The place: The Virginia Historical Society, in the fashionable Fan District of Richmond.
The occasion: A white-haired gentleman is on stage, delivering a lecture about the history of Virginia.
This would seem to be Virginia in its most venerable form, except for one thing. The speaker on this sleepy summer day isn’t droning on about the genealogy of some Founding Father, or the minutiae of some Civil War battle.
Instead, August Wallmeyer is laying out, one eye-popping slide at a time, some of the starkest facts and figures about contemporary Virginia.
On poverty: “In Wise County today, more than 50 percent of the people who live there receive one or more forms of government assistance.”
On drug addiction: “The number of opioid deaths equals a Virginia Tech massacre every week.”
On health: “If you live in Wise County . . . your life expectancy will be less than if you lived in Nicaragua or Uzbekistan or Latvia or Serbia or Algeria or Colombia.”
This is not some happy, gauzy remembrance of the good old days. These are irrefutable data points about Virginia today. Or, more accurately, about rural Virginia.
Wallmeyer would seem to be the very embodiment of a “Richmond insider,” a creature not quite as despised as a “Washington insider,” but surely a related species. He has spent virtually his entire career in and around the centers of state power. He was a speechwriter for Attorney General Tony Troy, a Democrat, in the 1970s. He was the corporate spokesman and lobbyist for Virginia Power (now Dominion Energy) at a time when the utility was much more controversial than it is now. He went to become executive director for the Virginia Independent Power Producers, which is a fancy way of staying he was still a lobbyist.
From the mid-1970s until his retirement in 2014, Wallmeyer was known around Capitol Square as a firm but jovial advocate for whatever cause he was hired to represent. He was the type of lobbyist that any interest group would have been lucky to sign on, which is what makes Wallmeyer’s current endeavor so remarkable.
Today, he’s essentially representing the most underrepresented and underprivileged interest group of all. He’s representing rural Virginia. And he’s doing it for free.
After he retired, Wallmeyer faced the kind of unsettling adjustment that many retirees do. He was bored. “After a while, I tried to take stock of whatever assets I had and to think about what I could do with them,” Wallmeyer says.
He threw himself into a research project. For years, he’d heard legislators talk about how rural Virginia was falling behind the rest of the state. A good lobbyist deals with facts, so Wallmeyer starting digging into whatever data he could find. Economic data. Health data. Crime data. He assembled it. He crunched it. He compared it. And he was shocked by what he found. There really are two Virginias — a growing, affluent one in the urban crescent and a shrinking, poorer one everywhere else. That’s hardly a revelation, of course, but Wallmeyer found himself sitting atop a mountain of data that nobody had ever really collected in one place before.
“The teachings of my faith [Roman Catholicism] started nagging at me,” Wallmeyer says. He started to feel compelled to do something. He decided to write a book.
The result is “The Extremes of Virginia,” published last year by Dementi Milestone Publishing, and a related website, extremesofvirginia.com (where you can also order a copy). Former Del. Ward Armstrong of Henry County, a Democrat, calls the book “a brutally accurate diagnosis” of economic disparity in the state. State Sen. Bill Stanley of Franklin, a Republican, says “August’s blunt assessments and sharp insight are spot-on.” Former Gov. Gerald Baliles, a Democrat, calls it “required reading for legislators and governors, in particular.”
Excerpts of the book have been published in The Roanoke Times and the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The 2,000 or so copies he’s sold won’t make Wallmeyer any money, but that’s not really the point. Perhaps more than anyone else, Wallmeyer had started a conversation in the state capital about the economic and social problems that plague many rural parts of Virginia. He was asked to speak to the Virginia Historical Society. He’s lecturing this fall at the University of Richmond. He’s heard that one state Supreme Court justice has used the book as teaching material in his Sunday school class.
It may seem odd to us west of the Blue Ridge that a book pointing out the obvious should be so popular, as if all this were somehow a new discovery. However, Wallmeyer points out something else that is also obvious: “There is a profound lack of understanding about Southwest, Southside and the Eastern Shore among government officials.” In his talk before the historical society, Wallmeyer noted that more than half the members of the General Assembly weren’t born in Virginia. They simply don’t know the state outside the urban crescent and have little reason to learn about it.
For that audience, Wallmeyer delivers a kind of shock treatment about the Virginia they don’t know, yet share. He talks about how school systems in Southwest Virginia are so poor they have to keep tabs on how much paper they use for tests. He talks about how dentists at the annual open-air medical clinic at the Wise County Fairgrounds measure one year to the next by the buckets of teeth they extract. He tells of places where meth and opioids are so common that you can have them “delivered right to your front door just like a pizza, and you can pay for it with a credit card.” He marshals a quote from the chancellor of the state community college system about how if rural Virginia were its own state, it would rank dead last in the country in terms of educational attainment — while the urban crescent would rank second.
This is not a pretty picture, and it may strike even some who live in rural Virginia as not reflective of the communities they know. Yet the data is there, which goes to show that even some in rural Virginia may not know their communities very well.
So what happens next? It’s unclear. Wallmeyer is out there raising awareness, but solving the economic problems of rural Virginia are ones that may take a generation. In the meantime, go buy Wallmeyer’s book. You might even make it required reading for your Sunday school class.