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One Degree of Separation. . .Again

by | Jun 3, 2019 | Voices of Davidson

My Lead Hampton Roads class on the flight deck of USS Theodore Roosevelt – I’m the bookend on the right, and my friend Tara is the bookend on the left.


Friday afternoon, the first notification I got about the horrific, deadly shooting in Virginia Beach was a post on Facebook.

As a retired Navy officer, I started my Navy career in the Hampton Roads area in 1990, and had the great privilege to wrap things up there 25 years later. In between, I served assignments around the globe.

In 2013-2014 I was fortunate enough to be selected to participate in the “Leadership Hampton Roads” (LHR 2014) program. One of my classmates worked for the City of Virginia Beach, and Tara was directly impacted by this tragedy.

Tara & I with our LHR 2014 classmates at the end of year ball.

Friday, she left Building 2 in the Virginia Beach municipal complex roughly two hours before the gunman killed 12 – including 11 of her co-workers, and a contractor who happened to be in the building filing for a permit.

And while other Va. Beach friends used Facebook to mark themselves “safe” after word got out about the shooting in Virginia Beach – Tara’s post was piercing.

In between our time together as a part of LHR 2014, Tara went back to graduate school – at Virginia Tech. During her time at VT, she learned a lot about the resilience of the “Hokie Nation” in the wake of the mass shooting that occurred on the Blacksburg campus in 2007.

The tragedy in Virginia Beach was also reminiscent of the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, when one of my classmates from the National War College posted a very brief message – “Please don’t call or text – we are still trying to find out whether our daughters are ok.”

Friday evening, Tara said that she felt that she needed to step away from social media. Friends and fellow LHR classmates reached out to share our support with her. She subsequently said that she was going to try to tell some stories about the friends she lost. Those gut-wrenching posts provide such a special look at the lives of these victims and not at the manner in which they were killed.

So, allow me to share these personal stories from my friend.


— From Tara –

City leaders said you would hear from us. Stories painting you a vivid picture of who our colleagues were. While my path crossed with many during my time with Virginia Beach, I am only going to write about the ones I worked with most closely. I have only just realized how many lives I have the honor of being a part of in this City. I hope my reflections due them justice and you have a new appreciation for your local public servants. For their families and friends, you are in my heart and prayers always. I hope and pray this never happens to anyone anywhere ever again.



The late Keith Cox

There was a hiring freeze within a very short time after joining the Engineering Division. My job duties changed rapidly as I filled in wherever help was needed – engineering contracts and then the very good fortune of working for now Public Utilities Director Bob Montague when he was Business Division Manager. Since my time with the engineers was brief (although I still saw them regularly across the hall), there are so many memories of the Business Division team. Like many of my Public Works colleagues, I know some of them were sheltered in place, and I have heard stories that break my heart. I was on the outside and felt so helpless. All I could do was account for people.

They are saying Keith was soft spoken, which is true, but I remember his laughter and gentle nature most. I remember walking through the call center daily – Keith began as one of our call service representatives. I would walk by his cubicle and hear him speaking to our citizens – and even if the calls were difficult, you could probably still hear the smile on his face. It’s strange how flashbacks keep coming and I am amazed by all the memories I have. They bring such comfort. I believe Keith would do anything to put a smile on someone’s face.

I kept a dish of candy on my desk. I now confess all these years later that it was a strategic lure so I could always check in on my coworkers. We saw quite a bit of foot traffic because of that dish – from both sides of the hall. Several engineers would stop by to see Bob, including Rich Nettleton, and would take a parting gift. Keith often frequented it just to say hello. As I moved on in the City and in life, I always tried to sneak back in and do drive by hug sessions with my extended PU family. It got a bit tougher with staffing changes and stricter security measures, but I understood. I remember when I first returned to the City and going to see him. He was now an account clerk and sharing an office in the back. I told him about graduate school and my travels, especially traveling to South Africa to study the work of Nelson Mandela. He looked at me with the biggest smile and said, “Knowing you went there makes perfect sense to me.”



The late Mary Lou Gayle

She was the first one that I knew we had lost. Mary Lou was one of the first employees I saw when I returned to the City after graduate school. We met her and a group of folks out in the field to discuss a bus stop. We were side by side the whole time catching up in between official business. She told me how excited she was to have me back with the City and said such wonderful things. So much kindness. Such a sweet smile.

I had recently transitioned into a different position and Mary Lou being the right of way expert she was, found an issue with some plans we had with a bus stop. Her eagle eye for detail was amazing as she meticulously reviewed property lines. Mary Lou and I probably spoke on the phone for more than an hour that day. Since I was new to some of the work we were doing, she walked me through all of the maps and online resources I needed to know. She was so patient, supportive, and funny. I talked to Mary Lou long after my day’s end. My shift usually ends at 5pm and it was well after 6pm. We’ve had a few of those calls every Friday since except when I was out the Friday before this tragedy. She cared so deeply for the work she was doing and the citizens she served.

I last bumped – literally – into Mary Lou in the restroom a few weeks ago. I was running out for a meeting in Public Works on the third floor. She was talking to a coworker. Her face lit up when she saw me. “Excuse me, Mary Lou. We will talk soon.”



The late Missy Langer

I was hired as a fulltime employee in December 2007 as an admin tech for the Department of Public Utilities. It was my first job with the City of Virginia Beach, but far from my last. I became part of the support team in the Engineering Division then headed by Gary Jones. Missy Langer was part of that team and we worked together on a daily basis. I admit I had a habit of popping into everyone’s office from time to time to say a quick hello. I took the idea of “support” literally. The one thing I remember about all the people I knew was their infectious smiles. My memories of Missy are how she was bubbly and a ray of sunshine, and such a great sense of humor. She was not afraid to cut up when the situation called for it. I remember stopping by her office several times throughout the course of the day and she always greeted me with that smile. I looked forward to rounding that corner to see her. I can still hear her saying, “Hey Tara.” There was so much warmth in her presence.



The late Rich Nettleton

I’ll be honest. I struggled to write this one. Rich was one of those offices in the Engineering Division that I popped into with my inquisitive mind. He always reminded me more of a college professor and me his willing pupil. The engineers would joke about the “dirty movies” they were showing me – they worked in sewers. It is my most recent memories of Rich that have been flooding my mind in the past 48 hours and reducing me to tears.

You see, Rich was one in a long line of people who saw things in me I didn’t see in myself. I left the City for quite some time to pursue graduate degrees. Little did I know that I would return to the place I started and work here again in a different department, and be in transportation. He liked that most of all and probably felt like an influence. I was at my Town Center office one day when in strolled Rich. “Tara! Well, I hardly have meetings this way but now I will have to stop in and see you when I am here.” He reflected on how long he had known me and stared at my degrees on the wall with such pride. With that smile you see in this photo, he looked at me and shook his head in disbelief, “I am so very proud of you.” I was so very humbled and deeply touched by all of his remarks that day. He was full of so much joy. Rich sat on my couch and I talked to him about my experiences at Virginia Tech. I shared with him my automated vehicle experiences and how I had my first chance to travel the world during grad school. He soaked it all up and then began telling me about smart city initiatives he knew about – sensors in pump stations and such. “You’re going to be a part of building a new city.”

It would not be my only run in with Rich after my return. The only other memory that I will share is his next visit to see me in Town Center. I received a message from a coworker eerily like the one I received on Friday. There were emergency vehicles at my apartment complex. I looked at Rich and said, “I have to go, something is wrong.” I started to explain the message to him. Without missing a beat, Rich followed close behind me as we made our way to my complex across the street. By the time we arrived, apparently, all had been restored to normal and it was a false alarm. I can’t get that out of my head. We had no idea what we were walking into but we were showing up to help in any way we could. We weren’t first responders but two public servant hearts wanting to help our citizens. I would not be surprised if he was doing the very same thing last Friday when he lost his life.

You may not have known Rich but he was one of those cornerstones of institutional knowledge. You could toss a stone from any place in Virginia Beach and likely strike a project that had Rich’s involvement. I will miss him telling me about them.



Jane Campbell

Jane Campbell, U.S. Navy, Capt. ret., grew up in a military family and lived around the globe before graduating from Davidson College with a degree in Political Science. During a 25-year career in the Navy, she served aboard three different ships and held a variety of shore-based assignments. She was stationed on the East and West coasts, as well as overseas. She had tours at the Pentagon and the White House, and volunteered for a deployment to Afghanistan. She moved to Davidson in late 2014 and has become involved in a variety of volunteer activities with college, church, and community. She serves as a photographer and Sports Editor for News of Davidson.

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