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In Memoriam 

Three titans who defined local culture

click to enlarge Myron Helfgott

Scott Elmquist

Myron Helfgott

You may not recognize their names – Myron Helfgott, Larry Bland and Nick Kafantaris – but this autumn Richmond lost these three indomitable characters whose determination and talents added rich layers to the bedrock of local culture for much of the past half century.

Helfgott, who died on Sept. 25 at 84, was a Chicagoan who in 1968 joined the sculpture faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University. When he retired in 2003 the department, of which he had once been chairman, was renowned nationally. His passing leaves a gaping hole in Virginia’s broader art world. He was a warm, intuitive and supportive teacher who imbued his students with the knowledge that art making was, at its core, intellectual, visual and technical problem solving. He was a deeply loyal friend with a mischievous spirit, the latter a characteristic of his own work. A prolific and meticulous art-maker of the first degree, his pieces were as sophisticated as they were witty and inscrutable.

There’s the Vienna Boys Choir, and Salt Lake City has its Tabernacle Choir, but for the past four decades the sometimes 125 musician-strong Volunteer Choir was the pride of Richmond. Bland, a native son and musical wizard, died on Nov. 13 at 67 of cancer. His musical training began at 8 on the piano. In his teens at Maggie L. Walker High School, he directed various church choirs. In college he was key to establishing the Virginia State University Gospel Chorale. This led to his leading the Volunteer Choir, initially at Second Baptist Church in the Randolph neighborhood. Its performances exuded high precision and professionalism. Bland was an impresario who packed Dogwood Dell and guided the city’s former annual summer arts festival, June Jubilee. His group’s performances thrilled gubernatorial inaugurations and graced the visit here of Queen Elizabeth II in May 2007. As he told Style just two years ago: “Gospel has the power to communicate the love of God like nothing else in this world can. It transcends everything and reaches into whoever is listening.”

click to enlarge Larry Bland - SANDRA SELLARS
  • Sandra Sellars
  • Larry Bland

No restaurant has characterized Richmond to more people longer and more fondly than Joe’s Inn at 205 N. Shields Ave. For some 40 years, its former owner, Nick Kafantaris, personified – often gruffly – the diner that he acquired in 1977 and transformed into a destination without losing its neighborhood appeal. A native of Greece, Kafantaris had lived mostly above the restaurant until his death Nov. 22 at 76. Before Kafantaris, namesake Joe Menearini had operated Joe’s since 1952. Prior to that a Sanitary Grocery Store was at the address. In 1980, Joe’s was expanded into the adjacent building. And while its American, Greek and Italian menu is broad, diners’ perennial favorites are spaghetti a la Joe, sauteed sirloin tips with mushrooms, and the summer Greek salad when Hanover tomatoes are available. Kafantaris’ spirit continues there. 

Nick Kafantaris - TINA KAFANTARIS
  • Tina Kafantaris
  • Nick Kafantaris
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