Weekly Journal

Here's a compilation of everyday thoughts and articles I've written. Many have been published as part of my recurring columns in the News Messenger, the twice-weekly paper in Montgomery County, Virginia.


* * Why I write


I was the happy beneficiary of several pleasant, affirming experiences over the New Year’s Day holiday.

On New Year’s Eve, I attended an outdoor party, warmed by a blazing bonfire. I met a man who lives in central North Carolina and is here visiting relatives. When I introduced myself, he said, “I know who you are. I read one of your books.” He'd read my first one, The Spine of the Virginias, published back in 2008. He continued, “I wasn't that excited when my wife handed it to me to read,” he said, “but I was enthralled. It was well-written and educational. You have a nice conversational style that made it fun to read.”

The next morning, I got a note from a friend in Roanoke. She said she’d had brunch with old friends, and one of them mentioned that he was reading and enjoying my newest book, Chasing the Powhatan Arrow.

Later that afternoon, I attended another gathering – this one an open house with friends in Giles County. There, I met a couple who are in the process of building a house in the area, moving here from New Jersey. A few months earlier, they were having dinner on one of their scouting trips at the Palisades Restaurant in Eggleston where they found my first novel, Union, WV on a table, and she started to read it. After dinner, they left it behind but were already enthralled and when they returned home, she ordered it on-line.
Both of them read and enjoyed it. Then they bought and read my second novel, Providence, VA, about which they also raved. Union, WV and Providence, VA are my first and second novels. We had a long conversation about it, the story line and the characters.

I mentioned these happy occurrences on my Facebook page, and another friend commented, “I read War, WV while my husband was driving us through West Virginia today. I couldn't put it down!” War, WV is my third novel.

I started writing my books back in 2008 when I sold our family printing business and had some time on my hands. In that and each of the following seven years, I finished and published another, eight total. Each one seemed to follow naturally from the prior, and I was always motivated to continue. Which brings forward two essential questions: how and why?

When I began my first book, The Spine of the Virginias, my motivation came from the historic question about the formation of West Virginia from Virginia. I knew from my Civil War history classes and reading that the split happened during the war. But I didn’t know the motivation or the process. At that time, I had had no formal education in writing beyond high school English classes. But I’ve never been afraid of tackling big projects.

Over Memorial Day weekend in 2017, I was invited by the Virginia Museum of Transportation to ride six excursion train rides pulled by the famous Norfolk and Western 611 steam locomotive. I remember speaking with a girl of perhaps 10 or 11 who was on board with her grandmother. She was impressed that I had written books and asked me about the process. I said, “There are three steps. First, you have to find a topic that really engages you, because you’re going to spend lots of time with it. Second, you have to begin writing. Third, you have to not quit until it’s finished.” In hindsight, this strikes me now as more profound than when I said it. Too many would-be authors never write the first paragraph of the book they’ve always wanted to write. Too many others start but then never finish.

The “why” is a bit more elusive. Cumulatively over the years and the various titles, I’ve sold between 6000 and 7000 books, not including those sold on-line by Amazon and Barnes and Noble. While this doesn’t provide a living income, it’s been a nice supplement. I’m far from being on the New York Times’ Bestseller List.

While working on my third book, Harmonic Highways, I was interviewing lots of musicians on the Crooked Road. I asked one about the money side of traditional Appalachian music. He said, “There are a few people who have done extremely well.” To hit the big time, he said, “You need to be really talented, you need to work really hard, and then a miracle has to happen.” I concluded it was the same for writers.

Not being the beneficiary of a miracle yet, I gain acclamation and satisfaction in the process and in those kind comments people make. I write because it moves my soul.

Thanks to all who have read and enjoyed my books!


* * Blacksburg's famous, Part 2, Virginia Tech Graduates

As I mentioned in my last column about famous people from Blacksburg, many of Virginia Tech’s thousands of graduates have gone on to fame in the arts, entertainment, politics, sports, and business. There is no way to quantify “fame” so this list is admittedly arguable. Here are the people who most come to my mind.

With its historic Corps of Cadets, Virginia Tech produced many notable military figures. Seven alumni have received Medals of Honor. Perhaps the most famous is James F. Van Pelt, Jr., who navigated both atomic bomb attacks against Japan in August, 1945.

In government, J. Lindsay Almond, Jr., was a member of the US House of Representatives, Virginia’s Attorney General, and from 1958 until 1962, Virginia’s Governor.

In business and technology, Clifton C. Garvin is a former Chairman and CEO of Exxon Corporation, Christopher Columbus Kraft, Jr., was a NASA engineer and manager who was largely credited with establishing the agency’s Mission Control operation, Jim Buckmaster has been the CEO of Craigslist since 2000, and Robert B. Pamplin Sr. who served as CEO of Georgia Pacific and his son Robert Jr., both who served as President and CEO of the R. B. Pamplin Corporation.

In literature, Homer Hickam and Sharyn McCrumb are New York Times bestselling authors.

Hoda Kotb is a television news anchor and current TV host of NBC’s Today show and the Thanksgiving Day Macy’s Parade. Kylene Barker was Tech’s only Miss America, tapped in 1979.

As we enter the sports realm, Tech has far too many to name, but I’ll do my best to pick the most prominent.

In basketball, Allan Bristow led Tech to an NIT championship in 1973 and played in the NBA for four teams before retiring into coaching and management. Vernell “Bimbo” Coles played for the 1988 U. S. Olympic Basketball team and later five NBA teams before retiring to his hometown of Lewisburg, West Virginia, and Dell Curry, who played for three NBA teams and works as a color commentator for the Charlotte Hornets. Curry married Sonya Adams, also a Hokie, and they are the parents of three children including Steph, who currently plays for the world champion Golden State Warriors and is a former NBA MVP.

The list of football standouts is long, but arguably the two most famous are Michael Vick, who led Tech to the NCAA national championship and had a long career in the NFL after being the first overall pick in the 2001 draft, and Bruce Smith who was the first pick in the 1985 draft and is a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee. Smith is now a developer in Blacksburg.

Tech’s first notable gridiron star was C. Hunter Carpenter (class of 1902), who was Tech’s first player elected to the Hall of Fame.

Carroll Dale (class of 1964) played for Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers and won the first two Super Bowls.

Kevin Jones was the highest overall recruit in the nation in 2000, the only Number 1 recruit in history at Tech. He was a consensus All American and played 6 years in the NFL.

In the next tier are Logan Thomas, Tyrod Taylor, Don Strock, Darryl Tapp, Ken Oxendine, Frank Loria, DeAngelo Hall, Shayne Graham, Antonio Freeman, Bruce Arians, Rashad Carmichael, Cam Chancellor, and the Fullers, Kyle, Vincent, Corey, and Kendall.

Lastly, perhaps Virginia Tech’s most famous current and influential graduate is Stephen Kevin “Steve” Bannon. After graduating from Tech in 1976 (the same year as me!), Bannon got masters degrees at Georgetown University and then Harvard University before serving in the United States Navy. After his discharge, he became a media executive, political strategist, and former executive chairman of Breitbart News. He served as the Chief White House Strategist for President Donald Trump for the first seven months of his administration. Considered one of the masterminds of Trump’s political ascendency, Bannon continues to support many national populist conservative political movements here in America and around the world. Conservative Commentator David French said Bannon has “done more than any other person to introduce the… alt-right into mainstream American life.” Bannon’s influence on the trajectory of American politics is inestimable and likely long-lasting.

So there you have it, Michael’s list of Christiansburg’s, Blacksburg’s, and Virginia Tech’s most famous products. Whom did I leave out?


* * Blacksburg's famous, Part 1


I’m guessing that the moment after you finished reading my column last week on Christiansburg’s most famous residents, you were asking yourself, “What about Blacksburg?” As was I after writing it. In researching Blacksburg’s list, I quickly discovered that there would be a longer list and it would be locally divided into two groups: those folks who were born and raised in Blacksburg or made significant contributions to their careers in Blacksburg, and those who attended Virginia Tech, but then moved on and made their mark afterwards.

Thus here in Part 1, I’ll deal with the former.

For our first famous person, we go back to 1738 when William Preston arrived in the colonies and ultimately to Smithfield Plantation in 1761. He survived the famous Draper’s Meadow massacre in 1755 and later served in the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War. He was elected to the Virginia colony’s House of Burgesses in 1765 and later served as a founding trustee of Liberty Hall, the precursor to Washington and Lee University.

Second on our list is the Black family for whom Blacksburg is named. Samuel Black died in 1792, deeding the land to his two sons, John and William. John’s property eventually became developed into the campus of Virginia Tech, and William laid out the original 4 by 4 block of streets now known as the “Old Sixteen Squares.”

Perhaps Virginia Tech’s earliest prominent educator was Julian Ashby Burruss, for whom Burruss Hall is named. He was Tech’s eighth president and the first Tech alumnus to be appointed its president. He graduated in 1898 with a degree in Civil Engineering and for his 26-year tenure as president, led to the first major expansion and modernization of the Institute.

Next on our list is T. Marshall Hahn, Jr., Tech’s president from 1962 to 1974, during which he is generally credited for overseeing Tech’s transition from a small, primarily military college with a focus on engineering and agriculture to the coeducational, multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary university we see today. After leaving Tech, he became an executive with the Georgia-Pacific Corporation where he retired as CEO. Hahn had a PhD in Physics and was legendary for his photographic memory.

The next five entries are among Tech’s most prominent, well-known, and influential faculty members.

I’ll start with Irving Jack Good, who was a legendary British mathematician and computer scientist who worked with Alan Turing during the Second World War on the design of rudimentary computer and the cracking of the Enigma Code the Germans had developed to communicate with their warships. Born Isadore Jacob Gudak in London, I. J. “Jack” Good finished his career as professor at Tech, where he once said about his arrival, “I arrived in Blacksburg in the seventh hour of the seventh day of the seventh month of the year seven in the seventh decade, and I was put in Apartment 7 of Block 7...all by chance.”

Other notable Tech professors were:

  • James I. “Bud” Robertson, Jr., taught Civil War history to over 20,000 students during his 44-year research and teaching career.
  • Yolande Cornelia “Nikki” Giovanni, Jr., one of the world’s best known African-American poets and one of Oprah Winfrey’s 25 “Living Legends.” After the April 2007 shooting by one of her students, Giovanni delivered a chant poem including the words, “We are Virginia Tech… We will prevail,” expressing the idea that even good people can suffer unspeakable tragedies.
  • Franklin Mitchell “Frank” Beamer is arguably Blacksburg’s most famous current resident. A retired football coach, Beamer played for Tech from 1966 until 1968, and was head coach from 1987 until 2015, where he was one of the longest tenured coaches in the NCAA and one of the winningest coaches. He led the Hokies into post-season play from 1993 until his retirement, a streak continuing under his successor Justin Fuente, and the longest in the nation. He was recently inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He is still often seen around campus walking his dog, Hank.
  • One of Tech’s most famous active professors is Marc Edwards, whose work in the study of water treatment and corrosion, especially in Washington DC and Flint, MI has made him a hero for people fighting for better municipal drinking water nationwide. In 2004, Time magazine featured him as one of the USA’s most influential scientists.

On a more negative note, I’ll quickly mention Blacksburg’s most notorious product, Henry Lee Lucas, who beginning around 1951 and for decades thereafter murdered dozens, perhaps hundreds of people, including his mother. He died in a Texas prison in 2001.

Blacksburg’s most successful businessman is computer engineer and multi-billionaire Eric Emerson Schmidt, who led Google from 2001 to 2015 and now leads Alphabet Inc.

Many other Tech professors and administrators deserve mention, but my word limit encroaches. Next time, I’ll list 10 of Tech’s most famous graduates.



* * Christiansburg's famous

So a friend of mine in Roanoke, a former journalist named Dan Smith, recently compiled and published on-line his list of the most famous people from Roanoke. Got me thinking; who are the most famous people from my hometown, Christiansburg?

He was able to find 100 people that he felt qualified. I hoped to find 10. Here’s what I came up with.

Keep in mind that by “famous,” I’ve used the dictionary definition, “known about or by many people.” For this exercise, I’m including only folks who were born and raised or devoted significant segments of their career in Christiansburg. There are lots of people in the history of the community who have contributed either from a civic, educational, or commercial standpoint, but are not necessarily well known beyond the immediate area. So they aren’t on my list.

The names I’ll present are from Wikipedia, from responses I got to a Facebook post I launched on a site called “Remember in Christiansburg,” and from my own knowledge.

Here goes…

White folks arrived in what they would name Virginia in 1607, and sometime in the late 1600, a Dutch priest, Friar Hans arrived, giving the community its first name of Hans Meadow. Christiansburg as a town was established on November 10, 1792, by an act passed by the Virginia General Assembly at the site of a concentration of hotels and taverns along the Wilderness Road, which is now US-11, along the great Valley of Virginia from Winchester to Bristol. It was named for Colonel William Christian, an early settler and one of the fist justices of Fincastle County from which Montgomery County was formed.

So our first famous Christiansburgers (Note: a “demonym” is a name used to denote an inhabitant of a particular place. What else would you call someone from Christiansburg than a Christiansburger?) were Friar Hans, who lent Christiansburg its original name, “Hans Meadow,” and William Christian, after whom the town is named. Since Christian never lived here, I’m mentioning but not counting him.

Frontiersmen Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were both residents, as was William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

So that’s four.

More recently, brothers Henry King and Louis King made their name in Hollywood, directing and acting in early films. Seven of Henry’s films were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Louis began acting in 1919 and had roles in many westerns where he specialized as a character actor, mostly playing villains.

That’s six.

Civil leaders include Robert Craig, a U.S. Congressman after whom Craig County was named, and Archer Allen Phlegar, a Virginia State Senator and Supreme Court justice.

In the art world, Virginia poet laureate Ruby Altizer Roberts for many years lived in a stately white home on East Roanoke Street.

Now we have ten. But there’s more!

In sports, Christiansburg is big in people who make cars go fast, including NASCAR drivers Jabe Thomas and his son Ronnie Thomas, and Matt Hagan, a drag racer. To my knowledge, Christiansburg has never produced a single professional baseball, football, or basketball player.

So that’s my lucky thirteen famous Christiansburgers. Honorable mention, I’ll grant to, in no particular order:

  • James Moye, a Broadway Actor
  • Robert Chafin, an opera singer who performed for decades on the great stages of Europe (full disclosure; he’s a friend of mine)
  • Earl Palmer, grocer and photographer who was the mayor of Cambria for 10 years until it was annexed by Christiansburg
  • Mansoor Ijaz, a UVA, M.I.T. and Harvard educated venture financier and media commentator
  • Captain Charles Schaeffer, who founded Christiansburg Institute for Negro children and for whom the Schaeffer Memorial Baptist Church is named.
  • Nannie Hairston, civil rights pioneer

Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the infamous Virginia Wardlaw, Mary Snead, and Caroline Martin, the so-called “Black Sisters,” who received that moniker because by legend, they wandered the town in the late 1800s, especially the Sunset Cemetery, in the dark hours wearing all black clothing. The sisters ran the Christiansburg Female Academy, located at the site of the former Christiansburg High School (where, incidentally, I graduated in 1972) and then the Christiansburg Middle School on College Street. The women were associated with a number of nefarious stories, including murder and arson. Virginia Wardlaw is buried in the Sunset Cemetery, which according to some is still haunted.

So there you have it – Michael’s list of famous people from Christiansburg. Obviously, this is entirely subjective and open to discussion and re-evaluation. Who have I left out that would be on your list?


* * Marie March wants you to buy local


Marie March is a serial entrepreneur, a restless, creative, and vivacious woman who actively strives to make Christiansburg, and indeed the entire New River Valley, more prosperous. At the top of her resume is ownership of Due South Barbeque, which with her husband, Jared, a Radford physician, she founded 11 years ago and is now providing great food to local and traveling customers.

She’s recently gathered a handful of like-minded local business owners to form “NRV Home Grown,” to promote area businesses. They are emulating a model formed several years ago in Asheville, North Carolina, for the same reason. That group is the Asheville Grown Business Alliance.

She told me as we enjoyed a meal at her Due South, “My husband and I enjoy visiting Asheville. We went a few months ago and saw stickers in storefront window indicating membership in the group. That whole business community has bought into the idea of local ownership. We thought we could mimic what they’re doing.  

“We want the local consumers to understand the importance of small businesses. We want to go into the school system and help children and families understand as well.”

This is an idea that’s been part of my mindset from childhood, when my dad owned and managed a commercial printing company that I later inherited. He always preached the gospel of keeping the money in the community. “Buy from Angles or Wades Supermarkets instead of Kroger,” he often said. Now, Angles is gone and Wades is struggling to hang on.

“Lots of people think if you shop at your local McDonalds and Walmart,” she continued, “you’re shopping locally. But that’s not what it means.”

McDonalds, Walmart, Lowes, Kroger, Home Depot, 7-Eleven, and many others are massive international corporations whose profits are siphoned elsewhere. 7-Eleven is even owned by the Japanese. Dollars spent at Walmart ultimately enrich the Walton family of Bentonville, Arkansas. The descendents of founder Sam Walton have a combined wealth of over $163 billion dollars and are America’s richest family.

“When you shop at my restaurants,” she said, munching a barbequed chicken wing, “that money is staying put.” Her restaurants buy food from local farmers and materials from local vendors. Her profits are re-invested in her other businesses, including the newer Fatback Soul Shack and a boarding house on East Roanoke Road.

She said that what separates the local businesses from the chains is creativity. “It’s like an art form. The owner can put so much of themselves into the businesses. How they manage their staff. How they treat their customers. How they formulate their products. Small businesses like mine provide lots of little benefits to our staff to keep them happy and motivated. Ball games. Picnics together. Walmart doesn’t do that for their staff. That stuff goes on with local businesses every day.”

Multi-national corporations have systemic advantages, especially in an era of cheap transportation and cheap energy. Walmart can buy shoes in the millions from manufactures in India, Indonesia, and Vietnam and have them shipped here, reaping the benefits of the economy of scale. I’ve heard that if you buy running shoes for $50, only $0.25 went into delivering them from overseas. According to Marie, Amazon can ship directly from their massive warehouses and they’re getting preferential rates from the US Postal Service. And they own their own credit card companies.

“We’ve found niches,” she said. “When someone spends $30 here, we’re spending some of that on local farmers. We use local honey for our sauces. My restaurant competitors are getting food that’s been produced regionally or nationally and shipped here. It’s not as healthy, as nutritious. When we can, we donate to local charities.”

Marie explained that businesses participating in NRV Home Grown sell business cards for $20 that enable consumers to save when they shop at other participating businesses. She and her partners are looking to recruit 1400 businesses. “We have 100 already,” she said. “It costs them nothing and gives them visibility. There’s no reason to say no.

“I am all about creating camaraderie, inclusiveness, togetherness, and visibility. We need to educate the consumers, from the children up. They’re the entrepreneurs of the future.

“I’m always doing things,” she beamed. “I want others to realize they can do things as well. But if they don’t, I’m going to!”