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Opinion

Face of happiness

SoVaNow.com / February 21, 2013
I guess I had a different relationship with Carroll Thackston than most. Or not. South Boston’s late mayor, who died Sunday night at the age of 79, seemed to have an endless reserve of mischief in his bones. He struck up a fast business friendship with my wife, who covered South Boston Town Council for this newspaper. Whenever I’d run into him, invariably Mayor Thackston would wonder what had possessed my significant other to marry down as anyone could plainly see she had done, with his role, set firmly in his own mind, to constantly remind me of the fact: “If she ever leaves you, tell her I know plenty of men who would be interested,” he said to me more than once.

The last I spoke to the Mayor for any length of time, we both were present for a ribbon-cutting at a local shop run by an African-American proprietor. This was a few weeks before the presidential election. Folks were milling inside the business, and in burst the mayor, happy as a freshly salinated clam. “Hey, McLaughlin,” he called out over the crowd. “How about that debate last night! I bet even you’re gonna vote for Romney now!” There probably wasn’t a Romney voter in the house, other than the mayor himself, but if that gave him any pause, one would have had to be mighty perceptive to notice it.

Of all the personality types in this headstrong, topsy-turvy world of ours, I can think of few more appealing than that of the happy warrior. Mayor Thackston — the General to those who thought of him foremost for his National Guard career, one of several contexts to Thackston’s distinguished and productive life — was indeed such a figure, a serious man who didn’t take himself too seriously. He rose to lofty heights, as mayor and especially as Adjutant General of the Virginia National Guard, leading one to wonder how he could have gotten there without stepping on or over someone on the climb up. Yet if such a blemish on his record exists, I’ve never heard the tale told. The defining characteristic of the happy warrior is a cheerful readiness to take the hard road, and serving as mayor of a struggling small town certainly should qualify on that score. Yet listening to the mayor, you’d never know that the sun wasn’t shining on the town on even its darkest day. Few can resist the charms of the optimist.

South Boston will be hard-pressed to find a mayor who offers good cheer and sound judgment in measure equal to that which we’ve just lost. A fellow veteran, Frank Carr, recalled this week how Thackston had worked so seamlessly with others on a veterans affairs council organized several years ago by then-Congressman Tom Perriello. (Carr, Thackston and retired physician Roger Browne all served on the group). A top priority, said Carr, who serves as state chaplain of the American Legion Department of Virginia, was convincing Congress to authorize a new Veterans Administration health clinic for veterans living in remote areas of the Fifth District. (Farmville got the nod, despite the best efforts of the local contingent to steer the project to South Boston). Thackston emerged as one of the group’s point men, testifying in Washington before the House Veterans Affairs Committee in 2010. The effort required the bridging of political divides — maybe most of all by the Republican members of the group, Thackston included, who stood side-by-side on the issue with Perriello, a Democrat — but common purpose trumped all else. “He never let veterans get far away from his thoughts,” remembered Carr. “He was a very good person, and I had just a great time working with him. He’s going to be sorely missed.”

In the wake of Mayor Thackston’s passing, it’s hard to imagine a more widely-shared sentiment in the community. Our condolences go out to his family and friends.

***

The life lived in full, in the end, conjures up warm thoughts; the life cut cruelly short inspires little but anguish and dread. The death this week of South Boston Elementary student Trevant Coleman from cancer would be a wrenching event even if the nine-year-old had been little known outside his circle of family and friends, but Trevant’s nearly-year long battle with a malignant brain tumor became a matter of intense public interest thanks to the Facebook postings of his mother, Adrean Coleman. There is nothing that anyone could write about Trevant that could possibly measure up to the anguished eloquence and rawness of his mother’s public expressions, but it does seem apt to note, at least, that Trevant’s story has reminded us how precious life truly is.

And for that, we have the courage of his family to thank — with Coleman’s willingness to speak openly about the sufferings of her child and her family, fates that could befall anyone, ranking as one of the most genuine acts of humanity we’re likely to see in a long time. One can only hope that happiness someday will discover a path back to the Coleman family’s world.

***

A tough week, obviously, for the community. It makes one long for the usual run of controversies that leave your humble scribe well-supplied for column fodder. Perhaps with luck things will return to the old normal by next week. Until then, here’s an idle question for the consideration of readers:

Which seems more unpredictable these days, gas prices or the weather?

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