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.




RSO’s Voice Impressive with ‘Messiah’

Adelaide Trombetta of Liberty University signs with the RSO, nearly stealing the show.

For most of the Christmas season, Roanoke is a veritable wasteland for seasonal music. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is about as good as it gets, at least on a regular basis.

But a breath of fresh air occasionally seeps in and last night at Thrasher United Methodist Church in Vinton, which is an acoustic marvel, David Wiley and the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra received a prolonged standing ovation after finishing the final bars of Handel’s “Messiah,” a familiar celebration that appeals equally to the religious and non-religious. That was apparent in the enthusiastic full house at the large auditorium.

A full house files in before the concert begins.

This was a scaled-down version of the RSO with about 13 instruments and four soloists—three of them music professors at Liberty University in Lynchburg, and all impressively accomplished. By the time the orchestra reached the familiar “Hallelujah Chorus,” the crowd was ready to pounce, the hairs on its collective neck raised in anticipation. RSO delivered spectacularly with Wiley in full maestro.

Among the soloists, the star was easily young Adelaide Muir Trombetta, a soprano with a near excess of stage presence to go with her breathtaking singing voice. She made her Carnegie Hall debut this past April, sang on the Metropolitan Opera stage at the age of 21 and is a regular feature with a number of symphonies. She is an assistant professor of voice at Liberty and director of the university’s Opera Workshop.

The alto, and only non-Liberty prof, was Samantha Miller, who with her husband is a songwriter whose first live recording “The Sound of Revival” was released in 2017. Tenor John Hugo teaches Music Theory and History at Liberty and is the Roanoke Symphony Chorus’s chorus master. Bass Wayne Kompelein is a regular with the RSO, Opera Roanoke and Opera James as well as the founder of the active opera program at Liberty.

These four provided the human face of Handel’s work and the small orchestra and large chorus filled the hall with the wonders of Handel’s work. Wiley, as always, was active, his bushy gray hair emphasizing his hand movements as the music swelled and filled the hall.

It is a delight to see the symphony in venues other than its home at the Jefferson Center and playing in large churches—where acoustics are all but legendary—is a pleasant offering.

We have a good symphony here, one so good, in fact, that economic developers use it as a lure for companies considering locating in Roanoke. It was good to see a full appreciation of it last night.

David Wiley, in “full maestro,” conducts the scaled-down RSO.



Facing the Utter Despair of a Trump Presidency

This man reportedly threw rocks at babies when he was a child.

My old friend Tommy Denton used to despair of living in a country that could elect George Bush Jr. as its president and then watching the Bush team slowly eat away at the America that has taken well over 200 years to build.

I haven’t talked to Tommy, a retired editorial writer of some stature, in a while, but my guess is that George Bush is looking less bad by comparison to today’s president and his lieutenants.

Bush made me mad nearly every day for eight years. Trump leaves me sharing Tommy’s despair.

I’m watching people I know and respect–hell, I love some of them–defend the indefensible, side with a power structure built to destroy the United States and the world through climate ignorance without firing a shot. This administration has Russia publicly laughing out loud as it carries out our sworn enemy’s plan to conquer us. Half of Congress is a player on Russia’s team. Some would call Mitch McConnell the MVP of that team and a handful of House members would be designated as cheerleaders.

I don’t need to detail the current president’s deficits as a leader, as a visionary, as a diplomat or as a human being. That’s been done ad nauseum and has had no effect whatsoever on his popularity among those who enthusiastically support him. Any of his deficits attributed to a Democrat or any other non-Republican would be a career killer. The president’s supporters will not be moved because they hear what they want to hear, see what they want to see and facts be damned. They are immovable.

The current drama-less impeachment proceeding has a pre-determined outcome because the president’s party has power and wants to keep it, regardless of what that does to our culture, our government, our standing in the world, our economy, our morality … all of it. The Senate likely won’t even try the case. McConnell has hinted he will simply dismiss it. Toss his hand and it will go away. My guess is he can. I mean, he dismissed a Supreme Court nominee because he could, not because it was right.

I’ve made the conscious decision over the past few days to crank back my political rhetoric and put my efforts into areas where they can have a positive impact. Like Tommy, I feel an overwhelming sense of despair when I face what is happening, so for a while at least, I think I’ll look the other way and change the things I can, as the Serenity Prayer suggests.


‘Sound of Music’: Good Production of a Great Play

Mill Mountain Theatre’s production of “The Sound of Music” got off to a bang last night–quite literally–when a large piece of the set came crashing to the floor just after the opening number. The house manager stormed the stage from the control booth, announcing loudly to the full house that everything was under control. About three minutes later, he charged back up the stairs, bellowing that the problem was fixed and the play would resume momentarily.

Shortly thereafter, Emma Leigh Gwin, playing Maria Rainer, twirled onto the stage singing “The hills are alive …” in a beautiful operatic soprano, as a grateful audience held its breath and then thundered its approval.

It was a dramatic beginning to one of American theatre’s most beloved stories, that of the Austrian von Trapp family singers at the brink of World War II. Ms. Gwin, Mill Mountain Theatre’s teaching artist, stars as the young nun candidate who is sent as a governess to the von Trapps to help care for the children of Captain von Trapp, a widower, played by stage and TV veteran Timothy Booth. Von Trapp runs his family like one of his ships and Maria brings warmth, understanding, love and music to the children, who have a history of making short work of governesses. They fall in love with her. So does Capt. von Trapp.

And there lies the rub. The Nazis want von Trapp to captain one of their ships and to send him off immediately. The rest you know.

This is a lavish production with heavy emphasis on costuming and sets (Jimmy Ray Ward, who recently won a Perry F. Kendig award for excellence in the arts). Tess Marshall, as Elsa Schraeder (a Shenandoah Conservatory grad with some hefty credits) is one of the primary beneficiaries of the costuming (by Jennie Ruhland), wearing some elegant late-1930s gowns, with authentic hair and makeup. She sings nicely, as well.

The children are all locals (and I only got to see one set of the two who perform). On opening night the talent among these youngsters–developed by Mill Mountain–was striking. Precocious Cave Spring third-grader Natalie Thorell as Gretl pretty much stole the audience’s collective heart from her first moment on stage to her last. But it was Ellen Frary, a William Byrd High School junior, as Liesl who demonstrated a level of talent that said “promise” consistently as she sang and danced with the professionals on stage. There are 14 children engaged for “The Sound of Music,” all local, all sufficiently talented to be cast in a professional production.

Much of the rest of the cast has Roanoke or Mill Mountain credits, led by well-known veterans Emma Sala (recent Hollins theatre grad, and daughter of a theatrical family) in two roles, MaryJean Levin as the von Trapp’s crusty maid and Patrick Kennerly as a nasty Nazi. Booth and Mary Grace Gordon (Mother Abbess, she of the “Climb every mountain, ford every stream …” show-stopper) are the only equity actors involved.

Directing this thoroughly entertaining production are Mill Mountain Artistic Director Ginger Poole (also choreographer) and Christopher Costanho.

The 2019 holiday season offering from Roanoke’s premier professional theatre is exactly what you’d expect: professional, entertaining and emotional (I kept having to surreptitiously wipe away tears). It’s a good production of a great story.

(The show runs through Dec. 22. Tickets are $20-$38 and you can order them here.)