A double loss for the community

Published 10:27 pm Friday, December 13, 2019

The Hampton Roads area recently lost a couple of “the really good ones,” who happened to have a connection with each other.

On Nov. 21, William Patrick Blair, 83, died after several years of declining health. Born smack in the middle of 13 children of the late Thomas F. Blair Jr. and Ossie Blair, William would grow up to be a kind and generous man and businessman who made an impact on the community as well as on the business world in Suffolk.

I knew him best as the patron of the Bunny’s Breakfast Bunch. The story, which I reported on many times, goes like this: for quite some time, a group of World War II veterans, many of them local survivors of the Bataan Death March, were meeting for a monthly breakfast at Bunny’s on Wilroy Road. One time, Blair saw them and inquired about them to the owners of the restaurant. Upon learning what connected the group and that they dined there regularly, Blair told the owners breakfast was on him in the future.

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He continued to pick up the tab anonymously for quite some time — months or years, I’m not sure how long — until someone spilled the beans to the group about their mysterious benefactor. From that time on, Blair, himself a U.S. Army veteran, was invited to the breakfasts. The group gained more notoriety and frequently had visitors who wanted to honor them and learn from them. Parents brought their kids. Young active-duty servicemen and women came, especially crewmembers from the USS Bataan. The group expanded to include all veterans. And even though he was no longer anonymous, Blair continued picking up the tab for everyone who came. He never wanted recognition and politely but firmly shied away from being mentioned when I showed up to cover the meetings. He only wanted to shine a light on his fellow veterans, which speaks to his character. Of course, I mentioned his contributions to the group anyway.

It was at one of these meetings that I met the other great one we lost recently, Dame Mary Sigillo Barraco. Barraco, who died on Dec. 6, was a frequent presence at the Bunny’s Breakfast Bunch. Although not a military veteran, she certainly did her part during World War II as a resistance fighter.

According to the Jewish Virginia Holocaust Commission, Mary, a native of Massachusetts, was an American teenager living with family in Belgium when World War II broke out. Once the Nazis occupied Belgium, she and her mother were forced to report three times a day to Nazi authorities, as they were seen as the enemy for being American.

Eventually, Mary became appalled at the hateful policies of the Nazis and began working with the Belgian resistance. According to the Commission, “she posed as a Red Cross volunteer and snuck prisoners out of detention; worked on underground newspapers; rescued downed Allied airmen; smuggled documents and passed information between Resistance members about sabotage of Nazi strongholds; and helped smuggle Jewish children to safety after her hairdresser mother worked to change their looks.”

Eventually, she and her fiancé were betrayed and both were imprisoned and tortured, the Commission states on its website. He was executed; she survived immense torture, which included being sterilized.

She later moved to Virginia Beach with her husband, Joseph John Barraco. They adopted a daughter, and Mary became Dame Mary after being knighted by the Belgian king in 2004 for her actions.

William Blair and Dame Mary are indeed a sad loss for our area, and I was privileged to have known them both.