By BEN R. WILLIAMS
You don’t need me to tell you that the late Gov. Gerald Baliles was a great man.
During his tenure as Virginia’s governor in the late 1980s, Gov. Baliles proved himself a visionary. He revitalized the Commonwealth’s roadways. He grew Virginia’s international trade. He appointed Elizabeth Lacy, the first woman to serve on the Virginia Supreme Court. His across-the-board popularity helped pave the way for his Lieutenant Governor Douglas Wilder to become Governor of Virginia himself, the first African-American governor of a U.S. state since Reconstruction.
Gov. Baliles was a great man. He was also a friend.
Now, I don’t want to overstate the case. I only encountered the man four or five times. I never helped him load a U-Haul or anything. But a couple of years ago, Gov. Baliles did something that meant the world to me, something that I will never forget.
I will preface this story by saying that I don’t like to air dirty laundry, but it’s impossible to tell this one right without cracking the hamper open a couple inches.
About two years ago, I was working for another local newspaper. I won’t name the publication, but it’s a bulletin of sorts concerning the goings-on in Martinsville. In addition to writing news stories, I wrote a column – basically this column – which was my favorite part of the job.
I received a lot of positive comments on this column, and it even won a Virginia Press Association award. Nonetheless, I arrived to work one day to be told that I was no longer allowed to write my column.
You see, the publisher at the time did not like this column. She did not like me. I expect she had some strong feelings about the horse I rode in on. And so my column was banned, and I had a strong suspicion that my days were numbered.
I’ll admit, it was a depressing time. I had grown to enjoy writing my column and I enjoyed hearing from the public. One very sweet lady told me that she clipped all of my columns out of the paper and put them in a little box so she could read them when she was feeling blue. When I lost my column, I felt like I’d let her down.
When The Powers That Be decide that you’re persona non grata, there is a dark tendency to just shrug your shoulders and give up. You can’t fight city hall, as the saying goes.
It was during this dark period that I received a phone call from the head of a local organization. She told me that Gov. Gerald Baliles was in town and she asked me if I’d like to have lunch with him.
Of course, I told her that I’d love to have lunch with Gov. Baliles.
“Great!” she said. “He wants to meet you.”
As the phone call ended, I was baffled. Why on Earth would Gov. Baliles want to meet me? I could only assume that he had me confused with a much more respectable Ben R. Williams, perhaps a former fighter jet pilot who had branched out into a career of running soup kitchens.
A couple hours later, I stepped through the front doors of the organization and met Gov. Baliles. He was wearing a suit, of course – I wouldn’t be surprised if he did yard work in a suit. He shook my hand and offered me a warm smile.
When we sat down for lunch, I realized that I had been mistaken. Gov. Baliles really did want to meet me. As it turns out, he was a fan of my work, and I told him I was a fan of his work as well.
As we shared lunch, Gov. Baliles asked me a host of questions. He asked me what had happened to my column (and was not terribly pleased with the answer). He asked me about the newspaper industry. He asked me about the challenges that Martinsville was facing and how I thought they should be tackled.
I asked Gov. Baliles a few questions as well, but he seemed more interested in picking my brain. It struck me as unusual to have someone of Gov. Baliles’ stature be so curious to hear my input on politics, business and economics. It was sort of like Buzz Aldrin asking a 10-year-old model rocket enthusiast for a few pointers on space travel.
Yet from Gov. Baliles, it was completely sincere and genuine. We discussed the issues facing southside Virginia for the better part of an hour and a half, continuing long after our sandwiches had disappeared. I had a fantastic time.
After we parted ways with a handshake, I felt a spring in my step. Sure, my column was still banned, but now I knew that one of the most esteemed figures in the history of the Commonwealth was a fan and supporter. I knew I wasn’t going to just shrug my shoulders and give up. To paraphrase a great American philosopher – Al Bundy from “Married with Children” – I was a loser, not a quitter.
I ran into Gov. Baliles several more times after that. Each time, he greeted me as you would an old friend. We talked about the future of I-73, the importance of the Patrick County Bookmobile, and economic inequality in different regions of Virginia.
Whenever I saw Gov. Baliles, I was struck by his kindness, his genuine nature and his gentle wisdom. He was a true southern gentleman, the rarest kind of politician. He did not divide and tear down; he brought people together and elevated them. The respect he still receives from both sides of the aisle is a testament to his courage and integrity.
That lunch meant a great deal to me – more, I suspect, than Gov. Baliles ever realized. It was an honor to know him.