The Virginia War Memorial’s They Gave All 5K


I signed up to run in the Virginia War Memorial’s They Gave All 5K on Saturday morning, May 25, 2019.

A clear blue sky and a comfortable temperature were awaiting runners and walkers at the start line. There was even a bit of a breeze at times as I waited for 8 a.m. to arrive.

The race begins in the backyard of the Virginia War Memorial. It is a well maintained piece of property. The course loops out on to Belvidere Street crosses the majestic James River, works into a slice of the Oregon Hill neighborhood, and meanders through Hollywood Cemetery before  looping back toward the War Memorial.

My goal is very simple—finish the race. I’m older and slower. Finishing the race is a reasonable goal.

The Kids Fun Run begins at 7:45. Before this race, the national anthem is sung by a young lady who works for one of the corporate sponsors. This is followed by the Pledge of Allegiance, and some reminders regarding safety while out on the course.

With the Kids Fun Run completed, participants were directed to follow the signage to three holding areas for runners, walkers, and parents who were pushing baby strollers during the race.

I’m ready to push the timing button on my watch. Not sure why I still do this. My bib number 453 has a timing tag on the back of it. This chip knows when I start the race and when if lucky, I finish the race.IMG_0452

Soon, we’re moving. Very slow at first, as runners scramble for foot space hoping not to trip up a fellow runner. Doesn’t take long, and I have room to maneuver. I’m stiff, but with every step, my old body limbers up a bit.

While waiting for the race to start, we were told we would run about 6,000 steps from beginning to end. And an equation had been computed linking those steps to soldiers from Virginia who had been killed serving their country.

I’m not counting my steps as we come upon the James River basking in sunlight.The bridge is named after the Civil War general, Robert E. Lee. As we run across the bridge, I wonder if the name of this bridge might be changed someday. I wonder if the James River has an opinion about that? 

I’m sure the river has endless stories in its memory.  The present, past, and future lie between the banks of the river. Like all of us, the James has good days, and not so good days. Days when it is smiling and days when tear drops fall into its churning rapids.  

Runners are quick to offer opinions about the layout of a course. Hills are quite often a concern. This course has its share of challenging hills. Overcoming a hill is mental. To conquer a hill, a runner must keep moving. The hill isn’t going to surrender.

I make a note to myself—hills in a foot race are nothing compared to military battles fought on hills and mountains. Penned down by enemy fire, explosions all around, friends dying, ammunition running low—I have no right to whine about hills on a race course.

Course marshals along the way offer encouragement and insure that we don’t make a wrong turn. 

Up ahead of me in Hollywood Cemetery, I saw one father put his elementary school age daughter on his back. She had been running pretty well. I guess she needed a break, but her free ride didn’t last too long.

Some runners where wearing a sharp looking purple t-shirt with the words In Memory printed on the back. Under that heading appeared to be a listing of names. 

Shady spots were welcomed as the sections of the course in full sun were starting to warm up. Nothing like a good sweat to get the meanness out of my rapidly aging body.

The three mile marker was good to see. I’m almost there.  Keep moving forward. A few younger runners kicked on their after burners and sprinted past me. I crossed the finish line at 29:19. Goal met—I finished.

I grabbed a bottle of water and found a bit of shade. As I was heading toward the parking lot, I saw one of those purple shirts. 

I noted from the front of the shirt it represented the Virginia National Guard. I was able to get a better look at the back of the shirt that stated In Memory. Under those words were the names of ten individuals who had lost their lives serving their country from the Virginia National Guard.

When I was a youngster, I had no real understanding of Memorial Day. As I became older, the significance of this holiday has more meaning. My father’s oldest brother, Boyd, lost his life in World War II on the destroyer the USS Simms way out in the Coral Sea.

Perhaps like me, you have read the news coverage of Ronnie Sanchez, Jr.  Sadly, Mr. Sanchez died from stab wounds he received while hiking on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. When I learned that Mr. Sanchez was an Army veteran who had served three tours of duty in Iraq, the pain of his death touched me even more. 

Serving in Iraq had an impact on Mr. Sanchez. After he left the Army, Mr. Sanchez battled depression. He basically stayed in his house, and only went out at night when less people were around. This depression broke up his marriage. (Hernandez, Jackman, Washington Post)

An opportunity from the Department of Veterans Affairs gave Mr. Sanchez the chance to try some special programs in Oklahoma City.  An assortment of recreational programs for Veterans is available there. (Hernandez, Jackman, Washington Post)

For Sanchez, these programs were instrumental in reconnecting him with the outdoors. These recreational programs were well suited for him. He made progress against the depression. This healing was to continue on hiking the Appalachian Trail. (Hernandez, Jackman, Washington Post)

It makes no sense at all to serve three challenging tours of duty in Iraq for your country, only to lose your life while pursuing a worthy goal designed to help your recovery.

Recently, I completed reading Hampton Sides’ book Hellhound On His Trail. This book is an account of the manhunt for the killer of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

In a closing chapter, Sides makes the following observation:  “What a sordid tradition of violence we have in our country—and what an alarming record of assassinations and assassination attempts. Perhaps it’s the dark flip side of our extraordinary freedoms.”

Memorial Day is grounded in our “extraordinary freedoms”.

At times, I wonder if I truly understand those freedoms and respect them?

I need not look too far for my understanding.

Three words sum it up:  They Gave All.

On this Memorial Day, as we freely go about our normal routines, hit that pause button. 

Take several quiet minutes to think about those who gave all. 

Their lives were permanently disrupted. 

Our lives in our “extraordinary freedoms” were not.


magister cor

In Robert Rodat’s screenplay for the movie Saving Private Ryan, there is a chaotic scene when Captain John Miller, portrayed by Tom Hanks, appears to be losing control of his troops. 

Captain Miller has been given the assignment to find and remove from harms way Private James Ryan. Ryan’s three brothers have been killed in the war. Military leaders do not want the Ryan family to lose their last son.

This undertaking to find Private Ryan will be a dangerous challenge. Just as soon as they start the search, one of Miller’s soldiers is killed by a German sniper. They keep moving, and the next task is a machine gun outpost. In this attack, Miller loses another soldier.

Those two losses, plus misgivings about the mission to save Ryan create a tension charged environment. One private disobeys a Miller order and threatens to desert. The private is confronted by a pistol yielding sergeant who threatens to shoot the potential deserter. Arguments are breaking out, emotions are high.

And then Captain Miller blurts out— “What’s the pool up to on me?” A pool of money has been wagered by his troops as they try to guess Captain Miller’s profession before the war. The pool is up to $300.00, and then he tells his men—“I’m a school teacher.” 

That question and the revealing of his profession, quell the emotional chaos. All ears and eyes are now trained on Captain Miller as his quiet, non-threatening voice, and rational diplomacy bring the men back into reality. Things settle down. Even with some reluctance, his men begin to understand the orders that Captain Miller has been given.

This is Teacher Appreciation week. 

Somewhere in America today, a teacher, like Captain Miller,  used his/her skills to settle down high strung emotions in a school. Somehow, in that unsettled environment, the teacher kept focused and composed. Slowly, the wisdom of the teacher reeled the students back in, order was restored.

Teaching is tough work. Yes, it can be rewarding work, but it is one of the toughest jobs on earth.

One of my favorite verses from the Bible can be found in the book of James Chapter 3 verse 1:  “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

Many years ago, I shared that verse with the Lakeside Elementary School faculty. It was a beautiful spring afternoon, and I called an impromptu faculty meeting out on the playground. The pressures of SOL testing were wearing us down.  That verse has never left me.

Seems the world is even more strict today in how it judges our teachers—it is tough work.

On Tuesday afternoon, May 7, I was at Glen Allen High School for an awards program. The program was staged by our school system to recognize outstanding teachers.  Three categories focused on first year teachers, exceptional education teachers, and our teacher of the year. 

This was a humbling experience  as we learned about the finalists in each category. Students, peers, administrators, and parents painted quite a picture of the outstanding instructional and interpersonal skills each teacher possessed.

In today’s world, teachers must have quite a tool box to meet the needs of students. One size does not fit all when it comes to students. So many factors impact the shaping of a student’s life. 

Often, those factors are well beyond the control of a classroom teacher. And, yet somehow, a teacher searches for an opening in the student’s armor. Finding that opening can be the key pivot for building a relationship with the student, and in case anyone is listening—successful teachers build relationships.

I think I was probably an enigma to my teachers. I had potential, but I never ever truly applied myself. I made honor roll once in the sixth grade. I often wonder how my parents put up with my pitiful academics.

Despite my shortcomings, I am thankful for my first grade teacher, Mrs. Hughes, who taught me how to read at Elon Elementary School. At Turrentine Junior High School, Mrs. Wall taught me how to type. And at Walter Williams High School, my senior English teacher, Mrs. Barnwell, connected me to Catcher In The Rye and Black Like Me. To all of those other teachers who I let down, I apologize.

Sadly, I don’t think teaching will become any easier. In fact, finding competent teachers in the future will continue to be a challenge. 

This world we live in has lost its mind. Every year, we lose many good teachers for a variety of reasons, but our mindless world impacts those decisions to bail on a noble calling. 

When we live in a society where a college football coach can sign a contract that is worth 9 millions dollars a year for a ten year period, something is wrong.

Contrast that to the fact that for some students, their six hours at school each day are the best six hours of their 24 hour day, something is wrong.

I will stop the whining.

At some point today, I encourage you to check your memory banks for a teacher in your life. Find that moment, and ask yourself what made that teacher unique in your mind?

My hunch is your answer will be connected to that teacher’s heart. The heart of a teacher isn’t made like other hearts. 

 No, a teacher’s heart is always open, it never closes, it never stops learning, and even when defeated that heart never gives up.

Even though he was a character in a screenplay, Captain John Miller had “magister cor”—a teacher’s heart.



Your Turf Was Already In Trouble

Whether known or unknown to me, the phrase “turf and personalities” has been present in every setting where I have worked. Sometimes, success in the work place is measured by how a leader handles managing “turf and personalities.”

In my career working in schools, one of the most interesting battles was over floor space in an auxiliary gym. 

It was early spring, the weather was lousy outside. After school, the baseball coach intended to the use auxiliary gym for an instructional practice. The vocational school that was a part of our building needed the space for an early evening obedience class for dogs. 

Strong personalities clashed. Compromise and reason were missing in action.

During the last eight years, I’ve had the privilege of working in my church. Just so you know, churches are not immune from skirmishes related to “turf and personalities.” 

Even if in passing, a comment is made about repurposing a room or changing a location for a worship service—people get riled up. When church people get riled up, look out. 

Bill, you must be kidding church people get riled up?

 Yes, I’ve observed it —from the most meek, the most boisterous, and all points in between. Pluck the wrong nerve, and you have never seen such a storm.

Bill, in a church? 

Yes, I know you find that hard to believe, but church people can get riled up.

As a matter of fact, the United Methodist Church is riled up at this very moment.

For years, the church has been avoiding a collision. This collision is grounded in policies related to LGBT. Same-sex marriages and ordination of pastors who are LGBT are at the heart of this conflict. 

Some experts predict this dispute will lead to the breakup of the United Methodist Church, a breakup that could be as complicated as disassembling a Boeing 747.

I’m a lifelong Methodist. This predicted split is distressing to me. But, in truth, Methodist church turf was already in trouble. 

Other pressing challenges are on the immediate horizon too. 

These issues are just as formidable.

Like LGBT policies, Methodist congregations can’t opt to ignore— declining attendance, the “death tsunami,” financial shortfalls, tired facilities, attracting the “unchurched” and the overlooked, and what appears to be a diminishing voice for speaking out related to society’s needs.

Let me stop here, and say without any hesitation that I am not a church expert, nor am I a perfect Christian, and even though I love it, I have my moments of struggle with the Bible.

Any number of studies during the last several years have documented the decline in church attendance. Showing up on Sunday morning isn’t a priority anymore. Many factors impact those numbers. 

Some point to the dropping of blue laws. Church used to be the only game in town on Sunday mornings.  That isn’t the case anymore.

I also think people have become busier. Calendars, particularly for young families are packed. Carving out an hour or two for church isn’t a high priority. Church might not make the top five list for the weekend with a family.

When attendance drops so too can financial support. Churches have or are experiencing the “death tsunami.” 

This phrase marks the passing of the World War II generation. This generation of church members for the most part had been raised in an environment of attending church on a regular basis. That trend continued for them and their children through the 50s, 60s, and early 70s. 

Often, this generation was the real financial backbone of the church. The benefit of their labors sustained church growth. With their passing, in many instances that financial support has not been replaced with the same robustness from current church members. 

With the decline in financial support, churches are often faced with delaying or making difficult decisions related to basic maintenance needs. If strategic and financial plans are not in place, a church’s facilities can decline rapidly. A tired, worn down building is not going to attract younger members.

In the early 1950s, my church, Trinity Methodist, left its founding site in the city of Richmond.  Eventually, a new facility was built on Forest Avenue in Henrico County. I think its initial success in the new location was grounded in the surrounding neighborhoods.

At this very moment, I’m not so sure we, Trinity,  are at our best in reaching out to the “unchurched” or “overlooked” in our own backyard. If we can’t embrace these people and their needs, then I wonder if we have a future?

From September through May, I attempted to lead and teach a Disciple I Bible Study at Trinity. We carved out a meeting time on Sunday mornings after the traditional Sunday school hour and during the final worship service. Leading the class was a challenge, but one of the benefits was learning from my classmates.

One morning, a young lady asked about the voice of the church. She wondered where the leadership of the Methodist church was in regard to any number of challenges in our society? Her point was— I don’t tend to hear the church’s voice in the roar of today’s media. 

I didn’t have an answer for her. 

When we do hear the voice of the church in the media today it is often in regard to an internal scandal where people have been hurt by the church. Unfortunately, those scandals and decisions related to them don’t help how society perceives the church.

Clearly, the Methodist church has used its voice by telling its leaders and members how the LGBT issue will be handled on its turf. 

The personalities impacted by this ruling are assessing and evaluating their options. Some are delighted, some are devastated.

On Friday, May 3, I read an article in the sports section of the Richmond Times-Dispatch—“Less partying leads to more wins for UVA.” The article focused on the men’s lacrosse coach at the University of Virginia, Lars Tiffany.  Coach Tiffany came to realize that his team needed a cultural shift.

Fifth year senior Logan Greco was quoted in the article, “Something needed to change here.”

Aside from the basics of coaching, Coach Tiffany work diligently to pull from his players a heartfelt commitment to lacrosse and to each other as teammates. Coach Tiffany instituted cultural days that were grounded into the pairing of players into units like a small family. Readings were assigned, discussions held, plus there was an opportunity for players to whine about team issues. But, also embedded in this cultural shift was a means for affirming each other through the process.

I’m not suggesting that less partying will mean more wins for United Methodist churches. However, if a lacrosse coach can change the culture of his team with some new wrinkles that lead to success, why can’t United Methodists?

If we Methodist expect to find success in the future, something will need to change. Our turf has been in trouble for a long time. 

The LGBT decision is one large fragment of a troubling snapshot.

Maybe part of that trouble is within ourselves. 

Maybe we can’t see the need to change.

Doesn’t matter the angle you choose or the fragment of concern that catches your attention—our church turf is in trouble.

As I see it we can respond in two ways. 

We can follow a very predicable path of ignoring the challenges in our turf and let the church die. Or we can get riled up and chose to work collaboratively to identify how to change our path.

Maybe American author, Kathleen Norris, said it best:  

“Disconnecting from change does not recapture the past. It loses the future.”

I hope we don’t lose the future.


I Miss You Pat Conroy


In the fall of 1975, I started my first teaching job at the Martinsville Junior High School in Martinsville, Virginia. I was a Title VII Remedial Reading Teacher. This was a federally funded program. It was designed to captured struggling ninth grade readers before they entered high school. Yes, grades 7, 8, and 9 were housed at the school. 

I had been an English major at Greensboro College. The only college in America that would accept a pitiful student like me. God must have been watching over me. 

Did my student teaching at Aycock Junior High School in the Greensboro Public School system with Mr. Wallace Pegram. To this day, I have not forgotten some of Mr. Pegram’s wisdom—“There is a lot of psychology in teaching.” He was correct. 

To the south of Martinsville was Greensboro, North Carolina and to the north was Roanoke, Virginia. To the east was Danville and to the west the Blue Ridge Mountains. Martinsville was a furniture and textile town. Dupont, Tultex, Bassett were dominate names. These factories and many more sustained the community. 

To me there appeared to be quite an economic divide, but I guess that’s not unusual for a mill or factory town.

Anyway those struggling readers were tough. They just about drove me off as a first year teacher. Somehow with the help of two instructional assistants, I survived running the IBM based reading lab. And those challenging students, in four years helped to form my classroom management skills.

At some point in the fall of 1975, I was introduced to Pat Conroy. The movie Conrack based upon his second book The Water Is Wide showed up on my three channel black and white television  set one night. I watched it and I was hooked.

I don’t recall when I bought a copy of The Water Is Wide, but at that moment of introduction I became a fan. But, I will confess, I haven’t read or purchased every book written by Mr. Conroy— The Boo, The Pat Conroy Cookbook:  Recipes of My Life, and My Reading Life are still out there for me to conquer.

On March 4, 2016, one of the meanest forms of cancer, pancreatic, took Mr. Conroy’s life. He was 70 years old. When Mr. Conroy announced in February that he was in this battle, an address was posted for sending him a note or letter, words of support and love.

I wrote Mr. Conroy a letter, and sent him a copy of our second self-published book, Murray and the Mudmumblers: The Christmas Benefit At The Haw River Ballroom.  I named the road manager for Murray and the Mudmumblers—Conroy. Perhaps, my letter and book made it to Mr. Conroy, but I will never know.

For me, I believe Mr. Conroy’s writing was grounded in this abbreviated  quote from him:  “The most powerful words in English are ‘Tell me a story’.” 

No matter if Mr. Conroy was writing fiction or nonfiction, he was quite the storyteller. He had the ability to draw me in, to hook me, to keep my attention, and in the closing lines, I didn’t want the book to end, I wanted more.

While I’m certain, some skilled critics of literature would disagree with my assessment, Mr. Conroy’s work resonated with me. His stories stuck to my ribs. He made me laugh, and my heart had tears well up in it.

I don’t believe he was successful, but Mr. Conroy attempted to expand my vocabulary with words like dyspeptic, censorious, salient, anathema, and choler.

Quite often food was woven into the pages of his work. No matter the path chosen by a character food could be a part of the journey. My mouth watered at some of those descriptions. Once, I even ordered shrimp and gravy at a small roadside restaurant at Ocean Isle Beach in North Carolina because of Mr. Conroy.

After I retired from 31 years of work in public schools, my friend, John McGinty, offered me a part-time job teaching freshman English at Benedictine High School in the city of Richmond. Benedictine was a Catholic, military grounded school for boys. The school was also known for its prowess on the basketball court. Mr. Conroy would have fit in as student athlete at Benedictine.

When My Losing Season was published I read with interest the references to Benedictine. Mr. Conroy wrote with great enthusiasm when his high school team unexpectedly took down the mighty Benedictine Cadets in a tournament. I always shared that section of the book with my classes.

Whether he was writing from fact or fiction, Mr. Conroy bared his soul when he wrote about his family. Families are as fertile as low country soil for stories. Those people, their stories molded Mr. Conroy. Most importantly, they shaped his writing.

His relationship with his college, The Citadel, was an off and on love affair. That tussle was grounded in his book The Lords Of Discipline. But, time has a way of healing wounds, even deep wounds.

I loved that Mr. Conroy had a very brief career as a teacher. But, he never lost his appreciation for teachers across America. When he would meet teachers, he would always say, “God’s work, but not God’s pay.”

If you were to ask me my favorite Pat Conroy book, I would probably lean toward The Water Is Wide. That book started my peregrination with him. (I wonder if he would approve of my vocabulary expander in the previous sentence?)

But, in truth, I also have an affection for A Low Country Heart Reflections on a Writing Life. This is a collection of nonfiction writing from Mr. Conroy and those who knew him from an assortment of angles.

If you want all of your emotions touched, read Mr. Conroy’s graduation speech to the Corps of Cadets at The Citadel in 2001. Again, I’m no expert, but I think the core of Pat Conroy is in that speech. Heck, you can even watch this address on You Tube.

Perhaps, somewhere, at this very moment, someone is working on a biography about Mr. Conroy’s life. 

This author will pour his/her heart and soul into hours and hours of research, interviewing, writing, rewriting, late nights, early mornings, deadlines, editing, reading the manuscript over and over again, listening to an editor’s suggestions, and finally a book will be published.

I’m sure I would rush out and buy a copy.

But then, why should I?

Part of me thinks Mr. Conroy has already given us his biography.

Mr. Conroy’s life is in his books.

He told us his story.

And for that sharing, I am forever grateful.

I miss you Pat Conroy.