How a nickel worth $3 million hid in Roanoke for 40 years (The Roanoker)

Here’s a story for The Roanoker about the best story I ever wrote for The Roanoke Times. It led to the discovery, 41 years after it was lost, of a rare nickel that later sold at auction for $3+ million.

Ostensibly, the story is about the Walton Specimen, one of five 1913 Liberty Head Nickels. It’s really about George Walton, though, and his unforgettable contribution to Star City lore.

Read the story at the Roanoker.

The life, death and life lessons of Ralph Stanley (Noisey)

Like many others, I felt compelled to write about Dr. Ralph Stanley after his death on Thursday.

I’m especially struck by 2 things about Ralph Stanley:

1) That moment when in 1966 when his older brother Carter died, and Ralph, as the quiter half of the Stanley Brothers, had to figure out how to move forward in an uncertain environment. He went back to his roots for “Old Time Music” less than a year after his brother’s death, and it shaped his future for the next 50 years.

2) The sheer accumulation of moments over his career. He’s performed since the ’40s—think about how much music has changed over that time.

Reporters don’t often write headlines, but I wrote this one (“How Ralph Stanley overcame tragedy and the persistance of time to change country music”) for those two story points (& only partly for the Dali/Anthrax reference).

Read my story on Ralph Stanley at Noisey.

How the rebel flag plays into the 2016 election (Politico Magazine)

Growing up 20 minutes from Lexington, Va., and its numerous links to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, I’ve always had a fascination for the mutable meaning of the Confederate battle flag and its convergence of ancestry, race, history, politics & more.

That meaning has shifted again in the year since Charleston, those right on the edge of the flag debate have escalated the conflict, heightening contradictions and putting the flag back in the news on numerous occasions around the South & the rest of the country.

In this story for Politico Magazine, I tried to take a meaningful look at how the past year has changed the fight over the rebel flag, as well as how that all slots into an already crazy election year.

Read the story here.

Roanoke’s generational change (Blue Ridge Outdoors)

The May 2016 election marked the end of an era in Roanoke politics, and the start of something new.

I wrote about the election for Blue Ridge Outdoors within the context of Roanoke’s transformation over the last couple of decades, from a deteriorating industrial center into the next great outdoors city.

Read “Roanoke Reinvented” in Blue Ridge Outdoors.

The vibrant Syrian-Lebanese cuisine of Roanoke, whose mayor wants no refugees (Munchies)

Last fall Roanoke Mayor David Bowers went viral when he cited Japanese internment camps during World War II as a reason why the city shouldn’t accept Syrian refugees.

The discordant statement not only flew in the face of Roanoke’s status as a destination for refugees, but it also disregarded the contributions of the many Syrians who migrated to the city in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th.

In those days, “Syrian” meant something far different than it does today. Before World War I, the Ottoman Empire incorporated not just Syria as we know it today, but the bulk of the Middle East, North Africa and southeast Europe. Between 1880 and 1920, about 150,000 people left the Ottoman Empire—and many landed in Roanoke.

I and photographer Suzie Kelly explored Roanoke’s rich (and tasty!) history of Syrian and Lebanese cuisine from the early 1900s to today in this story for Munchies.

The networking power of the Hokie Nation, who’s buried on campus & more (Virginia Tech Magazine)

The fall 2015 issue of Virginia Tech Magazine has now been published and is available online.

My contributions include:

– The cover leader, which looks at Virginia Tech programs that link students and alumni, providing jobs for the former and access to talent for the latter.

– A story on who is buried at Virginia Tech, with a focus on the local leaders at the Preston Cemetery and the community that grew from the slaves buried at Kentland Farm.

– A profile of CNBC anchor Brian Sullivan, one of cable TV’s most prominent business analysts.

Read the entire issue at the Fall 2015 minisite.

Inside the Burger Restaurant Where Hank Williams Uttered His Last Words (Munchies/Vice)

They placed Hank Williams in a wheelchair and hauled him from the Knoxville hotel to his powder-blue Cadillac convertible, where his driver, a college freshman named Charles Carr, waited.

Loaded on booze, morphine, chloral hydrate, and vitamin B12, Williams crawled into the back seat, wrapped a blanket around himself, and laid down. Tasked with ferrying Williams to a New Year’s Day gig in Dayton, Ohio, Carr drove out of Knoxville, Tennessee, and into legend.

Near midnight, Carr stopped in downtown Bristol, Virginia, to get gas and look for a relief driver. He went to a cab stand and noticed a diner, the Burger Bar, next door. Carr asked Williams if he wanted anything to eat. Williams declined, saying he just wanted to sleep.

Read more about the murky stories surrounding Williams’ last ride and the restaurant that claims to be the site of his last words in my story for Munchies, Vice’s food site.

Dylann Roof’s Rebel Yell (Politico Magazine)

It’s been 150 years since the Civil War ended, but the Confederacy never really went away. It just got reabsorbed, more or less intact, back into the United States. And today the fight is still going on. Indeed, in some ways—ironically thanks to social media—the nation is more segregated and disunited than ever.

The last battle of the Civil War ended at Palmito Ranch, Texas, on May 13, 1865, and yet many more battles have been fought since then. Reconstruction was marked by racial terrorism, the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan and the return of former Confederates to government leadership in the South, where they set about writing laws to disenfranchise blacks and keep them a few pegs down the societal ladder, if not quite in the chains they wore as slaves. Even when Jim Crow segregation laws were eliminated by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Civil Rights movement in the past half century, the spirit of the Confederacy endured in the hearts and homes of many in the South.

Read more about the persistence of the Confederacy and what how it relates to last week’s Charleston shooting in my story at Politico Magazine.

The Great West Virginia Divorce (Blue Ridge Country)

Spring, 1861: Confederates attacked Fort Sumter, new President Abraham Lincoln mobilized the Union army and Virginia joined the wave of southern states voting to secede from the United States.
Delegates to the secession convention from northwest Virginia, who had opposed the split from the U.S., quickly left Richmond and returned home. As the war hit Virginia over the next few months, Union troops experienced early success in what is today West Virginia. The gains established the reputation of Union Gen. George McClellan, who subsequently left the front when he was handed command of the Army of the Potomac. It also gave those northwest Virginia delegates the opportunity to meet in Wheeling for two conventions and begin the process of forming a new state.

One obvious question loomed over the proceedings: Where should the delegates draw the boundary between Virginia and the new state? The answer involves railroads, slavery, troop movements during the war and, as always seems to be the case, politics.

“There was a group that wanted West Virginia to be reasonably small,” says historian Kenneth Noe of Auburn University. “They weren’t eager to go much farther than Charleston. There was another group that really wanted all of western Virginia down to North Carolina and Tennessee. Practically, it became a question of what could they actually control.”

Those decisions made by a small group of northwest Virginians in the 1860s continue to affect those who live in the mountains along the West Virginia border today.

Read more in my story for Blue Ridge Country about on how Virginia and West Virginia split and decided where to draw the lines that separate the two states today.

The role of historic tax credits in Roanoke’s revitalization (Roanoke Business)

Twenty-five years ago, downtown Roanoke was locked in a struggle against stagnation.

The city had poured millions of dollars into its Design ’79 initiatives a decade earlier, yet businesses and the tenants of blocks of office buildings were streaming out into the suburbs and strip malls.

Today, downtown looks dramatically different than it did in 1990. Key structures, including the iconic Roanoke City Market and Center in the Square, are coming off fresh renovations. Those former office buildings are now filled with apartments, in turn filled by empty nesters and millennials who walk to work and eat in downtown’s numerous restaurants.

The transformation came about through a combination of government incentives, visionary individuals and a fair amount of luck. The biggest single contributor, however, may well be federal and state historic tax credits that made it more profitable to renovate old buildings than tear them down.

“If you imagine Roanoke without the tax credit program, it’s a really stark portrait,” says developer Ed Walker, who has restored the Hancock Building, the Cotton Mill and the Patrick Henry Hotel among others. “It would be a completely different place. The Patrick Henry would be a parking lot … I think if you took the tax credits out, I think we’d probably be in the bleakest times in Roanoke’s history.”

Read more in my cover story for the May 2015 issue of Roanoke Business, now available in regional grocery stores and online.