Friday, March 21, 2014

The Passing of Two (Very Funny) Roanoke Area Giants

A couple of people I have truly treasured over many years died in the past couple of days, leaving a big hole in our community. They are Mary Bland Armistead, a former newspaper colleague of mine, and Dr. Robert Paine, a man who helped get me sober. Here's a short recollection of each:

Mary B as a reporter in about 1950
Mary Bland Armistead

Mary B was the very definition of an FFV (First Families of Virginia) with her DAR and Civil War General ancestor, but she was also one of the funniest people I ever knew. I worked with her at the Roanoke daily paper's features department in the late 1970s for two or three years and she was not just our best writer, she was the old lady (even then I thought of her as old because she was a good bit older than me; she died at 96) who said outrageous things.

She was a legend for a good while at the local daily in Roanoke, winning a sportswriting award early in her career (when women didn't do those things) and setting standards for prose that have rarely been met since. Always the consummate professional, always fall-down funny.

I was walking ahead of her down the hall to the bathroom one day and she chirped, "Dan Smith you have a very nice ass." I nearly fell down laughing. Nobody else heard it, I'm afraid, and when I told the story, they refused to believe me.

Another early morning, a newish writer from Pittsburgh named Jan Ackerman stormed into the office, slammed her purse on her desk and yelped, "How long does it take to be accepted in this town?" It was, of course, a rhetorical question from a new Salemite, but Mary Bland (she was never just Mary) jumped right on it: "Seven generations, my dear," she said cheerfully.

The office whisper about the old maid Mary B was that she had a long-time secret lover, a construction worker. It was one of those stories about people from opposite sides of the track finding something in each other that I truly wanted to believe, but I never found evidence of it. So I believed it anyway. It would have been so Mary Bland.

Grandoc Bob Paine

Dr. Bob, as everybody in AA for about two generations called him, helped me find a version of a higher power that propelled me into what is sitting on the edge of being 20 years of sobriety. He was a piller of that community for more than 50 years and helped start a branch that catered to medical people, but there was a lot more to Doc than even that, although that will be his Roanoke Valley legacy.

Doc, who was 88 when he died, was a physician at the Veterans Administration for many years and his daughter and my long-time friend Emily Paine Brady Carter (I think that's up to date with her married names) once told me he had been in private practice with a Dr. Hurt. She said Ripley's Believe it or Not had noted the pairing: Drs. Hurt and Paine.

Like Mary Bland, Doc had this cultured and sweet flavored Southern accent, soft and soothing, but also like Mary B, so funny that it was often hard to stand in his presence. His one-liners were droll, flat and required attention to get the full flavor, the quick wit and the impact. He kept his darling wife, Alice, a softspoken woman with an equal intelligence, in stitches. I suspect that's the primary reason their marriage was close to 65 years old (a good guess by me). Just a perfect couple in the sense that they loved each other every day they lived and they didn't have to make it up as they went.

I was in AA a number of times between 1971--when the court sent me as punishment for drunk driving--and finally getting sober in 1994 (I hope for the final time). Doc never deserted me, even when I was failing consistently to do what I needed to do to get sober. It was 23 years between my first white chip (announcing my intention to get sober) and my one-year chip, but Doc was always there from the time I first met him, always patient, always with the right advice, but only when asked. He was never my sponsor, but he was always a guiding light and an inspiration. He told me that the higher power I chose was just fine, even if it didn't correspond with anybody else's. "The importance here is that you have one," he said, "not what it looks like."

Doc probably would not approve of me saying anything publicly about his membership in a secret society, but I need to take that chance because there are a lot of people like me who would just love to say, "Thank you, Dr. Bob, for my life." And not all of them were his medical patients.

(Photo of Mary Bland: Roanoke Times. Sorry I don't have a photo of Dr. Bob, but it seems the elderly today are not available on the internet. I have a great shot of Doc and Alice somewhere, but wasn't able to locate it for this post. If I find it, I'll post it.)


  1. Great tribute to 2 great people!

  2. Would that we could all have such people in our lives -- and maybe learn, as I believe you have, to BE such people in the lives of others.