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Dan Smith is an award-winning journalist in Roanoke, Va., and a member of the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame. He is an author, photographer, essayist, father and grandfather. Co-founder of Valley Business FRONT magazine and founder of the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference.

Dad and the Marble Knuckles

Look closely at Dad’s knuckles. Ignore the cowlick.

My friend Leah Weiss is finishing a new novel and got in touch with me recently asking if I knew anything about marble playing, say in the 1940s, or if I knew anybody who did. I found her a 1952 marbles national champion and told her this story:

When my dad was 10 in 1922, photo day at school was a big deal. Moms would dress their children in formal wear and pack them off to school with this instruction: “Don’t you dare get dirty before the photo or you’ll answer to your father’s belt.”

The lure of marbles was too much for dad. He smacked them around before school in the dirty of the school yard, like he was addicted to crack. The photo here is of dad during the photo session, looking like he knows what’s ahead when him mom sees the picture. Look, especially, at his knuckles.

My First–and Only–Autograph

Samantha Fox was not (un)dressed like this when we spoke. And I did not undress her with my eyes. Promise.

It was 1978 and I was working in the features department of Roanoke’s daily newspaper. Editor Sandra Kelly asked me if I wanted to do an interview with Samantha Fox, probably the best known porn actress in the country at the time. She would be making a personal appearance at the Lee Theater on Williamson, which had gone from showing all-Disney movies to all-porn in an effort to keep the doors open.

You can guess my reply. With a large grin. You can also guess how the other guys in the features department–Jeff DeBell, Chris Gladden and Joe Kennedy–reacted. Heh, heh, heh …

I found Sam to be intelligent, funny, forthright and open. She was also pretty in a way Barbie would not know. There was something about her that had nothing to do with sex that I liked a lot. I thought after the interview that she could be a friend. That’s when I asked her for an autograph, a totally unprofessional request from a journalist. It was the only autograph I ever requested, unless you consider book signings.

She wrote–in red pen, “Dear Dan, Thanks for the intelligent, mellow interview. Now what? Love, Samantha Fox.”

As you can see, I still have the photo. Thanks, Sam.

If the Deal Looks Too Good To Be True …

This is the Jeep in question.

I stumbled upon a 2005 Jeep Rubicon (a top of the line Jeep) on Facebook’s Marketplace a couple of days ago that listed for $1,700. I thought maybe it was a typo, leaving out a zero, so I contacted the seller saying, “I’m interested. Can we talk?”

An e-mail showed up in my box from one Judith Mcalister giving me the details: The car “has been extremely well maintained with a full-service history, it has the 4.0 liter engine, only 98,741 miles, transmission is automatic. Has all of its original floor mats, all books, complete set of tools and keys. Everything works: lights, radio, windows, locks etc. It has no leaks or drips and does not smoke at all, slightly used in 100% working and looking conditions with a clear title free of liens. The price is $1,700 non-negotiable.”

I emailed her back asking where she lives and where we could meet so I could look at and drive the car. I left my phone number. She replied the next morning via email: “I am selling this vehicle because my husband passed away 5 months ago and I need to sell the vehicle before the 2th [sic] of the next month, when I will be leaving on military duty with my medical team out of the country for a year and do not want to store my vehicle. It’s not worth keeping insurance and paying storage fees for a year. I can send you pictures and more details too, just let me know if you are still interested.

” … I am in Logan UT in the military base getting ready for Japan. The vehicle is already at the shipping company sealed and ready for the shipping. I prearranged the deal with eBay. The deal includes free delivery and it will arrive at your address in 2-3 days. You will have 5 days to try out prior to making any purchase and if by any reason you find something you don’t like about it you can send it back at my expense.

“If you are interested in knowing more info about how it works, I can ask eBay to send you an email with more information on how to purchase it. Please send me your full name, shipping address and phone number so I can register the transaction with eBay. They will contact you with more details and information about this transaction.”

I sent her another email: “I’ll pass.”

Au Revoir, Pearl Fu, the Best of Us

Pearlie Mae Fu with my friend Susan and me yesterday. So long, Pearlie. We will all miss you.

Pearl Fu is moving to Philadelphia this week and I have mixed emotions about it. Pearlie Mae (as I prefer to call Roanoke’s First Citizen) needs to be near her family as her Parkinson’s Disease progresses, but she has been and remains such a force for good in Roanoke that her loss will be felt for a long time. I don’t know that we can replace her in any sense. Philly lucked out.

Pearl in 2010.

My friend Susan and I visited Pearlie at her fast-emptying-out Avenham Avenue home yesterday and found ourselves part of a procession of people sharing stories about her and giving her hugs and kisses that would have to last.

We got there just after a City Council duo of Vice Mayor Joe Cobb and Councilman Bill Bestpitch presented her with a gold star of thanks for being who she is and what she has meant to Roanoke.

For 25 years, Pearlie was the heart and soul of Local Colors, Roanoke’s best festival, the one that put a face of tolerance and understanding on the old railroad town. When the festival started, it had representatives from four countries showing off their culture (cooking, entertaining, chatting, etc.) and just a few years ago, at its peak, Local Colors’ Parade of Nations featured 126 flags, all from immigrants living in Roanoke now. Pearlie did that. She has a way of presenting a plea for help that leaves no room for a “no” answer. Ask anybody.

(Here is a feature story I wrote about Pearlie dealing with Parkinson’s early this year.)

Pearl, Maddie and me.

Pearl has shown us how good we could be and pulled us in that direction. She expects that of us and god knows we don’t want to disappoint the woman Barbara Durek called “the Queen of Roanoke.”

Pearlie has had not only a direct effect on me and how I view the world, but she had a strong influence on my grandgirl, Madeline, who rode with Pearl in several different Roanoke parades, including Local Colors. Maddie was fascinated with Pearl and vice versa. Pearl has three brilliant and delightful daughters, foremost among them the internationally famous Colette, who is at the top of the pop-up-books world.

I love this woman and what she has done for us. Let us hope her influence remains strong long after she is gone. We desperately need it.

‘A French Village’ One of Many Top-Notch Series

I agreed with a friend some months ago when he said, “This is the golden age of television.” It may get worse, but I’m not sure it can get much better, at least for those who like to stream fictional series.

My latest example of this abundance of quality is the spectacular World War II French series “A French Village,” telling the story of a small town in Southern France and how its people were affected by German occupation. We often get the mistaken impression that nearly all French citizens were members of the Resistance during the war. That is wildly wrong. Most simply tried to survive, to buy food and coal, to protect their children. They cooperated with the Nazis and many collaborated with them, especially those among the wealthier French citizens. They sold out the Jews, even as they learned the Nazis weren’t sending them to happy little camps in the Alps.

“A French Village” reflects the stories of those ordinary people who faced challenges daily from an oppressive, often violent and cruel government, often led by their own people, especially the French police who were as close as you can get to Nazis without wearing the armband.

The series has “great movie” written all over it from the period look to the wonderful ensemble cast, to precise direction, lighting and sound. The subtitles are not only legible but easy to follow, a rarity among TV series, which most often use small type that flashes quickly.

This ranks with series like “Deadwood,” “Madmen,” “Fringe,” “The Amazing Mrs. Maizel,” “Justified,” “Olive Kitteridge,” “Rectify,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Queen,” “Hinterlands,” “The Bletchley Circle,” “Endeavour,” “The Killing,” “Babylon Berlin,” “Black Earth Rising,” “Cable Girls,” “Broadchurch,” “Keeping Faith,” “A Place To Call Home,” “Rake,” “Renoir,” “Wallander” (either the Swedish or British versions), “Happy Valley,” and a whole bunch more.

The problem with streaming TV shows is that it will definitely cut into reading time. I went from two books a month to six a year just like that. But the simple fact is that some of these series are so long that they can capture the details of a good novel in a way movies never could. It’s a good choice to have.


Well, Hello There Bear!

The bear in the tree looked a lot like this, but I missed my shot with my Nikon. Just got the tree.

My hike this morning was pleasant and cool for the most part, but running from a bear at my age will get the body temp up and open the sweat glands.

I was trudging up the Hollins Greenway trail toward Tinker Mountain when I heard a commotion about 20-25 yards off to the side in the thick undergrowth. I thought it was a doe and a couple of fawns, but then I heard a huffing, like a dog trying to growl. “Ain’t no deer,” I thought. Then I saw a black image move among the bushes and another following it.

The rattling of leaves and branches grew louder and so did the huffing. “Bear,” I thought. “Oh, shit!” My first reflex was to set my Nikon for a photo. If this guy was going to kill me, I was at least going to get a photo of him and maybe his brother.

The lead bear jumped on a tree and scampered up 12 to 15 feet to a relatively open spot, looking around. I stood still, moving my camera into position and I fired off a shot. Then I took off, the second bear clamoring up the tree. I figured I had a brief window to get the hell out before the bears got curious. They appeared to be young and Mom might be around, as well.

I cleared the area and finished my hike on tip-toes, hoping not to stir up any more interest from the wildlife.

An Arts Celebration at the Kendigs

Hollins Theatre professor Ernie Zulia and our good pal Kurt Navratil were in fine fettle. (That’s Jere Lee Hodgin, former artistic director at Mill Mountain Theatre in the background.

Last night’s Perry F. Kendig Awards ceremony at Roanoke College brought together prominent members of the Roanoke Valley’s arts community to tell us who’s been a shining star over the past year. Three of those stars took home hardware: Jimmy Ray Ward as an individual artist (he’s a theatrical set designer); Susan Jennings as Arts Supporter (a leader in the city’s arts initiatives); and the Studio School (a school for visual art).

Hollins interim president Nancy Gray (left) chats with Jay and Daphne Turner.

The Kendigs are the region’s most prestigious arts awards.

The room, as usual, was packed with representatives of arts organizations in the Valley and former winners of Kendigs (including me, who was part of the Blue Ridge Business Journal’s award in 2004; and an individual winner in 2009).

Kendig brothers John (left) and Bill.

It was a great place for me to hang with my posse and catch up on stories, see old friends (like construction magnate Jay Turner and his wife Daphne and Perry Kendig’s sons John and Bill, as well as to meet interesting new people like Tara Marciniak of Center in the Square and Teri Maxey, Roanoke College President Mike Maxey’s wife.

Herewith a photo look at the proceedings.

Jimmy Ray Ward accepts his plaque.

Susan Jennings says “thank you.”

Vera Dickerson accepts for the Studio School.

Brook Dickson of Hollins and Christina Koomen of The Roanoke Times chat.

Olin Hall’s arts hall was full for the Kendigs.

Mike Maxey at the podium.

Maxey looking artistic.

Hollins’ Nancy Gray introducing the nominees.

Gray and Maxey with Susan Jennings.

Tara Marciniak of Center in the Square and John Kendig chat.

Teri and Mike Maxey enjoy a moment.

Avoiding the Massacre: A Lovely Saturday in Lexington

Margie and me on the way to the game. She looks like a Southern planter.

It seems that every year at this time–late September–I’m trying to find a way to avoid watching the University of Tennessee’s football team being massacred by Florida and generally I turn to Washington & Lee’s football team to bail me out.

Yesterday was the annual event: a trip to Lexington to watch W&L play a Division III game against an entertaining opponent, lunch at one of Lexington’s several good restaurants, a walk downtown to the wonderful Artists in Cahoots shop and a stop at one of the best GWLtd stores (Goodwill) in Western Virginia.

We got all that done yesterday with the added benefit (not a first) of buying a lovely piece of jewelry at Artists in Cahoots for my grandgirl’s Christmas (wrapped in a Tiffany box) and meeting an artist named Karen Pannabecker whose work I adore. Another Christmas present, I suspect, this one for my daughter.

We found a burger for Margie.

Tennessee was, of course, clobbered I discovered once I got home and flipped on ESPN, but by then, I’d had so much fun I didn’t care. The W&L game against Guilford (a Quaker school plays football?) was thoroughly entertaining for a half, though the Generals ran away in the second half, winning 54-14. The sun was hot, the grass green, the obnoxious cowbells clanged and a young woman (about 45, so young to me) sitting in front of me was so fetching that she competed with the game for my eyes. Margie didn’t notice my occasional–harmless–glances.

W&L doesn’t offer football scholarships and doesn’t charge admittance for its games. Its concession stand is minimal, but the 1930s atmosphere is a real lure for me, even when the crowd is small, as it was yesterday (maybe 600 people, counting the teams).

Lunch at the Palms in downtown Lexington.

Margie and I stopped at the Palms Restaurant, opened in 1975 and featuring some of the thickest, tastiest hamburgers around–making Margie very, very happy.

In the evening, I managed to turn on the University of Virginia’s game against Old Dominion, joining the game in the second half with UVa trailing 17-7. That was a shocker, so I stuck it out until the end with the Cavs coming back to win 28-17 and salvage some dignity (which Virginia Tech did not do last year against ODU).

Good day all around. Margie liked it, too.

I shot this just before the game began at 1 p.m. Almost nobody was there yet. W&L’s crowds show up late.

Margie and I found seats on the 50, looking like old alumni, which we aren’t.

The W&L shuttle parked in the garage offered this license plate.

The reason we were in Lexington.

Presidential Age Limit? Let the Voters Decide

Elizabeth Warren is ageless. (CNN photo.)

Former President Jimmy Carter, a man of considerable wisdom, has suggested that we put a cap on the age Americans are eligible to run for president. There is, of course, a Constitutional minimum age of 35, but there is no maximum, so any age questions about Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders are left to the individual voters.

As they should be.

I see age showing itself–or not–in obvious ways and each of the above-mentioned presidential contenders either has or doesn’t have obvious issues. At one end is Warren, who seems as bright and energetic as a Gen-Z candidate. At the other end are Biden, who has classic problems in speaking coherently, remembering, saying what he means without being out of line; and Trump, whose problems probably include some issues with age.

Voters can see that. And they can vote.

Age problems are not easy to hide, though political operatives will give it their best shot. We all knew Ronald Reagan was exhibiting signs of Alzheimer’s in his second term (which turned out to be the case) and we could watch George H.W. Bush fall asleep in his dinner with the Chinese while in his late 70s. We knew Eisenhower’s heart had outlived his body and it finally did him in, but by then he was a past president.

I’m 73 and much to my occasional horror, I show signs of being an old man. I pull out of my driveway on an errand and briefly forget where I’m going; the simplest words escape me when I am talking or writing; I forget people’s names–and not just casual acquaintances, but people I’m close to. My body aches after exercise, no matter how much exercise I get. Sometimes I can’t type well, and I’ve been typing for 55 years. If it weren’t for SpellCheck or GrammarCheck, I would be in big trouble professionally. I have made errors in stories that are directly connected with aging.

These shortcomings are hard to admit because they threaten me as a freelance writer of value. I’m still working regularly as a freelancer, but it is easy for editors to fire freelancers without ever saying a word. They can simply reject story ideas without explanation. I get that and my guess is that in the past–when I was younger–I’ve done it.

But the question of a too-old president is, and will be, pressing in every election. However, I don’t think drawing an artificial line at, say 70 or 75, is smart. I know people who are nearly feeble at 45 and others who are bright as an airplane landing light at 85. Elizabeth Warren will be presidential at 80, but Biden probably won’t. Trump never has been. How do we know that, though? We watch, as voters, and we vote.

A Happy Birthday to My Good Son

My son and grandgirl, Madeline, who adores him.

Evan and grandboy, Oz.

Today is my son Evan’s 45th birthday and he has come through one of the most difficult years of his life shining like an airplane landing light. I won’t go into the details of his tough year because that’s private, but let me say he has shown considerable strength, grace, patience, perseverance and grit over the past year. I’m truly proud of him.

A few weeks ago, Ev got a new job in Waco, Texas. It’s a good job, one that will challenge and reward him, I suspect, but rather than simply announce to the family that they should uproot from Memphis and head out to the great Southwest, he consulted his wife and two kids.

Evan at his wedding: This is all I taught him.

It was especially important for 14-year-old Madeline, who was just beginning high school and had friends and her beloved School of Rock to leave behind. The School of Rock had one more concert planned for her band and she wanted to participate, but that would be in late September, two months away. Evan didn’t bat an eye. Maddie would get her performance, even though that meant he would have to fly back to Memphis every other week to be with the family.

It’s that kind of being a great dad that I respect most about my son, I think. I was not much of a father (I’m a great Pampa) and I look with amazement at him and how he handles and teaches his kids. He sure as hell didn’t learn that from me. But he learned it and I want to say, “Happy birthday, Ev. Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s working.”

Ev and me after a day of whitewater rafting. He was about 14 and had terrible shorts.