Saturday, December 31, 2011

Whatever happened to ... stories of 2011

A compilation of updates on some of our 2011 stories.

Whatever happened to...?

Looking back

The Oliver Hill house restoration

Then: In 2009, the late civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill's childhood home on Roanoke's Gilmer Avenue was restored and reopened as a community law center, sponsored by Washington and Lee University, and staffed by a law school graduate and a small team of students providing legal aid to residents who couldn't otherwise afford it.

But in January it became apparent that W&L had changed course, withdrawn its staff members and re-assigned them to provide assistance to migrants from its campus in Lexington. University officials said most of the clients who sought help at the center also qualified for assistance from Roanoke's two legal aid groups - Blue Ridge Legal Services and the Legal Aid Society of Roanoke Valley.

The decision left the historic home vacant, though guarded by a security system and watchful neighbors.

Hill, who died in 2007 at the age of 100, is best known for filing one of the cases that became part of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which changed American society by setting the foundation for integrated education.

Now: Members of the Oliver White Hill Foundation, neighborhood activists and members of Roanoke's legal community haven't been content to let the house remain vacant. They've regularly engaged in meetings, including one in Roanoke this month, to discuss how to best use the property in a way to honor Hill's memory while helping to reinvigorate the surrounding Gainsboro neighborhood.

"It's a process," said Elaine Jones, chairwoman of the Oliver White Hill Foundation. "You want the right use for this property. It's of historical value. You want it to be of serv-ice to the broader Roanoke community. You have to figure that out and how to do it."

Jones declined to discuss details of the plans but said the community is responding "in a wonderful way."

She said the planning proc-ess involved "what to do, how to do it and how to do it in a way that's sustainable."

— Mason Adams


Interstate 77 condemnation fight

Then: After years of living in the shadow of a huge interstate highway bridge, Wythe County farmer Edd Jennings finally saw some daylight in his legal fight against the state.

In July, a judge ruled that the Virginia Department of Transportation took and damaged Jennings' property during a project to expand the I-77 bridge, which towers more than 100 feet over his farm on the banks of the New River.

It was a long-awaited victory for Jennings, who has seen the state and utility companies use the power of eminent domain to take pieces of his property at least 10 times - for a highway, a bridge, a power line and a gas line.

As for the bridge, Judge Joey Showalter ruled that VDOT was liable for Jennings' loss of access to his own land. The agency also must pay for damage caused by storm runoff from the bridge, the judge ruled.

The next step was to be a trial to determine how much Jennings should be compensated for his losses.

Now: Jennings, who traces the history of condemnations of his family farm to the 1950s, will have to wait a little longer.

Lawyers for VDOT have yet to sign a final order, raising questions about just what Showalter intended in his seven-page ruling for Jennings.

"They're fighting us at every turn," said Joe Waldo, a lawyer who specializes in eminent domain cases and is representing Jennings.

A hearing has been scheduled for Jan. 10 in Wythe County Circuit Court. Once the details of the order are hashed out, Waldo said he plans to ask for a trial date to determine damages.

"I'm going to push to set it as quickly as we can," he said. "Because we're ready to go."

— Laurence Hammack


Bob "Granpa" Miller

Then: On Feb. 11, Miller celebrated turning 100 by playing one of his 14 harmonicas at the Floyd Country Store.

"They give me a mighty big hand," he recalled a few days later.

At the time, the Bland County native and retired barber lived in the home of a son-in-law in Bedford County.

Miller also routinely played harmonica then with a group of volunteer musicians who performed on Sunday nights to entertain residents of an assisted-living facility on Williamson Road.

Not long after he turned 100, Miller moved to the Richfield Retirement Community in Roanoke County near Salem.

Now: Son-in-law Mike St. Clair said age is taking its toll on Miller, who he said relies now on a wheelchair instead of a walker to get around. But Miller still occasionally plays harmonica with fellow residents at Richfield, including one woman who plays a piano and another who plays the harpsichord, St. Clair said.

"He likes it up there," St. Clair said. "They all love him. He's got a lady following that he just thrives on."

He said that Miller no longer plays harmonica at the Williamson Road center, but that some musicians planned to visit Miller at Richfield and play with him there.

"God's been good to him," St. Clair said.

— Duncan Adams


The relocation of Community High School

Then: Renovations were under way in May to transform a defunct warehouse in downtown Roanoke into a private high school on the main level with two stories of residential living above.

The $3.5 million project, dubbed "Big Lick Junction," is across Williamson Road from the Taubman Museum of Art. The move from Campbell Avenue and Second Street allowed Community High School to nearly double its space for teaching and learning. The new school includes chemistry and physics labs, a 150-seat auditorium, a band room, and film production and art studios.

Now: Linda Thornton, the school's director emerita, said the building opened Aug.11 and move-in was complete for the school year that began Sept. 6. Students in grades nine through 12 are enrolled.

"We are completely delighted with the building and our space. †Having our own gallery and our own theater are certainly pluses for us - in addition to 'real labs and classrooms,'" she said.

The school's old location, in the basement of a building, was cramped and unsuitable for 55 students, school officials said.

Thornton's son, Lucas Thornton of Hist:Re Partners, was the project's developer.

"Now that the project is complete - besides feeling somewhat relieved that all the hard work is complete - I feel encouraged that we live in a beautiful mountain town where this kind of rehabilitation project is possible," Lucas Thornton said in an email.

The Big Lick Junction building was built in 1925 as a three-story dry goods distribution center. The renovated second and third floors contain 14 apartments, all of which are occupied, Lucas Thornton said.

— Courtney Cutright


Bob Terry

Then: About 9 p.m. Oct.1, store owner Bob Terry, 80, closed up Terry's Country Corner in rural Bedford County. As he walked to his car, he was badly beaten and robbed.

Terry's facial bones were shattered and his jaw was fractured. He was in the hospital for five weeks.

Now: A window frame propped up outside the small country store bears the scrawled well wishes of dozens of patrons. One reads, "We know you will bounce back, Mr. Terry."

And he has.

Yet he still wields a cane to steady himself. And his left cheek, in particular, remains swollen from the blows he suffered.

"I got a good lickin', overall," Terry said recently. "I'm doing pretty well, really. My strength is coming back. I'll probably get back here full time before too much longer."

Meanwhile, the Bedford County Sheriff's Office has charged Jason Andrew Shell, 38, with robbery and other felonies in connection with the attack on Terry.

The store also recently had a break-in by a teenager. But Terry shrugged it off.

"I enjoy people. That's one thing I like about the store."

— Duncan Adams


The corkage law

Then: In July, a law took effect that allows people in Virginia to bring their own wine to restaurants that hold an ABC license. The law was intended to help Virginia restaurants along state lines that were losing business to restaurants in North Carolina and Washington, D.C., where the law already existed.

Now: Few diners in Roanoke have taken advantage of the law, according to several restaurant owners.

At the Library Restaurant on Franklin Road, owner Lowell Hill said he is delighted that some of his guests are bringing in their own wines, but he said he's surprised that more aren't doing so. He charges a corkage fee of $10 to $15.

A manager at 419 West said the restaurant has had only a few patrons bring their own wines, and those were for private parties.

It's the same at 202 Market in downtown Roanoke, where only a few customers have brought their wine with them, and only because it was a special bottle, said owner Steve Rosenoff.

"It's been a nonevent," Rosenoff said.

— Amanda Codispoti


Army Pfc. Todd Edgell, of Salem

Then: Edgell was in third grade when terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001. Ten years later, the war in Afghanistan was raging, and Edgell was old enough to fight.

Driven by a sense of service that he attributes in part to what he remembers from 9/11 - and to the discomfort of his family - Edgell, 19, decided to forgo college and join the Army.

In July, he left for basic training and then cannon crewman training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, after which he would learn whether he might land in a theater of war.

Now: Edgell completed basic training and at the last minute chose to go to the Army's Airborne School at Fort Benning, Ga., after his cannon crewman training, after which he was told he'd be stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. - about as close as he could get to home and still be in the Army.

He should have graduated from Airborne School this month, but on his second jump from an airplane, Edgell suffered a concussion. Since then, he's been on a medical holdover while he awaits an MRI.

If he's cleared to return to training, he should graduate in January and head to Fort Bragg, said his mother, Kathy Edgell. If not, she said, it's hard to tell what the Army will do with him.

Meanwhile, he's back home in Salem for an extended Christmas break.

— Matt Chittum


Illegal left-turners in the new Roanoke College parking lot

Then: When Roanoke College unveiled plans to build a new student parking lot at the rear of its campus, neighbors along Hawthorn Road opposed the idea. The rolling road, from which the lot would be accessed, was dangerous enough already without students pulling in and out.

As concessions to the neighbors' safety concerns, the college moved the lot's entrance, limited the use to residential students to minimize traffic, and restricted drivers leaving the lot to right turns only.

But when the lot opened as students returned in August, neighbors reported that drivers leaving the lot repeatedly ignored signs and even a concrete traffic island directing them to turn right.

Residents called on the college to add more signs to the intersection and beef up enforcement of the right-turn-only rule.

Now: The college promptly added more signs alerting drivers that left turns aren't permitted and painted right turn arrows on the pavement approaching the intersection.

Later, the college added blaze orange, plastic "flexible bollards" next to the traffic island as a further deterrent. Salem police have also stepped up enforcement of the left-turn ban, said Roanoke College's director of public relations, Teresa Gereaux.

"They're making an effort," said Trish Lawson, who lives nearby and has been vocal in her concerns about the lot from the start. But she's not sure any of the methods available will ever keep college students from going left if that's what they want to do.

"It's just the nature of the beast," Lawson said. "It's not going to change. You have to just accept it and hope that what they're doing is going to work and that nobody gets hurt."

— Matt Chittum


Sluggish Salem license plate sales

Then: In a place like Salem, with civic pride on steroids, the idea seemed like a no-brainer. In 2010, the city unveiled a city of Salem license plate that would allow residents to show off their pride on their bumpers.

All they had to do was get 350 owners of the city's roughly 16,000 vehicles to pre-order the tags to get the Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles to put the plate into production.

But in October, a year into the effort, an anemic 40 Salemites had ponied up. Salem City Council discussed the results and whether to continue the effort. The Roanoke Times published a front-page story about the faltering effort, along with information about how to order the plates.

Now: Since October, another 10 or so people have pre-ordered the plates - not nearly enough to get the DMV to start producing them.

City Manager Kevin Boggess said he expects that the council will soon discuss what to do next.

Among the possibilities is giving residents a chance to buy the plates until June. If there's no significant progress, the city might call it quits and return the money to those who have ordered the plates so far.

— Matt Chittum


Alvin "A.J." Boguess

Then: He was a 24-year-old war veteran from Covington raising two sons with his wife, Shannon.

On a frigid February night, less than six months after his return from Iraq, he was working for CSX near his hometown when he fell off the side of a train and plunged into the Jackson River.

Now: He survived the fall. But he hasn't worked since, and in May he filed a lawsuit against CSX, seeking $4.5 million in damages for his injuries.

Boguess had been hanging on a vertical ladder of the rail car, which was traveling at 19 mph, without protection from a fall, according to the suit filed in Alleghany County Circuit Court. He was part of a three-person crew switching cars into the MeadWestvaco paper mill in Covington, the United Transportation Union has said.

CSX "failed to provide him with reasonably safe equipment to ride across the river," the suit says. "It allowed a dangerous work practice to become the standard practice, and it ignored complaints from its work force about the danger associated with the shove into and out of MeadWestvaco."

It is common for injured railroad employees in Virginia to sue a company because the Federal Employer's Liability Act requires workers to prove that their injuries resulted from the railroad's negligence before they can collect lost wages and other damages.

A hearing had not been scheduled for the case by Thursday afternoon, and Boguess' wife and attorney declined to comment on it because it is pending. A CSX spokesman did not return a request for comment Thursday.

— Jorge Valencia

Weather Journal

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