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.


* * Dick Horne knew everybody


Richard “Dick” Horne knows everybody. Or at least he once did, and he misses those days. He is the Chairman of the Board of a family business called Horne Funeral Services, a company that just about everybody in the Christiansburg area will at one time interact with.

He met me in his office on the second floor of his facility on North Franklin Street, escorting me down the hall with a noticeable limp from a knee he destroyed while firefighting years earlier. He’s a heavy man with a gentle manner.

“I grew up in the family business. It was founded in 1870 by a Mr. Leckie. They lived beside the old location on East Main downtown.”

He described in detail all the businesses on that one side of one block of the street, the location of the current police department. In addition to the funeral home, there was a bank, a grocery store, a shoe store, a dress shop, an appliance store, a florist, an ABC store, a jeweler, an office supply store, and a department store. All of this is gone now.

“The old funeral home (building) is still there; it looks like a house,” he told me. “It was built in 1808 as a residence for a Dr. Anderson. It has been remodeled and added on to. We’ve been here at this location for almost 30 years.

“Dad came to work for a Mr. Richardson in the 1940s. Dad in 1972 eventually bought him out. My son, Brian, is the new manager and President. I was active in the business fifty years from 1965 until 2015.

“My family has always been community minded. My dad was captain of the rescue squad. He instilled this ethic in me. He was a top-notch fellow. He was active in all community things, like the community Chest. He was President of the Lion’s Club. He belonged to the Masons. I’ve tried to follow his lead, joining the Rescue Squad, the Fire Department, the Lions Club and Masons.

“We primarily serve Christiansburg, Riner, Pilot, Shawsville, some of Elliston, Ellett, Alleghany Springs. We have a competitor in Blacksburg, but we do some business with Blacksburg folks.

I said, “This is not a business that can be outsourced to China.”

He chuckled and said, “No. Locally we are fortunate that we don’t have conglomerate-owned funeral services. There is one in Roanoke. There are some nationally-based companies, but we don’t have any here in Montgomery, Floyd, or Pulaski Counties. The conglomerate in Roanoke, Lotz, has 1000-1500 locations nationwide.

“Our challenge is to stay ahead of that. We don’t have trouble or arguments with competitors. We get along with all of them.

“Why do you think more people haven’t gotten into the business?” I inquired.

“Well,” he admitted, “It’s not a real popular business. By the nature of it, people don’t want to deal with death and dead people. People think there’s lots of money in it, but there’s not.

“Overhead is high. Our morticians have gone to college and have advanced training. They make $45,000 to $50,000 annual salary, and more with more experience.

“We do embalming and cremation. The traditional funeral is embalming with the body present. You can have a cremation with the body present. Or you can have a direct cremation where the ashes are disposed of. We are about 20% cremation, 80% embalming. Cremation is growing.”

He talked fondly about the community feel that his hometown of Christiansburg used to have. “In my childhood there were mostly locally-owned and family-owned businesses. Most of them are gone now, sad to say. Decades ago, everybody knew everybody else. Families knew families. I knew everybody who ran businesses in town. I could walk from one end of Main Street to the other and walk into every store and I knew every owner. I knew the attorneys and judges in the courthouse, and I called them by name. I knew everybody and everybody knew me. It was a wonderful way to grow up.

“It’s not like it is today. I don’t know lots of families I serve here. Main Street is gone. Everybody is (shopping) at the mall, and I don’t know anybody I see there when I go.

“When we were downtown, I knew every policeman. Every minister. Every doctor. They were all friends. I knew everybody. That was a better world, at least for me. If I ever moved from here, I’d move to a smaller place. And I’d walk up and down the street and try to meet everybody.”

“We all have an expiration date. How do you want to go?” I asked.

“I want to be buried. I have a plot picked out and paid for,” he chuckled.


* * Frank Soriano might be picking up your trash

Frank Soriano is new to my neighborhood and on his regular walks, he picks up roadside trash. I met him recently and we talked about moving here and his efforts to improve our area.

He said, “I’m retired now. I was a reference librarian and I moved here a year ago from Morristown, New Jersey. I moved because my son is here.”

Two of his four kids were educated at Tech, but the other two have scattered about the country. He is in his early 70s and when he walks, he makes it a habit to carry a plastic garbage bag to pick up trash along the way and bring it home for proper disposal into recycling and regular garbage.

 He said, “With two of my children having gone to Virginia Tech, I was somewhat familiar with the area before I moved here. One of my surprises here is how difficult it is to volunteer for something. I have called on several agencies and told them about my interest in volunteering. But too many times I don’t get return phone calls. They say, ‘Oh yes, we can use you.’ But then they don’t call me back. I am still rooting around for something to get involved in.”

He worked with a series of charitable organizations in New Jersey before he moved down.

I said, “You seem to have a very strong community service ethic.”

He replied, “When I grew up, there was such a thing as a neighborhood. Everybody always looked out for their neighbors. If somebody got sick, someone would bring food. People watched out for other people’s kids as they walked home from school. There was a real neighborliness. That seems to have gone by the boards.

“Plus, I enjoy people. In my job as a reference librarian I was around people seven hours every day. Some people came in with serious problems…”

I said, innocently, “It’s not as if it is an oncology ward.”

He said, “Quite the contrary; it really is. Often when they got sick or when a family member got sick, people would come to the library to learn more about the illness. We had a large reference library and I was in charge of the medical portion of that. We librarians would spend whatever time it took to get these people the information they were looking for.”

Here in Blacksburg, Frank immediately looked for outlets for community service opportunities. He found beautification and trash collection to be perfect. He said, “It was something that I could do myself. The traffic along the street is hazardous, but I still manage to walk three or four times a week. Lately I have been finishing up on Farmview Drive and I have been working on Hightop Road.”

Frank has also volunteered for the upcoming annual Broomin’ & Bloomin’ community pick up event.

“When I first came down here with the kids, the highways didn’t seem to be as littered as in New Jersey. Once I came here to live, I have to admit that it is not that different. There are the same beer cans, bottles, coffee cups, and plastic bags that there are everywhere else. The Styrofoam and plastic bags are my first priority, because if the wildlife gets into them, it will kill them.

“I have had at least three people driving by stop to roll down their windows and thank me for what I’m doing. I would like to do more. The streams are all covered with litter. But picking up can be dangerous with steep slopes, poison ivy, and soon ticks. The last one I did… my back is still recovering.

“The Zika virus is carried by mosquitoes. Any bottle or can that is littered can collect water where the eggs can be laid. Littering is a now a public health issue.”

He said he thought most of the litter was from people who just chose not to care. There is a lot of construction in the area and he blamed the building workers. They may care less about the neighborhood than the people who live in it.

I asked if he was happy or resentful when picking up somebody else’s trash.

He said, “If I got ticked off for every can that I picked up, I’d have an ulcer. And I wouldn’t do it any more.”

So next time you’re in the south end of Blacksburg and you see a man picking up roadside trash, shout out a “Thank you” to him, and make sure you’re not contributing to his work load. He’s making our community a better place, one littered bottle at a time.




* * Lois Badey loves fundraising

Gosh, it feels good when a talented, passionate person comes here to the NRV and loves it. Lois Badey, Senior Director of Development for the new Virginia Tech Moss Arts Center and the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology, is another of our newcomers.

Badey, a certified fundraising executive, has a long background in philanthropy and benevolence. Her grandparents were missionaries, her father was a preacher and her mother was a professional singer. “That DNA has always been in me.

“All through my life,” she told me, “I have done volunteer work. I have always enjoyed raising money for small organizations.

“I realized that I could get paid for doing something that I really love to do. That is helping make a difference and facilitating change for people and really making people’s lives better. I have been in higher education for about 25 years.”

I asked her how she ended up at Virginia Tech. She told me that she was contacted by a professional job recruiter. Her first development job was at Randolph Macon College. After seven or eight years there, a job opened up at VCU and she stayed there for many years, but eventually needed a change. That’s when a recruiter called her to tell her about the job at Tech. That recruiter told her about an opportunity at a new center for the arts. It all sounded wonderful to her. But during the conversation, she couldn’t remember where the recruiter said the job was. She said, “So I asked her, ‘where is this exactly?’ The recruiter said, ‘it is at Virginia Tech.’ And I went, ‘in Blacksburg?’ And she said, ‘please don’t hang up.’

“I didn’t see that as a positive or a negative. I really didn’t know. I had never been to southwest Virginia. I knew nothing about Virginia Tech. This job for me was really a big leap, in many ways.”

The recruiter sent her a folder with an architectural rendering of the new Center for the Arts that was under construction at the time. She said, “I took a look at these materials and I immediately turned to my husband and said, Tom, ‘I know am going to get this job and I know I am going.’” Seeing my incredulity, she said, “Really.” She said this to me without a hint of arrogance, only confidence and belief in destiny.

“I came up for an interview. It was October 21, a beautiful fall day. Somebody really orchestrated that day properly.”

I said, “If you make your first trip to Blacksburg in October, you will find it hard to leave.

She said, “It IS hard to leave. I really understand the orange and maroon. It is real. It is on the leaves.”

Long story short, her interview went well and two months later she got the job. She soon formed a special relationship with Pat Buckley Moss who became the Center’s primary, named benefactor. “I so enjoy Pat’s family. They’re all wonderful. Nurturing. And they all love Virginia Tech. I look at her art and see so many different things. I see a beautiful linear quality, I see spiritual qualities, and I see whimsical qualities. A connection with nature.”

I recapped that Virginia Tech, once solely an agricultural and engineering college, had now made a bold statement about the arts. I said, “The Center has already given us a nudge in a new direction. Where do you see that going?”

“I see it going exponentially,” she beamed. “To infinity and beyond. It amazes me that many people still have not experienced a performance in the Moss Arts Center. There are people who understand the intrinsic value of the arts. It’s in their spirit. They may not play music or draw, but they love the arts. It’s innate, intuitive. Other people are afraid of getting connected, fearing they may learn something about themselves that makes them uncomfortable or changes their views or their life. There are people who don’t know they’d love the arts. Where we go in the future is making more people more comfortable. Imagine where we’ll be in 10 or 20 years!”

She said Southwest Virginians have always had art. “We just don’t call it art. The land here is a tradition. I knew nothing about this area when I came. I had a vague notion of Appalachia and what it was. It’s the people. It’s the beauty of the mountains. It’s the harshness of the winter and the magic of summer.

“The people here have no airs. Everybody is aware of their environment and the beauty of this place, and how it could be lost over one mistake.

“Drive down I-81 now in the springtime and see the red-buds highlighted against the lime-green shoots on the dogwood… you know you’re in Southwest Virginia. It is my favorite time of year. Spring is here. The mountains are forgiving in a way. I may never leave.”


* * Too many pictures, too little truth

I’m often complimented on my amazing wildlife photography, especially my bird shots. Here’s the thing, though, they’re not mine. They’re my dad’s. He’s the guy who spends his free, healthy time on the river, shooting the birds (so to speak).

Dad has told me that digital photography has totally revolutionized his efforts. In the old days of film cameras, he’d bring a couple of rolls of 36 exposures, take 72 photos, rush them to the developer (He’s never been the model of patience.) and hope he got some good ones. Now he takes a couple of memory cards and might take 600 to 800 photos and keep 6 or 8. When you go on these expeditions frequently, even those 6 or 8 begin to add up over time.

So complete has been the switch from film to digital that film is practically non-existent any more, relegated to the dust-bin of history. Thirty-five millimeter film is as rare as vinyl records and once-expensive film cameras are now found mostly in antique and thrift stores.

The technology that transitioned from film to digital hasn’t stopped. Now there are roughly 2 billion smart devices (phones, IPads, etc.) with camera capabilities. If every one of them took only three photos a day, the world would be accumulating 6 billion photos a day, over 2 trillion a year. My guess is that we’re taking lots more photos and looking at them lots less than ever before. In addition to that, the software tools for manipulating the individual pixels that now comprise a photo are cheap and ubiquitous; we can make any photo look like almost anything we want. Nothing we see in a photo today should ever be trusted as real.

All this brings forward the disquieting question of what a photo really is.

One of the most important and famous photographers of all time was Matthew Brady. Often referred to as the father of photojournalism, Brady (born May 18, 1822, died February 15, 1896) brought the horrors of the Civil War with his newly developed daguerreotype technique to vast audiences who had never before seen or envisioned such carnage. As a means of documenting the procession of the human experience, photography was unsurpassed in importance. That era is over. When was the last time you saw a photo that you long remembered? Did it have a believable realism to it, or was it the product of a Photoshop, Lightroom, or Google Nik technician’s hand? When you see a photo of an important event, do you have an expectation it is legitimate?

I recently saw a magnificent photo on-line that appeared to be taken of earth from space. It was titled “Earth in her cradle of clouds – via the Hubble Telescope,” and it had a fabulous, almost hand-like envelope of thick, high clouds around it. Problem is that it wasn’t really of earth and it wasn’t taken by the Hubble Telescope. It was a computer-developed 3D rendering. The magnificent images that WERE taken by the Hubble are likely to be disbelieved by all who see them. The more fabulous they look, the more likely we are to disbelieve them.

Think about the great, iconic photos of human history and how you might react to them now. Remember the lone protester in China, standing in front of the line of armored tanks? If you saw it today, would you believe it? Remember the four soldiers lifting the flagpole on Iwo Jima? Could it have been Photoshopped? Remember the naked, terrified 9-year old Vietnamese girl, running with other children down the street, fleeing a napalm attack on her village? It changed the US resolve in that war and hastened our withdrawal and eventual defeat, but only because there was no doubt in our eyes that it was real. Would it have had the same impact if its credibility had been as uncertain as the credibility of every photo we see today?

So what is a picture if it is no longer a true, visual representation of a moment in history? What if photography and art are now indistinguishable? If nothing we see henceforth can ever be believed as real, is it still valuable? And if so, for what? And if not, will we continue to take all those trillions of pictures?

As I type this essay, the television is on. I see commercials that are entirely, 100% computer generated, figments of the designer’s imagination. Could it be that within a decade, photography will become to all of us like an addict in a room filled with cocaine, far too much of a good thing to still be good? In the perfection of a technology still new in human evolutionary terms, we may have indeed killed it.


* * Pat Moss is happy to be here

My wife Jane recently invited me to join her at a local gallery. The event was for the adult and continuing education class that she had taken through VT, a class where she and her classmates painted still-life art. 

While there I met a small, white-haired woman who introduced herself to me as “Pat.” She was totally gracious and friendly, fondly resting her hand on my shoulder as we spoke. She’s relatively new to the community and since her arrival she’s showered us with love, devotion, and money. It turns out she’s one of America's most talented, famous, beloved and financially successful artists.

You know her as P. Buckley Moss.

She had no business or family ties here, having grown up in New York and spent much of her adult life in the Waynesboro, VA, area. So I got together with her and her daughter Becky the other day at the gallery to ask about her move to the New River Valley.

Pat told me she grew up on Staten Island, in sight of Ellis Island where her mother arrived from Sicily as a baby. “Mom arrived in 1904. I went to high school and college in New York City.”

In spite of her notoriety, Pat hardly sees herself as any different from the rest of us. Becky said, “Unlike Mom’s self-image, I see her as a celebrity. People want to touch and be part of celebrities.”

“I tell people I am not any more special than they are. It’s the truth,” Pat said.

Becky said, “We grew up with ‘You’re not any better than anybody else and they’re not better than you.’”

“I always wish I could give more,” Pat confessed.

Now mind you this is someone who gave Virginia Tech over $10 million to become the signature benefactor for the Moss Center for the Arts. She supports a wide range of causes, including her beloved P. Buckley Moss Foundation for Children’s Education that gives scholarships to educators.

“I had four periods of art in high school and I loved it! I was encouraged by my mother to pursue my arts.”

Becky said, “Mom is dyslexic. She has trouble reading.”

Pat continued, “I failed my way through grammar school and most of high school. I had teachers who were wonderfully understanding.” She went to Cooper Union in New York, a free college. Afterwards, she moved with her husband to Waynesboro, where she raised six children; Becky was her third.

“It was wonderful growing up in Waynesboro,” Becky said. “Everybody knew one of the Mosses.”

Along the way, Pat’s artwork became popular and she began to build a following and become commercially successful. “I love to work. I am 82 and I never want to retire.” She built a reputation for her warm, subtle styles, especially of rural scenes around Waynesboro and its Mennonite people. “They live their religion every day. They are helpful to each other and they support one another.”

While in Waynesboro, she started to show commercially. Her second husband was a marketing genius and soon shows started selling out and her fan base grew. What I really wanted to know is what brought her and her amazing generosity to Blacksburg. I mentioned how she was so open and accessible.

Pat asked rhetorically, “Have you ever been in a happier university or happier atmosphere than here? Have you met anybody who hates Virginia Tech? The values are good. People want to do the right thing. There are no snobs.”

Becky agreed, “The whole idea of the Ut Prosim (Tech’s motto, That I may serve), filters through the community. We have really felt that. People here are so welcoming and helpful. They want to see people succeed. That doesn’t happen everywhere.”

Pat said, “I moved here two years ago. It’s been great! Oh, my gosh, I love it! There are such caring people here.”

I asked, “How do you view the difference between ‘Pat’ and ‘P. Buckley Moss’?”

“I don’t know P. Buckley Moss,” she claimed. “I don’t know that I’d want to know her. She doesn’t exist. Part of ‘P. Buckley…’ was to be not identified as a woman. I was showing once in Boston. A man came to me and said, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’re a woman. I’m so disappointed!’ He wanted to deal with me (on a painting). I said, ‘Especially for you, it’s twice the price.’ He hounded me the rest of the evening. I told him, ‘I don’t want anybody to know that you have a painting of mine in your house.’ I never relented.”

“I have never lived in a more nurturing environment,” Becky smiled. “When we moved into this gallery, we were moving big, heavy things in from the van. Several guys just walked up and asked if we needed help. It was wonderful.”

“We love it here,” they chimed.

“It really is a special place,” Becky said.