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.


* * Welcome to Peter Montgomery’s nightmare

You see the destruction before you even arrive at Peter Montgomery’s pleasant ranch home on Mount Tabor Road. There’s a linear swath of devastation painted on the slope of Brush Mountain to the north. At the famous hairpin turn, the guardrail is bent and broken. And there is mud all over the road. Peter lives at ground zero in pipeline hell, adjacent to the Mountain Valley Pipeline, the massive project that has overwhelmed so many of our neighbors.

I met Peter in his detached workshop where he makes an entrepreneurial living as a custom woodworker. He was refinishing a solid chestnut door from an historic 1827 local church, while a steady industrial cacophony wafted through the air.

“It has been the shock of the century,” he said. “Who would have ever dreamed in this pristine place they would bring this atrocity?

“I’ve been here for 30+ years. I’m five miles from downtown Blacksburg. Across (Mt. Tabor Road) is all national forest. It’s been okay out here.”

He thought it would miss him, but it landed 100 yards away.

“Two neighbors already moved due to proximity of the pipeline. It’s affecting another one and me the most. It’s not actually on my property, so I get no compensation whatsoever. There’s constant heavy equipment traffic on a curvy country road. There’s a flagger at the end of my driveway, and I never know when I’ll face delays leaving or coming home. The other day, I had to wait 30 minutes to enter my driveway. My car is filthy with the mud on the road. There’s noise from 7 in the morning until 7 at night, and they want to go from 5 until 10. It may last for the next six months. I’m in the bull’s-eye, but my neighbors are all affected. It couldn’t be any worse.”

The primary contractor, Wisconsin based Precision Pipeline, has been slapped with multiple safety and environmental violations and paid tens of thousands of dollars in penalties.

 “The company is incompetent,” claimed Montgomery. “They called me to arrange a ‘pre-blast inspection’ of my home and workshop. By law, they’re supposed to give me five days notice; they gave me one. They’re digging a 10 by 10 foot trench, through solid rock, so they dynamite to loosen it.

My dogs are traumatized by the noise and blasting. I’m trying to go on vacation, but I can’t leave them now. I’ve not been myself. My blood sugar is up. I’m deeply stressed. I’m not sleeping well. My work has suffered. I need to get away, but if I’m worried about them blowing the place up, I can’t leave.”

Peter has gotten lots of help and support from local law enforcement, including county deputies who have stepped up their presence to address his concerns. But of course, you and I are paying those people.

“The sad thing is that the government allowed this to happen in the first place. A friend drives a school bus on this road and he got run off the road by one of these thugs in their trucks. Every vehicle I’ve seen is out of state.”

Here’s what makes Peter and so many local people upset. He gets no compensation because they didn’t actually take his land. The county and state get no compensation. There are no taps where we could use the natural gas it will carry. Succinctly, the corporation has privatized the profits and socialized the risks. If this pipeline were to explode near him – and this is by no means a distant possibility, given that a smaller, 36” pipe, only installed six months ago in West Virginia did exactly that early this month – he’d be instantly annihilated, along with his entire property. This pipe, by volume, is 70% larger.

His drinking water comes from a well. “The chemicals they use might contaminate my well and the blasting might ruin the capacity. If there is a problem, what then? I don’t know.

“The most stressful aspect is not knowing what will happen next. The unpredictability.”

I took a break and walked up the road past the flaggers to see for myself. On the north side, was a 100-foot wide path of mud, with various construction vehicles. On the south was a massive drill with an upright derrick, flying at the top was not an American flag but a flag that said, “TRUMP, 2020, KEEP AMERICA GREAT.”

When I returned to say goodbye, Peter said, “At 68, I need to be seriously concerned about my stress. Stress can take you down. People need to come here and see it. We thought we lived in a democracy. My psychic counselor said, ‘Your soul had no way to know something like this would ever come, much less how to deal with it.’”



* * Novel graduate program at Virginia Tech builds citizen scholars

Bill Huckle is a busy guy, one my smartest friends. He’s an Associate Professor in the Biomedical Sciences department at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech. So much of the stuff he studies and teaches goes way above my head. But in a conversation recently, he spoke about a class he’s just taught that I did understand and have long had an interest in: how technologies impact societies and the planet. 

He said, “As of last August, I still devote 40% of my time to the Vet School, but now 60% is devoted to Virginia Tech’s Graduate School. The grad school manages admissions, monitors student progress, and awards Masters and Doctoral degrees. Tech has over 100 individual graduate programs now, and nearly 7000 grad students.”

Bill is from Charlottesville. He got his bachelors degree from Williams College, his Masters at Tech in biochemistry, and his PhD in pharmacology from the University of Iowa. “My research is broadly in the realm of cardiovascular biology. We are interested in the heart, but our central focus is in blood vessels – their formation and repair and diseases that involve too much or too little circulation.”

That’s the part that swoops over my head. Here’s the good part:

“I’m now teaching a course called Citizen Scholar. It’s housed in the graduate school as part of a larger imitative started a number of years ago by our Dean, Karen DePauw, called Transformative Graduate Education. It’s an opportunity for students who have the interest to engage in other types of educational experience beyond the immediate focus of their degree: how their scholarly efforts can be harnessed to the benefit of their communities. In addition to Citizen Scholar, other parts of the TGE initiative focus on effective communication and being a successful academician.

“Most graduate students, like me when I was in grad school, keep their noses to the grindstone, working to finish their course work and research projects. If a program like this had been available to me, to be honest I’m not sure I would have been drawn to it. But some students clearly do want to take a broader view.

“For the dozen or so students who take this elective course each year, it helps them feel more connected. For example, early in the course we talk about the Land Grant concept that led to the creation of Virginia Tech.”

Imagine this: President Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of our Civil War, envisioned the establishment of colleges throughout the country to teach practical things, especially agriculture and engineering, to everyday citizens. Prior to that, most colleges and universities were solely educating the elites in classical fields like languages, philosophy, religion and art.

Bill said, “There was also a military focus. Schools supported by the Land Grant concept and particularly the Morrill Act, were expected also to teach military tactics. The Civil War showed Lincoln that the nation needed to be better prepared militarily for hostilities and defense. So we talked in class about how this came to be and the ways it may still be relevant. The Land Grant model is predicated on outreach, providing more practical educations so students can take their knowledge into the workplace. 

“The course gives students today the opportunity to think about not only the personal value of their education, but its larger value to society, and why society –  in the form of state or federal support of universities, for example –  is willing to invest in them.”

Bill said one student in Civil Engineering was interested in how bridge construction would impact local communities. “This person was already well tuned in to far more than the immediate project at hand. It’s a self-selected group, so students already have recognized their openness to experiences they’ve not had before. For me, doing research in the life sciences, when seeking funding for our work, it’s vital to be able to communicate its possible value to society. I ha never undertaken a community project like these students do, engaging with their neighbors. They get very creative.

“I try to stress to my students that they need to be cognizant of the groups their work might benefit or affect. We all want to minimize negative impacts and maximize positive ones.

“Most of all, I was struck by the passion of the students, and not just the relatively extroverted . Even those less inclined to discuss in class blossomed when describing motivations for their work. This particular set of students represented a remarkable range of disciplines, and their enthusiasm adds life to the academic enterprise. I think every student could truly benefit from this experience.

“Hopefully what students come out of this with is a broader awareness or “raised consciousness” about the value and the costs of what they want to do with the rest of their lives.”



* * JAM keeps our Appalachian music tradition alive 



Banjos. Fiddles. Guitars. Flatfoot dancing. Reels. These are the mainstays of traditional Appalachian music. I often joke that we Southwest Virginians think culture is something other people have. But locals and visitors alike find much to enjoy and be proud of in the maintenance of our heritage music. Like any aspects of the culture, for it to endure, it needs to be passed on to our youth. That’s the focus of JAM, the Junior Appalachian Musician program, and its newest affiliate in Christiansburg.


According to director Sidney Hollandsworth, JAM is a series of local affiliates throughout Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina. Begun by Helen White in Independence, Virginia, JAM’s mission is working to provide communities with the support and tools they need to teach children to play and dance to traditional old time and bluegrass music.


Hollandsworth told me, “JAM is a program for children in grades 4 through 7 to learn a traditional instrument and learn about Appalachian culture.” Sessions are held at the new Great Road On Main, the concert, education, and event center in the newly remodeled and reopened Main Street Baptist Church building. “We begin each session with an enrichment lesson, where we tell about toys and games, or perhaps a dance. Then the kids split into fiddle, banjo, and guitar classes, where they get instruction on the instruments.


“We’re in our first semester, which started in January and will be wrapping up soon. We have 17 kids. We hope to expand in the fall, to perhaps two classes per instrument.”


Floyd County has had a program for several years. Lisa Bleakley, the tourism director for Montgomery County, was eager to start a program here. Sue Farrar at the Montgomery Museum and retired executive Dave Reemsnyder were instrumental (pardon that pun!) in getting things going, and they decided that the Christiansburg strand of schools would be the best place to start. So the local JAM program was a cooperative venture between Montgomery County Public Schools, Christiansburg Elementary School, the Montgomery Museum, and Great Road On Main.


When I asked Sidney about her involvement, she said she was a piano teacher, and was approached about being the director. Sidney’s parents, John and Kathie Hollandsworth, are musicians (and incidentally, fellow Christiansburg High School graduates with me), so she was brought up around traditional music. John plays and builds autoharps and Kathie plays bass and hammered dulcimer. Sidney was a voice major in college, but “my primary instrument is piano,” she said.


“I was brought up in the music. Many of our students are newer to it. We asked early on whether kids and parents listened to this type of music or went to festivals. Overwhelmingly, they said they hadn’t. Not many were really enmeshed in the music or culture. So it’s been neat to see that sort of experience for them for the first time. Class instruction on playing a stringed instrument isn’t super common. They’re at the age when private lessons may not be the right first step. The parents may have suggested it, but the kids won’t be successful unless they’re motivated. I’m sure lots of them go home and practice on their own. Some come from musical families. 


“Some kids who are very focused. They take it seriously and want to be good at it.”


To recruit students, the incipient JAM program gave information to Angie Hagwood, music director at Christiansburg Elementary School, who shared it with children and parents last fall. In January, the students were accepted and the program began. “None of the kids had had any prior experience. For the most part, teaching is ‘by ear.’ They do some rhythm notation and tablature. (Tablature is a simple form of musical notation indicating where the player is to place his or her fingers on the strings of a stringed instrument, rather than actual notes.) We work with them to match what they hear with the fingering on their instrument that produces that sound. Youth seem to pick it up faster than adults.


“We have one teacher now per instrument: fiddle, guitar, and banjo. The program is tuition based, on a sliding scale, with students who qualify for free or reduced lunches also getting reduced tuition. So if they don’t have a lot of money, we don’t turn them away. We’re hoping for donations to go to scholarships.


“It’s been interesting every single week. The kids are into it, they’re really excited. I’ve been surprised at how much they enjoy the dancing and learning.”


Donations for instruments or scholarships can be made to the “Montgomery Museum,” with “Montgomery JAM” in the memo line, and mailed to 300 South Pepper Street, Christiansburg, VA  24073, website: https://greatroadonmain.org/ or to Lisa Bleakley at Montgomery County Tourism. 


“This is a good thing for our community,” Hollandsworth said. “The kids are learning, having fun, and building skills and self-esteem. Parents have thought it was worthwhile. Parents and students both think it’s worthwhile.”


* * Seymour Staffing may know about your next job

Are you looking for a job? Perhaps a better job? Are you mechanically inclined with a good job history? If so, Tracy Seymour-Miller may know about your next job.

Tracy is a transplant from North Carolina who arrived here in 2014 when her husband was hired as director of a company new to our area. She hung her shingle as Seymour Staffing and opened an office on North Franklin Street in Christiansburg. Her woman owned company has extensive experience in all aspects of manufacturing recruiting and human resources.

We’ve seen millions of manufacturing jobs leave America in the last couple of generations, and thousands of plant closings. But according to Seymour, rumors of the death of manufacturing in America are premature. “We always see ups and downs,” she told me, waving her hand like an ocean wave, “but right now we’re on a high. I worked for a manufacturer in 2008 when we let lots of employees go and shut plants down. Now we’re definitely on an uptick. We have client companies who are looking to hire 20 or more people.

“We are in the direct hire staffing business,” she said. “What that means is that we recruit and screen job applicants for companies looking to hire. We specialize in the manufacturing sector. A company might be having a hard time finding talent. If we send them a prospective hire, the company knows that we’ve already screened them for applicable skills and experience, in some cases for background issues and drugs. Many times, they’ll offer a job that same day.”

Tracy is an ebullient, dark-haired woman with a bright smile and infectious enthusiasm. “We hire at all levels from company presidents or vice presidents to maintenance and line workers and custodians. Right now, companies are having trouble staffing in technical jobs. High schools and community colleges are not educating enough students in the trades, people who can operate and fix equipment, things like lathes, milling machines, and robots. Many skilled people are retiring, and younger kids are often steered towards college instead of trade schools.”

She said her background in manufacturing has introduced her to the types of people and skills that can fill these positions. “We know people who know people who know people. We pay for referrals.

“We can use networking tools and social media to find people. Sometimes corporations have rules preventing them from using these tools. Lots of people we work with are already working, but for whatever reason are looking for a change. Sometimes they want to move to a new area. Sometimes they’re unhappy with new management or the direction their company is taking. People leave jobs because of bosses, not jobs. Money is not the factor it once was. People are looking to work at a solid company that provides benefits.”

Tracy explained that her company is compensated by the employer, her client, who pays a commission based upon the hires’ first year salary.

Originally from Maryland, Tracy thought of Virginia as that drive-through state on her way to North Carolina. “I never imagined that I would be living in Virginia. My husband moved first and then I followed with the kids a year later. We live in Riner and my daughter said she’d never want to go back (to NC).

“Business is really good right now. Lots of companies are doing well and are hiring. The unemployment rate is low, so workers are more in demand. Companies are paying better, offering signing bonuses, and better benefits in order to get good employees. A maintenance technician can make anywhere from $20/hr. to $33/hr., more in higher cost cities.” The company has clients in several southeastern states.

“Manufacturing is now highly automated, but companies still need people. Robots may do all the actual work. But people are needed to monitor the robots and fix them if they break. People are needed to install robots or move entire assembly lines to other parts of the facility. They need different types of people than in decades past, different skills.

“Kids are now mostly directed to college. The new generation doesn’t think manufacturing is exciting. It is, and there is money to be made! There are good careers for people who know how to put things together, know how to do wiring or welding or repair. Some people have an innate skill to look at how a machine is working and envision ways to make it work better, faster, and more efficiently. There is money to be made in manufacturing.”

I said, “We’ve been conditioned to think that manufacturing left America twenty or thirty years ago for China, Taiwan, or Japan.”

“It’s still here,” Tracy said. “America is still ripe for entrepreneurship. I know of companies started by individuals who invent a machine or a process and build a company around it. America is still a good place for manufacturing. Things are changing and that’s exciting. There are opportunities for good people. People can make good money, good livings.”


* * Habitat For Humanity builds community 

Shelley Fortier is working to provide boots, so to speak. She’s the Executive Director of the local affiliate of the Habitat For Humanity. There’s an old expression about people picking themselves up by the bootstraps. Some people face daunting financial obstacles. Habitat For Humanity helps people in a real, tangible way to make improvements in their lives, by helping them achieve home ownership.

Hers is a fascinating story that led her to that position. She told me, “I was raised in Blacksburg and went to Virginia Tech. I got a degree in Political Science, but I entered the corporate world.” She met her husband Joe in New Jersey, and had a series of jobs in the New York, New Jersey, and New England areas, and then in California, working in management for retail chain stores.

“He finished a graduate degree from Berkeley in Energy Resources. We were both pushing 40 and were asking ourselves what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives. My parents were still in Blacksburg and we ended up moving back here.”

They arrived with two kids, great job skills, no plans, and no jobs. “One day, Joe came home and said, ‘I bought a building in Radford.’ He had a vision. He thought Radford needed a coffee shop and more affordable housing. They have an inventory of great, historic buildings.”

They have gone on to purchase several other downtown buildings in Radford and Blacksburg, and most recently the old Prices Fork Elementary School. Meanwhile, Shelley started volunteering for Habitat For Humanity. Habitat was founded in 1976 in Georgia, and is the largest not-for-profit home builder in the world.

So Joe came out of financial services, and became a developer and carpenter. Shelley came out of corporate retailing and became immersed in providing affordable housing. How did that happen?

“We looked at investing in rental properties. Many landlords bought substandard buildings and never improved them. They were low quality and not putting anything back into them. We believe in fairness. Conversations about privilege always made me uncomfortable. We worked hard. My parents worked hard. Yet my successes stand on their shoulders and theirs on their parents’. That’s privilege. I had that. Not everybody has that. Some people can’t pick themselves up by the bootstraps because they’ve never had boots. I had boots.

“We are social entrepreneurs. We live here. We’re going to invest in the community.”

They got grants and subsidies from a variety of sources. Historic tax credits. HUD money. Private investments. Then they got income from their tenants.

“I saw that Habitat was opening the ReStore in Christiansburg. With my retail background, I thought, ‘That I can do.’ I volunteered lots of hours.

“Everybody knows Habitat as a construction company. We facilitate the energy of human and financial resources of a community to build affordable houses. We are a retailer. We are a lender. We do family counseling, primarily financial counseling. We are housing advocates. The homes we build are sold, not given away. The buyer pays us back at zero interest, and we put that money into more homes.

“Affordable housing leads to a strong economy. Big corporations won’t move here if their $14/hour employees can’t find affordable housing. Companies seek a stable, motivated workforce that can find inexpensive housing. Stable households build stable communities, and stable communities build stable economies.

“I describe my job as popping corn without a lid. I try to catch a combination of land, money, home buyers, and community energy in the same bowl at generally the same time to make a project come to fruition. There is no typical day.

 “Our donor dollar never dies. When someone donates to us, the home buyer pays it back over time. It fuels itself for the next one. The community invests. The family invests. Lots of people have skin in the game. Our buyers build confidence as home owners. We don’t give them boots. We sell them affordable boots and they build themselves up. I spoke with one of our homeowners and he said ‘I was surprised that there are people out there who will come and invest their day for me and my family. I only hope that me and my family can do the same thing for someone else.’ It’s powerful stuff; it’s what love looks like. When volunteers devote their days off to build a home for someone, it builds communities. That’s where the value of life is.

“I have a lot of good days in this job. I’m not an emotional person, but when have dedication days, when we hand someone the Certificate of Occupancy and a set of keys to their new house, it gets me every time. It’s the culmination of all that love.”

Two major Habitat projects are in the works, a single family home in Christiansburg and a multi-tenant apartment in Blacksburg. Visit the website at www.habitatnrv.org for more information and volunteer opportunities.

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