Hager, Batten left their marks on state, community

Published 5:12 pm Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Virginia lost an increasingly rare person — a political moderate — when John H. Hager died Aug. 23.

Mr. Hager was a centrist Republican back when it was possible to be such a thing. He was of a generation that still had the ability and willingness to talk and work across party lines, much to the benefit of the commonwealth.

He held the view that his party was important, but his state and nation were far more so. He thus stood philosophically alongside Virginia Republicans like U.S. Sen. John Warner and, locally, state Sen. Fred Quayle.

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While Mr. Hager’s moderate political style is remembered by political observers, his personality and personal drive are remembered by anyone who ever met him.

Jim Hager was in his mid-30s when he was stricken by polio. He was wheelchair-bound for the remainder of his life, but he took the disability as a challenge. He became active in Virginia politics and in 1996, embarked on a campaign for lieutenant governor. He campaigned across the commonwealth in a wheelchair, won the state’s second-highest post and became a respected presider over the state Senate. Coincidentally, it was the first time in more than a century that the state Senate was controlled by Republicans.

He then sought the Republican nomination for governor, but it went to Mark Earley, who was defeated by Democrat Mark Warner. Warner held such a deep respect for Hager, however, and he appointed Hager as the governor’s top state security assistant after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001.

Mr. Hager went on to serve as chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, but the age of moderate Republican influence was rapidly waning, and he was forced out of the chair in a revolt by party conservatives in 2008.

Jim Hager will be missed by those who knew him, but his moderate style should be missed by all who hope for a return, someday, to civility in our politics.


Russell Batten

Few people have had a greater impact on the town of Smithfield than Russell Batten, who died in July.

Mr. Batten spent half of his entire life working for the town as its public works director. During those years, from 1971 to 2009, the town grew dramatically, and with the population grew the public utility systems, which he supervised.

Mr. Batten was a hands-on supervisor. He wasn’t afraid to get dirty when it was necessary, and the town crew knew he would be alongside them at 2 in the afternoon or 2 in the morning if the need arose.

During a record cold spell in January 1977, residential water lines froze all over town. Town crews worked to thaw public pipes, but under Mr. Batten’s leadership, they didn’t hesitate to help out homeowners with frozen systems as well.

Working alongside longtime Town Manager Elsey Harris, Mr. Batten modernized much of the water system, a process that continued after his retirement.

It’s pretty well agreed that nobody past or present knew more about the intricacies of the town system than did Mr. Batten. He had a photographic memory and could pinpoint water and sewer systems that for years had been poorly mapped on paper.

And along the way, Mr. Batten maintained a legendary dry wit and sense of humor that marked his origins among watermen in Battery Park, where he grew up. He told tales of an earlier generation that were priceless, and it’s regrettable that those were likely not recorded.

Russell Batten ranks among Smithfield’s notable residents of the second half of the 20th century, and his contribution to the town is well worth recalling.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.