Along with the laughter, glitter, music, gifts, food and family, the holidays may bring remembrances of those not at the table this year.
In Richmond, we reel from the loss of lives from violence. Nationally, we come to grips with 800,000 Americans dead from COVID-19. But this year, Richmonders also saw the passing of a galaxy of public individuals whose smarts, spirit and spunk made our community stronger and better.
Here is a tally of some bright lights that were extinguished. You may have your own list.
On Jan. 2, Thomas O. Jones, the Virginia district court jurist who presided judiciously over hundreds of traffic cases, died at 80. He was also an inadvertent pioneer in establishing the Arts District, having restored a number of historic multi-use buildings downtown in the 1980s — often swinging a hammer himself.
Louis Briel, Jr. died on Jan. 20 at 75. A painter, his colorful and contemporary portraits of such figures as Richmond advertising guru David N. Martin and tennis star Arthur Ashe grace the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
John L. Packett, a Richmond Times-Dispatch sports writer for 40 years who covered Arthur Ashe as part of his tennis beat, passed away on Feb. 1 at 77. The Vietnam veteran was inducted to the Richmond Tennis Association Hall of Fame.
Anne Cunningham Woodfin, who with her husband, John, founded Woodfin Oil, was a member of the Virginia Military Institute board of visitors. In 1996, she voted (successfully and controversially) to admit women to the school. She died on Feb. 11 at 82.
Feb. 13 brought the demise of Gilbert M. Rosenthal. He grew his family’s Standard Drug store chain to 53 stores before selling to CVS in 1993. Style Weekly later named him and his wife, Fannie, “Richmonder of the Year” for their broad philanthropy. This “quiet giver” died at 95.
Richmond has proudly claimed the celebrated newsman Roger Mudd since he started his career here in 1953 at the Richmond Times-Dispatch and at WRNL radio. The Washington & Lee University grad, CBS and NBC anchor, and PBS essayist died on March 9 at 93.
As Virginia Commonwealth University’s basketball season rolls on, some will salute the school’s first basketball coach, Benny Dees, who died on March 23 at 86. The Georgia native coached VCU’s inaugural, 1967-1968, season with reportedly “unbelievable passion.”
Corporate and civic titan Thomas F. Farrell II died on April 2 at 66, a day after retiring as chairman of Dominion Energy. While his Navy Hill redevelopment project didn’t fly, his leadership mark on our cityscape includes the svelte Dominion tower on Canal Street, the Dominion Energy Center, and the Altria Theater.
Another essential civic player was Adele C. Johnson, director of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia in Jackson Ward, and past head of the Richmond Public Schools Education Foundation. This elegant lady and New Jersey native died on April 25 at 70.
Samuel Forrest, an artist, Carver habitue, and sailor (who crossed the Atlantic and back, solo), died May 5 at 85. His finely-crafted furniture, which was sculptural as much as practical, will be featured next spring in a retrospective exhibition here at the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design.
- Thomas Inge, who was founder of the English department at VCU, and for 35 years a professor of American literature and culture at Randolph-Macon College, died on May 15 at 85. He championed and elevated comic strips, films and humor as worthy of academic study.
Navy Secretary and long-serving U.S. Sen. John Warner injected rare showbiz glamor to staid Virginia politics when he married actress Elizabeth Taylor in 1976.The World II and Korea veteran, and a Republican who sought bipartisanship in Congress, died on May 25 at 94.
Roberta Pearson Grymes Gibson, a gentle but resolute guiding force for more than 50 years as a board member and patron of the Richmond Ballet since the early 1960s, died on May 21 at 85.
A fierce advocate for our community’s seniors, Thelma Bland Watson died June 25 at 70. As head of Senior Connections of the Capital Area Agency for Aging, her work touched 25,000 residents of a certain age annually.
Richmond has had few fine restaurants as quietly perfect as La Petite France. It was established in 1971 by French-born Marie Antoinette Elbling with her husband, Paul. The gracious gourmand died on July 11 at 82.
Another restaurateur, Jameel Abed, Palestine-born, owned and operated the Mediterranean Bakery and Deli. COVID-19 took him on Aug. 10 at 70. He was also the founder of the Islamic Center of Virginia.
Energetic Lisa Schaffner, the former longtime news anchor of WRIC-Channel 8, was 59 when she died on Aug. 19. She was also a director of the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). Said an admirer: “(She) uplifted the community.”
Manuel George Loupassi was a runner, including a marathon in his native Greece, when he wasn’t overseeing The Robin Inn, the cozy Fan District eatery he ran, with his wife Carol, from 1963 to 1995. He died on Aug. 25 at 84.
Berobed clergy and admirers from across the nation gathered in September at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to memorialize the Right Rev. John Shelby Spong, who died at 90 on Sept. 12. The former minister of that prominent parish, and bishop of the diocese of Newark, N.J., championed inclusive Christianity and interfaith dialog.
Sam Miller Cafe was a pioneer in what was the Shockoe Slip warehouse district when it was opened in 1972 by Thomas D. Leppert, a New Jersey native. The restaurant continues, but its visionary founder died on Oct. 19 at 74.
Sidney J. Gunst, Jr. was 26 when he developed Innsbrook corporate park on 1,000 then-rural acres along West Broad Street. It was a success and today, mixed-use growth of his gamble continues to flourish. Trailblazer Gunst died on Oct. 22 at age 70.
Also on Oct. 22, Richard Dilworth, former president of State-Planters Bank capital region (now Truist) died at 94. A veteran U.S. Navy officer, he served the bank from 1951 to 1984. He was also an Anglophile and was devoted to making Agecroft Hall a local cultural destination.
Virginia’s 61st governor, and one of its most consequential, A. Linwood Holton, died Oct. 28 at 98. The Republican restored two-party government to Virginia, introduced the cabinet form of government, promoted business and labor interests and made civil rights and school integration hallmarks of his term (1970-1974).
Incidentally, Spong, Gunst and Holton were named as three of the 100 most consequential Richmonders of the 20th century by Style Weekly in 1999. “Opportunity time,” were two words often quoted by Holton. Many leaders who departed this year clearly followed the late governor’s mantra.