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A child's 1949 letter to Santa comes home for Christmas

The yellowed envelope, postmarked December 1949 in Charlottesville, was addressed simply:

To Mr. Santa Claus

North Pole

As soon as she discovered it deep in a collection of stamps and other items acquired a couple of years ago for her rare coins and collectibles shop, Tara Sims was immediately enamored by the envelope and the enclosed letter, written in the earnest cursive of a child, asking Santa for, among other things, a green cowgirl hat, a book and a physician’s set so she could “doctor” on the “ballet doll” she asked for in careful detail elsewhere in the letter. The child apparently had noticed the doll on a visit to the Miller & Rhoads department store and figured Santa probably had, too.

“I am sure you have seen it,” she wrote.

At the end of the letter, the writer, apparently not wanting to appear greedy, made a point of letting Santa know she “will not keep all that I got last Xmas. I will help the poor.”

It closed: “Love, Ormonde Deane.”

Sims and her husband, Tripp, who operate Yesterday’s Change in Tuckahoe Shopping Center on North Ridge Road in western Henrico County, see a lot of interesting things come through the door, “but never anything quite that adorable,” she said.

She did an online search for “Ormonde Deane,” but came up with only a few long-ago references and no real hint of where Ormonde might be today, if she was still anywhere. Wanting to share the joy of a 70-year-old Christmas letter from a child, Sims went out and found a green cowgirl hat and a vintage doll and created a holiday display in the store’s window with the letter, resting on a classic old wooden sled, as a centerpiece. Customers brought in old Miller & Rhoads boxes for further authenticity.

“I think it’s just nice for people to walk by and get a little feeling” of the season, Sims said.

Not long ago, a woman came into the store and asked to see the letter so she could take a good look at the signature.

“I know her,” the woman said, though she didn’t know how to get in touch with Ormonde.

Long story short, Ormonde Deane Wilkinson, now 78, and her husband, Gary, lived in River Road Hills — the same neighborhood where Tara and Tripp Sims live — until they moved into an assisted-living facility earlier this year. The Wilkinsons’ next-door neighbors, Ron and Stephanie Evans, were longtime friends and real estate agents who helped the Wilkinsons sell their home. Tara Sims also is friends with Stephanie Evans.

The world can seem a very small place once all the dots are connected.

The Evanses had become friends with Ormonde’s sister, Lyn Deane-Harris, who lives in Charlottesville, and they alerted her about the letter.

“It’s been amazing to me [the letter] even survived,” Deane-Harris told me in a phone interview. “I’m astounded.”

The Wilkinsons have experienced health issues in recent years, which precipitated their move into the assisted-living facility, said Deane-Harris.

Sims happily gave the letter and the items she had bought for the window display to Stephanie Evans, who made arrangements to give them to Deane-Harris, so she could deliver them to Ormonde on Christmas Day. Deane-Harris thought her sister would love to see the old letter. She was right.

“It was great, it was really fun,” Deane-Harris said Thursday. “I took her through the whole story. She didn’t remember writing the letter, but she certainly did remember writing letters to Santa Claus. She was charmed.”

There are three Deane sisters: Susan, the oldest; Ormonde; and Lyn, the youngest, who was born in 1949, the year 8-year-old Ormonde wrote the letter that surfaced in Sims’ shop. The girls grew up in Charlottesville.

Ormonde is a family name. Their paternal grandfather was Hubert Ormond Deane. Her parents added an “e” to feminize it.

Though they lived in Charlottesville, the Deanes came to Richmond regularly to shop at the downtown department stores, Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers, as did many people in those years who lived in areas within a couple of hours’ drive of Richmond.

It also was a family tradition as the girls grew up to visit Santa at Miller & Rhoads and to write letters to Santa every year, said Deane-Harris.

Ormonde graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in sociology, then went to Penn State University, where she earned a graduate degree in recreational therapy and where she met Gary. They lived for a time in Pennsylvania, where Ormonde worked in a retirement home. The couple, who have no children, moved back to Virginia, landing in Richmond, where Gary was hired by Reynolds Metals and Ormonde took a job at Westminster Canterbury, where she worked for more than 20 years and was director of volunteers.

Deane-Harris and her husband, Bob, came to Richmond on Wednesday to have Christmas dinner with Ormonde and Gary and to deliver the surprise presents. She immediately recognized her signature on the letter.

“Ormonde was real tickled about the whole thing ... very happy and delighted,” said Deane-Harris.

No one has been able to figure out the path the letter took to reach this point. With its postmark, the envelope has the appearance of something that was actually delivered somewhere. But maybe not.

Deane-Harris said her grandfather, for whom Ormonde is named, was a longtime, well-known letter carrier for the postal service in Charlottesville (who was said in one published retrospective to have walked an estimated 50,000 miles on his twice-a-day route). He was retired by 1949, but he could have arranged for the postmark and then returned it to the family for safekeeping.

Or perhaps their mother went to the post office and had a postmark stamped on it without mailing it. Or maybe neither of the above.

Gary Wilkinson was a stamp collector at one time, but he doesn’t have a recollection of the letter being within his collection, which he divested himself of some time ago.

At any rate, Ormonde’s letter seems to have taken a meandering route before finding its way back to her.

“Who knows?” Deane-Harris said with a laugh. “Only Santa knows.”

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Richmond doctor creates new, non-invasive procedure for dialysis patients

Robert Faulcon had already lived through several surgeries, including a gastric bypass surgery to manage his weight, when he got the bad news from his doctor.

In 2015, after 15 years of seeing his kidney specialist, Faulcon’s kidneys had stopped functioning and he would need to start dialysis, a procedure that filters the blood of toxins. He was one of the 37 million people who suffer from chronic kidney disease and one of more than 500,000 people, as of 2016, to receive dialysis in the U.S., according to the National Kidney Foundation.

The standard procedure for dialysis patients is to have a surgery to create a fistula in the arm, connecting the artery to the vein, but Faulcon didn’t want to have another surgery. He was worried about the risks of infection.

So his doctor told him about a new procedure — the first major change to the way fistulas are created for dialysis in more than 50 years.

Nearly a decade earlier, Dr. Jeffrey Hull, a Richmond radiologist, had been speaking with a colleague who had just made a medical breakthrough when he formed the idea for his own breakthrough. Hull had worked with dialysis patients and believed that the procedure to create the fistula that would allow them to receive the life-saving treatment could be vastly improved by making it minimally invasive.

He decided that using an ultrasound to direct the physician could prevent the need to create an incision and open up the arm and believed he could use tissue fusion — the use of pressure and heat to weld the artery and vein together — to prevent the need for stitches or clips. The new procedure would need only local anesthetic and could take less than 30 minutes.

“Our idea was to make it faster, better and less expensive,” Hull said.

Instead of a hospital stay and stitches, patients could walk out of the procedure with a Band-Aid.

But the process to make his idea a reality would take almost another decade.

He had to engineer a prototype for the device, patent it, perform testing on tissue and then do animal testing before ultimately starting human trials in Colombia and Mexico.

When the device, named the Ellipsys Vascular Access System, proved safe in a few dozen people abroad, Hull could then apply to the Federal Drug Administration to begin clinical trials in the U.S., Hull said.

In early 2015, Hull launched a multi-city trial, which included patients in Richmond.

Faulcon agreed to be one of the first U.S. patients to try the procedure. He said the first attempt did not progress the way Hull had hoped, so the doctor tried it a second time.

But when Faulcon went home, the toxins in his blood spiked and he had to go to the hospital. There, the medical team inserted a catheter into his neck to administer emergency dialysis while the fistula created by the Ellipsys healed. Within a couple of months, the fistula had healed and Faulcon hasn’t had a problem with it in the four years since, he said.

One of the benefits of the Ellipsys method, Hull said, is that it cuts down on the healing time before a patient can begin dialysis.

On average, in the U.S., it takes 136 days for a fistula to be ready to begin dialysis, but Hull’s Ellipsys patients in Richmond average 70 days. The Ellipsys fistulas also tend to last longer than the surgical ones, according to a two-year study published in the Journal of Vascular Access. Ninety-one percent of the non-invasively created fistulas were still functional after two years, compared with 51% of the surgically created fistulas.

Ellipsys was approved by the FDA in 2018.

Terry Litchfield, a national advocate for dialysis patients who co-authored the Ellipsys study, said medical advancement is a good thing for those with kidney disease.

Litchfield’s husband, Bill Litchfield, spent decades on dialysis battling kidney disease before he died. His testimony before the U.S. Congress prompted the federal government to make all people with end-stage renal failure eligible for Medicare.

Litchfield said her husband had 37 surgeries to create and re-create fistulas during his lifetime. The process was often exhausting, disappointing and expensive, she said.

She was happy to see some innovation and attention on kidney disease again recently, not only with the invention of the Ellipsys procedure, but also with President Donald Trump’s announcement earlier this year that kidney health would be a priority for his administration. The initiative is aimed at reducing the number of people developing end-stage renal disease, increasing the number of kidney patients receiving dialysis at home — as opposed to at a dialysis center — and increasing the number of kidneys available for transplant.

“We hear about cancer. We hear about Alzheimer’s,” Litchfield said. “To finally have the disease that affects so many millions of Americans [get more attention] ... it gives hope.”

Virginia lawmaker proposes bill to end Lee-Jackson holiday

A Virginia lawmaker has filed a bill that would scrap the state’s Lee-Jackson holiday celebrating two Confederate generals and would add one on Election Day.

The measure by Del. Joe Lindsey, D-Norfolk, is one of hundreds lawmakers will consider when they convene next month for the start of the 2020 legislative session.

Lee-Jackson Day, established over 100 years ago, is observed annually on the Friday preceding the third Monday in January. It honors Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, both native Virginians.

Virginia has marked a state holiday for Lee’s birthday since 1889. It added Jackson to the Lee holiday in the early 1900s. In 1985, the state began marking the federal holiday to civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day.

Lee was born Jan. 19, 1807; Jackson was born Jan. 21, 1824; and King was born Jan. 15, 1929.

The Virginia amalgamation prompted some quizzical reactions. Jon P. Goodman, a University of Southern California authority on business practices, once likened it to “The Far Side,” Gary Larson’s humorously twisted comic strip that was syndicated to nearly 2,000 newspapers in the 1980s and 1990s.

The 2000 General Assembly brought an end to Lee-Jackson-King Day when it voted to create a separate holiday for King.

Gov. Jim Gilmore, a Republican, called for the change. He said in his 2000 State of the Commonwealth Address: “Many heroes have sprung from the soil of our commonwealth, and all Virginians admire great American heroes. Many of those heroes have been recognized and celebrated for their contributions, including those we celebrate on Lee-Jackson-King Day. But the combination of these individuals on a single day creates confusion among our citizens.”

Critics of the Lee-Jackson holiday view it as a celebration of the state’s slaveholding history that’s offensive to African Americans. Many cities and counties have opted not to observe it.

In January 2018 and in January of this year, Justin Fairfax, the second African American to serve as Virginia’s lieutenant governor, stepped off the dais where he presides over the Senate when GOP senators adjourned in memory of Lee and Jackson.

Lindsey, whose district includes Norfolk and Virginia Beach, is the new chair of the House Privileges and Elections Committee. He is the first black lawmaker in that role, according to the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

Last year, he introduced a similar bill that died in a Privileges and Elections subcommittee on a party-line vote. Beginning in January, Democrats will have a 21-19 edge in the Senate and a 55-45 edge in the House of Delegates.

Making a Difference: Kim Gomez wants Richmond parents to embrace city schools

Kim Gomez is tired of Richmond Public Schools getting a bad rap.

The 38-year-old has built a grassroots advocacy and volunteer organization aimed at fostering a supportive and equitable community around city schools. Her group, STAY RVA, has fanned out across the city over the past 2½ years.

The organization has paired volunteers with RPS staff members to show appreciation for the work they do. It has led service projects at Blackwell Elementary School, Henderson Middle School, Thomas Jefferson High School and others. It has also worked to foster conversations about racial and socioeconomic inequities in the school system.

“What is the most energizing about the work is really trying to build an anti-racist coalition of people — black, brown, white — that are working to make our schools and our community a better place,” Gomez said.

Amy Wentz, a South Richmond resident, has volunteered with STAY RVA for the past two years. She credits Gomez with looking beyond her situation and part of the city and committing to have tough conversations about the school system.

“What helped me realize I wanted to be a part of it was her heart,” Wentz said. “She really has a heart for people, and she really wants to do the hard work that’s necessary to build relationships and not just put Band-Aid fixes on things.”

The daughter of a special education teacher, Gomez grew up in Chesterfield County. She went to college at Texas A&M, where she studied elementary education. Teaching stints in Houston, Washington, D.C., and Arlington eventually led her back to Richmond in 2014.

When it came time to enroll her oldest child in school, Gomez initially turned to her neighborhood school, Mary Munford Elementary. Many of her friends and acquaintances sent their children there for elementary school, but she noticed they eventually pivoted to other options or moved away when it came time for middle school. Few, if any, stuck with Richmond Public Schools through high school, she said.

“That just didn’t sit right with me,” Gomez said.

By that point, Gomez had launched STAY, which stands for Support Together Area Youth. Initially, her goal was to persuade more parents to enroll, or stay enrolled, in city schools. The aim eventually evolved, as she talked with more parents and teachers and realized that enrollment alone was not going to erode the inequities with which RPS contends.

It didn’t take long for Gomez to notice that Munford’s student body did not reflect the demographics at other city schools. She decided to move her daughter to John B. Cary Elementary, a more racially and socioeconomically diverse school than Munford. Her neighbors were supportive of her decision, she said. But none followed her example.

Gomez and her husband, Danny, now have three children enrolled in RPS: a second-grader, a first-grader and a preschooler.

“I don’t need all my neighbors to make that choice for that choice to be the right thing to do,” she said.

Even if none of her neighbors makes the same decision her family did, they can still play a role in helping build a more equitable school system so all students can thrive, Gomez said.

“If you care about equity, if you care about schools, if you care about building community, then come and show up in a genuine way and find out what’s been going on.”

Cheryl Burke, a longtime educator and now Richmond School Board member, said Gomez’s approach to challenging norms while still seeking to build community sets her work apart. So, too, does her focus beyond her own family and situation.

“This is in her spirit,” Burke said. “She wants to make sure that others’ children receive the same experiences and share values across the board.”