Affirmation in a small, conservative town

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot


Two by two, they come. They drive north across bridges and through tunnels, along a sliver of land that separates ocean from bay, until highways and city lights give way to narrow roads and cornfields.

They are here only for a day – just long enough to see the man who can affirm their love for one another. The waitress at Georgetown Family Restaurant refills their coffee cups and asks the couples where they’re from. She doesn’t ask why they’ve come. She knows.

They pay for breakfast, then head out along Market Street, past antique shops and law offices, around the historic traffic circle in front of the old Sussex County Courthouse. They stroll by a 200-year-old pillory, the last of its kind in the last state to banish the wooden device once used to torture people of their persuasion.

But they haven’t come for a history lesson. They enter the county office building; go up the stairs and down the hall to the left until they arrive at Room 268. They’ve come from Atlanta, from Tampa, from Raleigh and from Norfolk. By the dozens, gay couples have come.

The clerk of the peace greets them with a smile and a handshake. They know nothing about the stocky, middle-age man with the crooked necktie. They only know that this town – and this stranger – represent the easiest way they can make their love official in the eyes of the federal government.

They’ve come to see John Brady.

But he’s far more excited to see them.


The 54-year-old lawyer never imagined that he would be joining couples in marriage. Until this year, he didn’t even really like attending weddings. But laws change, and so do people.

Jessica Kazmierski and Petty Officer 3rd Class Lara Runge came from Virginia Beach. Brady met the sailor and her partner at the door before their ceremony.

“You both look beautiful,” he said before leading them into his makeshift chapel.

The man who held the job before him decided not to seek re-election last fall, in part because of a moral objection. Delaware had approved same-sex civil unions and was moving swiftly toward more radical change.

Brady, a former county recorder of deeds, had been looking for a chance to get back into public service. The onetime-Republican-turned-Democrat ran on the slogan “Let the Big Man Work for You,” and received 54 percent of the vote in staunchly conservative Sussex County.

Then came a whirlwind of extraordinary change.

Delaware became the 11th state to allow gay marriage; the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act; and the Pentagon announced that it would begin extending benefits to spouses of gay service members.

Those factors combined with geography to make Delaware’s southernmost county one of the most convenient places to get married for thousands of gay couples, from military-heavy Hampton Roads to Miami.

And so they’ve come. Most pass through Maryland, another gay-marriage destination, to reach Brady’s doorstep, but that state requires a 48-hour waiting period before issuing licenses. Delaware’s wait, Brady is quick to point out, is just 24 hours.

Kazmierski and Runge made travel plans within minutes of the Department of Defense’s announcement last month. A Google search led them to a small town they had never heard of, in a state they had never planned to visit.

Runge fidgeted with the box holding the rings; Kaz­mierski messed with her partner’s shirt collar. Brady cut through awkward silence.

“Have you enjoyed your stay in Sussex County?” he asked, and then offered suggestions for good places to dine afterward.

Since the marriage law went into effect in July, Brady’s office has performed more than 500 ceremonies, nearly half of them same-sex partnerships.

It’s a part-time job, paying just $24,000 a year, but Brady is committed to it: He’s agreed to perform marriages anywhere in the county, any day of the week, any hour.

He made headlines on Labor Day after a driver ran a stop sign and slammed into the side of his SUV, totaling the vehicle. Brady hobbled out of the hospital two hours later, in time to perform a wedding scheduled for that afternoon.

The Big Man has been in love, but he’s never been married. The teachers at his Catholic high school encouraged the young Eagle Scout to become a priest, but even as a teenager he knew that wouldn’t have been a good fit.

After finishing law school in the early ’90s in his hometown of Wilmington, Brady moved south to what locals know as “Lower Slower Delaware.”

He grew up just an hour away, but years would pass before he truly felt accepted in Sussex County. In these parts, you’re either from here, or you’re from someplace else.

And yet, in recent months, visitors have flocked by the hundreds to an antiquated town in the heart of a county that overwhelmingly favors tradition over change.

Last month, when an area school board narrowly rejected a proposal to add a Bible course to the high school curriculum, a county councilman went on the radio and complained that one of the board members was a lesbian.

“We all know they’re not very strong on the Bible,” he said.

That same councilman was among a majority that voted last year to waive the $200 marriage fee for service members and veterans. It was pitched as a patriotic gesture to thank brave men and women who have fought for freedom.

“They never anticipated that they would be creating an incentive for gay military members to come here from all over the country for a free wedding,” Brady said with a chuckle. “That wasn’t part of the plan.”

The fee waiver was the clincher for Kazmierski and Runge.

After filling out the marriage application, the couple spent the night in Rehoboth Beach, a resort town on the county’s eastern shore where rainbow banners flutter outside restaurants.

“We couldn’t believe how welcoming everyone was,” Kazmierski said, making small talk as Brady prepared the legal paperwork. “We want to come back and spend a week for our honeymoon.”

Scott Thomas, the director of the taxpayer-funded Southern Delaware tourism bureau, liked the sound of that. He wants to launch a marketing campaign inviting gay service members in Hampton Roads to come get hitched in Sussex County.

“I’m not concerned with people’s personal lives,” Thomas said. “Everyone is welcome to come spend some money in Sussex County.”

Brady emerged from his office wearing a black robe. He motioned for the women to join him before rows of metal folding chairs and a small audience of county employees.

“A marriage begins a whole new world, as two hearts pledge one love, and two lives are joined together,” Brady said to start the six-minute ceremony.

Kazmierski’s eyes grew damp as she recited her vows. Runge smiled and wiped a tear from her partner’s cheek, then repeated the same words.

“With this ring / I thee wed / and declare my trust / fidelity / and love for you.”

Brady smiled and nodded with each line. He then instructed the women to face each other.

“Lara and Jessica have solemnly consented together in a union of marriage on this 22nd day of August, 2013, here in Georgetown, Delaware,” Brady said, before looking away from his script.

“Because Delaware has one thing going for it. We have a legislature and a governor who believes, and it is the public policy of the state, that when two people are in love and they are in the age of the majority, that they have the opportunity and the ability to get married.”

He choked over the last few words, paused briefly, then continued with a trembling voice.

“So, therefore, by the power vested in me by the state of Delaware, I now pronounce you a happily married couple. You may kiss and embrace your wife.”

The crowd cheered.

Brady and the newlyweds posed for photos. He thanked them again for making the 3½-hour drive, and hugged both women before seeing them out the door.

“This is such a happy place,” Brady said. “I’ve never had a happier job.”


Minutes later, the clerk of the peace retreated to his private office near the end of another long day in what has quickly become Delaware’s busiest marriage bureau.

The room, lined with plaques and degrees, has become a refuge for a man who works more than 80 hours a week among three jobs – a place to recharge emotionally.

Couples probably wonder why he gets choked up performing the weddings of strangers, Brady said.

They don’t know about the malicious pink postcards that a political opponent mailed to voters several years back. They don’t know about the slurs that have come from the mouths of friends. They don’t know about the longtime partner whose heart stopped suddenly three years ago, or the tattered photo he still carries in his wallet.

They don’t know his Josh always wanted to get married.

“We’ve come a long way in a short amount of time, but the change in the law didn’t come soon enough,” Brady said, his bottom lip quivering.

He bowed his head, took a deep breath and tried not to cry.

The Big Man didn’t have time for tears.

Two men were waiting for him in the lobby.

Coast Guard rescue swimmer to downed pilot: “Stay with me”

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot

(Petty Officer 1st Class Brandyn Hill | U.S. Coast Guard)
(Petty Officer 1st Class Brandyn Hill | U.S. Coast Guard)

In the dark of night Thursday off the coast of Virginia, a pair of fighter jets clipped wings, forcing one pilot to bail out over the Atlantic Ocean.

More than 100 miles away in Elizabeth City, a pager beeped to life. Bret Fogle sat up, rubbed his eyes and sprang from his bunk.

The Coast Guard rescue swimmer had trained 13 years for this night.

Continue reading “Coast Guard rescue swimmer to downed pilot: “Stay with me””

Recordings offer new perspective on Navy jet crash

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot


All appeared normal from inside the glass-enclosed control tower seven stories above Oceana Naval Air Station.

A fuel truck rumbled along the flight line. A squadron of fighter jets – blinking red dots in an expanse of blue – lined up miles apart for landings. A pair of F/A-18 Hornets rocketed down a runway, lifting off the ground seconds apart.

Then came a disturbing sight. A flash of light, followed by a boom. At 12:04 p.m., James Nairn’s voice crackled over a radio.

“Hey, dash-two just had a huge flame come out the back of his engine,” the 22-year-old air traffic controller said. “You need to let us know what’s going on.”

Petty Officer 2nd Class Nairn sounded surprisingly calm for someone who was watching a $29 million fighter jet and the two aviators inside it falling toward the suburbs.

Continue reading “Recordings offer new perspective on Navy jet crash”

He helped the other guys in Vietnam. Then the other guys left.

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot

(Thé N. Pham | The Virginian-Pilot)

John Donovan stepped out of a taxi in the Vietnamese city of My Tho in 2008, dropped his bags on the street and squinted through midday sun as he scanned a bustling crowd.

He was searching for a ghost.

More than 40 years had passed since he had seen the local interpreter who guided his American riverboat crew as it navigated the winding and murky waters of South Vietnam during the war. For years, Donovan assumed his old friend was dead.

The retired Navy officer had spent part of an earlier trip to Vietnam searching for the translator, known simply as “Minh” by most of the men who served with him. But with no details about what happened to him after the war – and only his memories to guide him – Donovan didn’t know where to begin.

Then, about six years ago, he came across Minh’s name in a book. That led him to an author who put him in touch with a Vietnamese refugee in Dallas who gave him a phone number. The war buddies recognized each other’s voices almost immediately.

Continue reading “He helped the other guys in Vietnam. Then the other guys left.”

Guns and Glitz

By Mike Hixenbaugh

The Virginian-Pilot


A tattooed Navy SEAL stepped out of his heavy-duty pickup truck, spit out a stream of brown tobacco juice, slung a canvas backpack over one shoulder, then paused to allow a group of giggling girls in black leotards to pass in front of his vehicle.

The bearded commando peered over his sunglasses and raised an eyebrow before following the dancers into the sparkling glass building a few blocks from the Oceanfront.

In the lobby, some of the world’s most lethal combatants lined up for a glance at the latest in modern war fighting gadgetry. On the other side of a black rope, girls wearing neon pink wigs nervously practiced triple pirouettes.

A quirk of scheduling brought together two exclusive and incredibly disparate worlds Thursday at the Virginia Beach Convention Center. It was a bizarre mix of big guns and tutus, camouflage face paint and glittery eyeliner.

Continue reading “Guns and Glitz”

Proud mother meets her ‘baby’ at the pier after long year at sea

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot


Steve Early / The Virginian-Pilot

Michelle Kirkpatrick climbed out of bed before sunrise, slipped on a red, white and blue T-shirt and drove directly to Norfolk Naval Station.

She wasn’t going to miss her baby – not again.

Her son, Petty Officer 3rd Class Kris Chrisp, was among thousands of sailors who returned Wednesday following a long and complicated year aboard the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Kirkpatrick and her family – including Chrisp’s grandparents, niece and girlfriend – had driven into town a day earlier. They checked out of the hotel early and arrived at the pier by 8:30 Wednesday morning, a solid six hours before the ship was scheduled to pull into port.

Continue reading “Proud mother meets her ‘baby’ at the pier after long year at sea”

Retired flags find new life in final salute to veterans

By Mike Hixenbaugh and Dianna Cahn
The Virginian-Pilot


(L. Todd Spencer / The Virginian-Pilot)
(L. Todd Spencer / The Virginian-Pilot)

Dave White appeared solemn as he pulled a flag-draped casket from the back of a hearse and slid the wooden box onto a gurney.

Carefully – to show proper respect – he wheeled the casket to the mouth of a roaring hot furnace, then stepped briskly across the dusty concrete floor to a portable CD player in a corner of the room.

White pushed “Play,” straightened his back, and placed his right hand over his heart – then stood motionless as a recording of “Taps” filled the room.

At Sturtevant Funeral Home, White said, no veteran is cremated without proper honors. “He served our country, and that’s the least we could do for him.”

Continue reading “Retired flags find new life in final salute to veterans”

Former POWs rekindle a tradition in Suffolk

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot


Harold Bergbower (YouTube)
Harold Bergbower (YouTube)

Harold Bergbower was pronounced dead the day America officially entered World War II.

Bergbower, a young mechanic in the Army Air Corps, had been hit by a bomb blast during the Japanese assault on the Philippines on Dec. 8, 1941.

Within days, a telegram announcing his death reached his family in Illinois, and not long after, his name was added to a wall at his high school honoring a growing list of war casualties from his hometown.

Three years later, Bergbower returned from the dead.

Or at least that’s how it seemed to family members who had attended his memorial service.

Continue reading “Former POWs rekindle a tradition in Suffolk”

Audio: Confusion reigned before destroyer’s collision

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot

(Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Sunderman | U.S. Navy)
(Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Sunderman | U.S. Navy)

The guided-missile destroyer Porter had just cut across the path of an approaching supertanker, a risky nighttime maneuver in one of the world’s busiest shipping channels, when a sailor standing watch spotted an ominous red glow.

It was the port light of a second massive oil tanker – apparently obscured by the first merchant ship and somehow undetected or unnoticed by sailors monitoring the Porter’s advanced radar system.

“Sir, I have another merchant here on the starboard bow,” the officer of the deck said, sounding shaken.

It was about 12:50 a.m. Aug. 12. The two ships were on a collision course outside the Strait of Hormuz.

In the harrowing moments that followed, captured in a newly released audio recording, the Norfolk-based Porter would again attempt – and this time fail – to dart past a 160,000-ton merchant vessel.

The audio from the Porter’s pilothouse, along with the ship’s logs from that night, provide a rare glimpse into the tense and confusing moments before impact.

Continue reading “Audio: Confusion reigned before destroyer’s collision”

Out of decay, Norfolk’s art scene rises

Distinction Magazine

(Rich-Joseph Facun / Distinction Magazine)
(Rich-Joseph Facun / Distinction Magazine)

For the better part of two weeks in the late winter of 1963, workers marched and waved signs outside the red-brick building at the corner of 25th and Fawn streets.

David Pender’s Daylight Bakery had been churning out fresh baked goods for nearly 40 years by then. The little Norfolk plant was built in 1923 to produce bread for dozens of neighborhood markets that bore the Pender name.

Before suburban strip plazas and cul-de-sac housing developments, corner grocery stores were a staple of American society – places where housewives shopped daily while exchanging recipes and gossip, or where children could pop in after school to buy penny candy or pickles.

That time was fading fast by 1963, when the local bakers union staged a walkout. The bakers were demanding a pay raise, in part to compensate for difficult working conditions. The old factory was too small – its equipment too old – to keep up with the demands of modern supermarkets. Workers labored long hours through intense heat inside a building that lacked proper ventilation.

The union bosses eventually struck a deal, ensuring a 19-cent raise spread over three years. But even as workers returned, it seemed that the building’s best days had passed.

By the end of the year, suburbanization had sucked the life out of Pender’s old bakery.

Fifty years later – thanks to a spunky businesswoman and a surprising group of local artists – something new is rising at 2501 Fawn Street.

Continue reading “Out of decay, Norfolk’s art scene rises”