The Next Wave

ECSC, Virginia, Surfers, Young Surfers, Distinction Magazine

photography by  TODD WRIGHT
These aren’t soul surfers. Sure, they surf waves that are big and glassy. Who wouldn’t? But they also surf when they don’t feel like it, in the dead of winter, or on small or choppy waves that don’t deserve their talent. Their commitment is part of what makes them the five hottest young competitive surfers in Hampton Roads. Laird, Laney, Jordan, Parker and Hunter.

Their rooms are littered with trophies. They wear clothes given to them by sponsors. And many of their surfboards are custom-made.

None is older than 17 and the youngest – 11-year-old Laird Myers – has, in the eyes of the surf community, the greatest potential of them all.

It’s not easy to become an elite surfer in Virginia Beach. The surf breaks here don’t offer waves like the ones on the West Coast – or even on the Outer Banks.

These surfers hire coaches to videotape them in the water and critique their every twist and turn. They travel to places like Puerto Rico, El Salvador and Costa Rica, where they seek out the beefy waves that don’t often visit their hometown.

Some say they want to be pro surfers. Others are eyeing other pursuits. But all of them are taking their surfing as far as they can go.

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Laird Myers had an autograph session the next day.
There was just one thing he had to do first: Learn how to write his signature. These are situations you encounter when you’re an 11-year-old surfing phenom.

So his parents got him some poster board and a marker, and he practiced his John Hancock over and over.

“I practiced half the day, just getting it together,” he says. “It’s good now. I don’t use cursive, though.”

Laird is the youngest of Hampton Roads’ top young surfers – and has the greatest potential, according to those in the surfing community. He’s already signed three national contracts with apparel companies. And his parents have put him in homeschooling to see just how far he can take this surfing thing.

“The path he’s on, maybe he can get there,” says his father, Matt Myers. “But he’s 11. And lots of stuff happens between now and then.”

If Laird has any say in the matter, he’ll be surfing’s world champion.

“When I’m older, like 20,” he says.

As of July, he was tied for fifth among surfers on the East Coast for the under-14 boys division for Surfing America Prime East. And he won back-to-back shortboarding titles at the East Coast Surfing Championships in the 9-and-under division, in 2011 and 2012.

His smooth and powerful surfing style is well beyond his years. It’s odd to see someone so young and small – he’s 4-foot-8 and about 80 pounds – pull off moves that talented surfers typically don’t master until they’re well into their teens.

He also looks the part of a prodigy. Black wetsuits are standard fare among surfers; at a contest this spring, Laird’s was bright orange and blue.

Laird’s parents have known for years that he had a special gift.

When he was 6, a hurricane swell came to town. Waves were 8 feet tall. His parents thought it was too big for Laird to surf, so he stayed at home in Croatan. But he sneaked out of the house, grabbed his board and somehow found his way past the breaking waves.

“This kid weighed 50 pounds probably,” says Matt. “I don’t even know how he made it out there.”

A neighbor spotted Laird and told him, “Son, I’m not so sure you should be out here by yourself,” Matt says.

Laird stayed in the water and caught the waves.

His parents later decided they couldn’t come between him and the ocean. So they agreed to homeschool him, as long as he keeps his grades up.

He’s now a rising sixth-grader at the Mom School of Study Hard and Surf a Bunch. “It’s good,” he says. “It’s less school and it takes shorter time. And I get to surf more.”

Though his schedule is flexible, Laird wakes up at 5:30 almost every morning. Matt suspects it’s because Laird likes to get first pick of the breakfast offerings – especially blueberry muffins.

“He knows if he gets up early enough, he’s got free rein,” Matt says.

On a Sunday in May, Laird’s at the 1st Street Jetty. It’s Day 2 of the Steel Pier Classic surf contest. But he’s not surfing today. He won his first heat in two events the day before, allowing him to advance straight to the finals Monday.

The boy with dark brown hair and hazel eyes is wearing a baseball cap, sucking on a mango smoothie and giving his first interview ever.

This has been a week of firsts – the autographs, the interview. And he landed his first “air reverse” – spinning nearly 360 degrees in the air and landing backward on the wave – the week before in the Outer Banks.

“I was stoked,” he says. “I claimed it.”

Claimed it?

“It’s when you put your hands up,” he says, thrusting both fists into the air to demonstrate.

He’d been practicing the move for a few weeks. “But I tried it like a billion times,” he says.

The fun of surfing, however, can become muted by business interests. Laird’s starting to feel the pressure that comes with sponsors and national contracts. “I have to do good or get dropped from the team, basically,” he says.

He tries not to worry about it, though. “If you’re not having fun, what’s the point of doing it?”

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Jordan Montgomery’s passport raises eyebrows on his surfing travels.

He might be the only Virginia Beach surfer born in Saudi Arabia. He lived in Dhahran, where his father worked as a government contractor, for the first four years of his life.

“I get pretty funny looks in the airport sometimes,” Jordan, 16, says. “Because I’m a freckled, pale little kid.”

Though he’s stacked with surfing talent, competing didn’t come easy to him. He enlisted a sports psychologist to cope with the stress of surf competitions and bring out his best surfing. He also doesn’t fit the stereotype of a laid-back surfer, preferring a more structured and organized environment.

“He’s starting to put it all together,” says Roger Smith, a local surf judge who nominated him for this year’s Eastern Surfing Association All-Star team.

Jordan’s surfing is easy on the eyes. The thin teen with braces is the picture of versatility; he’s got every surfing maneuver up his wetsuit sleeve. And he delivers those moves with flair, knowing how to sell them.

There was a time, though, when Jordan could be his own worst enemy. He’d stress out about performing well and let his competitors get inside his head. “If something didn’t go the way I wanted it to go in a heat, I’d flip out,” he says.

He started seeing the sports psychologist more than a year ago. Now he talks about mentally detaching himself from the results of surf competitions and finding his focus.

“I do my best surfing when I’m calm – not when I’m stressed out,” Jordan says.

Smith described the old Jordan as two different surfers. When he surfed for fun, his talent was obvious. “But when the horn would go for his heat, I didn’t see the same surfer out there,” he says. “He’s managed to punch through all of that and come out a really good surfer.”

As of July, Jordan was tied for eighth among East Coast surfers in the under-16 age group in Surfing America Prime East. He also received an invitation to the Surfing America USA Championships in two age groups this year.

Jordan is single-minded in pursuit of his surfing goals. He eats healthy foods and avoids soda. He went to a surf judge certification course so he could know what judges look for and how they score surfers. And he’ll wake up in the middle of the night to watch a surf competition happening on another continent.

In the backyard of his family’s Chic’s Beach home, Jordan’s mother asks him a question posed to many a teenage boy. She already knows the answer; she just wants a visitor to hear Jordan say it.

“Don’t you want a girlfriend?” Jeanine Montgomery asks.

“No, I have a one-track mind,” Jordan replies. “I know what I want to do in life.”

She playfully presses him, teasing out some more.

“I care about surfing and treating my body right,” Jordan says, “and doing what I need to do to be successful. I’m just not into the normal high school thing.”


Last summer, after his freshman year at Norfolk Christian Schools, Jordan enrolled in an online high school. It gives him more flexibility to surf and travel to tournaments. He Skypes with teachers and does one-on-one tutoring sessions.

“It was strange at first, but you get used to it,” he says.

He gets mostly A’s and B’s, and stays on the straight and narrow. He says he’s never looked up to surfers who are troublemakers – and doesn’t want to be one.

“I’ve always been that Goody Two-Shoes,” Jordan says. “But I’d rather be that than a bad kid.”

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There’s a guitar in Laney Brooks’ closet waiting to be strummed.

It was her grandfather’s, refurbished and given to her last Christmas. One of these days, she’s going to learn to play it. Just not today or tomorrow.

“She just hasn’t had time,” says her mother, Cindy Brooks, “because she’s been so busy surfing.”

There are just too many waves to catch, too many tournaments to compete in.

Laney is among the best young surfers that Hampton Roads has to offer – and the only girl competing at her level. The 15-year-old also has become known for launching into waves so big that they make her male peers think of something else to do.

“She’s the best young female surfer in Virginia Beach by far,” says Sebastian Moreno, a former semi-professional surfer who has coached her. “There’s really not any girls that come close to her.”

Laney hasn’t always been stoked to surf in competitions. For a time, she believed that contests brought out the worst in surfers.

“I thought we should be having fun out there,” she says. “We shouldn’t be beating ourselves down with all this pressure.”

But she’s become more sure of herself – and aggressive – in tournaments.

She won her first big tournament on her 13th birthday and, as of July, Surfing America Prime East ranked her sixth among girls in her age group on the East Coast.

Laney has long blond hair, blue eyes and a mouth full of braces. And if you look closer, you’ll find the marks left by her fearlessness.

There’s the 1½-inch scar under her chin, from the summer after fifth grade, when she launched a bike off a ramp, flipped over the handle bars and landed on her chin. She broke her jaw in two places.

Another scar sits near her right eyebrow. A gash from a surf contest left her with 10 stitches. She went straight from the hospital to a friend’s party, getting dressed in the car.

On this Saturday afternoon in May, Laney’s finished surfing for the day. She has just competed in the junior women’s longboard heat at the Steel Pier Classic, doing well enough to advance to the next round.

Laney seems as if she’s in her element, soaking up the camaraderie of the surf gathering. But she says that she sometimes feels as if she doesn’t fit in with either the surfer girls or the girls at school who don’t surf.

She’s a bit of a punk rocker. She loves electronic music and wearing jean jackets with patches, band T-shirts and her blue-jean high-top Converse sneakers.

“My style is a little bit B.A.,” she says.



Her teenage years haven’t been without struggle. She has ADHD, which prompted a school transfer to get her schoolwork on track. The change of scenery helped.

Nothing beats the atmosphere at the beach, though.

At her family’s beach chairs, a little girl approaches Laney. The girl, a 7-year-old surfer named Camden Hoover, tells Laney how well she did in her heat.

“Do you want to go shortboarding with me?” Camden asks. This isn’t uncommon; the younger girl surfers in Virginia Beach look up to Laney.

She lets Camden down easy.

Not right now, Cammi. Some other time, OK?

Laney finishes the interview sitting on the sand, just a few feet from the water’s edge. She’s watching the surfers try to make the best of a bad surf day.

She runs her feet through the sand. Each has several cuts.

Are they from surfing?

“No, they’re cuts from skateboarding barefoot,” she says.

Of course they are.

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Hunter Skolnick doesn’t consider himself an artist.

But watch him surf and judge for yourself.

He’s the creative surfer, the one who doesn’t drop into a wave with a plan for what he’s going to do. He and the wave make that decision together.

On the short list of young surfers at the top of the local surfing scene, Hunter’s probably the most improved, the late bloomer who fully embraced the sport after leaving competitive snowboarding behind. He goes head-to-head with surfers who, just a few years ago, were beating him handily.

Hunter’s style resembles that of a skateboarder – on a ramp made of water. While some surfers throw spray with powerful turns, he likes to catch air, launching his surfboard up and off the wave.

“It was fun to be more creative,” he says. “Instead of working on turns, I’d just be working on a bunch of airs.”

Surf judges like that, too. Since last year, he’s gotten within striking distance of winning two regional surf contests, getting second place in one and reaching the semifinals in the other.

Riding waves was not Hunter’s first passion. The 17-year-old with brown hair and a smile full of teeth comes from a skiing family.

“He may be a better snowboarder than he is a surfer,” says his father, Jeff Skolnick.

But a pivotal day in the eighth grade delivered Hunter into the hands of surfing. He got knocked out while trying out for an exclusive school for snowboarders in Vermont.  A concussion and sprained ribs meant no more snowboard competitions for Hunter. He took the next flight home.

“Everything happens for a reason, right?” his mother, Beth Skolnick, says.

Hunter’s an introverted teen, someone who prefers a solitary bike ride to a rowdy party. And he’s no problem child. He steers clear of troublemakers, unloads the dishwasher when his mother asks, and didn’t even want his own car (though he’s happy his mother didn’t listen).

“I sometimes want him to get in trouble because he’s so stinking good,” she jokes.

Hunter seeks out peace and quiet, serving as a calming influence on his younger sister.

“I think that’s why he likes surfing so much,” Beth says. “It’s therapeutic – the sound of the water, the sound of the ocean.”

He’s not totally at ease talking about himself, but opens up a little. None of his friends, he says, would be surprised to learn that he has ADD. “I like focusing on seven things at once,” he says. It took him several years to learn how to thrive in school despite the ADD, but he’s done it. And he lands mostly A’s and B’s now.

“I like school more than most kids,” says Hunter, who will be a senior this fall at Cape Henry Collegiate. “I just think it’s interesting.”

He’s having fun in the school’s stocks club, mock-buying and selling stocks to see who makes the most funny money. He likes the real stuff, too. He has begun buying items on eBay, then reselling them, as well as unloading whatever he can find at his family’s Virginia Beach home. He recently bought a camera for $70 and sold it for a tidy profit. He uses the money for “teenager surfer stuff,” he says, such as registering for a recent surf competition.

He approaches life the same way he drops into waves. If he wakes up and wants to ride his bike, he hits the street. When everybody’s eating burgers, he might order a salad.

“Hunter’s more of a free spirit,” Jeff Skolnick says.

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Parker Sawyer should probably be in a racecar somewhere, taking turns at 100 miles per hour.

He comes from NASCAR royalty, after all. The 17-year-old Virginia Beach surfer’s family promoted NASCAR races in its early years and later built the 95,000-seat Richmond International Speedway.

“I fully intended on taking Parker racing,” says his father, John Sawyer. “We owned the biggest racetrack in the state. Somebody’s got to race.”

But that’s not how life played out. John’s father and uncle sold the racetrack 15 years ago for $215 million.

“And we all came back to the beach,” John says.

Now his oldest son is making a name for himself riding waves – and he does it with a quiet charisma. He’s one of three local surfers named to this year’s Eastern Surfing Association All-Star team.

But it took Parker some time to find his groove on a surfboard.

He’s built more for football. At 5-foot-10 and sturdily built, the shaggy-haired teen has the neck and shoulders of a tight end.

A growth spurt two years ago – several inches in less than a year – threw his surfing off kilter. It wasn’t until he landed a sponsorship with a local surf shop, WRV, that he started getting custom-made boards tailored for his frame.

“I got to know what I was riding better,” he says.

It made all the difference. He won the East Coast Surfing Championships junior longboard division in 2013, and this year claimed the National Scholastic Surfing Association’s open longboard East Coast title. In July, he got second for open longboard in a national NSSA competition.

Parker and his younger brother live with their mother on 60th Street, just four houses from the beach. Their mother, Louise Seawell, thought moving closer to the water would cushion the blow after she and John divorced.

She was right. But Parker lets things roll off his back.  He quickly offers up the most difficult thing he’s ever had to do: attend Norfolk Academy, where he will be a junior.

At the start of his freshman year, he says, the academic curriculum quickly overwhelmed him. He considered transferring. You try writing a 15-page paper on Wuthering Heights.

But instead of leaving, Parker dug in. He cut down on time with friends. He sought out teachers for help. He went straight to the books after school.

“I definitely have a better grip on it now,” he says.

In fact, when first contacted about this story, Parker listened to the caller, then politely responded: “Could I call you back after I get done with my homework?”

Parker is mature beyond his years. He has an air of kindness and humility that makes others want to be in his orbit.

“There’s a ton of good surfers, but when you have a good attitude and you’re respectful, it goes a long way,” says John Kersey, who has known Parker since the boy was at the WRV surf camp, where Kersey was a counselor.

On this spring afternoon, Parker paddles into the water at the 1st Street Jetty, where all local surf competitions are held.

He’s competing in the Steel Pier Classic. It’s the second round of his longboarding division.

Wearing an orange jersey, he quickly catches one of the first waves of the group, tiptoeing to the nose of the board and back. He grabs several more waves, going to the nose and back on most of them – a key move in longboard surfing.

After the heat, when the scores come out, Parker doesn’t get first, though he does advance to the next round. His parents are surprised. One onlooker had already congratulated Parker’s father on the belief that Parker won the heat.

But Parker doesn’t pout or complain.

He’s too cool for that.
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Honey, Bees!

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photography by KEITH LANPHER

For months, the worker bees had huddled around their queen, feeding on stored-up honey and shivering for warmth inside the hive. The colony had survived another Tidewater winter, but soon a new matriarch would reign. The time had come for the older generation to move.

The queen lifted away first and was almost immediately surrounded by her loyal subjects. The swarm – thousands of bees moving as a single unit – buzzed through the air that spring day 30 years ago, zipping over still-blooming trees and shingle roofs in search of a safe spot to land for a couple days while the colony’s scouts hunted for a new permanent home.

Perhaps it was fate that caused them to settle down on a dogwood tree in South Norfolk. Pam Fisher thinks so. Frightened neighborhood children pounded on her front door that afternoon. “Mrs. Fisher, there are bees on your tree!”

Someone else might have called an exterminator or reached for the Raid. Pam slipped on a pair of shoes and approached the buzzing cluster of insects. She loved nature, had always been an avid gardener, but she had never seen a swarm up close. Beautiful, she thought, though she had no idea what to do with them.

She flipped through the phone book and picked up her rotary phone. A couple hours later, a beekeeper pulled up. As the old man shook the bees into a box, he grumbled under his breath. “My wife is going to kill me if I bring another box home.”

“I’ll keep them,” Pam said impulsively.

You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, the beekeeper told her, but she had made up her mind. She bought the wooden hive from the man and set it up in the backyard. She excitedly told the story to her husband, Rick Fisher, when he returned from work that evening.

“You did what?”

This was long before foodies and allergy sufferers began to covet raw honey, before the “buy local” and “eat natural” and “shop ethical” movements took hold, before the plight of the honeybee became a cause célèbre, before backyard beekeeping went mainstream in Hampton Roads and across America.

Pam went to the library and checked out every book she could find on the subject. She soon learned the quirky social rules of the little society she had given a home in her backyard.

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The colony exists for no reason other than to sustain the queen, the mother of all the bees. The female workers collect nectar from flowers and turn it into honey – food for the winter – and also care for larvae. The males, known as drones, have a singular purpose: They leave the hive daily in hopes of mating with a queen from another hive. (It’s a death wish, really: An intimate encounter with a queen satisfies a drone’s life purpose, and he dies instantly.)

The more Pam read, the more she wanted to read. Her husband took no interest, but she was falling in love. She checked on her bees almost daily that summer. She inspected the hive to make sure the workers were storing up honey and to ensure the queen was laying eggs in the brood chamber.

Then came the heartbreak. Her bees started dying, slowly at first, a few here and there, then by the hundreds. She didn’t know it at the time, but tracheal mites – pests previously found only in Europe – had moved north from Mexico and were sweeping the country. The tiny parasites attach themselves to bees and feed on their blood.

By the fall, Pam’s entire colony was dead. She decided then to quit the hobby, at least for a while. Commercial honey producers, however, had money on the line. The invasive mites had wiped out half of their hives in a matter of months. The beekeepers prepared to strike back.

 Treating bee hives with anti-mite chemicals was industry standard by the time a new swarm took up residence in the empty box that had become an eyesore in Pam Fisher’s backyard. Her husband was cutting grass when he noticed bees zipping in and out of the old hive.

Pam was thrilled. The bees, she joked, were giving her a second chance, and she intended to make it count. If she was going to do this right, she needed to find a mentor. She walked into an agricultural training center in rural Chesapeake a few days after the new swarm arrived. There she found a bunch of gray-haired men sitting around a table. Pam, who had come alone, asked, “Is this the beekeeping club?”

“No, it’s the old man’s club,” one of the members responded. The men laughed, but Pam could tell it wasn’t really a joke. The old timers didn’t have anything in the way of an educational program for new beekeepers. At club meetings they sat around a table, telling stories. Their beekeeping methods were rooted more in folklore than in science. And they didn’t seem to appreciate visitors – or women for that matter.

Pam didn’t go back. Instead she enrolled in a beekeeping class at Virginia Wesleyan College and applied everything she learned directly in her backyard. She resisted suggestions from other beekeepers to treat her hives with chemicals. She wanted to do it all-natural, so she found nontoxic methods to repel mites.

This time, the bees thrived. By the second year, the colony was hardy enough for her to harvest some honey. By the third spring, the colony had expanded, and the growing stack of beehive boxes had become too heavy for Pam to lift. She bought her husband a beekeeping jacket for his birthday that year. Until then, each time she had asked him to help, he had responded halfheartedly with a variation of the same line: “I’d love to, honey, but I can’t fit into the suit.”

“I knew at that point that I had been drafted into service,” Rick says, reflecting on his birthday surprise. “I didn’t want anything to do with the bees. It looked like a lot of tedious work and heavy lifting. It did not look like the hobby for me.”

But bees, as he would learn, have a way of hooking people.

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Bees – loved for the honey, feared for the stings – entered the national consciousness for an altogether different reason in 2006. They had begun disappearing mysteriously. The bizarre reports made national headlines, and the problem didn’t go away in the years that followed. Whole colonies, tens of thousands of them, had begun deserting what seemed like perfectly good hives.

The unexplained phenomenon was dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder. The bees had begun violating their own societal norms. Across the country, beekeepers opened hives that year and found a live queen, a stockpile of perfectly good honey – but nothing else. The rest of the bees were gone, flown off to who knows where.

In some areas, beekeepers reported losing 90 percent of their hives. Experts theorized that chemicals used to repel mites were the cause. Others blamed pesticides used on plants that are pollinated by bees. Research remains inconclusive. Pam and Rick Fisher didn’t know what was causing bees to abandon hives, but they had an idea for how they might combat the problem: Go local.

Rick by then had caught his wife’s passion. He loved the honey. He loved the bees. He even came to appreciate the physical workout the hobby offered. Like most of the area’s beekeepers, the couple had been purchasing starter beehives from out of state, mostly from throughout the South. The postal service usually called from the airport: “We have your package, we’re taking it directly to your house,” the driver would say, sounding nervous.

The Fishers had noticed a trend. The imported colonies seemed to be failing more frequently. The  couple surveyed other beekeepers in the area and estimated that imported hives had about a 25 percent survival rate in year one. Meanwhile, local hives that split naturally seemed to be thriving.

That realization is part of what inspired Pam and Rick to start the Beekeepers Guild of Southeastern Virginia in 2009. “We were splitting hives and had been so successful with that, we really wanted the clubs to embrace making local nucleolus hives instead of buying from out of state,” Pam says. “At that point, we had mentored so many beekeepers, we were able to assemble a group of about 30 people.”

The timing couldn’t have been better. Interest in beekeeping – like backyard chickens and urban homesteading – has exploded in recent years. The Fishers had hoped to start a group that would encourage new beekeepers and raise awareness about the hobby. They figured they’d find a few more people to join.

Today they list more than 250 members. The guild hosts regular meetings, puts on public demonstrations at festivals, works directly with university researchers who are trying to figure out what’s killing bees, and teaches hundreds of new beekeepers each year during introduction to beekeeping classes at New Earth Farm in Virginia Beach.

Rick – the guy who rolled his eyes when his wife adopted her first hive – is the guild’s president.

 There is no official tally of the number of active beekeepers in Hampton Roads. But based on the number of people involved in clubs and professional associations, the number likely exceeds 1,000. The vast majority are backyard hobbyists who take care of only one or two hives.

Lanette Lepper counts herself in that category. Curiosity led her to take the guild’s short course for new beekeepers a couple years ago. Before she finished the last of three weekend sessions, she had signed up to be on the guild’s swarm waiting list. (Today when a swarm arrives in someone’s front yard, people often call Pam and Rick to come get it.)

“I took the course and totally fell in love,” says Lepper, a Navy spouse and self-described urban homesteader who shares responsibility for maintaining her hive with a neighbor down the street in Chesapeake. She also raises chickens in her backyard.

Donna Rae Barrow is testing the limits of how many bees one can fit on a small city lot. She and her husband got their first colony last summer after taking the beginner’s class. They wanted a new hobby to sustain their marriage now that the kids are out of the house. Now they have five hives on their fifth-of-an-acre lot near Town Center in Virginia Beach. The neighbors don’t mind. Sharing honey doesn’t hurt.

Barrow says she and her husband were inspired by documentaries about the dwindling honeybee population. “We’re not interested in being honey sellers,” she says. “We’re not interested in being queen producers. We’re interested in the health of the bees. We need them to survive, and they are disappearing.”

Some new beekeepers find that maintaining even a single hive is a big challenge. Then there are people like David Mitchell, who put a few hives on his lavender farm in Isle of Wight County three years ago for pollination and soon realized he liked caring for bees a heck of a lot more than growing lavender. Now Mitchell has more than 40 hives and expects to harvest and sell more than 3,000 pounds of honey this year at $9 a jar.

“I’m enthralled with the bees,” says Mitchell, who retired from the concrete business seven years ago to start Blackwater Lavender Farm. Last year he renamed it Blackwater Honey Bee and Lavender Farm. He might eventually drop the Lavender altogether. To make the math work for his bottom line, he harvests most of the honey his bees produce and supplements the hives with sugar water during the winter, a practice discouraged by some natural beekeepers. They insist that honey is the healthiest food to sustain a colony through colder months. Mitchell, who uses no chemicals on his hives, points out he lost only two hives out of his 40 over the winter – a far better rate than most beekeepers’.

“I find a lot of satisfaction in multiplying my hives, knowing that I’m helping preserve and grow our local bee population,” Mitchell says. “That’s a good feeling. At the same time, I’ve got to make this hobby pay for itself.”

 The Fishers sell honey, too, but on a much smaller scale. They don’t do this for the money.

On one of the first warm days of spring, Rick and Pam pull up to a line of beehives at the Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center on Diamond Springs Road. Here, researchers from Virginia Tech have been studying the effects of pesticides on bee colony health. The university has entrusted the beekeepers guild with caring for the hives.

Pam and Rick slip on a pair of worn and tattered beekeeping suits. She lifts the lid off a hive, and one by one, he pulls out frames of bee-covered honeycomb. They’re searching for the queen – fatter and more lustrous than the skinny drones. The day before, the Fishers trapped the colony when it swarmed in a suburban neighborhood. Now they are checking to see if the queen has mated.

There she is, Pam says, and then grabs the bee by the wings and places her in a smaller box. She hasn’t yet mated – Pam can tell these sorts of things with only a glance – so the Fishers need to reconfigure the hive to allow the virgin queen room to get out. In a day or two, she’ll fly in search of drones.

“Look at her,” Pam says, holding the queen out for a visitor to see. “Isn’t she beautiful? This never gets old.”

After nearly three decades, this beekeeper is still in love.


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The Little Escape Beach

Sheri Reynolds, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, Cape Charles, Beach, Virginia

Sheri Reynolds, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, Cape Charles, Beach, Virginia

Sheri Reynolds
The north beach, Cape Charles

Sheri Reynolds is the Ruth and Perry Morgan Chair of Southern Literature at Old Dominion University and a best-selling author, most recently of “The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb.” She divides her time between Cape Charles and Norfolk.

I call it the old ferry dock, or the north beach. The jetty marks the edge of the classic Cape Charles beach, the place for people with their umbrellas, and books and suntan lotion, their volleyball nets. That’s the part that’s maintained by the town. This has always been the little escape beach – it’s quiet and sort of secret. It seems like the other people who come down here are people I want to know.

The ferry used to load here and go to Norfolk. That was before the Bridge-Tunnel, a vibrant and busy time for the town. I’ve heard there was a restaurant up here. People would wait for the boat and then cross over. I can’t help thinking about all these posts as ghosts, or people.

This is the most beautiful place in the world to be when a storm’s coming in. I usually push it until the lightning. Then I get out of the water.  We lose pilings almost every year from hurricanes and nor’easters. They wear down like old teeth. I often find little treasures hidden inside them, shells, but also candy bar wrappers and that kind of stuff. I like the seaweed, and that it doesn’t get cleaned up. I like to see the things that get gnarled in there, like bird feathers.

It can look rugged and scary and jagged here. Crabs pinch your toes when you’re walking. There’s a lapping sound that I don’t hear on the other end, maybe because of the way the bay turns. We bring our floats down and throw anchors around the pilings and just read and daydream. It’s a good place for that, a child’s mind kind of a place.
- as told to Mary Architzel Westbrook

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Heroes Among Us

D-Day Vets, D-Day, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, WWII, Hampton Roads, WWII Heroes, Virginia

Back then, they faced the horrors of war head on. Today, they pass us quietly as they live their lives.

photography by RICH-JOSEPH FACUN

An elderly man stoops over a shopping cart as he browses the aisles at Costco. Most visits here are the same: He fills the cart with snack food, loaves of bread, maybe a case of diet soda. Other than workers in red smocks who offer him samples of hot dogs or potato chips, hardly anyone speaks to him during his frequent shopping trips. Customers whip past without a word. They either don’t notice the patches on his jacket or they don’t understand their significance.

On one visit last year, he ambled toward the hearing aid section. His vision isn’t what it once was. It took a few minutes to find the batteries he needed. He looked up from the rack and was surprised to make eye contact with another old man who was wearing a hat with patches much like his own. The strangers smiled, each realizing their bond before either uttered a word.

There aren’t many of them left anymore. Here in America, they are retired construction workers, former mechanics, museum volunteers, great-granddads. Over there, in a rolling swath of France filled with apple orchards and cow pastures, they are heroes – men who fought a real-life battle of good vs. evil, and won.

Norwood Thomas and Grant “Gully” Gullickson shook hands in the hearing aid aisle that day and swapped remarkable tales. One jumped from an airplane and into battle 70 years ago. The other survived hours in the frigid sea after his ship was sunk. Both said they were planning one final trip. They figured it would be their last chance to visit the place that defined their lives back when they were barely more than boys.

D-Day Vets, D-Day, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, WWII, Hampton Roads, WWII Heroes, Virginia

In a military town like Norfolk, most people don’t look twice when they see gray-haired men wearing World War II paraphernalia. The reception is much different in far-flung towns like Sainte-Mère-Église, Vierville-sur-Mer and Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, where the scars of war are not only depicted in history books but are also visible in smoothed-out divots left in old steel fences and cobblestone buildings where machine guns sprayed bullets.

Each return trip has been another chapter in a grand adventure. Now, as the men approach their final years, the story is coming to an end.

At the Costco, the vets talked for several minutes before shaking hands again and parting ways. They paid at the checkout counter and headed for the parking lot. Each loaded his own groceries.

Without drawing much notice, they returned the shopping carts, started their cars and backed out. Two members of a dwindling brotherhood. As they drove away, their license plates offered a final hint.

Norwood’s read, “44DDAY.”

Gully’s, “DDAYSURV.”

At a rural intersection in Normandy, about 200 people crowd around a stone memorial. Near this spot 70 years ago, Brig. Gen. Don Pratt of the 101st Airborne Division became the highest-ranking American officer killed on D-Day, when his motorless, wood-framed glider crashed into a line of poplars at the edge of a field. Townspeople, war re-enactors and military officials have gathered to mark the anniversary.

They become silent when an Army Jeep appears in the distance. They squint as the restored WWII-era vehicle rumbles closer. Then they realize who’s in the passenger seat and begin to clap and shout. The Jeep comes to a stop in front of the monument; 91-year-old Norwood Thomas rises to his feet and waves to the cheering spectators.

He is dressed in a replica of the Army uniform he wore in 1944 when he landed in a moonlit field a few miles away. On that night, gunfire popped in the distance. After he landed, he and other soldiers moved into the town of Pouppeville, where they easily overpowered German soldiers. Jubilant townspeople greeted the Americans. For four years the French people had lived under Nazi rule. As the occupation dragged on, food and other goods
became scarce. The occupiers took what they wanted from civilians, including their cars, their homes and their dignity. Jews and those found aiding the underground Resistance were captured and sent to camps. Some were executed on the spot, shot in the street.

At the sight of American paratroopers, villagers wept for joy. A young woman came out of her home and handed Norwood Thomas a bottle of wine. He reached into his supply bag and gave her a bar of soap, figuring she hadn’t seen one in a few years. She smiled and kissed him, though he was sweaty and covered in black grease and soot.  Norwood liked that, so he reached back into his bag and gave her another bar of soap. Later that morning, after a giddy bartender poured him several shots of apple brandy, the woman grabbed his hand and led him to a
bedroom in the back of the bar. She motioned suggestively toward the bed.

“No merci,” he said, though he wanted to say yes. If he lay down he might pass out, after a half dozen shots and more than 30 hours without sleep.

Soon, he and the other soldiers left Pouppeville and marched west toward Hiesville, where Brig. Gen. Pratt’s glider had crashed. In a barnyard less than a mile from this spot, Norwood spent his first night in Normandy.

On this day, 70 years later, he’s not turning anyone away.

A trumpeter plays The Star-Spangled Banner and the town’s mayor delivers a speech in French before inviting Norwood to share his story. “The first time we arrived in Normandy,” he begins, “it was without invitation.” Some in the crowd speak no English, yet they cling to each word.

He wasn’t always so comfortable telling his story. He came home from the war angry. He struggled to hold a steady job as a mechanic. He got into fights with men who hadn’t seen combat. Doctors didn’t understand post-traumatic stress disorder back then, not that Norwood would have asked for help. Soldiers who talked about mental struggles were considered weak. Norwood eventually learned to cope on his own, thanks in part to a patient wife, loving children and rewarding work.

He rejoined the Army more than a decade after the war and fought again, in Korea. After retiring from the service, he moved to Hampton Roads in the 1970s and found work as an industrial crane operator. He helped place several tubes of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and picked up a new hobby: Instead of jumping out of planes, he learned to fly one.

Occasionally, someone in the States notices the 101st Airborne patches on his jacket and stops to thank him. Here in Normandy, everyone stops. After Norwood finishes speaking, fighter jets roar overhead in close formation. They are heading toward a multinational ceremony at Omaha Beach, but some in the crowd believe the flyover is for Norwood. It might as well be. Locals line up for photos afterward and ask for autographs.

He signed his name probably a couple hundred times in the week leading up to the anniversary. One uniformed re-enactor stopped him at Utah Beach and asked him to sign his chest; Norwood agreed without hesitation.

The crowd at Hiesville finally thins, and Norwood climbs back into the Jeep. The driver whisks him away to another ceremony, this one at the spot where his division set up a combat hospital during the invasion. Again, Norwood is the featured guest. Another crowd gathers, including an active-duty general with the 82nd Airborne Division who traveled from Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

Only Norwood is honored at the ceremony. Afterward, he is once again swarmed by autograph seekers. One teary-eyed old woman embraces him. She was a teenager during the invasion and never forgot her liberators, she says. A spectator comments on how much the French people seem to love Norwood.

Of course they love him, the general says.

“He’s a rock star.”

Ten years ago, after an anniversary ceremony in another small town in Normandy, a woman called out to Cary Jarvis. She pushed through a crowd, holding out a pen and an American dollar bill. In choppy English, she asked him to sign it.

Cary laughed. He had gotten used to signing his name. Everywhere he went that year, when people realized he had landed in the first wave at Omaha Beach with the Army’s 29th Infantry Division, they stopped him. The scene, he would tell them as he signed his name, was just as bloody as it appeared in Saving Private Ryan, but it wasn’t nearly as loud.

D-Day Vets, D-Day, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, WWII, Hampton Roads, WWII Heroes, Virginia

Cary signed the dollar and handed it back to the woman. Her name, she said, was Dany Pakula. She was a little girl when German soldiers occupied her town. She remembers the day Americans like Cary showed up and drove them out.

That day wasn’t June 6; the battle for Normandy wasn’t fought and won in a single day. Some towns were captured easily. Others, where Germans had stockpiled soldiers and weapons, were the scenes of bloody battles that went on for days. Hoping to discourage townspeople from joining the Resistance, German soldiers began executing French civilians as the Allies advanced across the Norman countryside in the summer of 1944. It was weeks before Dany’s town was liberated.

Cary shook Dany’s hand and started to walk away; she stopped him. “Please, your address,” she said, handing him a piece of paper. “I will write to you.”

Cary’s job during the war was to travel with the infantry on the front line, locate enemy targets and then radio coordinates to soldiers responsible for firing the big guns. When he tells people back home that he directed artillery, they assume it means he was far from danger. He had more close calls than he likes to think about.

He was promoted to officer during the war, but he left the service at its end and settled into a career that didn’t involve being shot at. He returned to Birtcherd’s Dairy in Norfolk, where he had been working as a soda jerk before enlisting. This time he got to drive a truck; Cary worked as a milk man for most of three decades. He loved the job, but like him, it was of another era.

Until recently, the 92-year-old had begun to think people in his own country had forgotten about the sacrifices of his generation. For several years, on each Memorial Day he and other veterans of the 111th Field Artillery Regiment gathered with their families at a stone memorial in Forest Lawn Cemetery on Granby to honor the 40 members of that Virginia National Guard unit who were killed in the war.

By 2010, Cary was the only survivor still attending. Everyone else had died or was too frail. A couple dozen family members joined him the next few years. This spring, no one came. “We’re all dying, and everyone else is forgetting,” he says now.

He nearly cried at the thought of missing the big D-Day celebration this spring in France, but his health has deteriorated. A problem with his esophagus requires regular tube feedings, which means he has to stay close to home. He figured that’s where he would mark the 70th anniversary of his Omaha Beach landing – alone in front of a TV.

Days before the anniversary, he received a package in the mail. It was from his “French girlfriend,” Dany Pakula. She has kept her promise. She writes once or twice a year and sends family photos and gifts around the holidays. This time she sent commemorative D-Day books and other memorabilia. Most of it was in French. Cary didn’t mind.

“At least the French people haven’t forgotten,” he said.

Days later, an official from a Navy base in Virginia Beach called. He had read about Cary in the newspaper and wondered if he would attend their D-Day ceremony. Would he be a guest of honor?

Cary Jarvis teared up.

For at least one more day, someone back home remembered.

A man from Belgium asks why a journalist would travel all the way from Norfolk to Normandy. The reporter says he has been writing about a few D-Day survivors from his area and then names them.

“Oh, Ed Shames?” the man says. “I know Ed Shames.”

D-Day Vets, D-Day, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, WWII, Hampton Roads, WWII Heroes, Virginia

He isn’t the only stranger who utters a variation of that line during the week of the 70th anniversary. Although Eddie likes to fly under the radar back home, in Normandy he is practically a celebrity. His profile soared in 2001 when HBO aired Band of Brothers, a miniseries about his 101st Airborne paratrooper unit’s legendary exploits through Europe.

Eddie didn’t care for the film or the book it was based on. It was more fiction than fact, he says. And, frankly, he could do without all the attention it brought. He was courted by CBS and other national news outlets in the months before the anniversary, but in the end he decided to skip the trip to France so he could spend time with his ailing wife.

Eddie fought through the end of the war – he came home with a bottle of cognac from Hitler’s hideout in Berchtesgaden, which he used to toast his son’s bar mitzvah – and remained in the Army for decades afterward, retiring as a colonel. His official biography says he owned and managed an insurance company. Eddie won’t discuss his other job, but he says he became an expert on the Middle East while working for the federal government the past 60 years.

He’s made several return trips to Normandy. The first was in the late 1940s, when much of Europe remained in ruins. He always draws a pack of followers as he retraces his steps from Carentan – the one place he didn’t want to land – to the strategic bridge where he linked up with his men and fended off Germans. Eddie says he doesn’t like the huge crowds that show up for the milestone anniversaries.

Although he wasn’t in Normandy this time, his biographer was. Ian Gardner, an Englishman, has written a series of books about Eddie’s battalion during the war, including one about D-Day titled Tonight We Die As Men. Next year, he plans to publish one on just Eddie. Gardner crisscrossed Normandy signing books and telling stories about the old-timers. Everywhere he went, someone asked the author about Eddie, his favorite character.

Back home, Eddie is dismissive of the fanfare.

“You think I’m special? You think I’m a hero? You actually believe that mess?”

Eddie, 92, waves his hand and rolls his eyes.

“I’m just the only guy still alive!”

Grant G. Gullickson, U.S. Navy, USS Corry.”

Say it again, the cameraman tells Gully, but this time a little faster.

“Grant G. Gullickson, U.S. Navy, USS Corry.”

Too fast that time, just a bit slower.

“Grant G. Gullickson, U.S. Navy, USS Corry.”

Now with more enunciation, and be sure to look into the lens.

“Grant G. Gullickson, U.S. Navy, USS Corry.”

D-Day Vets, D-Day, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, WWII, Hampton Roads, WWII Heroes, Virginia

By the 18th take, the NBC film crew is satisfied. The following night, the brief recording is to be broadcast to millions of viewers at the start of an hourlong, prime-time special with anchor Brian Williams. Gully and three other D-Day survivors are the stars.

Members of an American news team aren’t the only people following Gully during his final return to Normandy. Several dozen spectators gather as he records the introductory sound bite at the American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer a day before the big ceremony. Almost all of them were born after World War II.

“Will you sign my book?” one asks after the TV cameras are off.

“Thank you for your sacrifice,” another says, speaking with a thick French accent.

“Please, will you pose for a photo?” a mother pushing a double stroller asks, then motions toward her sleeping twin girls. “Someday they will know they are free because of men like you.”

Gully, 93, smiles and complies with every request. A chief petty officer on D-Day, he went on to serve 24 more years in the Navy after the war and retired as an officer. Later, he became the general manager of Military Circle mall in Norfolk, leading it during its early heyday.

The last time he returned to Normandy, on the 60th anniversary, he had a sit-down interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Later, he chatted with Tom Hanks. “That was a nice young man,” Gully said afterward. “Who was he?”

Back home, even in a Navy town, most people haven’t heard of the destroyer Corry. They don’t know about its sinking on D-Day or the two dozen crewmen killed. In most World War II history books, the Navy’s losses on June 6, 1944, are an afterthought, if they are included at all. Sailors killed or wounded that day are not counted in most casualty tallies.

Even President Obama failed to mention the Navy’s role during his speech on the 70th anniversary. Gully was on stage and shook the president’s hand afterward, but he decided against sharing his criticism. Normally, Gully doesn’t mind educating people. Not long ago, a young man in Portsmouth noticed the jacket he wears nearly everywhere. “What’s D-Day?” he asked Gully’s second wife.

“What do you mean, ‘What’s D-Day?’ ” she responded, then grabbed her husband by the arm. “Here, he can explain it.” For several minutes, Gully – a rare living participant in the largest amphibious invasion in history – patiently explained what happened that day.

In France, the mayor of Gouville-sur-Mer has quickly organized a ceremony upon learning that Gully and his family are spending the week in his coastal village. The main road through town is blocked. Uniformed men march down the street. A recording of America the Beautiful blares from speakers. Locals line the sidewalks and American flags dangle from balconies.

The mayor tells Gully’s D-Day story; an Englishman translates. After presenting Gully and
another Corry survivor with medals, the mayor asks if either man wishes to speak. Gully grabs the microphone. The crowd quiets.

He hasn’t prepared remarks.

“From the bottom of our hearts, I want to thank you all for the wonderful treatment you have shown us over these many years. We are so honored to receive these medals today. We can’t express our gratitude for how wonderful and friendly everyone has been here. God bless France, and may we be friends forever.”

The townspeople clap. Gully shakes the mayor’s hand. A few locals wipe away tears, perhaps aware this might have been their last chance to meet one of their nation’s liberators in person.

Soon, for Gully and the other elderly veterans, it’s time to go home.

On another trip to Costco this year, Norwood Thomas had been waiting around for several minutes but still hadn’t been helped. He was wearing his customary 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagles” jacket and his black D-Day survivor hat. That gear doesn’t carry the same currency here as it does in Normandy.

He wasn’t the only one upset with customer service. A few others had lined up to complain to management. Norwood noticed another old man in line ahead of him. He smiled when he saw the writing on the back of his hat.

Norwood tapped the man on the shoulder. The stranger turned around and Norwood introduced himself.

Eddie Shames smiled and shook his hand.

Meet Grant “Gully” Gullickson, Cary Jarvis, Eddie Shames and Norwood Thomas, August 27 in Virginia Beach, and see D-Day through their eyes in the seven-part Virginian-Pilot series.

See more photos of the Heroes at the D-Day Celebration in France, June of 2014, in our NEW Distinction iPad App available for FREE on iTunes.

With Lavender and Lace

With Lavender and Lace, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, thrift shop, Ghent, Norfolk, Virginia


photography by ERIC LUSHER

The unexpected little store sitting among the turn-of-the-century homes on Colonial Avenue in Ghent may look like an ordinary thrift shop.

But look again. There’s something more deliberate going on here with carefully selected vintage clothing, handcrafted items, and a spare yet whimsical display that speaks to an artistic eye.

Like its owner, With Lavender and Lace is at once a throwback to a more romantic time when floral themes and loveliness ruled fashion, and an artistic showcase for unusual photography, craftsy collage books and a retro-vision that is uniquely Kelsie McNair’s.

With Lavender and Lace, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, thrift shop, Ghent, Norfolk, Virginia

Beside the register, a display of iPhone cases catches the eye – pressed flowers in clear resin, no two alike. Ever seen those in other stores?

Doubtful. But McNair’s exclusive hand creations are becoming a sensation.

Growing up with very little money, McNair would wander the stores in Virginia Beach, memorizing the clothes she loved but could not afford.

Then she’d hunt the thrift stores, creating her own vintage vision of the fashions on the racks.

“I just fell in love with florals and textures and the personalities that the clothes were sort of implying,” says McNair, now 25.

It’s difficult to pin down exactly when she started thrifting. It might harken back to her first job – working at the Cavalier country club off Birdneck Road when she was in high school.

She was fascinated by the flowers and beautiful textiles and “these fabulous women.” She knows it wasn’t real. People everywhere have their own dramas. But in those moments, within that luxurious, old-world context, she soaked in the beauty around her.

“I think that’s when I got involved in old things,” she says.

Early on in her thrifting, McNair found a unique cardigan sweater that marks her memory like a time stamp. It had crazy florals and tiny rhinestones all over it and she’d wear it all the time, pairing it with tight bell bottoms, flip flops, a surfer tank top and handmade seashell jewelry.

For the blond-haired flower child of the last decade, it was a declaration of her burgeoning identity as a young woman, an artist and an ardent promoter of a distinctly feminine take on beauty.

“That is me in one word: a romaaaanticizer,” she says, laughing as she draws out the word. “That is, like, what I do.”

Creativity abounded. McNair was also musical, writing what she calls “acoustic, haunting kind of girly, love heartbreak music.”

Finishing up high school, she happened on a course at Tidewater Community College that would change her life: a 35mm darkroom class. She had never taken a photograph before. She borrowed a camera from her dad, a Navy diver who took underwater photos, and shot her first roll of film.

She was hooked.

McNair delved into the silent, immersive world of the darkroom and began exploring every alternative process: Black and white, cyanotype, image transfer, printing on wood, pinhole photography. She’d shoot a roll or two a week and share the pictures on a blog for family and friends.

“I had never really created something with my hands like that,” she says. “It shifted me.”

Meanwhile, she went to Boston to study audio engineering at the New England Institute of Art, hoping to complement her passion for music.

She found that she didn’t love the highly competitive world of the recording industry. Still, she was determined to complete the two-year associate’s degree because she wanted everyone to know that she could and because she’d spent all this money getting there.

All the while, she kept taking photographs and used them to apply to art schools in Boston where she hoped to study something more akin to her nature. With no formal background, McNair had never even shown her photographs to an art professional. She had nothing to compare her work to, no idea if it would speak to anyone else.

To her surprise, she was accepted into the prestigious School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

From Day One, McNair was up against a unique set of challenges.

The school was a conceptual arts college, filled with students who’d been reared on art history and museums. She’d never set foot in a gallery. All she had was a powerful creative force and an endless stream of ideas.

She struggled to find her place.

She also had a closet full of vintage clothing and a drawer full of bills. A consummate thrifter, she got a job at Goodwill as a sales associate, where she still adored the bizarre finds and the offbeat characters she would meet.

Immersing herself in her creativity, McNair began to bring her passions together. She learned bookbinding and started creating mini-journals with pages made out of used paper, photographs and textiles. She created mosaic sculptures, making new dishes out of broken pieces.

And she started photographing her friends in her favorite vintage pieces, taking them out to the woods or the waterfront and capturing them in intricate, flattering lighting. She would use the pictures to sell some of her vintage pieces on the nascent online handicraft marketplace called Etsy.

It was a way to make money but also to keep herself creatively happy. But something else happened on these photo shoots. The girls would put on the clothes and step in front of the camera transformed.

“Each of the girls had a photographic personality that was a shift from her real personality and I found that really interesting,” she says. “So the camera became this new language that I could present and use to represent myself as someone who sees things a bit different.”

The images were met with a lot of criticism that she was glorifying her subjects when other artists in school were tackling issues and problems in their work.

But for McNair, the work was defining. The girls loved their pictures.

“I think the real talent is being able to capture someone in beautiful light, in, I want to say, a true form of themselves or … their hopeful perception of themselves.

“Why wouldn’t I want to make someone feel beautiful?”

Then she graduated from the fine-arts school, McNair and her boyfriend decided it was time to leave Boston. Not wanting to start all over again just yet, she came home and opened a tiny vintage clothing shop behind the Taphouse Grill in Ghent.

She started making friends through music and art, including a photographer who connected her with a bunch of his contacts – all women. She began photographing them in her vintage clothing, creating small zines with her images to advertise the store. She made fliers and hung them at places like Cafe Stella and other Ghent hangouts.

On her opening night in November 2011, surrounded by friends, she laid claim to the sidewalk outside. She made $800.

“It was just saturated awesomeness,” she says. “I remember laying on the couch with my feet up and like the biggest grin on my face.”

Norfolk ended up being a great place to launch a business. Shortly after McNair opened her store, a woman came in and told her she and her mother were opening a small flower shop downtown called Studio Posy. Then Vicki Bahr opened a shop of handmade things in Ghent called Kitsch.

With the help of friends and word of mouth, McNair’s business grew. Through social media, she bombarded her growing following with thoughts and images of clothing, flowers, food and all things lovely.

Her photo shoots grew and became collaborative. She joined forces with Studio Posy and Lorak Jewelry on a shoot of wedding gowns. She created “lookbooks” that the girls would post on Facebook, drawing friends to inquire where they came from.

With Lavender and Lace, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, thrift shop, Ghent, Norfolk, Virginia

In November 2012, she moved to the larger shop on Colonial. That’s not the only change. She thinks her clothing choices have also evolved; her choices are more specific.

“I buy for the funky girl who likes to bring out her ’90s weirdness with crazy color hair or Madonna references,” she says. “I buy for the minimalist Kinfolk follower who wears denim on denim and a white T-shirt and nice cool leather boots.

“Or I buy for a personality that’s similar to my own, that’s like vintage flower sweetness. Floral dresses, petite tops, things that accentuate curves and sensuality and lady-ness.”

As spring rolled in, Kelsie McNair started getting restless.

She’d been looking for a case for her iPhone; nothing spoke to her, so she made her own, using flowers pressed in a clear resin case. Soon she was selling them in her shop.

Then, in April, one of the more successful bloggers she follows, Moorea Seal, opened an online store. McNair contacted her to offer up some styles of her iPhone cases. A small batch nearly sold out in 12 hours. McNair agreed to sell those styles exclusively on Seal’s website; Seal ordered hundreds more, selling most of them before McNair could even finish making them. Seal has put in an order for even more.

For the woman whose unique artistry has always compelled her life, this newfound success is like an unexpected and rewarding adventure.

“This is a whole new development in my life because it’s the first time ever that I am making money off the work that I do,” she says. “I don’t feel restless at all right now.”

See additional beautiful photographs of With Lavender and Lace and so much more more in our new Distinction iPad App available for FREE on iTunes.

McKinnon & Harris

McKinnon Harris furniture, outdoor furniture, distinction magazine, distinctionhr, lawn furniture, Richmond VA, Richmond
McKinnon Harris furniture, outdoor furniture, distinction magazine, distinctionhr, lawn furniture, Richmond VA, Richmond

photography by ERIC LUSHER

RICHMOND – Hard up against the railroad tracks in this industrial section of this metal-working town, artisans at McKinnon and Harris cut and bend and weld and grind, turning NASA-grade aluminum into outdoor furniture so fine that a single bench costs $8,000. 

The pieces are slated for the master balcony, the side terrace, the tanning ledges of homes in Florida and Palm Beach and Aspen, or perhaps for the decks of yachts.

But they’re manufactured here, in the Scott’s Addition section of Richmond, home to cabinetmakers, taxidermists, brewers and building contractors. This is a place where people make things. Named after the land’s long-ago owner, Gen. Winfield Scott – called Old Fuss and Feathers because of his fondness for dress uniforms – the neighborhood has seen eras of bustling productivity when street-car-riding workers manufactured radiators, fire trucks and bread, and decades of decline, when factories gave way to gambling houses, brothels and vacant warehouses. Now those warehouses and factories are being converted into trendy loft apartments and their attendant restaurants, coffee shop and gym.

McKinnon and Harris owners Anne and Will Massie are rooted deep in Virginia soil, the sister and brother raised in Lynchburg amidst antiques and art, and grandmothers who gardened. Their parents dragged them to museums and art shows, and once on a beach trip stopped at an antique store and bought the breakfast table the family still eats at today, wedging it half into the back seat over the children’s heads.

“We have all of these memories, all of these attachments to furniture,” Will says. “Each piece when we were growing up had belonged to somebody and had a particular story that was connected to it.”

“And there was such a disposable mentality with furniture put outdoors,” Anne adds, “that we wanted to do something that had a real permanence to it, something that would be enduring.”

They do that by being, they say, control freaks, and having everything but the aluminum itself made within blocks of their business.

“We’re all about everything being local,” Will says, “so we really know and trust everyone we work with and they know our expectations.”

“Plus, there’s just extraordinary local talent,” Anne says, “a real reverence for fine craftsmanship.”

They speak gently, greet guests warmly and consider their employees and customers to be extended family. Every Christmas Will writes a handwritten note to each worker, each one so personal and heartfelt that the recipients save them, and some employees now have bundles of more than a dozen. People who work here stay here.

Anne, 52, has a master of fine arts degree and shows her abstract oil paintings at galleries throughout the state. Will, 51, was a banker but felt no passion for the job. The two have been in business together since childhood, when they sold home-grown produce at their own farm stand. In 1991 they were living one above the other in a duplex in the Fan district of Richmond when they came up with the idea of building landscape furniture. It would be crafted like the antiques they admired, with fine materials and elegant lines, and the engineering and sturdiness to last generations. And the company would be named after their grandmothers, to honor them for their gorgeous gardens.

They started with steel, working with a welder in a place so small that it had electricity but no plumbing. Their mother, a watercolor artist, painted the cover for their first stylebook, and she’s done every one since. Her children repaid the favor by giving their parents some of their earliest furniture, which they still use today. Steel rusts, though, so Anne and Will switched to aluminum and moved to a larger space, and then to a larger one still, expanding until they now have 35 people working on site, and more at their showrooms in New York and London and Los Angeles.

The aluminum arrives having been “extruded like pasta” elsewhere in the United States, a bead along one edge or flat on each, as shop foreman Matthew Browne says in his rolling Welsh accent, made to McKinnon and Harris’ precise specifications. Some components are sculpted or lasered or whittled at a machine shop down the block; there’s little reason to duplicate efforts in a city with such a long tradition of metalwork. Richmond is, after all, the home of Reynolds Metals Co., maker of everything from soda cans to buses, and once a submarine called the Aluminaut.

“This is a very industrial city,” Browne says. “If there’s something that needs to be crafted out of metal, there’s someone in Richmond who can do it.”

Will and Anne’s ideas are translated into plans using 3-D software, often by Jamie Taylor, 38, who works in research and development, although he’s done every other job in the 15 years he’s been with the company. From his plans come specifications for each piece, and from those specs comes the kit list, from which come legs and arms and braces for bottoms, cut by a saw handler and then bent with the primitive Hossfeld bender around half-moon dies custom-made to give each piece the curving elegance of the original vision.

Everything else is done in-house, in a shop that employees say is more like Santa’s Workshop than a factory, inhabited not by elves but by a hodgepodge of personalities. At the lunch table, the hunter who smokes meat for the Christmas party sits next to the tea-and-biscuits Welshman, and the Libertarian argues with the liberals, all of them artists and thus passionate people. The Massies encourage them in their art, and once turned a front portion of the shop into an art gallery and threw a party so that everyone could admire one another’s work.

The parts for an order of chairs are grouped together on a rolling cart – six seats, 12 straight back legs and 12 curved for the front, 24 L-shaped under-seat braces, plus splats and stiles and stretchers and rails, and always the tracking sheet so that each step can be checked off as it’s done.

The cart rolls next to the welders. Chris Caldwell, 54, himself here 16 years, mounts a seat onto a lazy susan-like turntable, and to it clamps gauges that will hold each leg at a precise pitch. Each item fits exactly where it belongs, “thanks to Matt and his guys,” he says. “They drill all these holes, cut all these angles and make every notch just right so that it fits together. If they don’t you get a puzzle that doesn’t go together.”

He sets more clamps, 20 in all, before he pulls on his welding mask. Aluminum morphs toward heat, so it takes practice and experience to weld it properly; you have to skip around, moving the flame. “If  you do it dot, dot, dot you’ll learn quickly that you have to do it another way,” Caldwell says, Instead he welds a little, then waits, taking notes so he’ll know the sequence the next time.

“Building this furniture is awesome,” he says. “I got up excited every single day when I first started working here. When I knew the next day they were going to let me build a table I’d never built before, I’d think about it all night long.”

Some pieces take hundreds of welds, each placed not just for the strength of the piece but with a mind for the next guy, the grinder who will make these welds disappear. “We try to pay it forward,” Caldwell says. It is the welder’s initials that will be stamped into the underside of the piece, but he is just one artist among many.

The piece next goes to the finishers, who work on height-adjustable hospital gurneys, grinding and sanding and smoothing, using hand tools and elbow grease to make the welds vanish. “These are the guys who do the magic,” says Browne. “When they’re done it looks like it was always just one piece.”

Finisher Rob Mir, 34, has a bachelor of fine arts degree from James Madison University. He came to the company six years ago, after answering an ad on Craigslist looking for a craftsperson.

“Usually when you’re applying for jobs, being an artist is a negative,” he says, sanding at a weld. The pieces here, though, are like sculptures, and the work takes an artist’s eye and attention to detail. The work is laborious and highly physical, and doing it well matters to Mir because it has an impact on the success of the company.

He wipes away some dust and returns to sanding. If he takes off too much the piece will be ruined; if he leaves a bump the next guy down the line will send it back. For hours he works, and only when he thinks it’s perfect will he send it to the blasting booth, where a worker in white coveralls, rubber boots and a respirator wields a fire hose that blasts out fine aluminum powder, stripping off any oxidation and leaving a toothy surface that will allow the final finish to cling. When it comes out, the piece goes to final detailing, where yet another worker sculpts aluminum into any minor imperfection, some no more significant than pinholes. Then it’s hung back on the overhead rack and sent through a washing station before it’s sprayed layer after layer with one of 21 custom colors developed by Will and Anne. The finish is the same as that used on luxury cars, says Marketing Director Ginny Hofheimer.

At least 10 people work on each piece, for a total of about 40 hours from beginning to end. Together they make about 2,000 pieces a year, which clients order through landscape architects or designers, and even then they have to wait at least 12 weeks for delivery.

“There are expenses to doing it here but rewards to getting it done right,” says Hofheimer. “Customers know the pieces are hand-made and that they have something that’s rare.”

The clatter and grinding in the main work area speak of industry, but enter the upholstery room and everything dampens, the sound sucked into the matriculated foam of cushions and bolts of fabric. Every detail is attended to, perhaps even obsessively. Blair Watson, 29, is in charge of packaging, and she measures each edge of each box, affixes the tape precisely perpendicular to the edge, and writes the labels in calligraphy – pergola, mistress’s balcony, cake room.

She places the labels just so, on the side of the box that aligns with the front of a couch or chair, so that movers know which side will be lightest.

“Some of the guys give me grief, saying I don’t have to be so particular,” she says, “but my philosophy is that the presentation matters.”

Watson has a fine arts degree and works in wood and metal. Glass gave her too little control of the outcome. When co-workers get up from coffee she pushes in each chair, evening them up with the edge of the table. She wears no jewelry at work, even though she makes her own, because it might scratch a finish. The boxes she packs will be shipped “white glove,” delivered and unpacked on site, or to intermediary addresses, where they’re unpacked and the contents wrapped in moving blankets and delivered, to become part of another family’s history.

“We look at this as an extension of our childhood,” says Anne, who lives and gardens with her husband and family in the historic home Locust Grove, in Lynchburg, with seating areas of her company’s furniture throughout the grounds. “What would we like to make next? It’s always something we would like to have ourselves.”

Will lives with his wife and daughter on Monument Avenue in Richmond, their garden formal and welcoming.

“One thing that is important to us,” says Will, “is that the furniture we’re making is going to be a treasured heirloom for someone else.”

Maple & Belmont


Maple and Belmont, Hand Lettering, Typography, Maple & Belmont, Virginia, Norfolk, Ghent, Virginia Magazine, Distinction Magazine, Distinctionhr

photography by RICH-JOSEPH FACUN

It’s easy to see which side of Kimberly and Derek Munn’s studio is whose.

On the left, posters feature Zombie Jesus, a Jack Daniel’s label and Red Bird Apples. The motif is cult and Americana, all in red and black. Cans without labels hold fine-tipped pens, markers and mechanical pencils on a desk.

On the right, color pops everywhere. A garland of green, yellow, tan, pink and red puff balls is strung against the wall. Posters feature curlicued letters, and images of flowers and honey bees decorate the desk. A bright pillow rests on a chair.

Here, the Munns put aside stylistic differences to revel in their shared passion for lettering. Kimberly – whose crimson hair betrays her side of the room – always wanted to create with the man she loves. Derek – who is fond of wearing black, except for the colored buttons on his overcoat – thought they worked best together. And so, Maple & Belmont was born. The stationery company combines his structured design with her whimsy.

The Munns are part of a growing community of young Hampton Roads artisans who value the handcrafted, vintage and unique. For their work at Maple & Belmont, Derek and Kimberly spend hours sketching letters, practicing each swoop and curve repeatedly, sketching first a phrase, then trying a word over, then singling out a letter to try again. They carefully select colors and paper, and sometimes screen-print the images themselves. Cigar boxes, old-timey drawings and legendary posters serve as their guides.

It’s caught on, says Vicki Bahr, judging from how speedily customers at her Ghent shop, Kitsch, scoop up Maple & Belmont stationery – from
Halloween cards to ones addressed, “To The Manliest Man I Know.” She sees the popularity of work like the Munns’ as a reaction to the mass-produced and fast-paced consumerism that technology can bring.

“People appreciate the time it takes to craft these items,” she says. “It’s a return back to individuality.”

Kimberly and Derek are type nerds who’ve been known to make a purchase based on package lettering.

They truly real-ized this love in 2010 when the couple, who had met in high school in Newport News and married in 2007, made a move to New York City. After undergrad at Old Dominion University, Derek had decided to attend graduate school at the New York School of Design.

Kimberly worked as a designer at the boutique stationery design house Mr. Boddington’s Studio. She fell in love with its eccentric, colorful style and started developing her own. She and Derek were inspired by the city – from their home in Brooklyn and their subway rides, to the artisans they encountered at markets and the yearly National Stationery Show.

They returned to Hampton Roads two years later and Derek started teaching design at Old Dominion.

Kimberly had a plan – she and Derek would form a stationery business together. They named it after the streets they grew up on in Newport News. It was the symbolic intersection of their styles.

Both had different strengths as well. Kimberly is better with organic forms, while structured shapes are Derek’s thing. They knew working as a couple wouldn’t be easy, but they could complement each other, they thought.

The first job sealed it for Derek. They created a logo and business card design for Kimberly’s mom, an artist. Blue, yellow and bright pink letters sprang from a white background. In those colors, the logo resembled a 3-D painting. No matter how you turned the card, the logo stayed the same.

The Munns fought a little during the process. But the finished product was much better than if they’d worked alone.

“We knew we had something,” Derek says. He still keeps the business card in his portfolio.

The Munns’ latest business venture took them to Kitsch. The store, which features products from Virginia crafts-people, has a second room with a long table, perfect for crafting.

Or for a lettering class. A year ago, Kimberly and Derek held the first, helping 12 attendees hand-letter a favorite quote. The class was one of the most successful Kitsch had had, says Bahr, the owner. “They’re such good teachers. You don’t feel like it’s an art class where you’re being critiqued.” Last fall they held another, which featured lettering on individual chalkboards.

Since their first class that spring, Maple & Belmont has grown. The Munns’ stationery is sold at various retail stores in Norfolk. Sales through their website are booming and they’ve had to juggle, since both still have day jobs at a Virginia Beach design studio. They’ve also taken on custom lettering projects, whether it be calligraphy or with chalk.

The Munns have made connections, like Careyann Weinberg. She was working at Grow Interactive when Kimberly and Derek came to letter a chalk canvas at the technology and design company’s office, in downtown Norfolk. She enjoyed their work so much that when she became president of Alchemy NFK art studios, she included Maple & Belmont’s display at shows.

Weinberg appreciated how they made their work accessible and how they joked when they made mistakes.

“They want to teach everyone,” she says. “They have this attitude that they do something everyone can do.”

Maple and Belmont, Hand Lettering, Typography, Maple & Belmont, Virginia, Norfolk, Ghent, Virginia Magazine, Distinction Magazine, Distinctionhr

The Munns usually settle into their studio on weeknights around 7. One February night, icy rain hit the windows, but the pair stayed focused. The studio is a bedroom in their Ghent apartment. Their screen printer sits in the walk-in closet. Old crates stacked against the walls hold sketches and supplies. Soft music plays as Kimberly letters a quote – “Everything that drowns me makes me want to fly,” from the band One Direction – just for fun. Their pug, Petunia, is nestled in her lap.

Derek searches a book for inspiration. “Ah, here it is,” he exclaims. He’s sketching the phrase “Eat, Drink & Be Married,” which will later be made into a sign for a Norfolk business. As they work, the couple calls on each other for assistance. He uses her decorative eye to help him with an ampersand. A few minutes later, she queries him on the structure of her quote.

The two sketch a bit, overlapping each other. “If you curve this letter … and what if you put ‘drowns’ by itself?” Derek says.

It takes a bit, but finally their collaboration satisfies. “I like it,” he says.

“I like it, too,” she says. “I’ll play with it.”

The couple, now in their late 20s, know that their future will likely take them from this bedroom studio. They’d like Maple & Belmont to become their main creative output, though it’s “still figuring out what it wants to be,” as Kimberly says.

But they know one thing will remain constant – they’ll work together, as they do on this evening, finding common ground beneath his vintage posters and her vibrant garland of puff balls.

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Homeward Bound

Randy Webb, Virginia Beach, Distinction Magazine, Portsmouth, Suffolk, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Virginia, Homecoming, native

photography by ROBERTO WESTBROOK

It’s true. There’s no place like home.

At 51, Randy Webb will be the first to say it. He spent years bathed in big-city lights. They never blinded him to the beacon of home.

Webb is one of the business world’s boomerangs: people who make successful careers elsewhere, but eventually swoop back to the nest. They’re drawn back by the past, the present and the future – roots, family, the desire to contribute to the place where they were forged.

Those are powerful pulls for a father, too. Webb sits in a white leather chair in a conference room high in the World Trade Center, the building that curves to fit the corner across from Norfolk’s Town Point Park.

The president and CEO of Signature, a company that helps wealthy folks manage their money, holds up this interview long enough to take a call from one of his three children. “She’s old enough to drive now,” Webb whispers aside, before getting the scoop on his daughter’s whereabouts, then hanging up with an “I love you, too.”

Family is front-burner to Webb, so much that he left his clan headquartered in Hampton Roads while he commuted for years – a big chunk of it to New York, where he worked for Bank of America. “This is a spectacular spot for kids,” he says. “My wife and I decided a long time ago that I’d commute so they could stay.”

The Tidewater is in his blood. “I’ve got an aunt who would say the Webbs have been here forever.”

Three generations back is enough for him to recite – a great-grandfather who worked at the Portsmouth shipyard, a grandfather who became the first president of Old Dominion University, a father who served as dean at Christopher Newport University.

“So for me, this place has gravity,” he says. “I grew up crossing the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. I’ll never forget staying at my grandfather’s house in Larchmont, listening to the horns of tugboats on the river as I went to sleep. I still love that sound.”

Sovran Bank gave him a foothold after college. From there, he climbed the ladder to positions in Richmond, Washington and eventually Manhattan.

Along the way, Sovran morphed into what’s now Bank of America, and Webb evolved into an investment banker. His niche was helping midsized companies raise capital. As a managing director, he helped build and oversee the bank’s East Coast team.

“I was so grateful to AirTran for that Monday morning flight they used to have out of Newport News,” he says. “I could catch it at 6:50, and be in my New York office by 8:30. It made for a long day, but it allowed me to be home on the weekends.”

Sacrifices were a given – including sleep. He coached a daughter’s soccer team long-distance. When school was out, his wife, Lelia Graham Webb, would bring the kids to his apartment in Manhattan. Phones were the family’s lifeline.

His wife wonders now how they ever managed. “During the week, I was pretty much a single mom,” she says. “Every six months, we’d re-evaluate the situation to make sure we were doing the right thing.”

Randy Webb, Portsmouth, Homecoming, Virginia, Virginian, Distinction Magazine

By 2005, Webb needed a “chance to breathe” – to unpack his bags at the family’s house in Olde Towne Portsmouth for more than just a weekend. He resigned from the bank, took some time off, then joined Signature.

Now, instead of corporate types, he works with families like his, but really rich ones. Signature, a 20-year-old firm with offices in Norfolk, Richmond, Charlottesville and Chicago, specializes in what most people would call “new money.”

“We don’t use that term,” Webb corrects. “They’re ‘first-generation wealth originators.’ ”

In other words: People who made their own fortunes instead of inheriting them.

The company’s website says its 150 client families have an average of $20 million-plus in investable assets. Discretion is expected – Webb won’t reveal a single client’s name, only that they come in all ages and from a wide variety of industries.

Most have ties to Virginia, and they’re looking for guidance to make the most of their money through smart investing and well-placed philanthropy. Webb says they have another common thread: “A lot of hard work. That’s what they represent. A spirit of energy.”

He prefers these work relationships to his banking ones, which tended to “end with a transaction. These are more personal. There’s a different depth, a longer duration.” It’s a change that dovetails nicely with coming home.

Webb tries to boil it down – why he loves Hampton Roads. He ticks off its attributes: a rich history, strong traditions, the bustle of port and military. But what really tips the scale is more intimate. The taste of a soft-shell crab. The smell of a salt marsh. The feeling that he’s not lost in a crowd. “This place is big enough to offer a lot, but small enough that your efforts aren’t diluted by 12 million other people. You can be somebody who makes a difference here, and that puts a lot of value in your life.”

Both husband and wife give time to an exhausting list of boards and foundations – the old Portsmouth General Hospital, the Elizabeth River Project, WHRO, the Chrysler Museum of Art.

The plan, Webb says, is “to work really hard to make this place attractive so our kids will want to come back here after they go off for a while, too.”

Decades of earning a living elsewhere help him keep the drawbacks of Hampton Roads in perspective. “Everybody complains about the traffic, but after New York and Northern Virginia, having to get through a tunnel or two seems like nothing.”

Faraway places still beckon: “Traveling, airports – it all has a rhythm that you just have to go with. You’ve got to get limber.” Signature supplies a more-manageable dose. Webb treks across country to see clients, or across the globe to check out investments: China, India, South America.

It’s nice to go. It’s great not to stay. Nothing beats the ability to have dinner with his wife and kids more often than not, instead of sending them a phone-photo of his plate at some restaurant.

“We used to get a lot of those pictures,” says Lelia Graham. “It’s nice to have the fellow home.”

The Fun Czar

Rita McClenny, Distinction Magazine, Skeet Shooting, Shotgun, Skeet, Clay Pigeons, Shotgun shells

photography by TODD WRIGHT

Years of building up Virginia’s economy creates volumes of pressure, even for high-energy Rita McClenny. When this tourism czar wants a break, she narrows it all down – to herself, her clays, her shotgun, and a single moment.

It’s a process, when she shoots.

Rita McClenny approaches the stand, her shotgun in the broken position. She slides a pair of cartridges into the empty barrels and takes her stance. Her breathing is measured and steady. The field is silent.

The shot master gives her a “look,” firing off one of the sporting clays so she can mark its trajectory before her turn. She notes the height and arc, and then briefly visualizes the coaster-sized projectile exploding into a thousand orange pieces.

“Ready,” she says. “Pull.”

In that moment, McClenny’s Richmond office disappears. The work piling up, the meetings, the deadlines, are gone. All that’s left are the farmer’s daughter and her target.

“Being in that moment where nothing else can enter into your mind is very calming,” she says. “You’ve reserved something that’s only for you.”

Skeet shooting. Trap shooting. Sporting clays. Call it what you want, but the stationary sport is not the activity most would associate with Virginia’s tourism czar, a tall, slender woman almost universally described as “high energy.”

But then, maybe it is. As Martha Williams says of her youngest sister, “Once she sets her sights on something, it’s done.”

Gov. Bob McDonnell tapped McClenny in November 2012 to lead the state’s tourism department, a job that is part politician, part cheerleader and part field general. She trained for the position as head of Virginia’s film office for some 20 years.

Under her leadership, the state started offering tax breaks and became a major player in the industry. Funny then to think that McClenny’s original target took her in a completely different direction.

McClenny was one of five children (three girls and two boys) raised by Theodore and Portia McClenny on a farm in Ivor, a small community about 45 miles northwest of Norfolk.

“It was full-service,” she says of the 100-acre spread. “We raised cattle, sheep, pigs, horses. Crops too. It was a lot of work. I fed the cats and dogs and horses. I also pulled weeds, which I hated.”

McClenny excelled in school. She was a cheerleader and played tennis and basketball. After graduation, she earned an economics degree at Fisk University in Nashville. After spending several years working in Atlanta with Lockheed Martin Aeronautics and Eastman Kodak, she returned to Virginia for a marketing job with the state’s office of economic development. She worked on a team that recruited Canadian companies.

“It was perfect for me,” she says. “I understood the concept of packaging the state and its workers. I knew what would appeal to businesses. And I loved what I was selling. It was my home.”

McClenny soon met and befriended Laura Oaksmith, the state’s film office director. Oaksmith, a recruiter in New York, often jokes that her first great steal was persuading McClenny to work for her. “It was clear to me from the beginning that Rita just had ‘It,’ ” she says. “She was politically savvy, intelligent and very passionate. She makes an impression on everyone.”

McClenny wanted to approach her new job the same way she did economic development. “I said, ‘Let’s go to L.A. and knock on doors. Let’s make it really aggressive. Come up with the sales list. Come up with the targets. Come up with the people who have a need for our product and get them to come here.”

When Oaksmith left the film office in 1991, McClenny was the obvious choice to replace her. She flourished in her new role, bringing a business mindset that helped her persuade state leaders to use financial incentives to lure film crews to Virginia.

And McClenny quickly developed a reputation for handling the prickly egos of Hollywood as well as she did those around the statehouse.

“They ask for the moon,” Oaksmith says of the film industry. “Rita was good at giving them what they wanted, but also holding them to their word.”

The Lifetime television network came to Virginia in 2009 to film Unanswered Prayers, a TV movie inspired by the lyrics of Garth Brooks’ popular country song. In return for the production’s receiving tax breaks, Brooks was supposed to attend a reception in his honor and film a tourism PSA with Gov. McDonnell. The country star backed out at the last minute.

“It got down to 1 or 2 in the morning on the day of the shoot and they were still saying Garth wasn’t coming,” McClenny says. “Finally, I said, ‘If he doesn’t come to Virginia, you guys are not getting the incentive.’ Sometimes you have to play hardball.”

Rita McClenny, Distinction Magazine, Skeet Shooting, Shotgun, Skeet, Clay Pigeons, Shotgun shells

She did so well in her job that when Alisa Bailey left the Virginia Tourism Corp., McDonnell asked McClenny to take over. It was a new and bigger job, but for McClenny it seemed a natural transition.

“I went two doors down the hall,” she says. “The goals are basically the same. This world of tourism is made up of people engaged in creating jobs and bringing economic prosperity to their communities.”

She is still trying to get people to come to Virginia, only now the goal is to attract families. Instead of flying to Los Angeles, she’s crisscrossing the state attending beer festivals and resort openings. And instead of catering to the needs of Spielberg and Reitman, she is courting the bigwigs at Condé Nast and Frommer’s.

It is a hectic schedule, so she likes activities that help her relax and refocus.

McClenny started skeet shooting in 2006. She was familiar with guns and thought it looked fun. Since then she has periodically gotten away to indulge in the sport.

“There is a ritual to it,” she says. “It’s ceremonial almost. Your stance. Your posture. Firing the shotgun. The flow of action. You can’t think about anything else. You have to concentrate on the target. It’s impossible to think of anything else in the moment you’re about to fire. And that’s what I love about it.”

Benevolent Design Co.

Patrick Ryan, Virginia Beach, Surfer, Carpenter, businessman, virginia, virginian, virginia magazine, distinction magazine, Distinction, Back Bay Brewing Co

photography by KEITH LANPHER

Weary of chasing profits, Patrick Ryan yearned to transform the neglected into the beautiful and useful. As he reclaimed old wood, he reclaimed his life.

For most of a decade, the road was his escape. By the time Patrick Ryan marked his 30th birthday, the former Virginia Beach surfer kid had become a burned-out businessman. His regional sales trips at least gave him a chance to get out of the office, away from the numbing glow of a computer screen and onto the open road.

Ryan would often veer off the highway and onto winding back roads through North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia. For miles and miles, a blur of farm and forest flashed by his windshield.

Windows down. Music up. Time to think.

The scenic views soothed him. He’d forget about how unhappy he had become with his white-collar career and allow his mind to drift. He grew oddly obsessed with the numerous abandoned and neglected barns that stood along those rural roads. Some, he guessed, were approaching 100 years old.

Behind the wheel, he’d daydream about the treasures that might be stashed, forgotten, inside those old barns, or what he’d build if he could pull over, grab a pry bar and take down some of the boards. He had heard about people building furniture from reclaimed wood; he figured he could do that.

Ryan had always been good with his hands, the kind of guy who could do about anything after reading a how-to book or watching someone else do it. Unfortunately, his work didn’t leave much time for personal projects. But it did provide hours-long stretches in a car – and time to dream. He looked at those rundown barns, and he saw potential.

Soon, they would help him realize his own.

It’s unclear when the daydream became a plan, or when that plan came to involve Ryan’s quitting his secure and well-paying job to start his own handcrafted-furniture business. Never mind that he had never actually built a piece of furniture before. By August, he had handed in his notice, and there was no turning back.

The idea for Benevolent Design Co. was simple: Ryan, now 32, would take something old and neglected – like those barns – and he would transform it into something new and functioning. Like a table, or a desk. Then he would pray someone was willing to pay for the result.

He would be starting small. The 300-square-foot shed behind his house would be his primary workspace. His biggest and most important tool: a vintage wood planer he’d found cheap online. On the wall for entrepreneurial inspiration: a tattered American flag. Ryan was chasing the dream.

Gathering the building materials turned out to be easier than he’d imagined. “A lot of times, people just want those old barns off their property,” he says. “A few times, I’ve just walked up and knocked on a door and said, ‘Hey, I’ll tear down that barn if you let me keep the wood.’ That works sometimes. Also, people are constantly selling old wood on Craigslist or in the newspaper.”

Ryan felt as if he’d struck gold when he found an old man in Creeds who wanted to clear out a barn that had been used for a sawmill years ago. “He had all this wood just piled up. A lot of it wasn’t any good because he hadn’t preserved it properly. But with the solid hard oak, the rotten parts just fell apart around it, and the solid oak was sitting there perfect, like a present.”

The marketing side came more easily than expected, too, even for a guy with a business degree from James Madison University. Ryan restored some of the oak and used it to build a dining room table for the old man’s grandson. The photos he posted on Facebook led friends to ask for his services. Word spread, and soon he had orders coming in from people he had never met.

His timing couldn’t have been better. Demand for items built from reclaimed wood has surged over the past several years, driven by the same cultural movement that has people seeking out handmade clothes or eggs from the farmer up the street. Repurposed wood is both environmentally friendly and inherently local. Ryan charges anywhere from $50 for a nice picture frame up to $5,000 for a large dining room table.

“People want to feel a connection,” Ryan says, explaining why he includes with each piece of furniture a framed photo of the barn and a short story about its history.

During his years as a corporate sales rep for a national surfing apparel company, Ryan often felt as if he was hounding potential clients. He had to make a strong pitch, had to make promises he wasn’t always sure he could keep, had to follow up constantly. With handmade furniture, the sales came to him.

“It’s funny, man,” Ryan says, smiling. He smiles a lot now. “When things are happening the way they are supposed to, one thing after another just falls into place. Working for corporate America, it was about the dollar. But now I’m not trying to sell anything to anyone. I’m just creating stuff and being artistic, and people are coming to me asking for it.”

Even on his worst days, it seems like the universe has been smiling on him. Ryan got a shard of metal in his eye not long ago while welding a metal frame for a wood stool. The eye specialist he visited asked him about the accident. That got Ryan talking about his new business. Before he finished treating him, the doctor asked Ryan if he could custom-build an entertainment center for his home.

“Heck yeah, we can do that,” Ryan said.

The response was pretty much identical to his reaction last fall when an old friend asked Ryan if he wanted to build all the furniture for a new craft brewery he was opening at the Oceanfront.

Heck yeah.

The project soon became so much more than that.

It’s past 10 p.m., and Ryan has no plans of stopping. He needs to apply a coat of urethane and oil to the red cedar bar top and then get to work building the matching stools for the Back Bay Brewing Co. tasting room. Once again, he has lost track of time.

Back when he was a sales rep, he would sometimes work late to catch up on paperwork. He’d glance at the clock: 9 p.m. He’d work for a while, start to feel tired, then look again: 9:14 p.m.

“Time would drag on and on,” he says. “That’s what happens when you’re not doing what you love. Now when I’m working late, I’ll look at the clock. ‘Oh, it’s 9 o’clock.’ I’ll work for a while longer, then look again. ‘Oh, it’s 4 a.m.!’ ”

Ryan talks about his new life with the jubilation of someone only recently released from prison. “I’ve found freedom,” he says as he wipes an oil-soaked cloth across the bar top, which he built using wood from a tall cedar that fell down in someone’s yard during a recent storm. With each stroke, the dull wood – like the craftsman – comes more alive.

Ask him to talk about how his life has changed since he started his business. The words pour out of him.

“Sales wasn’t my calling. It was a job, and I was good at it. I don’t regret doing that for 10 years. But I love working with my hands. I love creating. I’ve always been a craftsman. I’ve always been good at that. I’m finally doing what I was made to do.”

Ryan spreads urethane across the bar top, following the grain of the wood with each stroke of the cloth. He pauses occasionally as he shares his story.

“When I was researching possible business names – literally I was coming up with five names every day for a month – somehow I came across the word benevolent. I thought, ‘I like the sound of that. What’s the definition?’ I found one source that basically said: ‘To do things not necessarily for profit but for the right reasons. To make things better. To leave a better mark.’ ”

He’s turned away from the bar now, cloth in hand, totally engrossed in conversation. Telling the story of how he found his passion is about the only thing that can distract him from working these days.

“I thought, ‘God, that’s what I want to do. Every person I come across, if it’s the person at the grocery store checkout or a stranger on the street, they might be having a bad day. I want to walk away with them having a smile on their face. I want to make things better.’ It’s the same principle with reclaiming discarded wood.”

It’s now approaching midnight; Ryan has no idea what time it is. He realizes he’s gone off on a tangent. “I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m pretty passionate about this stuff. But I’m not very good at talking and working at the same time.”

And now it’s time to work. There’s much to be done.

Patrick Ryan, Virginia Beach, Surfer, Carpenter, businessman, virginia, virginian, virginia magazine, distinction magazine, Distinction, Back Bay Brewing Co

The owners of Back Bay Brewing didn’t just hire Ryan to build some furniture for their Norfolk Avenue tasting room, they put him in charge of designing the place. After a short conversation, they granted him creative control.

“I have to give these guys credit,” Ryan says. “I didn’t even know how to weld six months ago. But they sensed my passion, and because they have a passion for local craftsmanship, they gave me a shot. So many good things are happening for me because they took that chance. This isn’t just a furniture business anymore.”

At Back Bay, Ryan used matching red cedar for all the furniture. He covered the walls with rustic-looking tin that he had found at the old sawmill in Creeds. He suspended filament light bulbs inside custom beer growlers for lighting along the bar. He installed hardwood flooring, painted walls, laid tile and built a vanity of reclaimed wood in the bathroom.

Other local business owners have seen his work and have made inquiries. He’s not just reclaiming wood anymore, he says, still smiling. “It’s like I’m helping reclaim Virginia Beach.”

“It’s taken a long time, but this city is getting back to its roots,” he says. “Virginia Beach has had this reputation of being all national chains, all strip plazas, no authenticity, but that’s all changing. I’m telling you, there is a movement of small business owners and local craftsmen who are opening up shop here – they’re not just in Norfolk – and they’re locating in old, historic buildings at the Beach. It’s happening all over the Oceanfront.”

Meanwhile, the waiting list of people who want Ryan to build handcrafted farm tables and rocking chairs and other furniture has grown into the dozens. Soon, he expects, he’ll need to hire some workers and move out of the little shed behind his house and into a workshop.

But he doesn’t want to grow too big. And definitely not too fast. All he really needs is a team with a pickup truck and some tools to help harvest wood from old barns. And maybe someone to help manage the business side.

“No matter where this goes or how big this gets,” Ryan says, “I plan to be working with my hands.”