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After decades of tending Hindu temple gardens, retired VSU botanist to receive lifetime achievement award

When Muddappa Rangappa first came to the United States from India in 1968 to attend Virginia State University, he left his wife and young son behind.

The distance was hard. Away from his family and the comforts of home, he found kinship living among other Indian immigrants in an apartment complex in Petersburg, and strived to give back to his community by helping keep its cultural traditions alive in their new homeland.

More than 50 years later, the Hindu Center of Virginia is recognizing the retired VSU professor with a lifetime achievement award for his dedication to doing just that, by developing and maintaining the landscaping at the western Henrico County temple.

With Indians and immigrants from other countries with strong Hindu ties enriching the American mosaic, Hindu temples often serve as both a place of worship and cultural exchange, passing traditions down to new generations of American-born children whose cultural heritage comes from halfway across the world.

The Glen Allen temple aims to make the nearly 4,000 Hindu families who frequent its nearly 20-acre grounds feel at home.

“That’s the beauty of America,” said Rangappa, who will receive the award in a ceremony at the temple on Wednesday. “People have been coming to this land for over 230 years from all over the world bringing their culture and heritage.”

When the center first opened in a more church-like, brick building in the late 1980s, Rangappa, who taught and conducted agricultural and plant science research at VSU, said he lent his expertise to support the temple off Springfield Road.

When additional land was acquired more than a decade ago for a new, magnificent temple designed in the manner of traditional Hindu architecture, it also gave Rangappa an opportunity to create an even more elaborate garden featuring petunias, roses, marigolds, geraniums and tulsi — a sacred plant in the Hindu faith that’s similar to basil.

“When the temple started, I volunteered to create a serene atmosphere for the devotees to enjoy the beauty of the temple,” Rangappa said. “Back home in India, this is what we experience. When seniors come to the temple, they feel the same way they feel at home.”

The flowerbeds, shrubs and trees planted around the temple align with the ethos behind the construction of the building, which is LEED Gold certified under the U.S. Green Building Council’s environmental program.

Inder Midha, a former president and chairman on the temple’s board of trustees, said that mindset is part of Hindu tradition, which emphasizes harmony with the natural environment.

Beyond living the ethos, community members volunteer to teach traditional languages, dance and religious education courses there.

“Heritage is always important,” Midha said. “The children need to know where they came from and what their culture is.”

While the Indian subcontinent and diaspora overlap with other faith traditions, such as Islam, Christianity, Jainism and Sikhism, Hinduism is the country’s largest religion, representing about 80% of the Indian nation’s population.

In Virginia, Indians make up about 28% of the state’s Asian population, making it the largest subgroup within that category, according to the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia. Half of the nearly 17,100 Indian people living in the Richmond region reside in Henrico County, according to U.S. Census estimates from 2017.

Rangappa’s daughter, Anu Rangappa, who was born here after the family was reunited, recalled mixed feelings about attending the temple after it first opened; struggling to come to terms with an identity as both an American girl and the daughter of Indian immigrants.

But with the rise of multiculturalism over the last generation, as well as continued immigration from South Asian countries, celebrating their heritage is no longer seen as a threat to the American identity they hold simultaneously, she said in an interview at the temple on Friday.

She said she’s especially proud of what her parents’ generation and the elders at the temple have accomplished.

“It was like planting a flag that said ‘this is our Richmond. This is our place to create and build something.’ That’s why this was so monumental in the 1980s — because it didn’t exist” in the Richmond area yet, Anu Rangappa said of the temple’s origins. “It’s the American story, and they’re the ones who have built that for the next generation.”

Her father hopes she will keep building.


Plus
'Kennedy has been forgotten': 15 years after merger, Kennedy High alumni push for restoring their school's name

Dennis Mallory misses his high school.

He graduated from John F. Kennedy High School in Richmond’s East End in 1974, and he still remembers the joy of playing the tuba in the school’s marching band and the wonder of seeing the school being built in the 1960s.

It opened in September 1968 as Kennedy High School, honoring the president who was assassinated five years earlier. Today, that same building bears a different name: Armstrong High School, Kennedy’s rival, with only a marker outside honoring its original name.

The Richmond School Board voted 15 years ago to merge the two schools, located about a mile from each other, as enrollment declined and the old Armstrong building deteriorated. With the merger, though, came one name. One set of school colors. One mascot.

The board went with Armstrong.

“The wound is cut deep and it’s still bleeding,” said Mallory, 63. “It would be great to see our school returned back to its original status as John F. Kennedy High School. We want our school back.”

Armstrong opened in the mid-1800s as the first high school for black students in the city (it was renamed for Samuel C. Armstrong, a white Union general who commanded black troops turning the Civil War before founding what is now Hampton University, in 1909). Kennedy opened 100 years later, pulling some students from the old Armstrong school zone.

Armstrong was located at 1611 N. 31st St. from 1952 until the merger. The building was demolished to accommodate mixed-income housing, intended to replace Creighton Court. It is now the site of a public housing redevelopment project.

The two schools have been one before.

From 1979-86, the two shared a name (Armstrong-Kennedy), a mascot (Jaguars) and colors (blue and gold) as one of three high school complexes in the city that had one principal. They went back to individual schools — Armstrong as the orange-and-blue Wildcats and Kennedy as the red-and-gold Kougars — until the 2004 decision.

Reginald Malone, who represented the 7th District on the School Board at the time of the merger and, according to coverage in The Times-Dispatch, attended Armstrong and led the effort to go with just the Armstrong name and colors.

“Suggesting that the colors be changed is like suggesting that somehow we can take away the red, white and blue off our flag and make it purple and orange, and that the spirit of America won’t be touched somehow,” Malone said at the time of the March 2004 vote. “To take the orange and blue off the Wildcat is like saying we can take the heart out of his chest and the person will still stand.”

Malone did not return multiple requests for comment for this story.

Carol Wolf, who represented the 3rd District on the School Board at the time, voted for the Armstrong name, saying in an interview that the feedback she received at the time was overwhelmingly in favor of Armstrong because of the school’s history.

After the vote, Kennedy students said their views weren’t taken into consideration and held a schoolwide vote that the merged school should be called Armstrong-Kennedy. Armstrong students originally voted for their school name only, but compromised and said they supported the joint name because, according to the student government president, it “would be more beneficial for everyone.”

In May 2004, though, the board stuck with its original vote and kept the Armstrong name. Fifteen years later, Kennedy alumni haven’t forgotten.

“It had been our school for so long,” said Class of 1974 Kennedy alumna Vanessa Johnson. “They took that away.”

Said Kennedy history teacher Diane Ricthie-Neylan: “It was supposed to be a merger. It ended up with everything becoming Armstrong.”

Ricthie-Neylan, who started and ended her teaching career at Kennedy and one year of Armstrong, remembers a close-knit school community with a faculty talent show (she played the piano). She was also the head of the history department when future National Teacher of the Year Rodney Robinson taught at the school.

“They pretty much have erased the history of Kennedy,” she said. “Kennedy has been forgotten, except by those of us trying to keep things alive.”

Kennedy alumni in 2014 installed a marker outside the building to try and remind people of the site’s history, but the Armstrong name, mascot and colors dominate the interior of the school. On the marker is a Kougar head and a flame, which Mallory said “represents everlasting Kougar pride and spirit that burns forever.”

Current schools chief Jason Kamras, School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page and 7th District School Board member Cheryl Burke all said putting Kennedy back into the school’s name is a conversation worth having but didn’t endorse the idea.

“I absolutely think it’s something to be studied,” Burke said. “It’s a conversation worth having.”

The school system is in the midst of renaming three schools in the city, all of which are being rebuilt and set to open next fall. The schools — George Mason Elementary, named for the slave-owning author of Virginia Bill of Rights; E.S.H. Greene Elementary, named for a former Chesterfield County superintendent; Elkhardt-Thompson Middle Thompson, also honoring a Chesterfield superintendent — are set to receive new names early next year.

Kamras said earlier this year that he would look to pursue renaming more schools in 2020.

“It’s a question for the community and if there’s real passion around that, I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t get behind it,” he said of the Armstrong-Kennedy name.

Even without the name, alumni are still remembering their roots.

Mallory has, since 2006, organized an annual reunion for every Kennedy alumni, a night filled with food and music. This year a “Kougarama Picnic” filled Dorey Park with attendees wearing scarlet and gold attire, reliving the homecoming gatherings that were taken away from them.

“History cannot go without mentioning the fact that John F. Kennedy High School did exist,” said Kacem Brazil, a former athletic director and physical education teacher at the school. “It’s disheartening that Kennedy High School no longer exists as Kennedy High School.”

Mallory said that in the best-case scenario, the Kennedy name will be restored. Alumni are willing, he said, for it to be changed to Armstrong-Kennedy, a title it held before.

“Even though they took our school away, they didn’t take away our spirit,” Mallory said. “It’s still as strong as ever.”


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Plus
'Baby Buns' delivers goods, encouragement to parents of babies in intensive care

Most hospitals have a floor that houses the smallest babies and rarely celebrates. It’s starkly different from the labor and delivery wards that greet developed, healthy babies, says Dana Graves, who delivered her second son at 24 weeks.

“Everybody is smiling, telling you, ‘Congratulations.’ You see balloons and flowers. It’s a girl. It’s a boy. It’s celebration,” Graves said.

“In the [neonatal intensive care unit], it’s somber. It’s sad. You don’t see people making eye contact, and it’s not because they are cold, it’s because they are trying to save babies’ lives.

“You see parents, and they are not excited. They delivered their child early.”

If anyone would know, it would be Graves. The NICU at VCU Health was Graves’ home for a full year as she and her husband, Arkel, watched their newborn son, Kaleb, fight to survive and thrive.

Kaleb is now 4 and just started preschool. Holiday photos show a happy toddler loving on his older brother, Keelyn. Still, the Graveses’ experience at the NICU keeps them coming back to nourish and support other families.

They do it through the Baby Buns 4 Life Network, a nonprofit that collects and delivers goods to parents with children in the NICU, at VCU and beyond. Their annual fundraising gala is Jan. 18.

“Baby Buns,” an affectionate name for Kaleb, refers to the way Dana broke the news of her pregnancy to Arkel. She put a bag of burger buns and a photo of her ultrasound into the oven as they were getting ready for dinner.

Arkel’s tearful reaction — the couple had had four miscarriages and a stillbirth — was captured in a video that quickly went viral. When Ellen DeGeneres’ producers called to invite them onto the show, Dana was days away from delivering a baby so small he fit into the palm of their hands.

Nearly every article packed by the nonprofit is inspired by the couple’s experience in the NICU.

There are mugs and large cups Dana packs for parents to fill with ice and water for the NICU lounge, a reminder of the many hours she spent doing the same. (She says VCU has nugget ice, a treat.)

There are snacks, nonperishable meals and beverages for the NICU lounge cabinets, a reminder of the hungry days and nights when she couldn’t peel away from her baby.

There are toiletries for the NICU showers, which parents can use as they need, but which often lack specific products.

There are also gifts meant to encourage. Dana likes to give parents of premature babies journals designed specifically for their situation.

“It’s not the regular baby journal. It has parents fill in the first time you were able to put clothes on your baby; the first time you were able to hold them,” Dana said.

“I still wanted it to be some kind of celebration. You have a life that you created, and I want you to know that. I want you to celebrate that baby.”

Graves’ organization is also able to help families with particular needs as they arise. Some parents struggling financially, for example, may delay taking their babies home because they don’t yet have a crib or other necessary baby items at home.

“Many of the mothers are younger, and some are struggling financially,” she said. “A lot of times, we find out that the babies aren’t able to go home because the moms don’t yet have a car seat. We want to be able to supply them with that.”

Sometimes, Dana’s gift to other parents is just an encouraging word, a story that lets them know she knows what they’re going through.

They often relate feelings of guilt: They delivered their baby early. Dana knows that feeling, too.

She recalls the days of congestive heart failure that put her in the hospital, and doctors’ final decision to deliver her baby early to save her life.

Like many moms fearful for their premature babies, Graves was advocating for the delivery to be delayed as long as possible. On the day of her scheduled cesarean section, Graves ate a snack during her pre-surgery fasting period, delaying the procedure by five hours.

“I was eating a snack pack, crackers and granola,” she said. “Even now, those are some of the things I put in the packages for the families.”


Crime
breaking
89-year-old Henrico County woman killed in hit-and-run crash; record number of pedestrian deaths

The body of an 89-year-old female pedestrian was found Friday morning along East Laburnum Avenue following a hit-and-run crash in Henrico County, resting against a white picket fence that lines the property of the Glenwood Farms apartment community.

Neighbors said Rosa Brown, who lived within a block of where she died, was kind and walked everywhere. Two people reported hearing a thud nearby around 6 p.m. Thursday, but it wasn’t until 9:02 a.m. Friday that police were called to the intersection of East Laburnum and Bolling Road.

The area is home to a bus stop, and dozens of businesses are a block away, where Laburnum meets Mechanicsville Turnpike. Police are still working to determine when exactly Brown was hit. An initial investigation revealed that a car traveling south on East Laburnum struck the woman, according to Lt. Matt Pecka, spokesman for the police division. The driver did not stop, Pecka said.

It was the first of two hit-and-run crashes reported Friday and the 10th pedestrian fatality in Henrico this year. The county has surpassed every other Richmond-area locality in pedestrian deaths two years in a row, according to Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles data.

Richmond has had six pedestrian deaths this year; Chesterfield County, seven; and one pedestrian has been killed in Hanover County. One of the deaths in Henrico occurred on Interstate 64 and was not included in county police data released Friday.

Except for a temporary dip in 2015, when there was one fatality in Henrico, the number of pedestrian deaths in the county has increased or remained steady year over year since the DMV began tracking crash data in 2010.

There have been 80 crashes involving pedestrians — two on interstates — resulting in a total of 89 injuries so far this year in Henrico; there were 91 crashes involving pedestrians resulting in 110 injuries last year.

Heavy fog made visibility difficult overnight and early Friday. Pecka said officers haven’t yet determined if that was a factor in the crash or the discovery of the body. The National Weather Service at Wakefield issued a dense fog advisory for the Richmond area Friday morning, saying driving conditions would be hazardous. Visibility averaged half a mile or less, the service said.

A second hit-and-run crash — this one involving a bicyclist and a vehicle — was reported at 3:02 p.m. Friday in the 11000 block of Nuckols Road. The cyclist was taken to the hospital, police said.

The county has also seen a record high in biking deaths with two fatal crashes. Since 2015, the county has reported one bike fatality each year until this year’s increase.

Police department spokesman Pecka said: “Henrico remains committed to raising awareness to pedestrian safety through the ‘Watch Your Step’ campaign. We encourage those who primarily walk to walk safe, by using flashlights, wear reflective clothing, walk against traffic, and cross at an intersection.”

Police are asking anyone with information about either crash to call the division at (804) 501-5000 or Crime Stoppers at (804) 780-1000.