Roanoke loses an icon

Evelyn Bethel

by Thomas Schwendeman

A wise man once suggested that the smarter people are, the easier they are to do business with. Nothing, at least from this perspective, could be truer of Evelyn Bethel. Of course, there was just one caveat to that simple affirmation; you had to be on her side. If you were, you could also add that business could be fun. Not so much so for the other side, though.

While living in the midst of what once was, fighting to save what still could be, Evelyn Bethel never lost her grace, her integrity, her tenacity, nor her sense of humor. Even in her last days, she maintained that wonderfully infectious laugh while still staying abreast of the machinations of her neighborhood.

Sadly, all that is left are the memories and a legacy as Miss Bethel passed on Tuesday, June 23rd, in a local Nursing Home, just down the street from her childhood home on Patton Ave. She was 87 years old.

It would be near impossible and inappropriate to speak of her legacy, though, without including her older sister, Helen Davis, who passed away last August. It was rare that Helen, affectionately known as ‘Pete’ by her sister and family members, would be seen out in public without Miss Bethel at her side. In later years, their duality would even extend to matching outfits. The Davis Sisters became quite the tag-team. There would be Miss Bethel, politely speaking truth to power to some ‘plantation politician’ while sister Pete, like a bull-dog puppy, gnawing on his ankle, barking, “you know it’s true, you know it’s true!” And true it was!

But it would be Miss Bethel who would become “the voice of the Black community.” More accurately, political correctness aside, she became one of the last of a dying breed…a statesman. Resolute in her convictions and yet willing to listen to all points of view; pro-black but opened arms to the other side of the bridge that wanted to fight with her; this demure, at times unassuming woman literally struck fear into the takers. Many would speak publicly of their admiration, then share completely opposite sentiments behind closed doors. Still, Miss Bethel would politely refer to them as, “those rascals!”

Sister, Evelyn Bethel (left) and Helen Davis

With sister Pete at her side, Evelyn Bethel’s real life purpose began in 1990, upon her return to Roanoke after a career with the Social Security Administration in Washington, D.C. In the next 20 years, she would lead the fight to stop the bloodletting of her beloved Gainsboro by saving 14 homes and 12 lots on Gilmer Avenue that were scheduled to be taken for the restoration of Hotel Roanoke. She then formed the “Historic Gainsboro” Preservation, Inc. to preserve those homes on that block of Gilmer and Patton Avenue from future destruction. When the city proposed to tear down the heart of the neighborhood, the Gainsboro Library, she stepped up to the plate again, saving that iconic institution.

On May 10, 2002, in the kitchen of the sisters, the vision to save the only two remaining buildings on Henry Street was given life. The sisters went to work, the results being the culinary school, which has become the most successful program in Virginia Western Community College’s history. They would continually hold City Council’s feet to the fire by attending every meeting, often voicing their opposition if the issue wasn’t in the community’s best interest. These are just a few of the dozens of issues the ‘Sisters” battled to make a city for all people.

For those of you of the younger generation who are now becoming ‘woke’ by the current state of affairs, you should look to the example of an Evelyn Bethel who came before you and pick up her sword of choice that worked to make her the iconic figure that she became. If your sword is words of truth and dialogue and love, accompanied by tenacity and knowledge, ‘it ain’t over till it’s over,” you can change the world. If your sword is of rocks and bricks and molotov cocktails, you may change a few laws, you won’t change minds, you won’t change hearts, which are really the most important thing to be changed.

Evelyn Bethel changed minds and hearts, and Roanoke is a better hometown because of it. Thank you Evelyn Bethel.