The 18th Annual Ashe County Project Graduation will be without its generous founder and main contributor this year as local businessman and philanthropist Norman Cheek has passed away at the age of 70.
Cheek leaves behind a legacy as the founder and stout supporter of Project Graduation, an all night extravaganza that provides a drug and alcohol free alternative to graduating seniors. Ashe County High School instructor Vickie Herman, who had known Cheek for more than 10 years, stated that he “has always been a huge financial help” for the all night event. Herman went on to explain that it was Cheek who would contribute $100 to the project every time an Ashe County resident would purchase a vehicle from his lot in the month of May.
It was also Cheek who worked tirelessly to secure eye catching prizes that could be raffled off for the purpose of raising funds for the event. On a couple of occasions, Herman explained, Cheek would even raffle off a $20,000 vehicle from his lot for the purchase of a $50 ticket. He even went so far as to reserve a spot for the General Lee car from the popular “Dukes of Hazzard” television show.
The “little dealer with the big heart” decided to develop the all night extravaganza after a fateful Friday night that would forever change how graduation nights would be spent in Ashe, Caldwell, and Watauga counties. On one particular graduation night years ago, Cheek was dispatched with a wrecker to the scene of a fatal accident. He soon discovered that the vehicle that was involved in the accident had actually come from his lot. The driver of the vehicle was also the son of a close friend, Cheek’s daughter Donna Bare said. As it turns out the newly graduated senior and his friend were simply searching for something to do to celebrate their departure from grade school and on into adulthood. The two teens had resorted to drinking and driving at a high rate of speed on the Blue Ridge Parkway and as a result the driver lost control of the vehicle and crashed it into a tree. Bare stated that witnessing this carnage of the accident “tore him (Cheek) all to pieces.” Cheek was so deeply affected by the tragedy, which had hit a little too close to home, that in 1989 he decided to organize and coordinate a safe alternative to this type of celebrating on graduation night.
Although the event would originate in Watauga County, it would soon spread to the adjacent counties of Ashe and Caldwell. Since 1992, Cheek has made sure each Project Graduation in Ashe County has gone off without a hitch.
Herman said that it was Cheek who would work on up to the very last minute to ensure that sufficient funds were raised for the event and that every high school student thoroughly enjoyed themselves on graduation night.
“Knowing that graduation night is a night that kids wanted to celebrate, Norman was constantly calling and checking in to see how things were going,” Herman said. “Even after graduation night, he would call to make sure the kids had a good time.”
“It was something that was always near and dear to his heart; it was always touching to us to see how much he really cared about it.”
Time Magazine paid tribute to Cheek’s efforts in organizing Project Graduation by focusing various articles on the event that he tirelessly promoted.
In honor of Cheek, memorial contributions are currently being accepted for the Norman Cheek Project Graduation Memorial Fund or the Norman Cheek National Guard Fund, both of which are in the care of Donna Bare at 671 Bare Ridge Rd. in West Jefferson.
Contributions may also be made in Cheek’s memory to the Old Gap Creek Cemetery Fund, in care of Carolyn Pierce at 303 N.C. Hwy 194 South in West Jefferson. Cheek had always expressed an interest in maintaining the cemetery’s grounds, Bare said.