Thanks to Andy Damiani, a first
Published 8:58 pm Saturday, July 9, 2016
I experienced a “first” this week, and I have Andy Damiani to thank for it.
Mr. Downtown will soon celebrate his 95th birthday, and that’s not even the biggest thing he’s got in the works right now. With a biography about to be released and a new gallery having opened in the corridor of his mall on West Washington Street, the former mayor of Suffolk, one of the city’s best-known cheerleaders, has a lot going on right now.
But the other day, he took some time to show me around the gallery. At this point, there are about three dozen large prints of photos by John Sheally II, a former Virginian-Pilot photographer who collaborated with former Pilot writer Phyllis Speidell to produce the book “Damiani Here.” Sheally and Speidell have worked together on a number of popular books on local history, and they were the perfect pair to tell Damiani’s amazing story.
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Even at 94-and-counting, Damiani seems never to quit. He shuffles now, and the pace is slow, but his drive seems as strong as ever.
As he ticks off the list of things he has to do to prepare for a coming book-release party, he stops by a photo of the late Moses Riddick, who was vice mayor during the time Damiani was on City Council. “Do you know who that is?” he asks. Shuffling past a photo of Ernie Hefferon dressed as Elvis, he grins and says, “Of course, you know who that is.”
Shifting from memories, he talks about his dreams for the gallery, a promenade lined with offices, a couple of retail shops and the long walls that recently have become gallery space. A Julliard-trained musician who played in a military band during World War II and then for a civilian jazz band touring Europe after the war ended, Damiani envisions a jazz combo ensconced in a corner of the space as guests enjoy the artwork. Perhaps one day, there will be a wedding reception there, he says. Maybe other artists would like to show off their work, too.
Meanwhile, there are things to be done and details to attend. And, as it turns out, one of those details is related to my “firsts.” As we were walking through the gallery, Andy turned to me and said he wanted a couple of my photos to hang. So, soon I will have my first gallery showing.
As has so often been true in the several years I’ve known Andy Damiani, I find myself humbled by his gracious charm. Whether it’s stopping to answer questions about a matter of municipal history, giving his insights into political and business matters or just showing me his new gallery, Andy has always had time for me, even in the midst of planning a blowout shindig.
His offer was distinctively gracious and impeccably Andy, and it’s truly an honor to oblige this lion of Suffolk.