By Jack White (on behalf of the VHCA BoD)
This is an article that could have been written a few weeks ago, but wasn’t for a specific reason – no one was very happy about the subject matter. John Becker – long-time VHCA Board member, Communications Chair, and Voice editor – sold his home in VaHi recently and has moved a mere 500 feet past the neighborhood’s borders into a BeltLine condo in Poncey-Highland. As one must be a resident of Virginia-Highland to serve on the Board, John has stepped down from his seat and is in the process of wrapping up his communication and other duties with the VHCA. Though he hasn’t moved far away – and has already been spotted back at Taco Mac on more than one occasion since the move – the Board, the Association and the neighborhood must face the fact that we will miss him greatly.
A bit of history is in order. As recently as four years ago – it seems like another era altogether – the Voice was still being printed and mailed to residents. It had many attributes then (among them the fact that John was its editor); an online tour of the old copies provides a lively flavor of the community’s comings, goings, struggles, and successes. But timely and contemporary it wasn’t. By the time articles were written, edited, mailed and received, the events they described were often well in the rear view mirror. Pam Papner, winding up her time as VHCA President, wanted to transition to an online version, but the challenges seemed formidable. The mailing list of residents was rudimentary, and the process of creating a new advertising and distribution infrastructure seemed imposing to an all-volunteer organization. There was considerable skepticism about whether it would work.
Enter Board member Brian Gross, who was confident that an electronic version of The Voice would be a vast improvement – less costly to produce, much more timely, with greater outreach potential and capable of generating good ad support. In six months Brian created a proposal, designed the site, sold ads, and convinced (an ever-dwindling group of) skeptical residents that the concept was sound and solid and that our newsletter would reach more people than ever before. Responding to arguments that not enough citizens were wired in, Brian found studies and stats that showed that 90+% of citizens in communities like ours were online. Out of an abundance of caution, the Board offered to print and mail copies to anyone not online; not one such request was ever received.
Brian himself moved about a year later (he still owns property here and – like many former residents – still subscribes to The Voice), by which point the online version was firmly established. The new format was an incredible success from the start. Three years later, the whole topic seems quaint, but Brian’s contributions cannot be underestimated.
When Brian left, John Becker took over again as editor and made a good thing even better. He did a fantastic job of managing ads, writing and gathering content, nudging board members and others to write stories, and suggesting topics for coverage.
Those who know John in any of his many roles – as a Rosedale Road neighbor, as a Taco Mac denizen, as a supporter of all things Auburn, as an inveterate dog lover and walker, as a huge fan of John Howell Park (for years John has kept up with the community’s insatiable consumption of doggie poop bags at JHP), as a faithful friend of the Triangle, or as volunteer coordinator for the past three Summerfests – will immediately know why he was so good in those roles. He has been involved firsthand in so many aspects of this community’s daily life that he was a perfect candidate to coordinate a written and photographic narrative of it online. His background as a journalist and his considerable photography skills were on display from the start. When he wasn’t a part of the story (when an Inman student left a menacing book bag at the Triangle and the APD bomb squad closed the intersection, John was among those cleared out – not the first or last time algebra has threatened us) he was recording them for posterity, as he did with countless APS, Master Plan, and VHCA Board meetings.
And because John knew so many people in so many contexts, he had a great read on the pulse of our neighborhood – on topics both serious and silly. There were few people better able than John to gauge the concerns that residents expressed in multiple forms and formats, and few who were more instinctively knew which topics needed responses and which needed to play themselves out on their own.
Selfishly, we will miss John for many other reasons, too. He has a fine sense of humor, one of the most important parts of any volunteer activity. He measured his friends on the board and residents (their attributes, personalities, motives, and contradictions) in a kind but realistic fashion that served us very well, and often left us laughing at ourselves and others. We will all miss those parts of dealing with John on a regular basis.
Of course, like most stories, this one has a silver lining. John is starting a new job that is well-aligned with his considerable talents. He has a new home just yards from the BeltLine about which he is so passionate, and not much further from his old neighborhood. By the way, if Virginia-Highland ever gets an army, that’s the area we’ll annex; the empty fields between us and John are lightly defended. Until then, Poncey-Highland is fortunate to have him. Meanwhile, we will see John at Summerfest both this year and – we very much hope – in the future.
And John is leaving us in good hands. As Brian did with him, John is closely involved in training his replacement, who – we are delighted to report – is longtime VaHi resident Stephen Cohen. Stephen and his wife Eleanor (who has herself been involved with the Tour of Homes and the street captain network for many years) have lived here for over 40 years. Stephen is anything but a neophyte on communication; he is the founder of the neighborhood’s first and longest-lasting community blog, the Yahoo Group VHList. Stephen is quite capable and also has a deft touch with people; he will do a fine job. Like Brian and John, Stephen will no doubt put his own stamp on all parts of the job; he will introduce himself here soon.
Meanwhile, bon voyage John Becker, and many thanks for everything you’ve done for VaHi.