Henrico County VA
facebook twitter email rss
Click here
to read
the print edition

Westwood’s U-2 connection

Francis Gary Powers, Jr., and Rosaanne Speranza have re-forged a 50-year-old link between their two families.
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."

'They're yours!'
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."

Eye-opening rewards
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.


Community

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden raises admission $1

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden’s admission has increased by $1 across all categories. Admission is now $12 for adults; $11 for seniors ages 55 and older; and $8 for children ages 3–12. Admission remains free for children ages 3 and younger and for members.

The last price increase was in 2011, before the Garden consistently hosted Butterflies LIVE! (which is included with admission). > Read more.

Garden tails

The threat of bad weather didn’t keep visitors away from Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden July 10 for the facility’s weekly Flowers After 5 event (which pairs music and food with a chance to stroll the garden) and its monthly Fidos After 5 (which allows dog owners to bring their pets with them to enjoy the evening). > Read more.

Western Henrico Rotary helps fund Midwives For Haiti Jeep


Thanks in part to a $10,000 gift from the Western Henrico Rotary Club, another bright pink Jeep modified to travel extremely rough terrain has been delivered to Midwives For Haiti so that more pregnant women in the quake-ravaged country will have access to prenatal care and a greater chance of surviving childbirth.

The funds were raised at the annual casino night held in February, club president Adam Cherry said. The Rotary Club also helped purchase the Virginia-based charity’s first pink jeep three years ago. > Read more.

Page 1 of 114 pages  1 2 3 >  Last ›

Entertainment

‘Top Chef’ finalist to open Willow Lawn restaurant

A finalist in the Bravo television show Top Chef is bringing one of his four restaurant chains to Henrico County.

Bryan Voltaggio, who was the runner-up of the sixth season of Top Chef, (finishing second to his brother, Michael) and his business partner, Hilda Staples, will open their third Family Meal restaurant, at Henrico's Willow Lawn shopping center. The restaurant is expected to open early next year. > Read more.

US Army Field Band to perform in Henrico Aug. 3

The United States Army Field Band will present a free public performance at Deep Run Park in Henrico on Sunday, Aug 3 at 3 p.m.

Members of the band are soldiers who also serve as “musical ambassadors of the Army” and perform for schools and communities nationwide.

The Concert Band will be performing along with the Soldiers’ Chorus. > Read more.

Weekend Top 10


Get up and dance – square dance, that is – with the Tuckahoe Square Dance Club tonight! More musical events this weekend include family-friendly karaoke at Aunt Sarah’s Pancake House, the United States Army Field Band and Soldiers’ Chorus Concert and the Henrico Teen Theatre Company’s production of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.

Page 1 of 91 pages  1 2 3 >  Last ›







 

Reader Survey | Advertising | Email updates

Classifieds

GET FREE OF CREDIT CARD DEBT NOW! Cut payments by up to half. Stop creditors from calling. 877-467-4560
Full text

Place an Ad | More Classifieds

Calendar

The film “Oliver” will play at 7 p.m. Aug. 1 and at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Aug. 2 at Henrico Theatre, 305 E. Nine Mile Rd. Tickets are $1… Full text

Your weather just got better.

Henricopedia

Henrico's Top Teachers