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2018 issue
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Mantle: Virginia Indian Tribute Dedication.
"Hey, I have a pair of shoes just like that," said The Honorable Ralph S. Northam, Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. This reporter looked down at her black Skechers from Shoe Carnival. She had to admit they're comfortable. But what impressed her most was the Governor's approachability. That's not the conversation that one expects to start with when interviewing the top man in state government.

Sitting in his spacious office in the Patrick Henry Building, we caught up on the Washington Nationals, the Flying Squirrels, our families, my migraines, mutual friends, our rescue dogs, and other "minor league" subjects. He was so relaxed, it was hard to believe that he had been scurrying between proclamations, radio and TV interviews, hosting V.I.P.'s, making formal announcements and remarks, and visiting sites of importance in Virginia. When does he sleep?

When we tossed out the phrase "laid back overachiever," he said that was not too far off the mark. That description was probably set during his growing up years. He started out on a small farm on the Eastern Shore, his rural roots were far away from the proverbial "rat race." But his family was very well educated and accomplished. His father went to school at University of Virginia, served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and then became a lawyer and a judge. His mother was a "city girl" from Washington, D.C., whose father was a surgeon there.

Northam's years as a student at Onancock Public Schools gave him time to think: law or heath care? Health care won the day. Northam said he would have liked to be a jet pilot, but he could not pass the vision test.

But it all turned out beautifully. From both sides of his family, he had received the message that it is noble to go into public service; that helping others is the highest calling. He attended Virginia Military Academy and majored in medicine. Then on to Eastern Virginia Medical School, where he chose a three-year program over a four-year program. He chose child neurology as his specialty. His early work was done at two esteemed hospitals: Walter Reed and Johns Hopkins. He said he did not do surgery, but his job sounds just as stressful: he was an operating room monitor.

Northam's wife, Pam, is similarly dedicated to helping children. By training she is a pediatric occupational therapist. Her "cause," as First Ladies tend to follow, is early childhood education, said Northam. She wants to see that every child in Virginia has a crack at early education. And she is "passionate about the environment." Mrs. Northam also plans to join Dorothy McAuliffe in her crusade for better nutrition.

The Northam children, Wes, 29, and Aubrey, 27, have done well, too. Wes is a neurosurgeon; Aubrey is a web designer.

Perhaps the most touching chapter of the Governor's biography is his work with EDMARC Hospice for Children.

"It gives you perspective," he said. When you think you've had a rough day, you remember the children with terminal illnesses. He cared for as many as 70 at a time. But even with the sadness, he said, "it can be rewarding."

Northam said his greatest challenge as Governor is to address the opioid epidemic. He plans to visit schools to talk about it.

His greatest surprise, or disappointment as Governor? No longer being able to hop in his car and dash over to Home Depot for tools and parts. He said that giving up his privacy and flexibility has been "an adjustment."

When his term as Governor ends, he says he will go back to health care, tending patients or perhaps teaching. As a doctor, he said, you diagnose, you figure out a treatment, and you implement it. But as Governor, there are complications. You figure out a solution, and then you have to deal with 140 legislators and their constituents.

We've already established that this high-energy governor runs without sleep. Two of his hobbies are water sports and antique cars. He loves to steer his kayak, fish, and sail.

Cars are his other spare time passion. He restored a 1953 Oldsmobile in high school. Then he restored two Corvettes. This reporter asked, "Why do I know they were red?"

Bonnie Atwood, a freelance writer with Tall Poppies Freelance Writing LLC, is the winner of 30 national and state writing awards, and represents legislative clients with David Bailey Associates. She can be reached at All rights reserved by Bonnie Atwood.