks like it’s her hitting a ball. It’s actually me.”

For a time she also ran her own production company shooting extreme sports films.

“Rock climbing, motocross, snowboarding,” she said. “You’d be in some pretty harrowing situations. I was very much into that back then. That was one of the benefits of having moved to Salt Lake City. The sports out there were so much fun. I grew up as an athlete, so I really enjoyed that.”

But she also found the industry “unbelievably sexist.”

“You hear a lot about women fighting for equality in pay in movies,” she said.

“And it was hard to stomach a lot of the slights. It’s not a clean business…I grew up with three older brothers, so it was a constant fight for justice. And I want things to be fair and I want to be treated equal.”

In 1998 she married Greg McClinton, who she knew from high school, and who was working as a U.S. Border Patrol agent at the time.

“When we found out we were expecting, we figured me working in TV and him in federal law enforcement, that wasn’t conducive to a family,” she said. “Both of us were working crazy long hours.”

Around that time her brothers opened a bar in downtown Greensboro. She decided to come back in 2000.

A place where everyone is welcome

McClinton, who is of Lebanese and Irish descent, said she had long tried talking her family into opening an Irish pub downtown.

While traveling during her days in the entertainment business, she also “spent many a night having a drink in an Irish pub.”

“The main thing I wanted to do was create a place where everyone felt welcome,” she said. “That to me is what a really good Irish pub does. That was my comfort when I was traveling alone. A lot of it too, was as a single woman you just maybe want to go have something good to eat, and not be hassled. And I wanted to provide that type of environment.”

She moved into a building on McGee Street next to her brothers’ bar.

“It was caved in, dilapidated,” she said. “We were truly starting from less than scratch. We certainly didn’t have a whole lot of money, so we recycled a lot of things. We took the beams from the ceiling that had caved in and we cleaned those, and made some tables and built our bar out of them.”

M’Coul’s opened in April 2002. “There was not a lot down here,” she said. “Ritchy’s Uptown (her brothers’ bar) was down here. The Rhino was here. Liberty Oak had just come downtown. But in the beginning, there wasn’t much.”

She recalled occasionally seeing fights break out at a nearby halfway house, and people telling her simply that they didn’t come downtown. The area’s revitalization in the mid-2000s, though, made for a bustling scene.

In 2012 she was invited to join the board of Downtown Greensboro, Inc., but soon found herself butting heads with others in the organization.

“For the first few meetings I sat and observed and was struck by the age and lack of diversity that was around me,” she said. “And also the disconnect. It’s a lot of developers and bankers and lawyers. And when I look at downtown, that’s not what I see. I was adamant that we needed more representation from shop owners.”

She said she tried to be “honest about what it’s really like down here.”

“Long story short, I never heard a nay when I was there, everybody was always in agreement, which I thought was really strange,” she said. “It did not seem to be the thing to do to question a comment or decision.”

She and downtown developer Eric Robert, who has also been outspoken about his concerns with the organization, were not asked to return to the board last year.

DGI President and CEO Zack Matheny (who was not in the organization at the time McClinton left) said he shared some of her concerns.

“We’re trying to open it up, and are moving forward to fill gaps,,” he said. “I would also love to get more young professionals engaged—.Through her and others voicing their concerns, we’re getting a better Downtown Greensboro, Inc.”

A labor of love

For a period of about six to seven years, McClinton said, people would tell her they “loved downtown.” But over the past several years, some have started saying “we don’t go downtown anymore.” A big issue she said has become parking enforcement, especially during the week.

“People are just afraid of getting ticketed, even our staff,” she said.

Right now, she is planning the pub’s big St. Patrick’s Day Party.

McClinton has discovered the permitting process has gotten a bit more complicated in the years since.

“When I started, it was just one sheet of paper I filled out and took to the police department,” she said. “Now it’s nine pages long.” And that’s not including hiring the bagpipers, putting up the decorations and any of the other details that need to be taken care of. She said she was hoping to get the parking lot next to the pub, like in years past, but it didn’t work out.

Still, she said, the party will include four bands, an Irish step-dancing show, a DJ and “a leprechaun coming to create some mischief.” On the day itself, McClinton expects to stay busy, speaking with the media, giving her workers breaks and making sure everything is running smoothly. She said people assume she makes a killing on St. Patrick’s Day, but in actuality she’s lucky to break even.

“It’s really a leap of faith,” she said. “But it’s really more about the community. For a lot of businesses here, it’s the first great day of the year. It’s nice to be outside, a lot of people take time off work to come down here and everyone is in a great mood.”

One thing she doesn’t regularly do is relax at the bar with a drink at the end of the day. By the time mid-afternoon rolls around, she’s usually rushing to pick up her kids from school .

“There’s helicopter parenting,” she said.

“But my husband and I, we joke that for us it’s more like taxi parenting, because we’re just constantly driving. And we’re constantly coordinating.”

Even when she is home, “there’s always things happening that might need my attention.”

“I’ll have to pick up and leave for a busted pipe or an upset customer,” she said. “It’s definitely a labor of love and it never ends.” !

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