To say it has been an emotional week would be a monumental understatement.
It took me until last night – sitting on my porch, sipping a glass of wine, listening to weekend boat traffic die down on the lake – to muster the fortitude to write.
Last Wednesday morning, our little slice of heaven — the beautiful, peaceful spot I’ve been blessed to call home for the past 23 years – was the site of unspeakable tragedy. The pain that family, friends and co-workers of Alison Parker and Adam Ward are enduring must be nothing short of excruciating.
As a mother, I can’t even go there in my mind.
As a journalist, the thought of two young, talented co-workers taken so quickly and violently is difficult to comprehend.
Only two other times can I remember having such a heavy heart — Sept. 11, 2001, and Jan. 24, 2011, the day I heard crushing news of the death of Alex Ernandes, another bright star taken too soon by senseless violence.
I’ve prayed a lot over the past few days, including many thanks to God for sparing the life of my longtime friend and colleague Vicki Gardner. She’s been called the region’s greatest cheerleader, a tireless advocate and the face of Smith Mountain Lake — all true and accurate. But unless you’ve been around Vicki and her effervescent personality (she often refers to herself as “the ultimate Pollyanna”), watched her in action at a chamber function or listened to her passionately lobby for the betterment of the lake and its businesses, it would be difficult to truly comprehend the daily impact she makes on our community.
I first met Vicki in 2002 when she was the newly minted executive director of what was then the Smith Mountain Lake Chamber of Commerce/Partnership (now Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce). I served three years on the board of directors, working closely with her on a number of projects. The organization was much smaller then with limited resources and staff, so the volunteer board members were the ones primarily responsible for planning events.
In 2004, I served as board chairwoman. I was 33 years old, a relatively new small business owner often toting along my then 4-year-old son. Vicki and I have reminisced over the years about the many times we would meet in the Chamber board room while young Ben sat perched at her desk happily filling up coloring books. She never minded the circumstances, always appreciative of my time and mindful that mine was a volunteer position. Now 15, Ben worked his first job this summer at Bridgewater Marina.In 2011, when I was editor of Smith Mountain Laker Magazine and we were celebrating the publication’s 10th anniversary, I interviewed Vicki for a brief profile that concluded with 10 questions relating to the lake, the chamber and her job. The photo by photographer Huong Fralin that accompanied the article is the one recently used by countless media outlets around the world. It was taken on the deck of a condo at Bridgewater Pointe, just a few hundred yards from where Vicki, Adam and Alison were shot.
For the interview, we met for lunch at Jonathan’s. I remember we both ordered Asian fare, the restaurant’s specialty at the time. Vicki, as she is prone to do, was talking, talking, talking — alternating between enjoying bites of her meal and answering my questions, most of which pertained to the changes at SML during her tenure as executive director of the chamber.
Then, all of the sudden, she stopped talking.
“Vicki, are you OK?” I asked as her face turned red, her eyes started watering and she downed an entire glass of water.
Vicki had inadvertently bitten into one of the hot chili peppers on her plate — meant to add flavor, not for consumption. Never in my life have I seen someone so miserable at the table. We’ve laughed about that encounter many times since then — joking about how that hot pepper was the only thing that could stop Vicki from chattering on about the job and community she loves.
When I heard Tim Gardner say during a TV interview last week that his wife walked to the ambulance following the shooting, I turned to my husband and said, “Isn’t that so Vicki?” She is as tough as they come. I have absolutely no doubt she will persevere in her recovery and continue to be our region’s biggest champion. As the Rev. Troy Keaton, the chamber’s current chairman, said last week during a news conference: “Vicki always looks for the silver lining. If she were here, she would say while this is tragic, how can we use this to make something better?”
As lakers, we can’t let this tragedy define our community. We must find ways to turn a horrific event into actions and legacies that honor the lives of Alison Parker and Adam Ward. I encourage you to look into your heart and find what “something better” means to you — and then commit to making it happen.
It’s what the ultimate Pollyanna would have us do.
Thank you to Laker Weekly for sharing this blog post with readers on smithmountainlake.com.
For more information on Vicki’s recovery, like this page on Facebook set up by her family.
Visit wdbj7.com for information on donating to scholarship funds set up for Alison Parker and Adam Ward.