Bracelet Makers Disagree About 9-11 Jewelry; Museum Considers Cheek Memorial; Judge to Get a Rare Roasting; City Says River's Level Is OK; SPCA Dog Auditions as Pet Detective 

Street Talk

Bracelet Makers Disagree About 9-11 Jewelry

Two Richmonders plan to make the pain of Sept. 11 wearable.

In the weeks after the World Trade Center attacks, the same sudden vision separately struck two Richmond-area entrepreneurs to create and sell commemorative bracelets, each bearing the name of a victim of terrorism.

The concept came to Lt. Brian Rothell of the Chesterfield Fire Department as he was standing in the firehouse with his buddies. They were talking about buying FDNY caps for the crew, and Rothell suggested sewing on them the names of firemen who died in the WTC attacks. The caps were a hit. Rothell mulled over the idea of doing the same with bracelets and decided to sink $3,000 — money he'd been saving to buy a house — into his plans.

The same image of a name-engraved bracelet came to Torry Hoover, vice president of marketing for the Richmond metals manufacturer Hoover & Strong. Hoover found several people in his office who still had POW/MIA bracelets made after the Vietnam War, and thought he would create a similar testament to those killed by terrorism.

Hoover's proposal was cited in The New York Times recently in an article on the flood of applications for trademarks related to the events of Sept. 11. But he has since abandoned the original design. When he pitched it to a company committee, "they all turned white in fear," Hoover says ruefully. People thought victims' families might be offended to have the names of their sons and daughters worn on strangers' wrists. The committee decided the design was too controversial.

But Rothell, the other would-be bracelet vendor, thinks his bracelets are a fitting tribute. "You're memorializing these guys' names basically worldwide," Rothell says. "They did not die in vain."

His aluminum bracelets bear only the names of police and fire personnel killed. Rothell says he can't imagine anyone being angry — or suing him, he adds — when he's giving part of his profits to the families of the rescuers who perished. "My intentions are good," he says. Rothell says he doesn't know how much he'll donate for each $12.95 bracelet. He'll have to see how many he sells after ads appear in Firehouse Magazine and the National Enquirer in December, he says. Rothell's now marketing the bracelets through his Web site, Lex's of Carytown is selling them as well.

As for the other bracelet design, Hoover & Strong decided in the end to design a simple sterling silver cuff, engraved with "REMEMBER 9.11.01." After pitching the "Liberty Bracelet" through the company Web site and press releases, "it's kind of starting to catch on," Hoover says: About 3,000 bracelets have been sold for $20 apiece. The company's donating all its profits to three funds benefiting victims, Hoover says. The venture has raised $35,000 so far. "Our goal is a million," Hoover adds. "We have a long way to go." — Melissa Scott Sinclair

Museum Considers Cheek Memorial

Some say the entire Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is a monument to Leslie Cheek Jr. As director from 1948 to 1968, he turned a few modest galleries into a sprawling museum, sent "artmobiles" rolling across the state and introduced performing-arts series that continue today.

Still, few newcomers to Richmond may recognize Cheek's name. In the museum, it's marked only on a marble plaque placed in the VFMA's Renaissance Court. "He brought new life to the arts in the Old Dominion," it reads.

Museum officials are now pondering a way to bring new life to Cheek's legacy. Spokesman Don Dale (who moonlights as Style's television critic) confirms that plans for a memorial are being discussed, but won't give specifics.

Those who knew Cheek, who died in 1992 at age 84, say a marker would be nice. But anyone who walks into the museum today can see the effects of his 20-year tenure.

Betty Stacy, founder of the museum library and its director for 35 years, recalls that before Cheek arrived the VFMA had a reputation as a stuffy warehouse. But Cheek pushed to make the museum a dynamic stage for art, she says.

"Cheek's idea was to open it up and make it more dramatic," Stacy says. "A lot of his exhibitions were real crowd-pleasers."

Not everyone thought so, of course. "His ideas were … different from a lot of museum directors," Stacy says. "He was not somebody that was totally accepted." But Cheek listened to museumgoers, not critics. In 1990, he said, "The response of the people of Virginia to these pleasures [the arts] was, and remains, my rich reward." — M.S.S.

Judge to Get a Rare Roasting

Don't expect a Friars Club-style searing for this year's Richmond celebrity roast.

"I think it'll be a — how shall I say it? — a mild roast," says John H. O'Brion Jr., master of ceremonies. "Something less than 300 degrees, probably."

The victim is Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr., the man behind controversial rulings to desegregate Richmond schools, to mandate maternity-leave benefits for women and to release White House tapes related to Watergate. Merhige, 82, has retired from the bench, but he now works for the law firm Hunton & Williams.

Typically, politicians are chosen for the annual roast, which raises funds for Emergency Shelter Inc. But this year, ESI's executive director, Janice Fatzinger, sought someone who would draw more affectionate anecdotes than pointed barbs.

The judge gladly agreed to take part, Fatzinger says. "Sometimes we have to twist arms," she says. "He's probably the most willing victim we've ever had."

There's no shortage of stories about Merhige. After his 31 years as U.S. District judge for the Eastern District of Virginia, every lawyer in Richmond knows him. O'Brion, a partner with Troutman Sanders Mays & Valentine, tried his first case before Merhige in 1968.

"He is beloved," O'Brion says — but that doesn't mean the roast will turn into a long pat on the back. O'Brion plans to take a few shots at Merhige himself. "I think you can do it with a twinkle in your eye and a modicum of respect," he says.

Plus, he adds, it's a lot safer to poke fun at the judge now that he's retired from the bench.

Previous years' roasts have been more biting — or just bizarre. Some highlights included polished news anchor Lisa Schaffner appearing in an apron, Del. Viola Baskerville's friends producing a slide show of her bad-hair days, and Baskerville dubbing then-Mayor Tim Kaine the "other white meat." Kaine will be a roaster this year.

It's tough to come up with material that's funny but still a fitting tribute, says roaster Wendell L. Taylor, an associate with Hunton & Williams. He plans to simply get up and tell a few stories, unscripted. "If they're not laughing," he says, "I'll probably stop and sit down, I guess." — M.S.S.

The roast to benefit Emergency Shelter Inc., a Richmond homeless-services provider, will be held at the Jefferson Hotel on Tuesday, Nov. 27, at 6 p.m. Tickets are $60 per person. For more information, call (804) 358-7747.

City Says River's Level Is OK

Before any Richmonders became alarmed by a report of lax security at the city water treatment plant, they might have worried about the supply itself.

On a recent Sunday nearly everyone who crossed over the Belle Isle suspension bridge talked about the drought, and about how low the water looked. People pointed to the uncovered river rocks and to where the rapids normally would be. Even nimble kayakers appeared to have trouble traveling downstream.

Normally, river water moves along the James at a rate of between 3,500 and 4,000 cubic feet per second. But the river's current reading is 1,094 cubic feet per second.

Could we run out? Must we conserve? Mark Poland, spokesman for the city's Department of Public Utilities says no to both. (He points out, though, that it's a good idea to conserve water in any weather.)

The James River is the area's sole source of water. Every day Richmond's water treatment plant processes and pumps between 90 million and 105 millions of gallons of water, supplying it to 60,000 people in Richmond, as well as to many residents in Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover.

Fortunately, Poland says, as winter approaches, the demand for water diminishes. People water lawns less frequently and pools don't need to be filled.

The last time any local municipality has issued a water warning was in the summer of 1999 when Henrico County urged its residents to limit water consumption.

So far, the low river levels haven't affected water supply or its ecology, says Poland. That could change if the weather in Virginia's mountains remains this dry all winter. And rain in the Shenandoah Valley is what makes the water level in Richmond rise.

By presstime, Richmond hadn't had rain in 33 days. There hadn't been rain in the mountains, either. And none is expected anytime soon.

But Poland isn't worried.

"Yeah, we need rain, there's no doubt about it," he says. "But in spite of the way the river looks, there is plenty of water in it for us to drink." — Brandon Walters

SPCA Dog Auditions as Pet Detective

The Richmond SPCA recently had a contender when one of its foster pups came within a hair of being whisked off for active duty.

Earlier this month, a U.S. Customs Service officer with the canine-procurement unit nearly picked Melody, a sprightly 2-year-old grown Rottweiler mix, to go through its rigorous training program for contraband-sniffing dogs.

Denise Deisler, assistant executive director for the SPCA, says the U.S. Customs Service gets most of its dogs from shelters. So the SPCA's behaviorist, Sarah Babcock, looks for traits in its animals — such as energy and the ability to pay attention — that the U.S. Customs canine scout would look for.

"They want dogs intensely motivated," says Babcock. She says that when the officer made his first visit he walked up and down the kennel aisle bouncing a tennis ball. He was watching to see which dogs were obsessively watching the ball.

"He wants the ones that want the ball," says Babcock.

Melody's tryout marks the third visit the U.S. Customs officer has paid the animal-rescue and adoption facility.

"We call them when we think we have candidates," says Deisler. But so far, no candidates have made the cut.

Melody was in the end passed over by the agency. The customs officer who gave the test could not be reached for comment.

Regrettably, Melody just didn't seem to care enough about the white terry-cloth towel the officer kept waving in front of her nose, then hiding.

"It's almost this ferocious focus they're looking for," Deisler says. Melody, Deisler concedes, is just not that ambitious. "She did it for a while," Deisler says, "but then she just lost interest."

Melody is now waiting to be adopted by a loving and laid-back family. — B.W.


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