Column – “America at the end of the millennium”

Published 5:50 pm Tuesday, September 19, 2023

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Suffolk was all about business in 1989-90. In January of ’89, downtown property owners planning renovations to their buildings could qualify for the Suffolk Main Street Program’s Incentive Grant, awarded to revitalization projects having the largest impact on the downtown’s appearance. 

In the theme of business, the News-Herald did a continuing series on local businesses that bucked the trend In the takeover-happy business world — those that were (and still are) family-owned and have spanned several generations. Some featured businesses were R.W. Baker and Company Funeral Home, Carter Furniture and Brandon House.

“The term ‘undertaker’ most likely came about during the early 1800s as the men of the profession would generally undertake just about anything they were called upon to do. Robert Washington Baker, the founder of R.W. Baker and Company Funeral Home, is a good example. In 1971, Robert N. Baker III joined the 104-year-old R.W. Baker and Company Funeral Home. He was the fourth generation of his family to be licensed by the Virginia Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers.”

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It took Thomas Carter Sr. 30 years to save the $15,000 he needed to go into the furniture business for himself. He was 49 years old when he opened his first store. In 1985, Carter’s Warehouse and Showroom was opened across the street from the Quality Shop. Third-generation Donnie Carter runs that store. Carter and Son Furniture was eventually turned over to Carolyn and David Brandon Carter. “The name of the store was changed to Brandon House after David’s middle name,” said Don. “They are our biggest competitor in the quality furniture business.”

Shannon Michelle Johnson was selected as a congressional page in August of 1989 to serve Fourth District Congressman Norman Sisisky. Shannon had her future planned — she had her eyes on the office of Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney. She said she was studying theater arts because she planned on entering law school to study law and political science. 

A month later, a follow-up ran — the 15-year-old had plans to follow in the footsteps of Nancy Parr, the current Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney. “When Parr read Johnson’s comments, she decided to check out the ‘heir apparent’ by inviting her to lunch. ‘She told me that she’d seen the article (in the Suffolk News-Herald), and then whenever she introduced me to anyone the rest of the day, she told them, ‘This is the person who wants my job,’’ said Johnson.”

Along with business came roads. In October 1989, travelers down Bridge Road (Route 17) in Suffolk could see the beginnings of the work for Interstate 664, connecting Bowers Hill in Chesapeake with Belleville in Suffolk. The interstate was scheduled to open in August 1991.

1990 saw a wave of educational facilities changes. “I’ll be here at the beginning, and I’ll be here at the end,” said John Yeates High School Principal William Whitley. Whitley retired in June after 25 years of service at John Yeates and 33 years of service to the Suffolk public school system. The high school will convert to a middle school next year. “I will have been here the whole time that John Yeates was a high school,” said Whitley. “Ms. (Ann) Johnson and I are the only two people who can say that we’ve had something to do with every student who has come through John Yeates High School.”

After a three-year absence, Christian education returned to Suffolk in the fall when Norfolk Christian Schools opened a branch of its operation on the former Suffolk Christian School site. 

In September, Lakeland and Nansemond River high schools opened. The subsequent changes with the former high school and middle schools resulted in rapid rezoning throughout the city. It resulted in almost every school receiving students from different areas. Whether they rode the bus or drove their cars, high school students spent their first day adjusting to the new facilities.

The end of the millennium had people begin thinking healthier. The Virginia Indoor Clean Air Act, which took effect July 1, prohibited smoking in certain public places and restricted it in others. Any person smoking in a nonsmoking area who continued after being warned was subject to a $25 fine. 

August brought life to a weather-damaged tree. Clarence E. Harrell decided to carve a totem pole out of a 120-year-old cedar tree in his front yard to remain close to his Native American roots. All the carving he has done on the totem pole was done using a chainsaw. He started work at the top of the tree and used ropes and tree spikes to support himself. It took him nearly one day to complete the top figure, a bear, and three hours to complete an eagle just below it. Both figures had double facings which looked out on both directions of Desert Road. The third figure was a thunderbird.