Protecting a legacy

Published 9:07 pm Monday, November 2, 2015

One of the greatest historical resources in Suffolk lives at the top of a long flight of steel stairs inside a West Washington Street building whose main floor is occupied by a variety of shops and other small businesses.

Former Mayor Andy Damiani, who recently turned 94, moves a little slower than he used to, but he still gets up and down those stairs — and around the sidewalks of his beloved Downtown Suffolk — with a surprising degree of vigor.

But Damiani’s mental acuity is even better than his physical vitality. He still recalls the details of many of the events that took place in the city during the historic time in which he was mayor — during the merger between Nansemond County and the city of Suffolk.

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Damiani still has a mind for the names of businesses, community leaders and government agencies that have made a difference in Suffolk during his more than 50 years in the area. Fortunately, he has chosen to share those memories and details with Phyllis Speidell and John H. Sheally II, a writer and photographer, respectively, that have joined to write several books of local history since their retirement from the Virginian-Pilot.

Damiani’s decision — and the hard work of the Speidell/Sheally team — will help ensure that some of the former mayor’s most important and interesting memories will be recorded for posterity. Current and future generations of Suffolkians will be able to learn from him and experience the city through his eyes.

Few people in Suffolk have been as consistently optimistic as Damiani about what the city can achieve and what it has to offer. It’s easy to imagine that optimism spreading as folks read about the man whose cheerleading on behalf of the core business district long ago earned him the title “Mr. Downtown.”

But there’s more at the top of Damiani’s stairs than a good memory and unshakeable optimism. There’s also a treasure trove of newspaper and magazine clippings, video footage and government studies and reports — nearly all of the scores of boxes of which pertain to Suffolk.

That collection has long been at risk from fire or Damiani’s untimely demise. However, a call from the publishing team to folks at the Virginia Historical Society — along with an explanation of the potential historical significance of the Damiani archives — has resulted in a commitment not only to preserve the documents and videos, but also to digitize and make much of the collection readily available online.

We hope Andy Damiani will be around and telling his stories for many years to come. But it’s reassuring to know that the historical legacy that may have been an unintentional side effect of his many years of public service will not be forgotten, that it will be enlightening people many decades from now.