June 19, 2021
Presented in partnership with the Center for Humanities and the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention
An ethereal, site-specific outdoor projection installation by artist Craig Walsh, Monuments celebrates unsung community members who impact the New River Valley region. Upending traditional expectations of public monuments and the selective history represented in our public spaces, these unforgettable images projected onto towering trees demonstrate the profound importance of individuals from our community.
Meet the Monuments
Serving as a radiation therapist at LewisGale Regional Cancer Center in Pulaski is just one of Jacob George's many roles, which include "husband, father, bus driver, teacher, and prayer warrior." Before starting at the Pulaski cancer center 16 years ago, George served as a math teacher of students in grades 5-10 in his native India, worked in a Texas hospital dietary, and earned certifications as a pharmacy technician and radiation therapist. As a dedicated husband and father of three, George devotes his time to a variety of pursuits beyond the excellent care he’s known for at LewisGale Regional Cancer Center; these include driving buses for Blacksburg Transit and actively participating in his church. In his free time, he loves to grow vegetables in his garden and cook Indian food for his children. In these various capacities, George is consistently "extraordinary," "humble," and "compassionate," writes his nominator, Robin Thompson, director of the cancer center.
Tara Orlando lives in Floyd County, where she devotes her time to helping people and fighting injustice. In 2019 Orlando noticed that immigrants (legal asylum seekers) en route north were being transported on buses without supplies, so she started cooking meals, collecting essential travel items two to six times a week, and meeting the weary travelers to assist them with answers to their questions (she is trilingual). Within a year, Orlando applied for nonprofit status, and the Floyd Friends of Asylum Seekers (FFOAS) was born. Now, Floyd is home to a community of approximately 42 asylees, with whom FFOAS assists in getting to essential appointments, work, legal assistance, medical care, and access to English as a Second Language classes. Nominator Lydia Armistead says, "Tara speaks truth to power and works to make our community better for all."
Debbie Sherman-Lee is a dedicated volunteer in the community, committing her time, expertise, and care to broaden educational access, cultivate civic engagement, dismantle racism, and provide affordable housing. For 36 years she taught at Christiansburg High School, continually driven to "make our community a better and equal place for everyone." Today, Sherman-Lee serves as board chair of Christiansburg Institute, Inc.—the African American school she attended before Montgomery County public schools were racially integrated—and is a member of the boards of Community Housing Partners, Appalachian Women Rising, and Dialogue on Race. She has been volunteering at the Montgomery County Christmas Store since 1982 and is a member of the Community Group/New Mountain Climbers, Montgomery County Education Foundation, Christiansburg High School Leadership Team, Pastor Parish Relations Committee of Asbury United Methodist Church, the United Methodist Women group, 100+ Women Who Care of the New River Valley, the local branch of the NAACP, and Potpourri Club. Multiple people nominated Sherman-Lee for Monuments, describing her as "joyful," "tireless," "vital to the success of many community organizations," "fundamentally kind," and possessing "more knowledge and connections than anyone [they] know."
Meet the Nominees
Phyllis Allbritton is a widely known Blacksburg citizen who has consistently stood for social justice and civil rights of the underserved. Allbritton is a changemaker who volunteered internationally with the NAACP, co-founded the Valley interfaith Child Care Center, and helped bring the first Headstart program to the New River Valley. Her nominator, Julia Fallon, notes she "should be recognized for a lifetime of caring and volunteering for others."
Dick Arnold co-founded the New River Valley Leading Lights, where he also served as president, to acknowledge and honor volunteers across the NRV who are making community-changing impacts, following the shootings of April 16, 2007, on the Virginia Tech campus. Arnold was awarded the Rotary Club of Christiansburg-Blacksburg 2018 Citizen of the Year Award and is a past vice president and member of the German Club Alumni Foundation. Arnold was nominated by Mark Wigginton.
Through theatre, music, and mental health care, licensed therapist Cindy Blevins has fostered the health, well-being, and creativity of New River Valley residents as chairperson of Summer Musical Enterprise and director of local choirs. "She makes this world better with her light and tenacity," Blevins' nominator, Reilly Blevins, wrote.
Lynn Brammer has been a Christiansburg technician at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine for more than 38 years and is deeply involved in local environmental and social advocacy and making healthy produce accessible for those in need. Brammer's nominator, Julia Fallon, says, "Lynn does so much volunteering in the community, it's truly amazing."
Michael Calfee is a housekeeper at Virginia Tech and was named the 2016 facilities department Employee of the Year. Calfee's nominator says, “His caring and friendly personality comes through in every interaction with him, and he played a central role in creating a sense of community in Cheatham Hall.”
Christy Cochrane is the federal contracting program coordinator at the Office of Sponsored Programs at Virginia Tech. An experienced negotiator of sizable federal contracts, Cochrane is a firm believer in the value of research to improve society and reliable support for those with whom she works. "She is always dealing with something urgent," writes her nominator, "and despite this, she will drop what she's doing if you ask her for help."
Joyce Coupey was born in England prior to World War II and lives in Blacksburg. Coupey's life has been filled with many efforts to help others, including volunteering for Warm Hearth Village and a local church. Her nominator, Julia Fallon, says, "She is remarkable in so many ways and is selfless."
Carol Crawford Smith
Carol Crawford Smith was the founder and artistic director of the Center of Dance in Blacksburg and is a former soloist with Dance Theatre of Harlem. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000, Crawford Smith continues to teach and connect with her New River Valley-based students and families virtually. Her nominator, Janine Kniola, writes, "Carol is an inspiration, and has touched the lives of so many children and adults by creating and supporting the arts community in Blacksburg."
A "matriarch of art" in Floyd, Marie Daniel is a former art teacher at Floyd County High School, organizer of non-profit donation center Angels in the Attic, and regular volunteer at the Floyd Center for the Arts. "She gracefully steps forward and apples her time to arts education and community involvement," writes Daniel's nominator, Nikki Pynn.
Jessie Eaves is a descendant of the enslaved people of Montgomery County and volunteers at the Alexander Black House and the Saint Luke’s and Odd Fellows Hall. Says her nominator, Julia Fallon, "She is an amazing, every day, community hero."
A longtime volunteer with the Montgomery County Christmas Store, Carol Fox is dedicated to her community and, as her nominator states, "has served her church community in many ways." Fox heads up the biannual Christ Episcopal Church's Yard Sale for Outreach, which supports Valley Interfaith Child Care Center, the Blacksburg Interfaith Food Pantry, and other local efforts.
Penny Franklin co-founded the Community Group to empower the local African American community and to encourage African Americans to run for public office. In 2012 the Community Group established the Dialogue on Race to bring diverse groups together to discuss issues of importance to African Americans and take action to address inequalities. Franklin was the first African American to be elected to public office in Montgomery County in 1999, where she served on the school board. She currently serves as vice-chair, but has previously served as the chair.
Cynthia "Cyndy" Graham retired from Virginia Tech in 2015 after serving for 28 years. Graham is currently the office manager for Brown, Edwards & Company, CPAs in Christiansburg. She received a bachelor's degree in English from Virginia Tech in 1994. She volunteers at the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg and is a former board member. Graham enjoys reading, yoga, and travel, and loves to sing. She performs with Julia Fallon, harpist, as Harpin’ Singin’. Says her nominator, Fallon, "she truly cares to make the NRV better."
Mitchell Haugh has been the director for Montgomery County Parks and Recreation for 14 years, where he consistently goes above and beyond his call of service, making sure surprise disasters are handled and volunteers are taken care of. Says his anonymous nominator, "He's always smiling, always fun, always impactful."
Susan Hensley, called "selfless" by her nominator, Julia Fallon, has donated her artwork to local and regional charities to benefit the underserved. Hensley taught communication studies at Virginia Tech and Radford Universities and English as a Second Language at Virginia Tech.
Jennifer Holub is a dedicated dance teacher and educator at Little Leapers and LEAP Performing Arts Academy. Holub spends countless hours behind the scenes for her students, and her nominator, Christin O'Rourke, says, “Her love for the studio and her students shines through everything she does. Her kindness radiates through the studio and touches each family daily.”
As the owner of New River Art and Fiber, Jessica Jones creates community by providing art supplies, organizing local businesses, and advancing environmental and social justice goals through her work. Jones' nominator, Sarah Johnson, states, "Her business has endeavored to diversify [its] partnerships with businesses owned by women, LGBTQ+, and BIPOC." Her thoughtful selection of Earth-friendly products, produced by historically under-resourced communities, educates and enables customers to build a better world through their art.
Heather Leeper is the owner and director of Little Leapers and the LEAP Performing Arts Academy. She is the director of Little Leapers' The Nutcracker at the Moss Arts Center. Leeper, a Virginia Tech alumna, started Little Leapers at the Virginia Tech YMCA and has grown her business into the largest dance studio in the New River Valley, recently expanding to open a second location in Roanoke. Leeper ensures all her students have opportunities in dance. She has a positive impact on the community by modeling hard work, passion, dedication, and kindness. Her nominator, Kara Clemons, describes her as "selfless" and says "she always thinks of others before herself."
Tracy Newton, a Black American also descended from Choctaw lineage, works at Virginia Tech and is a medal-awarded veteran and founding member of the Virginia Tech Veterans Caucus. Newton has worked to innovate allyship among veterans within the university and the community at large. Says nominator Tamarah Smith, "I look up to her and value her as an agent of transformational change."
Mara Robbins is a Floyd-based artist, activist, and community organizer associated with Preserve Floyd and 1000 Flags/1000 Waters. A person deeply committed to her community, Robbins has, as nominator Michele Deramo describes, an “unwavering ethical core” in her support of the activists resisting the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
Ralph Robertson has immeasurably invested in the recreational assets of Giles County since the early ‘80s. Born in Narrows, Virginia, in 1951, Robertson served in the military during the Vietnam War and retired from the Celanese Corporation in 2014 after 41 years of employment. Known for his profound knowledge of the local landscape, passion for its care and upkeep, and character as a “doer,” Robertson has played a key role in developing and advocating for outdoor recreation in Giles County. Writes nominator Calesa Remington, “Ralph has a soul that is too good and too big for this world.”
April Seiple runs play-based children's art studio the Art Factory LLC out of the Newport Community Center in Giles County. Nominator Joelle Shenk writes, "April ALWAYS goes above and beyond to help people, lend a hand, provide creative ideas, and put those ideas into motion. She sees a need and meets it."
Joelle Shenk has spent the last 19 years directing, writing, producing, and performing across the United States and overseas. Shenk currently owns and operates JoELoe Productions LLC in Blacksburg, where she teaches community and school-based theatre programs for all ages. "She is such a wonderful asset to our community," writes her nominator, April Seiple. "Joelle is always actively seeking ways to help and serve others."
Kimberly Simcox is an OB/GYN who has built her practice to serve pregnant and postpartum women with substance use disorder in the New River Valley and trains other physicians in these practices. Simcox’s nominator, Mary Beth Dunkenberger, says, “She serves as a model physician to other health care providers.”
Amanda Talbert, Tiffany Norman, and the staff and volunteers of Montgomery Health District
Staff members of the Montgomery County Health Department played an indispensable role in protecting residents through their organization and facilitation of the COVID-19 vaccination effort. "The large clinics I went to were run smoothly and with joy," says nominator Ellen Bosman of this professional public health team. "In a hectic, fearful time, they were reassuring to me—just another community voice."
Robyn Toney spends her own time and resources caring for stray animals, specifically cats, in the New River Valley. Toney goes above and beyond in the care of animals, being on call to help anyone who has problems with strays they can’t handle and helping get others set up when there aren't established care systems. Her nominator, Annie Pierce, states "She is truly remarkable."
Lewis Townsend Jr.
Lewis Townsend Jr. is the branch manager of Wells Fargo Bank in Blacksburg. "Patient, kind, and considerate," in the words of his nominator, Crasha Townsend, Townsend assists people in all phases of life with navigating the "very vulnerable" area of finances, whether it's minors setting up their first bank accounts to "grieving families who are sorting out financial matters that are both sensitive and difficult."
"What sets Nick Troitino apart [from other Emergency Medical Services volunteers] is his incredible drive to lead others to this calling and his passion for continually improving the level of service available to our region," writes nominator David English. As deputy chief of support in the Blacksburg Volunteer Rescue Squad, Troitino continually "thinks bigger" to maximize the level of care available to residents throughout the region.
Beth Umberger devotes her efforts to the natural world in and around Blacksburg, engaging the community in advocacy for the preservation of areas such as Stadium Woods, Montgomery Museum Gardens, and Depot Park. Says nominator Nicole Hersch, Umberger "practices what she preaches.... I am truly inspired by her!"
As executive director of the Calfee Community and Cultural Center in Pulaski, Jill Williams has been "instrumental in the revitalization of the Calfee Training School," writes nominator Kendall Payne. Williams advocates for Pulaski youth, serves on the town's YMCA board, and regularly commits her time to community organizing and capacity building among local organizations.
Jessica Wirgau leads the Community Foundation of the New River Valley as CEO, addressing community needs and improving the quality of life for underserved communities in the region. Wirgau’s nominator, Rosemary Blieszner, says, “She has a generous spirit and is constantly considering how to serve the NRV region more effectively.”
This year, Virginia Tech marks its 150th year with an ongoing celebration of its impact and engagement. The arts are woven throughout the university's history and are a critically important part of its future. This event is part of a range of special performances, exhibitions, and experiences happening throughout the month of April that demonstrate the incredible value the arts and creative experiences have at Virginia Tech.