Editorial: Celebrate four lives defined by service to Hampton Roads

The Virginian-Pilot & Daily Press Editorial Board, The Virginian-Pilot

In a year of incalculable grief, four deaths in the region during the holidays warrant a moment of reflection.

Hampton Sheriff B.J. Roberts was coming to the end of his professional law enforcement career, and had already announced plans to retire this month, before the sudden news he had died on Dec. 26 at the age of 70.

A patrolman with the Newport News Police Department, Roberts spent nearly two decades as part of the Hampton University Police Department, ascending to become the school’s director of Police and Public Safety.

In 1992, he was elected sheriff of Hampton, a constitutional office he held for 28 years. During that time, he was the first African American to serve as president of the National Sheriffs Association and the longest serving sheriff in Virginia.

Norfolk lost a community stalwart over the holidays as well.

George Banks spent his life working to improve conditions in the Berkley neighborhood, where the lack of quality affordable housing was a persistent community concern. He helped establish and lead one complex, Bell Diamond Manor, and his work inspired the naming of a second complex, Banks at Berkley, in his honor.

Banks’ efforts were not limited to housing, however, and his work as advocate, organizer, civic leader and entrepreneur earned him the honorific of “mayor of Berkley,” and his death on Dec. 26 at the age of 88 prompted an outpouring of remembrance from city, state and federal officials.

In Virginia Beach, the death of longtime business leader and philanthropist Augustus C. “Gus” Miller, the founder of Miller Oil Company, is a loss for that city and for the region.

Miller made his name in business, but may well be better remembered for the charitable work of his Millers Foundation, which began in 2004. It has partnered with numerous non-profit groups in the region and has awarded grants to those doing beneficial work in the community.

Miller was also an advocate for reading, serving as board chair for the Smithsonian Libraries and as a member of the Smithsonian National Board, and for health care, serving as board chair for both the Children’s Health Foundation and the Children’s Health System at the Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters

Finally, from North Carolina comes word that longtime state Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight died on Dec. 28 at the age of 73.

Basnight was a towering figure for years in North Carolina politics, and his relentless focus on environmental protection, higher education and transportation infrastructure transformed the state and improved his beloved Outer Banks.

He served a record 18 years as leader of the state Senate and 26 years in the General Assembly, but the Dare County resident was known locally for his family’s restaurant in Nags Head and, now, the new bridge over Oregon Inlet, connecting Hatteras Island to Bodie Island, which is named for him.

It is difficult each year to bid farewell to those men and women who mean so much to our communities. These four individuals spent their lives working to improve conditions for those around them, dedicating their lives to the service of others. We mourn their losses and offer condolences to their family and friends in the hope it provides them some comfort amid the grief.

At the same time, and as we begin the new year, we look to the next generation of leaders — business executives and community organizers, civic officials and local activists, those who aspire to public office and those content to do their important work from just outside the spotlight — who will emerge as pillars for the future of our cities and our region.

It’s critical that we make space for their emerging leaders, to provide them guidance and assistance, and lend a hand to help them build a better future here in Hampton Roads. They stand on the shoulders of giants whose lives and service should be celebrated.