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.


* * United in Tragedy


For most of us around here, April 16, 2007 was a day we’ll never forget. The tenth anniversary of the tragedy at Virginia Tech gave us all the opportunity to reflect and remember, to honor the 32 Hokies we lost that awful day.

Being part of a Tech Legacy Family – my father went to Tech, I went to Tech, my younger brother went to Tech, my wife got her doctorate at Tech, and my daughter went to Tech – it hit me particularly hard. My wife, daughter and I participated in the Remembrance Run for 32. Any notion that Hokie Nation would forget about that day or those lost was amply vanquished, as officials estimated that over 16,000 people participated. Many of them were in grade school when it happened.

Sadly, our community isn’t the only one that has dealt with gun violence on a massive scale.

A few days later, my wife and I hit the road for a mini-vacation in Charleston, South Carolina. I’d never been to that historic city and always wanted to go, especially to visit Fort Sumter on an island in the Charleston harbor where the Civil War’s first shots were fired. After our tour boat returned from the tiny island where the fort is located, we found ourselves in the midst of a fascinating conversation.

Before our tour we walked towards the main business district past the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, often referred to as Mother Emanuel, the oldest black congregation in the southern states. Founded around 1817, in its 200 years, it has become one of the most influential churches for blacks in America. In spite of that, I’d never heard of it, and probably never would have, except that on June 17, 2015, nine people were shot and killed there. The perpetrator was a 21-year old white supremacist, motivated in his madness through hatred.

The conversation I mentioned was with a volunteer at the Aquarium next to the boat dock. She gave us a short ride in a golf cart to save us a few steps. She was a youthful retiree from a career teaching second grade in a nearby school. Her husband had played football for Clemson decades earlier and they were fans, so she recognized the VT logo on our hats.

I asked about the AME church and the shooting there. She knew about the shooting at Tech, and we reminded her that it happened 10 years earlier. She asked if people still remembered it. I told her about the 16,000 people who attended the Remembrance Run. I told her that the sentiment around Tech and Blacksburg has never wavered. We are Virginia Tech. We will never forget.

The AME church, as part of a pre-emancipation South, has a tumultuous history. And like most Southern cities, Charleston has struggled to bring the races together in our common humanity.

There were many differences in the situations, at Tech and the AME church. At the church, the nine people were shot simply because they were black and the shooter was an avowed racist. He was soon captured and arrested, and has since been convicted of 33 federal hate crime charges and has been sentenced to death. At Tech, the shooter was motivated by his own delusions and was the last victim of his own malevolence. In a way, it seems like a good thing that his suicide put an instant closure to that aspect of the horror, that survivors and victims’ families never had to suffer through his capture, trials, and aftermath.

She said about their murderer, “He was methodical. He attended a prayer meeting with the victims. He said later they treated him so well, he almost decided not to shoot them. Almost.”

She said she was amazed at the reaction of her community, the outpouring of love and support for those affected by their shooting. She said that in the midst of the grieving and sadness, it had the city-wide effect of bringing everyone together in a way she’d never seen before. How everybody had been just a little bit kinder, more patient, and more aware of our shared destiny since then.

We sat there, total strangers moments earlier, moist-eyed, united in tragedy, hoping that nothing like this will ever happen again in America. But fully resigned to the notion that it almost inevitably will.


* * Giving the gift of walking


Most of us know someone who has lost a leg, typically through an accident or complications of diabetes. The World Health Organization estimates there are around 35 MILLION, and many are children. That’s four times the entire population of Virginia! Over 80% of them are in developing nations where they often cannot afford a prosthetic device.

Think about a child never walking again. Michael Mabry and some friends thought about it a lot. Then they decided to do something about it.

“I bought orthotics from a local prosthetic technician, Phil Johnson, three years ago,” Mabry told me. “Phil has been working with orthotics and prosthetics for about 30 years. He told me he had been to Guatemala on a mission trip to try to help a boy he’d heard about who’d lost a leg. When he got there, he fitted the boy with his new leg. The next morning, there were 20 other kids lined up who needed a limb as well.”

Mike and Phil formed an organization in Blacksburg called “Hope to Walk,” to help as many people as they could. Prosthetic legs now on the market are expensive, from $5,000 upwards. They knew to make a real difference they’d need a less expensive alternative, because many of these victims live below the International Poverty Line – making less than $1.90 per day and don’t have any money. They began building legs out of wood, rubber, fiberglass, and PVC pipe, for $80 to $100 each. And they could be made and fitted in poor, remote communities.

The two men met when Mike was a first year medical student at Edward Via School of Osteopathic Medicine. “Logistically, it is difficult to make prosthetic limbs here and then try to deliver to poor countries. We knew we had to think outside of the box. I hadn’t had a particular interest in prosthetics prior, but I’d always had an interest in helping people, especially the poor. I want to empower them.” Mabry said.

I added, “This is the essence of the health care quandary we face. We live in a capitalistic system and companies have to make a profit. But everybody, rich and poor, gets sick. Only the rich can afford treatments for serious illnesses. Others might die prematurely because they don’t have the money. Medicine doesn’t fit well with the capitalistic model.”

He said that the causes can vary from country to country. In war-torn countries, many in Africa and Asia, many of the people were victims of land mines. In other countries, more people suffered from diseases like diabetes or accidents. But the result was the same: millions of people could never find hope to walk again. The solution was lower-cost limbs.

“We simplified the materials, using parts that could be found in those countries. Phil has mechanical skills and learned how to fabricate these limbs. He is an engineer at heart and true learner. We went for simple, affordable, and effective. We can grind the foot to any shape, on the spot. We make 16” pylons, which is the leg shaft of the prosthetic, and can cut to each patient’s specific size. We can cast sockets on the spot as well. So our prosthetics cost from $70 to $94 in parts, instead of thousands. We get the money from fund-raising and donations most often through individuals, churches, and civic clubs.”

The organization is mostly comprised of Christians, but they have no requirements from their recipients. “We tell them we’re there because the Lord sent us and we care about them and He cares about them. We want to love them in a tangible way.

 “It is one thing to take them legs. That’s great. But we are now in the process of developing training programs to teach Hondurans how to manufacture, install, and repair the prosthetics. When that’s done, we can step back and begin training others in a different country. We can empower people in these countries to help themselves.

“This is fun. I never know what direction I’ll be called to go. On our second trip, we fitted a prototype prosthetic to a man named Carlos. It cost less than $80 and did the entire casting and installation in 55 minutes. When we were done, he stood up and walked around for the first time in two years. He just got up and walked! When we saw him walk and saw him smile and saw his family smile, we knew something big was happening! That moment may possibly have set the course for the rest of my working life.

“We’re at a great place. We’re getting more donations and people are joining our team to help us make this a reality. However, this task is very large. In order to help thousands and especially millions, we need more people to get involved and help paddle the ship forward.”

If you’d like to help Michael, Phil and their team with their amazing, life-altering work, visit their website at www.hopetowalk.org.


* * Mike Larkin is going places, right in Christiansburg



Every community needs a guy like Mike Larkin. He’s an economic development machine!

You may not have heard his name yet, but I suspect you will, over and over again. He’s bringing his singular energy and focus to his work, establishing Ignite - Life Pacific College while also repurposing the former Main Street Baptist Church into an academic, arts, and community center under a new non-religious non-profit called On Main Street Inc. I met with him to ask about his process.

For background, he said that LPC Ignite is one of two colleges belonging to the Foursquare Church, a Christian denomination founded by Aimee Semple McPherson in the Los Angeles in 1923. She was a traveling evangelist in the early 20th Century. “She was charismatic, magnetic. She broke the mold for women in ministry leadership roles and set a precedent for practical hands-on community ministry.”

She opened a ministry training center in California that over time became Life Pacific College. A second college was established in Mt. Vernon, Ohio and in the early 1980s moved just off Route 8, south of Christiansburg, and named Life Bible College East. The East Coast campus closed in 2003 and the property was transformed into CrossPointe Conference Center.

Meanwhile, Mike got a slew of degrees and pursued a varied career as a police officer, a YMCA executive, a minister, and a denomination executive overseeing global operations. He founded Ignite Life Pacific College in 2008 and was asked by the denomination to move the school from the Los Angeles area to Christiansburg in 2011.

Mike’s intention in founding the school was to provide general education and theology courses that are affordable while also presenting practical, hands-on opportunities for students to prepare them for their future. He wanted to make his college an integral part of its community. In the last 5-1/2 years, his students have contributed an astonishing 82,000 documented hours of volunteer service! On a weekly basis students serve 5-10 hours in the community, sending teams of students to the Roanoke Rescue Mission, Montgomery County Museum, Christiansburg Park and Rec department, and various other non-profit organizations. Partnering with Kiwanis and the Wilderness Trail Festival each fall is a favorite with the students.

“When we moved here in 2011, I drove past the old Baptist Church on Main Street and saw ‘For Sale’ signs. I saw potential. Our goal is to be in the community and not in a bubble on the hill.” So On Main Street Inc. was formed to purchase the old Baptist Church and reconstruction is underway. They gutted much of the building and built classrooms, a library, and administration offices. The 1908 structure on the corner is being restored to original beauty for weddings, banquets and meetings. In the larger hall they removed the pews to allow for more flexibility as a music, banquet and lecture hall. They found a church in Tennessee that had suffered the loss of their pews in a flood, and donated to them. The buildings are opening up in stages for college and community use.

“The intent of what we’re doing is to create community, to revitalize the town and the economy, and to get our students in downtown Christiansburg. That fits in exactly with our perception of the vision of the town leaders. Recreation. Entertainment. The Arts. Crooked Road and traditional music.”

So they’ll be bringing music events to the center, and not solely religious. For example they’ll be hosting a JAM chapter, the Junior Appalachian Musician after school program that teaches children to play traditional roots music. They’ll host weddings and receptions.

He said the renovation is coming along beautifully. The ultimate goal is to create a community showcase. They want self-supporting events so they don’t pass on costs to the students. However students are learning project and event management, show production, and other skills.

“We want graduates who will launch into organizational management, ministry leadership, strategic leadership positions and more. We want a self-sustaining model for a small college that provides employment and advancement opportunities for our students and a revitalization project for downtown.

“My wife and I knew that in moving from Southern California to Christiansburg, it would be very different. Rather than come with ideas for change and expansion we came to immerse into the community first. The change was actually in me. I think it’s a wonderful indication of the quality of life. The pace. The kindness.

“It’s a friendly culture and an amazing place to live and work. We’ve been under the radar. We’re here to serve and give. Up until now we’ve been the best-kept secret in town. Thanks to our hard working students we’re starting to make ourselves known.”


* * The “veteran” and the “rookie” march on Washington

January 20, 2017 was an important day in American history, when our country executed the time-honored tradition of peacefully passing the torch from one President to another. But the following day was equally important, when thousands of people peacefully marched on Washington, many other cities across the nation, and indeed around the world.

I caught up with two local women who went, one a veteran of prior marches, and one a teenager who attended her first organized demonstration. Laurie Buchwald is a Radford-based nurse practitioner and former candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates. Isabella Burgoyne is 14 years old, a student at Radford High School.

I asked what compelled them to go.

Isabella said, “I went to the march in solidarity to all the women who have been abused and mistreated, and to thank the women who have fought for all our rights in the past. Reproductive rights; I haven’t needed them yet. It’s just nice to know that everyone, all women, have the right to do what they wish with their bodies. I have the right soon to vote!”

Laurie added, “In the same way that I am grateful for the early nurse practitioners who fought for me to be able to provide healthcare to women – we are still fighting – I am grateful to the women who fought so that I might have the right to vote. Now it is my turn to fight for the women who will come after me, to make sure that women achieve equal rights under the law and are protected by the Constitution. Just 50 years ago, women were not even able to get a credit card, serve on a jury, go on birth control pills, get an Ivy League education, and experience equality in the workplace. Many of us still don’t!”

“When Trump won the election, I was so disappointed,” Isabella added, “because I know it will affect me and all the people around me. He legitimized sexual assault and bullying of women. He made that okay. It’s not.”

Laurie said, “He has a longstanding disregard for women. I see women all the time in my office that have been sexually assaulted. They have to fight to have somebody to believe them. When the commander in chief can say and do those things, it will make it even harder for them to be believed. It is appalling to me.

“We need to continue to move forward and fight for our rights. I never called it an anti-Trump march, but there’s no doubt that his actions have galvanized the world.”

Isabella said, “This was my first march. Sometimes they can be dangerous. This one was peaceful. I didn’t think my parents would let me go, but they were all for it. Both my mom and my dad went.”

Laurie said, “There were 1200 buses parked at RFK (stadium). Four came from Christiansburg. We could have filled so many more. The crowd was amazing.” They had a two mile walk to the rally site, “It was the most amazing, powerful, thing. I almost cry just talking about it. If I had never gotten beyond the Capitol, I would have been happy for the amazing sense of love and solidarity. Everybody was committed, united and optimistic. It was phenomenal, overwhelming.”

Isabella said, “There were kids, young adults, and older adults, jammed with people.”

They were in the same area where the inauguration happened the day before, but the crowd was larger.

Laurie said, “We were hearing about massive rallies in other cities. We felt like we were in a global community of love. If we never heard a speaker or musician, and many people didn’t, we were still moved by the day. There were no cross words. No negative remarks. Everybody had everybody else’s back. It was a gift enough. Now we need to go from moment to movement, from passion to power.”

Isabella said, “I feel a crushing responsibility to do something. We have a lot of work to do. It’s going to be my future.”


* * What's the matter with the old BHS site?


I don’t know about you, but the brouhaha between the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors and the Blacksburg Town Council over the sale of the “old” Blacksburg High School property has me flummoxed. Why can’t the sides come together?

Here’s the background as I understand it. The high school on Patrick Henry Drive was constructed in the mid-1970s. From the beginning, due to problems with poor site selection and preparation, and overall shoddy workmanship, the building had the structural integrity of Swiss cheese. And all the design charm of a penitentiary. I’m guessing the design architect is now in an asylum somewhere.

Anyway, after a snowstorm seven years ago, the gymnasium roof collapsed. Miraculously no lives were lost, but the building’s life effectively ended that day. Spendthrift ways back then strapped us with higher costs later.

Teachers, staff, and students of not only the high school but the middle school then faced two years of disruption, including attendance at 70+ year old schools in Christiansburg, as a replacement high school was built at a larger site near the multi-school complex on Prices Fork Road. All’s well that ends well.


Except there’s the matter of the old, crippled building and the site upon which it sits. Here’s where things get prickly.

Virginia has an odd municipal structure whereby cities are completely independent but towns are semi-autonomous. What this means is that cities provide their citizens a range of services including police, rubbish collection, fire, rescue, recreation, planning, and for our discussion notably schools, but towns share some services with the counties that encompass them. In this case, for the most part, the town of Blacksburg provides every amenity listed except schools; its seven schools (BHS, BMS, and five elementary schools) are owned and managed by Montgomery County. Those of us who live in town pay taxes to both entities.

With over 42,000 residents, Blacksburg is the most populous town in the state (with Leesburg close behind). But 25 cities across the commonwealth have fewer people than Blacksburg and manage their own schools. Blacksburg considers this option from time to time.

Almost from the collapse of the gym, Blacksburg has maintained that should the county ever wish to sell the property, Blacksburg would like to purchase it, keeping it in public use. The devil is in the details, in this case the price and responsibility for demolition. Each party has hired reputable appraisal firms to attempt to assess the true market value. With all due respect to my friends in the appraisal business, determining the value on this unique property is at best a black art. The county set the price at $3 million, whereas the town offered $2.4 million, plus the town would be strapped with demolition costs, estimated around $1.4 million. (As a frame of reference, the county spent $63 million on the new high school.)

As a resident of Blacksburg, this money seems to want to come from out one of my pockets into the other. Everybody in Blacksburg is in Montgomery County, but not everybody in Montgomery County is in Blacksburg. This truth has created conflicts in the two governing boards, which now seem to be treating each other as hostile, competitive foreign powers rather than mutually-dependent entities.

Blacksburg’s stated position is its willingness to purchase the land at a fair price and keep it in public use, possibly “banking” it for a time when population growth might dictate that another school is needed. This makes imminent sense to me, as growing pains under Virginia Tech’s ambitious expansion plans are already emerging, and procuring a suitably large property for a new school later will be exceedingly expensive.

I’ve long been studying why some communities are successful and others are not; in fact my new book is about that. Key is the decisions of not only the business communities but the governance as well. Words like cooperative, visionary, reality-based, diverse, and innovative characterized the successful communities, whereas antagonistic, short-sighted, myopic, homogenous, and unimaginative characterized the unsuccessful ones.

Communities that host colleges, especially research universities, invariably fare better than those that don’t. As Virginia Tech goes, so goes Blacksburg and so goes Montgomery County. Denying the growth Tech will foster is improvident and ultimately counterproductive.

As taxpayers we entrust our local officials to make sound financial decisions and to work cooperatively and in good faith. But we also expect them to be farsighted, not penny wise and pound foolish, and not make decisions that will cost the next generation more in the future. Blacksburg has put forth a reasonable, fair offer; let’s move forward with it. After all, someday the county may need that land, or other town-owned land, for its next school. When the shoe is on the other foot, maybe cooperation from today will be remembered.

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