Westwood’s U-2 connection
In his decades-long quest to learn about his father's life and honor his legacy, Francis Gary Powers Jr. has made a career out of piecing together puzzles.
Only recently, with the help of a Henrico native, did a giant piece of the puzzle – a shadowy, vaguely-alluded-to "Richmond connection" – drop into place.
The son of the famed U-2 pilot was at the Virginia Historical Society March 10 to lead a gallery walk through an exhibit of memorabilia from his father's life and career. The exhibit, on display through May, includes mementos from the senior Powers' early years in Southwest Virginia, a fragment from the U-2 plane in which he was shot down on May 1,1960, photos from his trial and keepsakes from his captivity in a Russian prison.
The exhibit also contains a display of letters addressed to 6103 West Club Lane in Henrico – souvenirs of a relationship that Powers' son discovered last spring after a puzzling call from Rosaanne Speranza.
Pausing to introduce Speranza to the gallery crowd, Powers told them he first heard of her when she left a message saying, "You don't know me, but my father paid for your grandparents to go to Russia for your father's trial."
The news came as a surprise, since Powers had always heard that Life magazine paid for the flight to Russia in return for exclusive rights to the story. Having seen pictures taken by Life photographers, Powers never had reason to doubt the story – until Speranza came into his life.
Headlines hit home
Today a resident of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Speranza grew up in the house on West Club Lane – the first house in the neighborhood -- and her parents owned the Westwood Supper Club. Vincent ("Jimmy") Speranza, the only one of his 13 siblings to leave Italy for the States, ran the club from 1935-1950.
A junior in high school in 1960, Speranza can remember her father's reaction when the news broke that a U.S. pilot had been shot down over Russia, and that he had family in Pound, Virginia.
"My father felt the pain of being separated from family," recalls Speranza, "because the rest of his family was in Italy. He said, 'If that was my son, I would want to be with him.'"
Hoping to help and also to avoid publicity, Jimmy Speranza contacted his close friend and confidante Wilmer Hedrick, the chief of police in Henrico. Hedrick and John Leard, a fellow club member and editor of Richmond Newspapers, assisted him in the effort to reach Norton shoemaker Oliver Powers. The correspondence that ensued grew into a long friendship between the Speranza and Powers family.
"Every time [the Powers] would travel to meet with someone at the State Department," says Rosaanne, "they'd stay at our house."
It was not until after her mother's death in January 2009 (Jimmy had passed in 1965) that Rosaanne had a chance to pore over the letters and gain an understanding of just how close the two couples had been.
"[The letters from Oliver Powers] start out, 'Dear Mr. Speranza,'" says Rosanne. "Then it's 'Dear Mr. and Mrs. Speranza and daughter,' then it's 'Dear Jimmy and Alice and Rosaanne.'
"I didn't realize till I sat down and read them – this is a wonderful evolution of a friendship."
While considering what to do with the letters, Speranza remembered that the Powers had had a son. A friend tracked down the Midlothian resident on the internet, and Speranza left the message on Powers' voice mail.
"I knew he was thinking, 'Who is this person? Is this a Looney-Tunes?'," Speranza recalls. Unaware that Powers was traveling, she waited 10 days for a response, then called again. This time she connected, and Powers listened politely – if somewhat skeptically – while she described the letters.
"Then he says to me," recalls Speranza, "'You can do three things: sell them on e-Bay, donate them to a museum – or give them to me.'
"I said, 'Hands down, they're yours!'"
She and Powers made plans to meet last May, while she was in town for her mother's memorial celebration at The Westwood Club.
Once Powers saw the envelopes, all skepticism dissolved. He read each letter aloud -- from notes written on receipt forms from the Norton City Shoe Shop, to letters informing the Speranzas that the Powerses would show photos and film from the trial.
There were also newspaper clippings about Jimmy Speranza's efforts (eventually made public) to encourage Oliver Powers to fly to Moscow and meet with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. One clipping, entitled "Powers' Father Writes Red," describes Powers' hopes for a heart-to-heart with Khrushchev -- "one father to another."
For Powers, who was five when Oliver Powers died (and 12 when his father died), the glimpse into his grandparents' lives has been both eye-opening and rewarding. He added the letters to the traveling exhibit of the Cold War Museum, which he founded in 1996 after a trip retracing his father's journey through Russia and his release in a prisoner exchange. This year, the letters should find a permanent home when ground is broken for the museum building in Fauquier County.
What's more, the discovery of the letters has cemented a new Powers-Speranza friendship.
The day after the gallery walk at VHS, Powers and Speranza met at the Westwood Club, where she visited with old friend Ada Evans – a Westwood employee since Speranza's teen-age years. Over lunch, Speranza and Powers reminisced about their families, and about the Westwood in its heyday.
During World War II, when the ban on using gasoline for pleasure trips could have shut down the club, Jimmy Speranza bought a railroad car flatbed, outfitted it with wheels, and devised a horse-drawn trolley to get diners to and from the last streetcar stop at Hamilton and Broad.
The Westwood Supper Club was also a popular spot for dances during the era, and the site from which Harvey Hudson (a frequent guest at the Speranza dinner table) made a remote broadcast on his very first assignment for WRVA.
Even then, her father was legendary for his generosity and compassion, said Speranza. He threw parties for families of the band members who played at the club, and in 1944 he brought in 100 soldiers from Ft. Lee for a free Christmas dinner at Westwood -- "which included a can of beer," she says with a laugh.
And although Oliver Powers tried at least three times to repay the cost of his plane fare, Jimmy Speranza always tore up the check.
So as the 50th anniversary of the U-2 Incident draws near, along with the long-awaited establishment of a museum home, Gary Powers is thankful as well for the appearance of Rosaanne Speranza in his life.
"It's been a pleasure, a surprise and a delight," he says of the encounter. "We've become good friends; we've bonded. It's nice to know people out there are good-hearted and do things for the right reasons."
"Thank you," he says to her, "for opening a chapter of my family history."
Once again, they share laughs about the way it all started: with Powers getting a mysterious call from "a crazy lady."
"It's a badge," says Speranza with a smile, "I will proudly wear."
A second gallery walk with Francis Gary Powers, Jr., may take place at the Virginia Historical Society at a date to be announced in April. For information about the gallery walk or exhibit, visit vahistorical.org. For information about Powers and the Cold War Museum, visit coldwar.org.
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