Richmond lost a grandee and a grand dame this month, two nonagenarians of unfailing good cheer and intelligence whose loyalty, service and belief in their adopted city was unfailing.
Neilson Jay "Neil" November was a guiding force in the cultural and religious life of Richmond for as long as probably anyone alive can remember. The native New Yorker, Navy veteran of World War II and retired senior vice president of the former Friedman-Marks Clothing Co. died March 2 at 93. Among the many organizations on which he left an indelibly positive mark were the Science Museum of Virginia, the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, the Valentine, the Weinstein Jewish Community Center, the Virginia Holocaust Museum, the Capital Region Airport Commission and the former Virginia Aviation Museum, the closing of which remained one of the disappointments of his life.
But it was his philanthropy to local theaters that's legendary. November joined his stage-struck and generous wife, Sara Belle November, in supporting many companies large and fledgling. Their largesse particularly showered the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community and the Virginia Repertory Theatre. A $2 million gift for the facade restoration of the latter company's historic Empire Theatre on West Broad Street, and establishment of an endowment fund, resulted in the building being renamed in the couple's honor.
But in addition to monetary gifts, the Novembers' generosity of spirit found them unfailingly in attendance for decades at theater opening nights. One evening many years ago at a small company, I was seated near the couple at a performance of "Christmas with the Crawfords," a play inspired by actress Joan Crawford's infamous reputation as a mother. After the show, November was not amused in the least: "Well," he muttered to his wife, "At least we can say that we saw it."
The moment captured the man perfectly — steadfast to the causes he embraced, but always crystal clear about where he stood.
Frances Boushall Valentine died on March 5 at 94. Born in Ashville, N.C., she moved here as an infant with her parents. After graduating from college near the close of World War II, she volunteered in the Richmond Red Cross War Office and also served as a nurse's aide at the Medical College of Virginia. In 1953, during a brief career in journalism, Valentine covered the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. She later served as director of public relations for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Many years later, the mother of three, grandmother and great-grandmother served as the Richmond Christmas Mother.
But it would be in helping to fulfill the potential of Maymont Park where she'd make her mark. In the 1970s Valentine was a founding member of the Maymont Foundation, an organization established to protect, interpret and endow a beloved but long-neglected civic-owned treasure. And as a co-founder and leader of the Maymont Council, a support group, she and her colleagues helped make possible the conservation of hundreds of objects, the restoration of the mansion to its original grandeur, matching federal grants and the preservation of the original elements of the estate.
"She had a delightful sense of humor, solid judgment and clear thinking," says Dale Wheary, curator of the mansion. "Her encouragement of the staff and board never ceased over the years."
Adds Peggy Singlemann, director of park operations: "Hers was a kind, strong, encouraging voice of an avid gardener and one whose love of Maymont was unsurpassed."