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High on Santa’s list / December 24, 2009
Without intending to trod on Santa’s turf, a few years ago I started the Christmas tradition in this space of handing out the gift of a nice word or two for the people, places and things that make Halifax County such a wonderful community. One week of the year at least, I offer nothing but nice things to tuck under the tree.

This year’s list:

n Marcus Hargrave. Like almost everyone else, I read occasional letters to newspapers from people complaining about the temperature of the YMCA pool, or the programs shown on the workout room TVs, and I thank my lucky stars I’m not in charge of running a YMCA. For the record, I joined the South Boston Y the day after I returned home from college, and Marcus Hargrave is the best Y director, by far, that I’ve encountered as a member for three decades running (and swimming).

Not only does Marcus do a bang-up job managing the local Y, he serves as director of the South Hill branch and is working to complete a multi-million renovation of the old South Hill Elementary to serve as the organization’s new home. Plus he sits on the Halifax County IDA and the rails-to-trails board and who knows what else. Where he finds time in his day to do all this, I have no idea. Now, if only I could convince him to banish Glenn Beck from the tube while I’m working out on the Stairmaster.

n Chris Jones. Anyone who steps into The Prizery is bound to be impressed by the range of the offerings and the quality of the facilities at Halifax County’s arts and visitors center. But let’s be real. A building is a building, nothing more and nothing less. What makes The Prizery a truly special place is the dedication of the people who toil behind the curtain — and no one works harder at it than Chris Jones, the executive director. He brings passion to his avocation and has a great feel for all tastes in the performing arts, with the result being a bill of fare that gets more sensational with each passing year. (The last act I caught was the Matt Hershowitz Trio. Flat-out awesome).

With ventures such as The Prizery, it’s useful to consider what the place might be like if the staff did little more than go through the motions, or had a poor grasp of the business of arts and culture. By contrast, Chris lights the place up, even if the staff spends six-fifths of its time scrambling around to make sure every show and exhibit is an enjoyable experience.

Disclaimer: my wife is a part-time grants writer for The Prizery. Additional note bound to get me in trouble: of all the volunteers who toil in this town, I don’t know of any who works harder than The Prizery’s Peg Anderson. No doubt it’s a labor of love, yes, but it’s labor nonetheless.

n Local restaurants. It blows my mind that South Boston and Halifax would be home to two truly world-class restaurants in Bistro 1888 and Molasses Grill. Talk about an embarrassment of riches. But let’s not focus exclusively on the high end of the local restaurant scene. South Boston’s offerings across the board are simply a heckuva lot better than anyone should have the right to expect.

I know I’m going to land in hot water by leaving someone off my list, but our ethnic restaurants are outstanding (tasty Chinese, excellent Mexican, some out-of-this world Italian, and — stop the presses! — sushi in South Boston), we’ve got many fine restaurants filling the mid- and upper-range of the market (Ernie’s, The Lodge, Four Oaks, Berry Hill’s various eateries, plus others I know I’ve forgotten), the lunch crowd can choose among some top-notch pizza and sandwich shops (Italian Delight, Pino’s, O' Sole Mio, Caffe Peroni, Windmill Farms, the Packhouse, etc.) and so on and so forth. On the minus side, Riverdale recently lost Ziggy’s, a place I used to frequent long ago in my 20s, but maybe someone will step up and fill the void. To all our independent local restaurant proprietors: I don’t know how you do it, but please, keep doing it.

n Healthy Families Halifax. I’m biased here because I’m friends with the director, Debby Knight, and case worker, Dana Miller, but if you stop to ponder all the needs of our community, effective and caring social work has to rank somewhere near the top of the list. Healthy Families works with first-time parents, very often single teenage mothers, to see that children 5 and under get the care (and love) they need. To some ears this may sound like squishy mission. It’s not. It’s essential. Social work is a greatly underrated occupation in our society, and I’m just glad for organizations like Healthy Families that make life for young parents a little less challenging and harsh. Healthy kids today make better citizens tomorrow.

n Since Need No. 1 in the community — more jobs — has been rather elusive to come by of late, it might seem jarring to give a shout-out to Halifax County’s oft-maligned Industrial Development Authority. So I won’t. (This is subject to immediate change when and if new director Mike Sexton delivers on the business prospects he’s been talking about for the past few months). One person at the IDA, though, who deserves credit for her professionalism and longstanding dedication to Halifax County is Patsy Vaughan, so she earns a spot on our list.

Through thick and thin, Patsy has toiled to keep local development initiatives moving forward, and maybe, just maybe, the county will reap some of the rewards in 2010. As a general proposition, government staff often do fine work implementing policies that I and a lot of the other people might not always think are such a good idea, which to my mind aptly describes Patsy. Along the same lines, the Virginia Tobacco Commission, a recurring target of derision in this space, is blessed to have some first-rate talent on staff, notably Grants Program Director Tim Phohl and Deputy Director Ned Stephenson. Now if only someone would take the joystick away from the politicians and give it to one of those guys .....

n Kevin Chandler. The big guy and I played on the HCHS high school basketball team together back in the days when our vertical leaping abilities exceeded three inches, so pardon me once again as I let personal associations intrude on my Christmas list. Kevin is a great guy who has done many worthy things for the community. I know I should’ve written something about him back when he was working for the Mentor/Role Model program, but now he’s moved on to work as a counselor for the Southside Community Services Board and I’m confident he’ll make his mark there, too. Kevin is also head of the Halifax County NAACP, a pastor and worthy of any leadership role people might entrust in him. He’s also pretty spry for an old guy ....

n Darren Talbott. He sells motorcycles for a living at Ed’s Honda but changed the landscape of local democracy by founding, the Internet chat site where people get together to dish and rant and commiserate and organize. And it’s all good. Seriously. Such a judgment may strike olks as odd, given there are days when HalifaxTalk is more wankerrific than a season’s worth of episodes of the Glenn Beck show. I know there are people who do good deeds in the community who are driven to distraction by the carping that sometimes runs rampant on the site. But it’s a small price to pay for a medium that brings people into the conversation of how Halifax County is run and what it should strive to be, which from a dispassionate point of view is a complete win for the community. Talbott, along with moderators Bunny Propst (his sister) and Andy Rice, have brought the Internet to the local level and ramped up the conversation in our community, for better and worse. It’s a considerable accomplishment.

That almost rounds out our list, save for one group of folks who deserve credit for the product that you’re now reading: the staff of the News & Record. That includes our two Traceys, Tracey Conner and Tracey Barksdale, who make up the ads and set the copy and do a fantastic job with everything they set their sights to do; our bookkeeper, Janet Meyer of Clarksville, still fairly new to the job but smart as all get-out; Danny Lamberth, photographer and sales rep and the guy whose picture you see in the dictionary when you go to look up “people person”; David Conner, without doubt the best photographer in the state of Virginia for a newspaper this size and the whiz-bang-boom designer of our snazzy website,; my brothers Bill, who makes sure the trains (and deliveries) run on time, and Tucker, who I like to tease in space from time to time but keeps the News & Record moving forward with his manic energy, drive, craziness and creativity; and finally, of course, my mother, about whom nothing needs to be said because everyone knows it already. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

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