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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.

Facebook Lockup: The World Continues To Turn

Somebody’s mis-behaaaaaaving.

This has been a substantial news event week and I’ve missed most of it because … well, frankly, I have serious burnout issues with the whole Trump thing, overhyped sports, superviruses, voting technology, and god knows whatall.

So, at night while y’all were watching the fake news or the SuperDuper Bowl or the State of the Union (starring Nancy Polosi tearing up Trump’s speech), or the impeachment trial, or the creeping creepy coronavirus as it lowers oil prices, or the Iowa un-Caucasus (and learning how to spell caucasus), or some other event of national significance, I was under house arrest at Facebook and took it out on a couple of pretty good books (The Eagle Has Landed  and The Night in Lisbon), two TV streamers (“Bones,” which I can’t get enough of and “Redemption Road”), and work on a project that has me all excited. (Whew! That was a long sentence!)

But I catch up on stuff in the Fake News Media in the morning before going to work or the gym and I find out all kinds of neat stuff (the highlight this morning was Pelosi). I’ve discovered that the SuperDuper Bowl ads were ordinary (Gasp!); that the $1.89 a gallon gas price I’ve just seen is all because of that Chinese Virus, which wasn’t affecting our elections; that the impeachment trial droned on without RBG, who could save us all a lot of headaches; that Iowa still doesn’t represent minority communities and still doesn’t look like the rest of us; and that Nancy Pelosi still has the number of the dude who lives in the White House with the woman who says she’s against cyberbullying.

So, I guess I haven’t missed much being on Facebook lockup.

 

 

 

Curses! Thrown Out Again

Well, dang. Just got a 24-hour Facebook suspension again for breaking community standards in a tongue-in-cheek post about land mines. No sense of humor, those FB wardens, but I can accept that decision if it is applied evenly.

My post could have easily been misinterpreted as racist by those who don’t know me and if that’s the case–and I’m sure it is for some–I apologize.

I will ask FB that it abide by rules we all would like to see in moderating political advertising and debate, rules that allow the most outlandish and radical of us to control the conversation. I think we have developed a skewed vision of the American voting public, substantially affected by Facebook.

Pampa Gets a Pedicure

This is Jade doing magic with my feets.

This morning came my second pedicure and it was as good as the first, several years ago. I gotta get on the regulars list at Polished.

My pedicurist was a young woman named Jade, who is a world-class conversationalist and a professional who did to my feet what god intended to have done to feet, I’d venture. She has blue and yellow hair offset by a golden smile and seven (expensive) tattoos. Colorful, she is.

I’m not walking this afternoon; I’m floating and when I look at my feet (yes, smartass, I can still see them), they look like they belong to somebody else.

Ahhhhhh. That was nice. Thank you, Kara–my daughter-in-law, who gave me the pedi for Christmas. Don’t you love Christmases that last into February?

A Roanoke Theatre Showcase

Emma Sala (left) and Tatania Durant in “Arachnothology.”

Last night’s presentation of the new play, “Arachnothology,” at Mill Mountain Theatre is about as good a demonstration of what Roanoke Theatre has become in the past few years as anything I know.

April Marcel, my old pal, and me after the show. She told Margie I was her boyfriend.

This was one of two new plays in this year’s Hollins-Mill Mountain Theatre Winter Festival of New Works, which most often features the writing of Hollins students or graduates and Hollins/Roanoke being represented in every other aspect of the production.

Last night’s show was memorable because of the number of Roanoke actors (and current or former Hollins students) involved. April Marcel, Emma Sala, Amanda Mansfield, and Bonny Branch are all Roanokers who are well known for their stage work. All but Mansfield are current or former Hollins students. The other cast member is Tatiana Durant, a Hollins junior and theatre major.

April as Athena

Playwright Kimberly Patterson holds a Hollins MFA in Playwriting and director Lauren Brooke Ellis has a Hollins certificate in new play directing and is finishing her master’s in playwriting at Hollins.

The cast and crew of the second Festival production, “Moving,” also has strong Hollins connections, but it’s the “Arachnothology” group that loudly shouts “Roanoke!”

“Arachnothology” looks closely at spiders–from just about every angle–and offers up the theory that hatred of spiders and of women are basically accepted generally. The narrative challenges that theory through a series of characters from Little Miss Muffet, delightfully played with a Queens accent by Emma Sala; Athena, elegantly portrayed by April Marcell; a spider played by yoga teacher Bonny Branch, who needs all her bending and stretching for the part; and Spider Woman, played by Amanda Mansfield, whom many consider the best of Roanoke’s actors. Miss Durant, the only non-Roanoker in the cast, is Gwen, who is searching for her identity.

The concept is interesting but occasionally foggy, obviously needing some refinement. Still, that is one of the real values of the Festival of New Plays, where the works are fully presented and critiqued.

Next up is “Moving,” by Sean Michael McCord, a love story of sorts.

Moving’s remaining performances are January 30 and February 1 at 7:30 p.m. and “Arachnothology’s” run will be January 31 at 7:30 p.m. and February 2 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 and all performances are at the Waldron Stage at Mill Mountain Theatre.

(Photos courtesy Todd Ristau.)

 

New Year’s on the Hinchee Trail

Susan and me at the head of the trail.

Today Susan and I experienced the Hinchee Trail in Salem’s Hanging Rock area for the first time and it was a good exercise (so to speak) in exercise. And it was a good way to begin 2020.

Susan points the way.

The hike we took is about .5 miles and it’s a nice uphill fire road that’s more than 50 years old.

I was under the impression that the new trail followed the creek on Catawba Road, but it climbs up the side of the mountain beside the creek and angles away from it.

There are few panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, Roanoke and Salem, even in the dead of winter, but this hike is more a cardio workout than an aesthetic bonanza.

This spring house appeared to be fully functional and is right beside the trail.

It was a good way to begin the new year, though, because it sets my cap for getting plenty of exercise and even eating the right foods (we stopped at K&W on the way back and had healthy lunches). We both felt blessed not only to be able to hike in our beautiful mountains, but to have new places to explore.

Some dear soul left us a pot and some bottles. Thanks, boys and girls.

This was as close as we got to having a view.

Lots of rocks along the way, limestone, I think.

New Goals for 2020

That’s me in my superman hoodie and cape with my son and grandkids at Christmas.

Every January 1 for the past six or so years, I have laid out a set of goals for the coming year, establishing standards that I can reach, but goals that will stretch me or remind me of who I want to be.

There have been years when I accomplished everything I published on Jan. 1 and years when I didn’t come close, but they are always there as a reminder that I need to work. Improvement in ourselves is not free and it is not accomplished without conscious effort.

So, here goes:

  1. Contribute to the effort of making my country a kinder, safer, better place to live. That means helping to take care of the less fortunate, the immigrants who are running from violent countries, resisting the culture of guns, opposing those who support Trump without denigrating them as people, supporting environmental cleanup and sustainability efforts. I want to continue to strongly oppose war and the militarization of our country, which often results in supporting keeping the very rich and overly powerful comfortable. I want to help support giving the poor a place to live, food and medical care–and a job. I want immigrants to feel welcome and safe.
  2. Lose enough weight during the year to say I’m slimming down and getting healthier. For the past three years, I have kept a daily diary of my weight, but it has varied little except when I was sick (I lost 20 pounds twice and promptly regained it when I felt better).
  3. Keep exercising, but intensify it. I have a tendency to get lazy during the hottest days of summer and the coldest days of winter.
  4. Eat the right foods in the right amounts. Careless eating is unhealthy eating and I get lazy (hence my weight problem).
  5. Be the best father and grandfather I can be. Continue to teach and learn from my kids and grands.
  6. Continue to work with young (and even old) journalists when I have the opportunity. The delivery of news and the perception of my profession are changing dramatically, rarely for the good, because of efforts to crush the truth by those who are afraid of it. We must resist that daily.
  7. Continue to work with my community to make it a better place to live.
  8. Develop a full outline and begin again writing my second novel, NEWS! This book contains the best opening chapter I’ve ever written and all kinds of good possibilities as an interesting read.
  9. Independently pursue stories that interest me and make the community a better place.
  10. Be frugal and resourceful and make certain that some of my small income goes to helping other people on a regular basis.
  11. Be as humble and as graceful as possible.

The Christmas Bomb: A Story

This is our hero (moi) at the time of the Christmas tree caper.

The following story is from my memoir Burning the Furniture, which you can find here. It is my way of wishing you the very best of the season.

Here’s the story:

The Christmas Bomb

It was nearing noon, seven days before Christmas, 1954, and our South Carolina elementary school would let out for the holiday in minutes. My brothers and I had a plan and it was on the edge of being implemented.

Christmas inevitably meant resourcefulness for all of us in the Smith family. Dad had to carefully manage the small salary he earned as a cook and Mom had to shop for bargains, beginning at 50 percent off, if there was going to be any Christmas at all.

And the tree—that was me and my brothers’ responsibility. Ever since I was in first grade, two years before, my brothers and I had waited in the woods behind the school for the teachers to toss out each classroom’s tree as we broke for the holiday. Some of the trees, most often small pines, came fully decorated. Those were aggressively sought by our competitors, one group of whom didn’t want a tree so much as it wanted us not to have one.

Ralph, Earl and Tinker made up the gang we wanted to avoid. They were sixth graders and a lot bigger than my brothers Sandy and David and 8-year-old me. Sandy was 10, David 9. (Mom had her 8 kids in sets, a year apart.) Sandy was the athletic one. David, whom everybody called “slow” because he was, was the sweet kid. I was the brains of the outfit, and those brains often tended toward devious resourcefulness.

Our three adversaries didn’t much like us, didn’t much like anybody. They knew Christmas tree procurement was our job and it was important to us. The sport for them was to impede us, to prevent us from taking home a big decorated evergreen.

Their challenge meant that we’d have to plan, scheme, connive to win. We were too little to simply beat them up; we’d have to outsmart them and I knew, even then, that there was a lot more satisfaction in the humiliation of a bully by being smarter than he was than in being bigger and nastier. (It was a lesson that would come in handy much, much later.)

Sandy, David and I had talked well into the night preceding our adventure. We settled on a plan that was delicious in its simple intricacy, its deviousness and its timing. One small slip-up and we’d fail. That would mean no Christmas tree for the first time in our young lives. David was the lynchpin of the plan and I suppose that in other circumstances there might have been some concern since he had been identified as “retarded” by the school system. We knew David better than those anal-retentive, bun-wearing, old maid school teachers and administrators and we were betting on him.

The lunchroom of our elementary school, built in the late 1920s or early ’30s, was on the third floor of the brick monstrosity of a building. At the back of the lunchroom was an old-style fire escape, a big, metal tube about four feet in diameter that we jumped in and slid down to safety. At the end of the slide we hit the ground behind the school and at the edge of the woods. The fire escape had become a kind of theme park ride for us on weekends. Because the school was locked (and because the administration would have killed us if it caught us), we had to climb up the escape from the bottom, usually in bare feet because shoes and socks were too slippery. When we reached the top, which was just under the massive terra-cotta roof, we sat on waxed paper and slid lickety-split down. It was a 75-foot rush.

My classroom was on the third floor; Sandy’s was on the second floor; and David’s was at ground level in his “special class,” the one where these educational Neanderthals herded people who were “different.” The bathrooms were on the first and third floors. The bathroom on my level was accessible through the lunchroom.

At 11:55, my hand shot up and I said, “Miss Anderson, may I go to the restroom, please?”

“Can’t you want five minutes?” she said, in something of a huff.

“No, ma’am,” I said, squirming with as much urgency as I could generate. “I really gotta go.” Both hands were in my lap.

“OK,” she said. “That’ll be your Christmas present from me.”

Thanks a lot, Miss Generous Spirit of Christmas, I thought, as I scrambled out of my seat and hurried down the hall. Sandy met me at the door of the lunchroom and we scrambled toward the back left corner. Miz Washington, probably the first Black person I ever knew and our school’s chief cook, was just leaving. We hadn’t figured on her being there at all since lunch wasn’t scheduled that day, but she had been at the school for 30 years, and the faculty was going to have a combination Christmas-anniversary party for her after the students left for the day, in just a few minutes.

We stopped short and looked at her. “Merry Christmas, boys,” she said cheerfully as she passed us. We looked at each other, mentally wiping the sweat from our brows, and charged through the door toward the boys’ bathroom. We stopped briefly on the other side, waited about 10 seconds and re-entered the lunchroom a few steps from the fire escape’s small, white wooden swinging doors. Sandy went in first and I followed quickly. Then we waited on the small landing at the top of the fire escape.

After a long two minutes, the bell rang and we heard the young celebrants screaming and running from the school, full of freedom and anticipation. We knew our teachers wouldn’t miss us or even suspect anything amid the confusion of school closing for the holidays. Sandy and I sat patiently for about 15 minutes. It was quiet on the third floor, but we knew we had a good two hours to go before we could slide out and pick up our tree.

After a while, as we fidgeted and shifted, we heard a rustling at the bottom of the fire escape. Teachers were bringing out their trees and tossing them into a pile. We had scouted each classroom and we knew the tree we wanted: it was from Miss Crutchfield’s second-grade class, a seven-foot beauty, the only spruce in the school and a blue spruce at that. All the poor kids would covet that one. Ralph, Earl and Tinker would consider themselves appointed by God to keep us away from it.

Sandy and I continued our restless wait, patience growing short. He punched my shoulder and said, “Get over to your side. You don’t own this fire escape.” I backed up as much as I could and tried to be still.

Another hour went by. Except for occasional brief, noisy skirmishes at the bottom of the fire escape when our adversaries leaped from cover to pummel and chase some of the neighborhood kids away from the trees, it was tomb quiet and the dark of the tubular fire escape intensified the eerie feel.

Finally, we heard what we were waiting for. Boom! Boom-boom-boom! It sounded like cannons going off. Then again, another series: Boom! Boom-boom-boom! It was louder this time and we heard Earl yell, “What the hell is that?” His partners, using forbidden language that the bad guys always used in those days, said, “Crap! Let’s go see.” Reeling from a double-barreled blast of cuss words, we listened to the telling sounds as they scrambled down from their tree perches at the edge of the woods and ran toward the front of the school building.

Sandy didn’t hesitate. He pulled his waxed paper from the back pocket of his blue jeans, unfolded it, put it between his butt and the floor of the escape tube and sailed down. I was a few feet behind him. Sandy hit the ground running—a practiced technique we’d both developed through many hours of sliding these tubes—and I was less than a second in the rear.

As we suspected, Miss Crutchfield had thrown her Best in Show tree on the top of the pile. The faculty’s party for Jesus and Miz Washington had been in the second grade room and Miss Crutchfield had left the tree up until the songs and toasts were over. It was fully decorated with popcorn strings, foil tinsel and icicles, crape paper balls hung by paper clips, cotton pulled flat and placed on branches as snow. It was topped by a pretty angel Mary Anne Thompson had made for her favorite former teacher. She’d shown it to me on the way to school one day and I told her how pretty it was. Mary Anne moved away in the spring, but she stayed long enough to give me my first kiss.

Sandy instinctively went to the front of the tree, stuck his hand inside the limbs and grabbed the trunk. I went to the base and picked up the heavy part. We worked in perfect unison, lifting the tree without dropping a single decoration, and running with it as fast as we could toward 110 Forest Avenue. A smiling Mom waited at the back screen door, the one that squealed so loud we’d often hear it open before we heard her voice yelling for us.

David, the boy everybody underestimated, sat smugly on the sofa as we entered the living room. He grinned. “Got a couple of them left,” he said, pulling the cherry bombs from his pocket. “Good thing we didn’t use all of them July 4.

“You should have seen those three bums trying to figure out what was making all the noise. I put the cherry bombs in that big metal trash can out front and turned it on its side, pointing toward the back of the school. I hung around to watch them, and, boy, did they look confused.”

“I’d bet they were more than confused when they went back to guard the trees,” I laughed. “When we pulled this one off, the pile looked a lot smaller.”

We laughed and slid the tree into its stand. Mom went to the basement to get those wondrous, multi-colored, used car lot lights we always strung on the tree. It was Christmas again and our wait for Santa would be much easier with the big blue spruce sparkling in the corner.

The Very Best (and Worst) of Roanoke, 2019

Roanoke from McAfee’s Knob. The Best view of the city. You can see my deck from this vantage point.

I started compiling the following list a few days ago and it just kept betting new additions until Dec. 31. Here are my bests and worsts for 2019. Feel free to comment, adding your faves, or even argue if you’d like.

  • Most Valuable Roanoker, 2019: Nancy Agee, CEO/President of Carilion. If you believe she is everywhere doing everything, you are right.
  • Roanoke’s Most Visionary Person, 2019: My pal Samantha Steidle, who may also be the smartest person I know. Sam’s trying to figure out how to give everybody a job and my guess is that she’ll do it.
  • Best Live Theatre Performance by a Roanoker, 2020 (tie): Emma Sala and Anna Holland in Hollins’ “Chicago” (they were so good they count as one), and Emma Leigh Gwin in “The Sound of Music” at Mill Mountain Theatre. (We’re in great shape for the future for quality actors.)
  • Roanoke’s Most Important Continuing Drama of Good vs. Evil, 2019: The Mountain Valley Pipeline Kerfuffle (the Evil). Most Effective MVP Opponent (the Good): The Estimable Diana Christopulos, a Woman of Considerable Strength and Conviction.
  • Roanoke’s Best Politician 2019: Vice Mayor Joe Cobb. Worst Political Screwup: The Roanoke Housing Authority Basically Forcing Councilman John Garland to resign because of bureaucratic bullshit.
  • Roanoke’s Most Significant Loss of 2019: Pearl Fu, who moved to Philadelphia; and James Tarpley, who died. We will all miss them both.
  • Roanoke’s Best Person To Follow on Facebook in 2019: Marj Easterling. Always lively, interesting and fun.
  • Best Sales Brochure in the Roanoke Valley, 2019: The Illuminights’ video-in-a-box. This is the video advertising the Explore Park’s Winter Walk of Lights, sponsored by Roanoke County and Center in the Square. Truly eye-catching with one of those “Oh, wow!” moments when you open it.
  • Roanoke’s Best Journalist 2019: Laurence Hammack, The Roanoke Times. Close second is my friend Dan Casey, the Times’ Metro columnist.
  • Most Effective Roanoke Valley Job Creator of the Year in 2019: (tie) Mary Miller of RAMP and Annette Patterson of the Advancement Foundation. Two remarkable women.
  • Roanoke Political Hell Raiser of the Year, 2019: Again, an easy pick: Catherine Koebel Stromberg, who asks no quarter (from the gun people) and damn well gives none.
  • Best Roanoker, 2019: George Kegley. Nobody else comes close, though we have some great people. George is over 90 and is still serving Roanokers, sometimes one at a time and helping to keep our environment as good as it can be.
  • Best Roanoke Event, 2019: Local Colors, which shows off Roanoke’s ethnic diversity in a spectacular way.
  • Best Person to Ask a Question–any Question–About Roanoke People and To Get a Good Answer, 2019: Getra Hanes Selph, who knows damn near everybody. She has been a vital source for me for story contacts for some time now.
  • Best-led Educational Institution in the Roanoke Valley, 2019: Virginia Western Community College, led by President Bobby Sandel, whose vision for this small college is being realized all the way down to making sure students have enough to eat.
  • Best Roanoke Valley Bank, 2019: Pinnacle, which began as locally-owned Valley Bank, still maintains the local feel even though it has been sold, and sold.
  • Best Place To Get Married in the Roanoke Valley, 2019: Roof of Center in the Square.
  • Best Wedding/Event Guru in the Roanoke Valley, 2019: Caroline LaRocca Hammond at Caroline Larocca Event Design. Caroline gives you grace, elegance, beauty, superb creativity and a heck of a lot of fun.
  • Best Vital Health Service in Roanoke, 2019: SARA, which comes to the rescue of rape victims, many of them little more than children.
  • Best Private School in the Roanoke Valley, 2019: Community High School where kids who often don’t fit elsewhere thrive.
  • Best Developer in the Roanoke Valley, 2019: John Aubrey Garland (and sons). John concentrates on saving old buildings and making them useful again. A noble achievement and profitable, as well.
  • Most Anticipated New Construction in Roanoke, 2016: The reconstruction of the old Hieronimus building on Jefferson Street, closed for so many years, is well underway and Mast General Store will be its headliner occupant when it opens in late spring/early summer. Could extend City Market and rejuvenate sales traffic downtown.
  • Best New Architecture in the Roanoke Valley, 2019: The campus additions at Virginia Tech/Carilion Research Institute, Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, and Carilion Riverside (one campus). One Roanoke architect named VTC as the worst new architecture in Roanoke a few years ago for a magazine piece I wrote. He was spectacularly wrong. This place is gorgeous and wonderfully functional.
  • George Kegley: The Best Roanoker.

    Most Promising Roanoke Valley Leaders, 2019: Mike Hamlar and Djuna Osborne. Young, smart, ambitious and ready to serve in bigger roles.

  • Best Place in Roanoke to Buy Comic Books/Graphic Novels, 2019: B&D Comic Shop is in a dimension of its own.
  • Best Roanoke Valley Hobby Store, 2019: Rail Yard Hobby Shop.
  • Best Roanoke Valley Camera Store, 2019: Lee Hartman & Sons is nearly alone in this because camera stores don’t do well these days. LHS has other profit centers, so it can hang on to camera sales and repair (which is indispensable for those of us who still use cameras). Note: It is expensive.
  • Best Roanoke Cafeteria, 2019: OK, so it’s not your usual American cafeteria, but Nawab traditional Indian restaurant serves lunch as a buffet/cafeteria and it is a work of art for those of us who don’t know the names of the Indian dishes. I have to limit myself to a single serving when I go because I will eat myself to death.
  • Best Goodwill Store in the Roanoke Valley, 2019: Cave Spring Corners area (honorable mention: Daleville).
  • Most Overpriced Book from a Roanoke Writer, 2019: ‘Burning the Furniture’ by me. As of Dec. 27, two copies were available used on Amazon for $923, plus $49.18 tax and $3.99 shipping ($976.17) or, cut-rate $814, plus $43.38 tax and $3.99 shipping ($861.37). You can also buy a new copy for $36 (plus shipping) or put it on your Kindle for free. I don’t get paid anything for the used copies and I get the same for a full-price new copy or a free Kindle. The market is screwy.
  • Best Roanoke Valley Playwright (there are more than you think), 2019: Dwayne Yancey, who has plays being performed all over the world, as we speak. Dwayne is also the best editorial page editor (Roanoke Times) and a workaholic of an immeasurable degree. He’s in the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame and damn well deserves it.
  • Best Roanoke Valley Bookstore: Book No Further. This one’s where it should be, on Roanoke City Market, following a long-time tradition. And, though it is small, it has a wonderful sampling of books by this region’s army of good writers, thanks to Doloris Vest. I even bought a graphic novel of “To Kill a Mockingbird” there for my grandgirl’s Christmas stocking.
  • Best Roanoke Valley Charity, 2019: (tie) The Rescue Mission continues to help the helpless, homeless, hungry and oppressed; Feeding America; and Roanoke Area Ministries. I am thrilled that there are many charities in the Valley whose income goes to the people they help and not to the executives running them.
  • Best Teacher in Roanoke Valley, 2019: Tie: Jeanne LarsenHollins University; Melanie Almeder, Roanoke College. Both teach English. Both are beloved, and that’s a conservative view.
  • Best Roanoke Post Office, 2019: Low bar, but the one downtown is accessible, fast and professional. I often drive halfway across the Valley to use it.
  • Best Roanoke Bakery, 2019: On the Rise on City Market. My friend Steve Hartman founded it some years ago and even though it changed hands, it remains singular.
  • Best Roanoke Ethnic Food, 2019: Alejandro’s on City Market (not the other locations; they’re fine, but the downtown restaurant has an old grill that is wonderfully seasoned).
  • Best Roanoke Deli, 2019: The New Yorker, with little competition. This place just keeps serving delicious food and not accepting anything but cash.
  • Worst Construction Performance, 2019: Renovating 10th Street in Roanoke, which has been going on since god was a baby with no end in sight.
  • Best Roanoke Valley Governmental Accomplishment, 2019: Continuing the construction of the greenway with additional trails to an already good system. This took cooperation among the Valley’s four governments and the greenway (with Liz Belcher in the lead) has set the standard.
  • Best Roanoke Valley Musician, 2019: Violinist Akemi Takayama, concertmaster of the Roanoke Symphony.
  • Best Roanoke Valley Musical Family, 2019: Roanoke Symphony maestro David Wiley and his wife Leah and two kids, Mara and Misha.
  • Best Roanoke Valley Musician (non-classical), 2019: Hoppy Vaughan.
  • Best Roanoke Valley Gym, overall, 2019: YMCA, Daleville.
  • Best Roanoke Valley gym for old people (like me), 2019: Carter Athletic Center.
  • Best Roanoke Valley Community Journalist, 2019: Brian Hoffman, sports editor of Salem Times-Register.
  • Best Lawyer in Roanoke, 2019: John Fishwick, who has been a defense lawyer and a judge. A guy who works with a level of passion to do the right thing that is becoming rare in law.
  • Best Dressed Roanoker, 2019: J. Tyler Pugh and Callie Dalton.
  • Best Roanoke Valley waterfall, 2019: Stiles Falls, Camp Alta Mons. It’s also a lovely hike. (Runnerup: Bottom Creek Gorge.)
  • Best Local Government in Roanoke Valley, 2019: Vinton. These dudes have done a really nice job supporting businesses.
  • Best Roanoke Valley Board of Directors, 2019: Carilion Clinic.
  • Worst Popular Restaurant in Roanoke, 2019: Macado’s Downtown. Hadn’t eaten there in years until today and my suspicion was confirmed. Six of us at the table and four had difficulty eating what was served. Nobody at our table was happy and we’re not picky. My pastrami was so tough I couldn’t chew it and the sandwich came with potato chips on it. Ugh. Didn’t notice that. Just awful.
  • Best view of Roanoke from a mountain top, 2019: McAfee’s Knob just around the corner from the best-known view. You’re right above the airport, looking straight at downtown. Most people stop with the more famous view that doesn’t include Roanoke. I can see the Knob from my back porch.
  • Best Roanoke Valley Hike, 2019: Dragon’s Tooth (tough and beautiful).
  • Roanoke’s Best TV Journalist, 2019: Joe Dashiell. That was easy. Joe has almost no competition and hasn’t had for 20 years. There’s not even a No. 2. The Best Radio Journalist in a city that has few is my old bud Gene Marrano (who is also quite a good print journo; maybe the best interviewer around).
  • Roanoke’s Worst Political Disasters, 2019: Morgan Griffith of the U.S. House 9th District, even though he doesn’t live there; Ben Cline, who took over Bob Goodlatte’s 6th District seat and didn’t miss a beat in kissing Trump’s fat ass. Both are embarrassing and worthless and I’m being kind.
  • Roanoke’s Most Interesting (and Successful) Turnaround, 2019: Downtown Vinton, which has moved into the 21st Century. Good things happening there (go to eat at one of the good restaurants and stay for the hemp).
  • Roanoke’s Best Cheap Entertainment, 2019: Carvins Cove, where you can put in your kayak, canoe or John boat, hike a circle around the lake, bike the difficult trails to some lovely views or just picnic with the family. I have upon occasion even skinny-dipped there, but I don’t recommend it for the timid.
  • Roanoke’s Best Museum, 2019: The Salem Museum. OK, I know. It’s not in Roanoke or even Roanoke County, but it’s in the Roanoke Valley and it has a consistent turnover of good events and displays.
  • Roanoke’s Best New Author of 2019: Jane Jane Andrzejewski Fenton, “Repo Girl.” (OK, Jane lives in Ferrum, but she visits Roanoke a lot and, hey, it’s part of the metro area.) Best Old Author: my good friend Roland Lazenby (who’s to argue with 60 books?).
  • Roanoke’s Most Impressive (and Important) Immigrant, 2019: Yolanda Rodriguez Puyana, a native of Mexico. Physician, diplomat, human rights activist. (This is a field where Being No. 1 means something; our immigrants are jaw-droppingly impressive.)
  • Most Impressive High School Team: Cave Spring High School Academic Quiz Tournament Team, 2019. That’s four straight state championships, boys and girls. Four straight.
  • Roanoke’s Best Athlete of 2019: National racquetball champion Kelani Lawrence.
  • Roanoke’s Most Effective Neighborhood Proponent: Colbert L. Boyd, who just doesn’t give up.
  • Best School Gym, 2019: Roanoke College’s new athletic center is just about the coolest around.
  • Best Family Physician in the Roanoke Valley, 2019: Mine, and I’m not going to tell you who she is because I don’t want her overwhelmed with new patients.
  • Best Streaming Series Available in the Roanoke Valley, 2019: “A French Village.” Easy pick. Nobody else was close in my house, although “Spiral” was solid and entertaining.

Roanoke from the star.

It Was a Dickens of a Christmas in Roanoke

These children were seriously discussing how Santa was going to get down that small hole and what happens when he lands in the fire.

Carriage rides are obligatory and the horses are cool.

Last night’s finale of Roanoke’s annual Dickens of a Christmas drew a huge, active, laughing, busy crowd into downtown Roanoke and it was all infused heavily with the good cheer of our best holiday.

My pal Susan and I went down to see what was going on and there was plenty, from the Hotel Roanoke’s annual Christmas tree competition to ice skating, Christmas pop by a small church band, La De Da’s annual candy dress, kettle corn popping, people dressed in late 19th Century garb, a live nativity scene and a good bit more–especially in the food category.

We planned to eat at Alejandro’s, the best Mexican restaurant in the region, but the crowd was so big, we ended up at the City Market Building’s new Mexican restaurant. Big mistake. But the night’s only mistake.

We had a grand time, full of the cheer and warmth of the season. And I got some pretty good photos.

Loved the little girl and the penguin ice skating.

The family that skates together …

The ice nearly was worn out from the skating.

Jesus, Mary, Joseph and some animals on a flatbed truck.

Inside the Market Building, seating was optional.

Merry go round and round.

Trees in the Hotel Roanoke lobby downstairs.

More from the Hotel Roanoke.

Susan and me at a pickup truck Christmas tree.

A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Is it fair to call this a “girly tree”?

The City Christmas tree with the Market Building and merry-go-round.

She said her partner was the fire eater, but he wasn’t here. So she ate the fire.

The little family band from a Roanoke Valley church.

La De Da outdid itself with this marvelous hard candy dress in its display window. This was worth the trip down.

Elliot Schewel: One of the Very Best of Us Is Gone

Elliot and me at “persiflage.”

They’re burying my old friend Elliot Schewel today and I’m not so much sad as I am grateful to have known one of the truly great men in Virginia’s history. Elliot had a meaningful life, 95 years of it that he used to the fullest.

He was a man who cared about others, who lived a wonderful love story with his beautiful Rosel (he proposed by putting an engagement ring into a glass of champagne that was served to her), who served his country at a time of overwhelming danger, and served his city–Lynchburg–in the Virginia General Assembly, earning the nickname “The Conscience of the Senate.”

Elliot was the son of a Russian immigrant who had a reverence for all people, regardless of their race, gender, heritage, religion or economic status. He fought for others’ rights, for education, against smoking and for nearly all of the just causes that put him far ahead of Virginia’s government at the time he served in it. He was an artist who painted beautifully and collected the works of others.

He spent 50 years working in his family’s business, Schewel Furniture Company.

From left: me, Elliot, Betsy Gehman, Bill Quillen.

He was my hero for dozens of reasons and you have to imagine my shock when one day in about 1990, I got a letter from him–a man I barely knew–telling me that I was a hero to him for several editorials I had written. I nearly fell over, but had enough juice left to call him and arrange for us to have lunch in Lynchburg.

From that grew a regular luncheon engagement (we called it “persiflage”) that included a bunch of my writer friends and his close associates, who enriched my life. Among them was Elliot’s good buddy Bill Quillen, retired president of Randolph Macon Woman’s College 1952-1978, a man so vibrant at 95 that I bought him a collection of swing dance music after he had his hip replaced. And he danced to it.

My most noteworthy contribution to the group was Betsy Gehman, a former big-band singer, significant writer, New York stage and Hollywood signer/actor and teller of great stories. They all lived to be well into their 90s and enriched my life incalculably. The group, as a whole, was alive with stories and our lunches often lasted for hours.

I hadn’t seen Elliot for years since those halcyon days–except for the few moments we spent at Rosel’s funeral in recent years–but he was always there. Every time the General Assembly did something unconscionable, I thought of Elliot and how he would have made it right in his calm, kind, wise way.

He was a great man, a great teacher, and one of my favorite human beings of all time. He was a liberal Jew from a conservative Southern City … who was beloved by all. If we were all more like Elliot Schewel, the world would be a wonderful, kind and good place.