Saturday, April 27, 2019

Reducing Traffic By Promoting Safe Hitchhiking

Being a good neighbor might just mean offering people a lift.
A lot of folks agree that our roads and highways are too full of costly, carbon emitting vehicles carrying only one or two occupants. 

Crazy as it may sound, making hitchhiking great again might be a way we could encourage more ride sharing, a practice that was much more acceptable when I grew up than it is today. 

Here's a way a community could make it safer:

1. Have local law enforcement agencies do background checks and issue reflective arm bands and photo ID's to deserving individuals.

2. Good Neighbor drivers could likewise be approved and issued photo ID's and similar bands to display on their rear view mirrors. 

3. Persons needing a ride could seek one along any roadside or street where a vehicle could safely pull off and stop to pick up a passenger.

4. Ride seekers who are strangers to the driver would show their ID through the car's passenger side window, with drivers doing the same, before offering the ride. 

Sound crazy? Probably to the majority of us who would rather not be bothered by giving someone a lift, or who have an excessive fear for our safety if we were to do so. But in a community of good neighbors, it's hard to see a downside to such an "Uber for all" kind of sharing. 

On a related note, I recently attended a meeting in which representatives of RideShare, an area-wide program of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission and the Central Shenandoah Planning District Commission, described a program for regular commuters that's already in existence as a way of reducing traffic congestion and increasing transportation efficiency throughout Central Virginia and the Central Shenandoah Valley.

It offers free carpool matching and vanpool coordination, and operates a Guaranteed Ride Home program to provide free rides home in an emergency. RideShare works with employers to develop and implement traffic reduction programs, and markets the region’s Park and Ride lots.

RideShare's motto is "when you share the ride, everyone benefits, your community, your car, and your wallet!"

To which I would add, "and our planet."

Another Heartwrenching Parole Turndown

Minor Junior Smith
By now I should be used to hearing news of deserving prisoners being turned down for parole. In our state scores of individuals behind bars who have been infraction free for decades, and who have proven themselves good citizens in the worst kind of neighborhood imaginable, nevertheless are turned down for parole time and time again.

But the rejection letter blind poet and author Minor Junior Smith sent me this week was especially heartbreaking. At 72, and incarcerated for 47 years, Mr. Smith, far from being a threat to society, could be a tax-paying asset to any community, in spite of his age.

The letter, identical to all of the dozens I've seen before, states in part, "The Board, in determining whether you should be released on parole, considered a number of factors, including, but not limited to, whether your release would be compatible with public safety and the mutual interests of society and you; whether your character, conduct, vocational training and other developmental activities during your incarceration reflect the probability that you will lead a law-abiding life in the community and live up to all conditions of parole, if released...

"...In accordance with Virginia Code Section 53:1-155 and in consideration of the factors listed above and the information available to us, The Virginia Parole Board's decision to not grant parole on February 13, 2019, is based primarily on the following reasons:

• Release at this time would diminish seriousness of crime
• Crimes committed
• Serious nature and circumstances of your offense(s)
• History of violence

"While this may not be the answer you hoped for, please continue your hard work...etc., etc."

As aways, there is no recognition given to the fact that Mr. Smith, in this case, is blind, has already served 47 years of hard time, is legally eligible for both geriatric release and release on the basis of an exemplary record of behavior while in prison, has been an exceptionally hard worker during that entire time, was recommended by his counselor and other prison personnel for release, and has gone out of his way to help others, especially other visually impaired inmates.

Here's a link to earlier post on Mr. Smith:

To read one of his poems:

And here's a link to send appeals to the Parole Board:

And to the Governor:

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

A Resounding Woe To Wealthy Misers

"She gave all she had." The Widow's Mite, by James Tissot
In a column by Mona Charen in yesterday's Daily News-Record, she notes that Bernie Sanders, who has consistently railed against the richest 1% in America, has himself become one of them. His best selling book, "Our Revolution," earned him royalties that resulted in his having a total income of over a million dollars last year.

You would think that Sanders, known for his advocacy for the poor, would be a model of generosity, but not so. His tax returns listed only 3.4% of his earnings going for charitable giving. I experienced some of the same disappointment learning of the Obama's less than lavish giving prior to his presidency. According to his tax returns, he and Michelle gave 1% of their income to charity in 2000 and had increased that to 6% by 2006. To their credit, they gave away over $1 million during their time in the White House, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

But what's wrong with millionaire's who fail the generosity test? And what's wrong with the rest of us who are among the top 5% of the world's wealthiest people?

In that same column, Charen notes the following charitable donations among other presidential hopefuls:

Beto O'Rourke: One third of 1% of his 2017 income 
Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris and Kristen Gilebrand: Less than 2%

By contrast, the late R.G. LeTourneau, highly successful manufacturer of heavy construction equipment, is said to have given 90% of his income to faith-based and other charities, and lived on the "tithe" or 10% of what was left. And multi-billionaires like Bill and Malinda Gates and Warren Buffett are known as extravagant givers, though what they keep for themselves is still sure to be far more than needed.

In a well known account in the gospels, Jesus commends a poor widow who inconspicuously drops two mites (about a fifth of a man's average hourly wage) into the temple treasury, in contrast to those who made a show of giving much more, but who experienced no real sacrifice in doing so. For her, it was her very living.

If we really want to get God's attention, we'll want to learn from the good widow's example.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

HARD TIME VIRGINIA, Vol. 4, No. 3 (an occasional newsletter by and for prisoners)

Both public and inmate safety
are important.
Report of a Suicide at Augusta Correctional Center
"Maxwell Adams took his life Thursday, March 14th, 2019 in the Augusta Correctional Center’s isolation/segregation unit. Earlier that evening, according to word among the inmate population, he told the authorities that if they did not allow him to call his mother that he was going to kill himself. So today another mother will bury her child…
   "…In the thirty-eight years of my incarceration. I have witnessed men kill one another, rape one another, beat one another and cry for help from within the darkness as their mental health eroded away under peer pressure and the fear of dying alone in prison. But the worst of all is when they kill themselves out of feeling abandoned or rejected by family, friends and peers… 
   "It is still everyone's responsibility to help others to see the value of living regardless of the struggle that an incarcerated lifestyle may bring. I know that God did not place these burdens upon us without a means of escape or help... The agony of grief in a suicidal person often goes overlooked until the coroner is notified to pick up the body."
by an anonymous fellow prisoner
Note:  A free video called "Suicide is Forever" is now available in the JPay Media Store.

February Parole Numbers Encouraging, March's Not So Much
The Parole Board granted release to over 40 men in February--no females, and three being geriatric. In March, however, only seven prisoners, all male, were granted regular parole release.           There were no grants last month for those incarcerated for a first offense, in spite of their good behavior over decades of time.
   In January there were 20 grants but only 6 were first time grants. Four were geriatric, and none were female.
- from the Virginia Parole Board website

Miscellaneous Laments and Complaints From Inside
- One inmate at Sussex II State Prison reports that sewage has been backing up into some housing units there for some time.
- A Western District of Virginia federal grand jury recently indicted two former Rockbridge County Regional Jail (RCRJ) officials on charges related to civil rights violations and falsifying documents to obstruct justice. Also, the superintendent of the Middle River Regional Jail has been dismissed for alleged misconduct and is under investigation.
- According to a VAPAC (Virginia Prisons Accountability Committee) Facebook post, a resident at Buckingham waited for two years to get a tooth pulled, then had the wrong one removed.
- From an inmate: “A man here my housing unit is over 80 years old and is on the third floor. He has to walk three flights of stairs to and from chow three times a day and to any other places for medical or religious programs. He was complaining to me the other day about his knee bothering him."

Prison Costs Continue to Rise
For the fiscal year ended June 30, 2018, the General Assembly appropriated the Department of Corrections (DOC) an adjusted operating budget of $1,257,128,812. The DOC expended $1,248,956,790; the major portion of these expenditures were earmarked for salaries and benefits. The Department operated 26 Major Institutions, 8 Field Units, 5 Work Centers, 2 Detention Centers, 2 Diversion Centers, and one Detention/Diversion Center in which 28,889 offenders * were housed. In addition, the Department operated 43 Probation & Parole District Offices. (For FY 2018, the number of offenders under community-based supervision averaged 65,919 as compared to an FY 2017 average of 63,983, a 3.03% increase over last fiscal year.)
   On average 28,889 offenders were housed in facilities operated by DOC during FY 2018. Excluded from that statistic were 1,555 DOC inmates housed in a Department of Corrections owned prison in Lawrenceville, Virginia that is privately operated.
  The Department-wide per capita cost of housing offenders was $31,240 in FY 2018, up 4.25% above FY 2017.
On a per capita basis, in FY 2018 DOC medical expenditures increased 10.3% above that of FY 2017. The increase is largely attributed to higher medical costs, greater patient acuity, and the creation of additional infirmary beds.
- information sent by a Virginia inmate

Inmate Population - Demographics*
GENDER: 8.1% Female; 91.9% Male
RACE/ETHNICITY: Black 56.3%; Other 0.6%; White 43%
Under 18: 0.0%
18-24: 7.5%
25-34: 31.6%
35-44: 28.1%
45-54: 19.7%
55-59: 6.7%
60-64: 3.7%
65+: 2.7%
*This demographic data represents the DOC inmate population as of December 31,.2017, the most recent date available. DOC inmates incarcerated in local jails are included in this data, out-of-state inmates are excluded.1/26/19
14.6% Robbery
12.4% Larceny/Fraud
10.9% Assault 
10.3% Drug Sales
10.3% Rape/Sexual Assault
7.8% Homicide-1st Degree
7.7% Burglary/B&E
6.3% Abduction
4.5% Not Yet Reported
4.2% Drug Possession
2.3% Homicide-2nd Degree
1.8% Sex Offense
1.8% Weapons
1.4% Capital Murder
1.3% Manslaughter
1.0% DUI
0.8% Habitual Offender
0.4% Arson
0.1% Conspiracy
0.1% Other Non-Violent
This offense data represents the DOC inmate population as of December 31, 2017, the most recent data available. This data includes DOC inmates incarcerated in local jails; however, out-of-state inmates are not included. Inmates convicted of multiple offenses are represented here by their most serious offense. For example, a drug trafficker who raped and murdered someone would be represented in the murder category. In regards to 'not reported' offenses, this data represents the percentage of inmates whose actual committing offense had not been reported. Over time this information is updated for that particular population.
                        - information provided by a Virginia inmate
Minor Junior Smith, a blind poet and author at Deerfield Correctional Center, is 
still waiting for his well-deserved parole release.
An awl is a tool for piercing holes, particularly in leather. It is a simple metal shaft, with a knob of wood for a handle, polished by its fit in the sinewy cradle of a leather worker's palm.
   It is likely the tool with which Louis Braille blinded himself as a three-year-old child in France, in an accident in his father's saddle making shop in the early nineteenth century.* Braille later invented a system of raised dots as a means of reading and writing for the blind. 
   We don't know whether he was in the shop with his father or alone, whether it was a damp and rainy day, or whether the sun shone and brought to life the floating dust that always hung in the workshop air.
   Maybe it was just a little poke in the eye with this small tool, a small slip of the hand, a small injury, a little fumble that resulted in his blindness.
   This was decades before general anesthesia or antiseptics. Perhaps the doctor they rushed him to believed n the value of "laudable pus" in a wound. I don't want to picture it.
   And as a child in his father's saddle-making shop, did Louis Braille already know the names of the parts of a saddle: pummel, stirrup, tree? Did he know the smell and feel of each grade of leather? 
   Of all the tools, punch and pincers, gauge and groover, chisel and awl, he chose awl. Likely the last thing he saw, a shine of metal galloping toward his eye. Was it an accident that the tool I used at the blind school in Staunton, Virginia, for pressing hand-punched Braille dots was like a blunt, very small awl?
* Braille's injured eye developed an infection that spread to his other eye, eventually causing him to be totally blind. At first he didn't realize he had lost his sight, and kept asking why it was always so dark.
On this Easter day, here's a link to a blog post on light and darkness:

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Dozens of Cousins Gather For Auld Lang Syne

Some of the descendants of Henry and Katie Wert together for their cousin reunion.

Yesterday some twenty Wert cousins and spouses met near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to reminisce and to celebrate a lifetime of family memories.

Sadly, not many people do that anymore. One of the in-laws, with only four cousins to his name, expressed amazement at this celebration of the "tie that binds". As a fellow in-law, I felt blessed by having joined the continued story of the Katie and Henry Wert clan. Their legacy lives on in their descendants, including our children and grandchildren. Without them, they would not be. Through them they are forever influenced and blessed.

And ah, the stories. 

Grandfather and patriarch Henry Wert, son of a German Lutheran who became a Mennonite deacon, himself was ordained a deacon some years after his marriage to Katie Musser. He died in 1931 at age 58, a hardworking farmer and father who never drove a car. Of their large family, their second child, John, died at age six months, and precious daughter Mary at age 15. Son Henry, burdened with debt and in serious financial trouble, joined the Army during World War II and became an airplane mechanic serving on the African front. Unlike the rest, he never married, but did reconnect with his family's Mennonite faith in his latter years.

And oh the happy memories of childhood fun, bountiful meals and unforgettable times with cousins, uncles and aunts. It was enough to fill the room with laughter and tears.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

Saturday, April 13, 2019


          Here's the link.
I'm involved with several causes that are inviting people to give generously to their favorite non-profit through the Great Community Give campaign. They are the Family Life Resource CenterFaith in Action and Gemeinschaft Home.

Agencies that receive the most contributions on Wednesday 4/17 earn extra award money for their program.

A great way to help make a positive difference!

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Lancaster Author Tells An Amazing Story At EMU This Friday

Allan Shirk, as a history major at Eastern Mennonite College (now EMU) back in 1964,  needed a topic for his required senior research paper.

A native of New Holland, Pennsylvania, Allan (who later became my brother-in-law) decided to write a history of the New Holland Machine Company located in his home town. This widely known farm implement manufacturer became known internationally for having produced and marketed the first successful self-tying hay baler.

From the first, Allan knew he would need to speak to its inventor, Ed Nolt, a  modest Old Order Mennonite farmer with only an eighth grade education. Nolt agreed to an interview with the understanding that Allan would not draw undue attention to him, a man who had achieved a level of fame he never sought and would have never dreamed of.

Growing up on a farm myself, I have fond memories of the model 900 baler pictured on the cover of the book Allan published in 2015.

You can hear more from the author, who will speak at EMU's Suter Science Center in Room 104 this Friday, April 12.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Top Ten Reasons To Support Our Fall Virginia Relief Sale’s "SOS Project"

The Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale’s Sharing Our Surplus (SOS) Campaign was launched two years ago to solicit cash donations for Mennonite Central Committee in addition to money raised through auction, food and other sales.

So far that effort has raised over $75,000, and has been designated specifically to meet the growing needs of refugees around the world.

SOS is not intended in any way to compete with any of the many other fund raising efforts at the Sale, but to provide an additional opportunity for contributing, especially for the majority of attendees who do not take part in the annual auction.

So here are top ten reasons (in descending order, with 10 being the least weighty and 1 the most important), for matching (or exceeding) liberal spending at the October 4-5 Relief Sale this year with generous financial contributions:

10. All gifts, large or small, are fully tax deductible.

9. Giving can be by cash, credit card or by check (made out to Virginia Relief Sale, with SOS on the memo line).

8. Every penny contributed goes for refugee relief. Everence Financial provides volunteers to staff the giving table and any minor costs are absorbed by members of the SOS committee.

7. This giving adds no extra calories to our diets or creates any extra things to find room for at home (though we do encourage purchasing plenty of food and other items at this annual event!).

6. SOS has helped the Virginia Relief Sale exceed record totals for MCC relief efforts.

5. SOS contributions can be made at any time (and for any amount) on the Virginia Mennonite Relief Relief Sale website, allowing people to participate even if they can’t attend.

4. SOS funds will be forwarded to Mennonite Central Committee right after the sale, since there are no expenses to first be accounted for.

3. Generous giving to people in need results in their being helped as well as generous givers being blessed by having invested in truly lasting “treasure in heaven.” 

2. Never has the need for helping displaced people been so urgent, with one in nearly 100 people worldwide having been forced to leave their homes because of war, drought, persecution or other forms of violence, and with the average length of time being displaced and/or homeless being ten years.

1. By being willing to sacrifice to help meet the urgent needs of men, women and children around the world we are truly following in the footsteps of Jesus, who “became poor for our sakes” and whose entire life was lived in the service of the God who “so loved the world” --with a gift of unimaginable generosity. 

Here's how you can donate now at or check out :

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Alma Jean's Renowned Carrot Cake Recipe

This photo is on Mary Ann's "Delaware Grammy" blog.
Mary Ann Yutzy of Milford, Delaware, a niece of Alma Jean's, recently posted a piece on her blog about my wife's special recipe for carrot cake.

For our health's sake, Alma Jean has cut back on baking these kinds of calorie laden delicacies, but this is undeniably delicious, a testimony to her skills in the kitchen and to her years of teaching Home Economics at Eastern Mennonite High School:

Aunt Alma Jean's Best Ever Carrot Cake
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups salad oil
4 eggs well beaten
2 tsp soda
2 cup all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp  ground cinnamon
1 tsp salt
1 cup chopped pecans
3 cups grated carrots
(1 tsp. vanilla, if you are so inclined.  I understand that it's really good without, too!)
Mix sugar and salad oil together
Add well beaten eggs and mix well
Combine rest of ingredients and stir in.
Add pecans and grated carrots and mix well.
Bake in 3 / 9” cake pans at 325 degrees or 350 degrees for 30 -40 mins.
1 box 10x sugar
8 oz cream cheese
1/2 stick oleo or butter
1 tsp. of either lemon or vanilla (I used vanilla, at Aunt A.J.'s advisement)
(For a 3-layer cake, I made a double batch, but I had a bit left over)