(To read some of these and other articles selected as some of the most memorable by Citizen staff members, click here: http://www.henricocitizen.com/index.php/news/article/henrico_citizen_10th_anniversary)
As the Henrico Citizen enters its second decade, I can’t help but spend time looking backward and reminiscing about the first.
Not only is it fun to recall our early days from a “look how far we’ve come” perspective – remembering, for instance, how I played “papergirl” and rode my bike around Lakeside tossing copies of the Citizen’s first issue (Sept. 20, 2001) into driveways; it’s also satisfying to think back to the memorable stories I have covered – stories that have moved me, changed me, and introduced me to unforgettable people.
It’s people, after all, who make the Citizen a paper that people want to read.
I will always be grateful to Laurie Weinberg, for instance, for sharing her English as a Second Language (ESL) class with me in 2002. A fellow basketball mom at Maggie Walker Governor’s School, Laurie told me one night as we watched a game that her current ESL class stood out from others she had taught at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College.
“My classes are always diverse and interesting,” she said. “But this one is special.”
The hour I spent with Laurie’s nine students – representing eight different countries from Sierra Leone and Iran to Jordan, South Korea, and Venezuela – was one of the most enlightening, inspiring, and humbling hours I have ever spent. Laurie turned the visit into an assignment for her students, and had each of them stand and tell me about their native countries with whatever English they could muster.
The hour was enlightening because I was able to enjoy an intensive world tour of geography, history and other cultures; hearing the stories from the lips of those students brought the depth and breadth home to me better than any college class ever had.
The hour was inspiring because so many of the students had overcome tremendous obstacles just to get to this country, only to face a daily gauntlet of obstacles as they learned to navigate their new land and language.
Many had left professional positions as dentists, programmers, journalists, and therapists to take hourly-wage jobs in retail and restaurants here. Almost all had met with prejudice, ignorance, and even open hostility from locals when they arrived here. I can still feel my embarrassment as an Iranian student, wearing an expression of mingled pain and puzzlement, described his encounter with an American who learned of his background and responded, “So you’re a terrorist!”
Yet the students were united in their dignity and in their determination to master English and achieve their varied dreams: of furthering education, pursuing careers and building new lives. I came away deeply humbled and newly appreciative of the privilege I enjoy – through no effort of my own – of being born a U.S. citizen and a native English speaker. I think of these students often, and wonder how they are faring in this era of immigrant intolerance.
When it comes to inspiring stories, few can compare to that of A.C. Roane (2004), a remarkable cyclist who enjoyed going on charity bike rides to raise funds for people less fortunate than himself. Maybe not such a remarkable feat, you say, until you learn that A.C. had lost almost all his sight due to retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and could see only fuzzy swatches of color on the jerseys of the riders in front of him. What’s more – despite his active regimen – A.C. had suffered a stroke at the age of 43.
During my interview with A.C., however, I never felt as if I were talking to someone with serious disabilities. He spoke of 75-mile bike rides, ski trips, and cooking favorite dishes for his family. Even when telling stories of his not-so-successful efforts – such as a bone-breaking bike spill and recently-abandoned attempts to mow the lawn – he clearly relished the memory, and laughed heartily at what others might consider spectacular failures.
No one who has met A.C., though, would ever think of uttering his name and “failure” in the same breath.
Like A.C., two young mothers I met in 2009 were coping with deteriorating vision and the knowledge that one day they would likely lose their sight for good. Both Megan Mudd and Kisa Miller had already lost their ability to drive and were raising their children “on foot,” relying on spouses and a network of friends for transportation to school and sports.
I met with Megan and Kisa to help promote their efforts on behalf of the VisionWalk, a fundraiser for the Foundation for Fighting Blindness (FFB) and its work to cure and prevent vision loss.
Like A.C. Roane, Kisa and Megan struggled through numerous challenges, but instead of going the “woe-is-me” route, they chose to focus on the bright side. Both were grateful that they had a chance to lead relatively normal lives into their teens, before their vision began to fade. Both were optimistic about the work of the FFB, and positively glowed about breakthroughs in research that were probably too late to help them, but sure to help others.
And both thought their children benefited from having mothers with vision loss; not only did they enjoy a “1950s upbringing” that entailed lots of walking, but they were also learning sensitivity to those who did not have their advantages.
Kisa, in fact, even said that she felt “fortunate” to have the disease of RP. “Everyone has a cross to bear in life,” she said. “It could be worse.”
Megan agreed, pointing out with a laugh that the real handicap was living in the suburbs.
“If we lived in New York City, no one would even know (that we can’t see)!”
National figure, local gentleman
While Megan, Kisa, A.C. and the ESL students were fighting their battles behind the scenes, Paul Galanti’s trials once made national news.
A former Navy pilot and a prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven years, Paul (accompanied by his wife, Phyllis) made the cover of Newsweek when he was released from prison in 1973. Since then he has been portrayed in Life and Time magazines as well as Discovery Channel documentaries. As a nationally recognized inspirational speaker, he has criss-crossed the country many times over telling his stories to schoolchildren, civic groups and professional organizations.
I met Paul years before he became the subject of a Citizen story, at an alumni event for my late father’s alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy. Paul was amused to learn that in high school in the late 1960s, I chose to purchase and wear his POW bracelet over others because he was shot down on my 12th birthday.
At that first encounter, I was simply in awe of meeting the war hero whose name I had worn on my bracelet more than three decades earlier. But over the years since, my admiration has only grown, and I have come to appreciate Paul for much more than his military role. He is, pure and simple, a class act and a gentleman.
For years I teased him that he needed to move from his city residence to Henrico County so that I could write about him. In 2006, when the Virginia Aviation Museum held a gala to unveil a replica of the A-4 Skyhawk Paul was flying when he was shot down, I got my wish. I had to miss the gala due to an out-of-town conflict, but Paul graciously took time out during a Washington, D.C. trip to provide me with a phone interview.
Since then, I have been fortunate enough to celebrate with Paul at both the groundbreaking and the opening gala of the new Paul and Phyllis Galanti Education Center at the Virginia War Memorial, and at the dedication of the USO center at Richmond International Airport. At the USO dedication, Paul left me smiling as always: introducing me to his Navy friends not as a member of the media (which tends to put a damper on conversation), but with an endorsement he knew they would quickly approve: “Patty’s dad went to boat school (USNA).”
International, local connections
I covered another story that involved a famous pilot when Francis Gary Powers, Jr., came to the Virginia Aviation Museum to talk about his father in 2002.
When I met Gary that night, I never dreamed that he would one day become a subject of multiple stories in the Citizen -- or a Richmond neighbor. At the time, he was a resident of Northern Virginia, and was traveling the country to promote the Cold War Museum he had founded in his father’s memory.
I was spellbound as Gary recounted the story of the 1960 U-2 incident from his father’s perspective, starting with the heart-stopping account of the pilot’s collision with a missile and his rapid descent and ejection and continuing with his capture, trial, imprisonment and eventual release in a trade for a Russian spy.
I found Gary’s story engaging on so many levels: from the excitement and intrigue of his father’s adventures; to the tragic irony of his father’s death in a helicopter that ran out of gas; to the fatherless son deciding as an adult to follow in his dad’s footsteps and, eventually, pay tribute by establishing the Cold War Museum.
But Gary kept me engaged long after that first visit to Henrico -- inviting me to join a busload of Henricoans taking the Spy Tour of Washington, D.C. in 2002, a fundraiser for the Cold War Museum -- and then contacting me when he moved to the Richmond area a year later.
Last year, when I went to see Gary lead a Virginia Historical Society gallery walk through an exhibit of his father’s memorabilia, I met Rosaanne Speranza and learned of previously unknown Henrico ties to the U-2 incident. After spending a delightful lunch at the Westwood Club with Gary and Rosaanne, I had the pleasure of writing about the friendship that formed after Rosaanne’s father – then owner of the Westwood Club – wrote to support Gary’s grandparents following the U-2 incident (2010).
I had the good fortune of meeting the late Bill Abeloff in 2002, when I attended a presentation he gave at the Eyes on Richmond forum at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. As Abeloff – then best known as the developer of Tobacco Row – described the plans for his next development, I was intrigued.
Quoting liberally from 17th-century documents and sprinkling his narration with frequent historical detail, Abeloff said he proposed to turn a seedy, run-down industrial district on the Henrico line into a riverfront village where locals would “live, work, shop and play.”
I have covered many stories at Rocketts Landing since then – from the moment when the first condominium residents moved in to the grand 400th anniversary celebration of Christopher Newport’s 1607 visit to the area and the regattas, races and Parade of Lights parties that highlight Rocketts’ annual festivities. Today the home of a marina, residential community, and three thriving restaurants, Rocketts Landing is still growing, but it’s taken giant steps toward becoming the village that Abeloff envisioned.
I love nothing better than providing visitors – whether from out of town or from just across the river in Chesterfield – with their first view of the downtown skyline from Rocketts, and then regaling them with the history of the place.
“Rocketts is even more amazing when you consider the brownfield and industrial wasteland that it replaced,” I like to brag. “And I knew it when it was only a gleam in the eye of Bill Abeloff.”
Finally, no list of favorite stories and memorable characters would be complete without mention of Frank Daylor.
I met Frank in December 2003 as we volunteered at Short Pump Town Center with other Citizens Police Academy alumni for ACT NOW, a citizens’ patrol. As we chatted on our rounds I was struck by the fact that even though Frank was pushing 70 at the time, he not only kept up the pace with his younger companions, but also kept us entertained with stories of his varied volunteer and social activities.
At the time the Citizen was running an occasional feature called “Citizen of the Issue,” and I thought Frank would make a great subject. We sat down over sodas at Ukrop’s for what I thought would be the usual half hour interview, and two hours flew by in a heartbeat.
Frank and I started meeting for weekly lunches, at which we never failed to run into someone from Frank’s wide circle of friends, family and acquaintances – and in no time, through him, I felt as if I knew half of Richmond. During the next several years, Frank volunteered as a Citizen delivery driver, and he and his friends – including A.C. Roane; renowned chef and decorated veteran of the French Algerian War Paul Elbling (2005); long-time Highland Springs H.S. supporter Stoney Jones (2006); and Iwo Jima veterans Cotton Billingsley and Charlie Cooper (2007), to name a few – became a regular source of stories in the Citizen.
Although our lunch get-togethers are less regular now, I can still count on occasional cheery calls from Frank, filling me in on his latest list of activities; he still puts me to shame with his energy.
I could go on about other favorite subjects, such as 82-year-old half-marathoner Lois Creamer in 2008; bluegrass gospel group Churchyard Grass (2003); Spec Campen, who at 91 has appeared in almost 80 films (2007); and Rev. Robert Bluford, founder of the Historic Polegreen Church Foundation, who recently flew the same model of a plane he piloted in World War II (2010).
But I will conclude with the story that changed the way I celebrate my birthdays.
As a journalist, there is nothing more satisfying about my job than hearing from a reader, “I was intrigued by your story, so I read up on the subject and learned more about it” – unless it’s to hear that the reader attended an event, took up a new hobby, got involved with a cause or otherwise took action as a result of a story.
In 2005 I attended an engagement party for two strangers that turned the tables and inspired me to take action -- an action that I plan to make a lifelong habit.
The couple celebrating their engagement at Virginia Blood Services, Montie Harper and Lynn Miller, had met as a result of their work on blood drives. Since they were older and had little need for the typical wedding or engagement gifts, they decided to share their happiness by holding a party at VBS and asking each friend who attended to donate a pint of blood in their honor.
That got me thinking about other celebrations that might garner blood for VBS, and the following June, I began holding an annual “bloodthirsty birthday party.”
Since then, my friends have become so accustomed to giving blood at this event that they start asking about it months in advance. And while I can’t say that VBS has collected more than a few dozen pints at the parties, they’ve gained a lot of attention and raised a lot of awareness. Every year, as people hear about the party for the first time, they are – at the very least – reminded of the need for blood donations, even if they are not regular donors. I am proud to say that at least two people have donated blood for the first time at my party.
And at least once a year I hear the comment, “What a cool idea; I think I’ll throw a birthday bloodbath myself!”
Yes, it is a cool idea, and I can’t take credit for it; that goes to the clever couple I met in 2005. So to Montie and Lynn, and to Citizen readers and story subjects everywhere, I say, thanks for the inspiration.
And while I’m at it, thanks for the memories.
Dr. Even Alexander, a New York Times best-selling author who has been featured on Oprah and Dr. Oz, was in town last week to promote his June 27 talk, "Proof of Heaven," at Glen Allen High School.
Alexander (pictured, at right, while Unity of Bon Air church member Harry Simmons interviews him) has written about what he considers to be his journey through the afterlife.
Tickets to this month's event are $25 and will support the new Bon Secours Hospice House being built later this year. > Read more.
The Innsbrook Rotary Club, which is celebrating its 25th year in 2015, has completed a number of volunteer projects this year and raised thousands of dollars for various organizations through three events.
The club's annual rose sale, benefit for youth live auction and Virginia Fire Games competition, combined with individual and corporate donations, have raised nearly $70,000 – money that the club contributes back to the community.
FeedMore is the beneficiary of the club's 25th anniversary project, which provides refrigerated trailers to be used for the distribution of food throughout Central Virginia. > Read more.
For our Top 10 calendar events this weekend, click here! > Read more.
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