‘Damiani here’

Published 5:37 pm Saturday, October 31, 2015

Former Mayor Andy Damiani is the subject of a new book in the works by Phyllis Speidell and John Sheally.

Former Mayor Andy Damiani is the subject of a new book in the works by Phyllis Speidell and John Sheally.

Former mayor’s archives preserved, life stories written

Former mayor Andy Damiani is always here, always will be here and, in some ways, has always been here, no matter where he is.

So it’s rather fitting that the title of a new book with him as the subject is “Damiani Here.”

“It has a nice ring to it,” author Phyllis Speidell said, referring to Damiani’s trademark phrase he uses to answer the phone. “And it also has the meaning of when the man says he’s here, he’s here. When he was in Richmond, he was totally Richmond. When he was in Paris, he was more Parisian than any of the Parisians.”

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Speidell said the former mayor approached her and John H. Sheally II, a photographer with whom she has already done many books, about doing his life story. They’ve been working on the book for about five months and still have several months to go, hoping to complete the project in the early part of next year.

“We as journalists, we preserve history,” said Sheally. “That’s what we do. I would call him Mr. Suffolk. He breathes, lives and sleeps Suffolk, even to this day … just as much today as when he was mayor for two or three terms.”

Speidell said the book will take the format of stories told by Damiani.

“Andy is a remarkable storyteller,” she said. “We felt it was the most appropriate format to take for this particular book.”

The stories will span everything from Damiani’s upbringing in Richmond as one of eight children and service as a soldier and musician in World War II to his terms as mayor of Suffolk and the present day as a downtown advocate and — even at the age of 94 — a businessman with new projects.

“There are so many stories about Andy’s life that show a side of him that not many people know,” Speidell said.

Sheally said it was easy to capture the Damiani’s personality because he has so much of it.

“When the moment is right, you’ve got the picture,” Sheally said. “He is just a delightful person, and he’s Mr. Entertainment. There’s no doubt about it.”

While working with Damiani, Speidell and Sheally came across one of their subject’s greatest concerns — Damiani’s archives. The collection includes many thousands of all sorts of documents, including newspaper clippings, letters, photos, studies, placards and more.

“The biggest worry I’ve had over the years is how do I get it to the right people to preserve it for perpetuity,” Damiani said of his collection. “I have prayed a lot that I would find a home for it. All of a sudden, it came to fruition. I guess the Lord heard my message.”

“We started looking through all this and we realized Andy had not only a wonderful archive of his own life story, but because of the trove of downtown Suffolk activity and his political activity, he had a wonderful history of greater Hampton Roads over the last 50 years,” Speidell said.

Speidell and Sheally contacted the Virginia Historical Society and connected with Lee Shepard, vice president for collections at the Richmond institution. They traveled to Richmond and got the agreement from Shepard, then returned with Damiani for a visit.

“We’re very enthusiastic about the coming of this collection,” Shepard said. “We’ve sort of made a name for ourselves in the sense of being a strong repository for Virginia’s history. We’ve reached back into the 17th century, but we’re very anxious to collect the 20th and now the 21st century as well.”

Shepard said the Damiani archives — which currently number 40 boxes, and Damiani is still packing — will be important for studying Hampton Roads during Damiani’s time here.

“We just think it’s going to be a very important collection for studying that region as we go forward in the future,” Shepard said. “As an individual’s personal papers, they’re very important for supplementing the official records of the offices that he held.”

Shepard also hopes Damiani’s donation would inspire folks with similar collections from other regions of the state to make a similar donation.

Shepard said the historical society selectively digitizes items in its collection to make available online, and that Damiani’s collection will be part of that.

“I’ve got over 250 DVDs of me sitting in front of, say, Mayor (James F.) Hope talking about the consolidation of Suffolk and Nansemond, and you’ll be able to log onto that from China,” Damiani said.

Or even from here.