Corner to corner with Senator Warner
Published 4:42 pm Tuesday, June 1, 2021
By E. Henry Doggett III
The man loved ham.
He enjoyed Smithfield ham, Edwards Smokehouse of Surry ham, Felts of Ivor ham, country hams cured by my cousins Dwight and Mike Doggett, Tommy Darden and my brother-in-law, Peter Frank Crocker … Sen. John Warner loved ’em all.
Over the 44 years that I knew John W. Warner, I personally procured and provided our region’s finest pork and peanut products for his plate and palate often.
Truth be told, he was a bit of a ham himself.
So, it will come as no surprise that he enjoyed visiting Isle of Wight, Surry, Smithfield, Suffolk and surrounding counties and towns many times during his remarkable 30 years of service representing our commonwealth in the U.S. Senate.
The invitation to take part in Smithfield’s 250th anniversary in 2002 offered him and his Virginia colleague, then-Sen. George Allen, a chance to enjoy some of his favorite things while politicking ― a parade, ham, peanuts and Janice Scott’s excellent food at The Smithfield Inn.
After a reception at the Inn the morning of Sept. 28, the two Virginia senators crossed Main Street for a brief tour of the Isle of Wight Museum.
I arranged for a photo op with them and Mr. P.D. Gwaltney’s “pet ham,” which is billed as the World’s Oldest Ham.
It would be a great shot of the most famous “hams” in Virginia, I thought.
Warner and Allen laughed at the pairing and good-naturedly stood for several photos with local patrons, docents and museum board members (see photo on facing page).
Both U.S. senators were in the parade led by Grand Marshal Cal Ripken, the legendary Baltimore Orioles third baseman, Allen on horseback and Warner behind the wheel of a Chrysler PT convertible cruiser.
Sen. Warner was disappointed that he had to leave before the World’s Biggest Ham Biscuit was ready because he had to get to yet another parade in Shenandoah County.
This event was just one of many that Sen. Warner and I traveled to together, most of them with me behind the wheel or on a plane with him.
Like the Hank Snow song title “I’ve Been Everywhere,” we literally have been almost everywhere together in Virginia.
Corner to corner, Chincoteague to Cumberland Gap, with Senator Warner … many times over.
(That’s a distance of about 625 miles.)
Warner’s appearance in Smithfield for the 250th anniversary was not his first time in this area.
Over the years, he has visited Smithfield Packing Co., attended the Isle of Wight Chamber of Commerce BBQ at Morgart’s Beach, walked up and down Main Street, invaded the kitchen of the Smithfield Inn for a cup of peanut soup and one of Mozell Brown’s ham rolls, banged on the door of Wharf Hill Antiques for it to open a few minutes early, enjoyed a succulent plate of seafood at Smithfield Station and made several stops at the Surrey House Restaurant for crab cakes, fried chicken and homemade rolls.
And a campaign visit to Smithfield almost always included a stop at The Twins Olde Towne Inn for coffee, breakfast and a good “grip and grin” opportunity with local farmers, business owners and retirees.
During one stop, Warner entered The Twins with an entourage of state and local press in tow.
After shaking hands with patrons, he made his way to a table closest to the kitchen and while taking his seat, turned to a woman standing nearby with pen and pad at the ready and started to order two eggs over easy, ham, whole wheat toast and coffee.
Turned out he wasn’t talking to either Twin but to Kerry Dougherty, then a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot.
She almost took the order but fessed up to her true identity.
He said something about that being one of his most embarrassing moments to which I mumbled, “Not even close.”
In 1978, candidate John Warner visited Johnson Brothers Southern States Cooperative in Surry during peanut-picking time and held an impromptu press conference with the traveling press (including the late great Melville “Buster” Carico of the Roanoke Times) at my parents’ house in eastern Surry County.
Pork — the real deal, not the political kind — wasn’t the only local commodity that captured Sen. Warner’s interest. Peanuts were on the same plane of his purview.
Almost every conversation we had would at some point turn to peanuts.
He was endlessly curious about the planting, tending, harvesting and marketing of the legume.
Warner diligently championed Virginia peanut growers over the years.
He attended the Virginia Peanut Growers Association/PGCMA meeting at the Wakefield 4-H Center in 2001 and told the 500-plus attendees that he would do his best to hold the line for continued price support but couldn’t promise success.
The quota system finally was eliminated despite Sen. Warner’s best efforts.
Sen. Warner was a regular attendee and frequent speaker at the annual Shad Planking in Wakefield.
One of his prized possessions was an actual shad plank presented to him with a brass plate acknowledging his support of the Wakefield Ruritan’s community event.
In 1995, in preparation for the upcoming 1996 reelection campaign, I brought Sen. Warner to Surry, Smithfield and Central Hill to film B-roll footage for campaign TV ads.
On a textbook sunny fall day, we started filming in Williamsburg, rolled on board the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry to Surry, continued filming with an antique Surry Volunteer Fire Department engine truck, around Surry Courthouse, at Crocker Brothers farm in Central Hill, in a cornfield under harvest on Raynor Road and at the Smithfield Ice Cream Parlor (a framed, signed thank-you letter from Warner may still hang on its wall).
On the Sunday before the primary in 1996, Sen. Warner made a stop at the annual Gas & Steam Engine at Chippokes Plantation State Park and even got to operate the old sawmill and the 1916 Peerless Steam Traction Tractor under the watchful eye of John Soderburg.
In the late summer of 1996, Smithfield Foods CEO Joe Luter hosted a fundraiser for Sen. Warner at his home overlooking the Pagan River with Sen. Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina as a special guest. Approximately 300-plus attended.
As the event was winding down, Sen. Warner and I took a walk.
He stood on the lush green lawn, looked south toward the town and started to wax poetic about the beauty of the view, the large turnout for the fundraiser on a nice summer day — a Sunday, to boot — the nice comments, etc.
He was genuinely stunned by the good turnout.
After a moment of silence, I quipped: “Don’t get too big a head about this. Most people came to see Joe Luter’s house and eat Janice Scott’s delicious food. You and Sen. Faircloth just happened to be here.”
Warner howled in laughter.
Sen. John Warner was well known for his expertise on military affairs.
He served on the Senate Armed Services Committee, becoming ranking member and eventually ascending to chairman of that committee.
Newport News Shipbuilding and the many other military contractors in Virginia were constantly on his radar.
The Hampton Roads area is home to many active duty and retired military women and men.
Warner was keenly aware that many of them along with shipyard employees live in Isle of Wight, Surry, Suffolk and neighboring communities. He was dedicated to a strong national defense and didn’t hesitate to use his considerable clout to ensure good jobs and benefits for the aforementioned.
As I type this on Memorial Day, I’m reminded of Senator Warner’s service as a sailor in the U.S. Navy and as a Marine officer. I accompanied him to several Memorial Day events over the years in Portsmouth, Bedford, Northern Virginia and Virginia Beach, to name a few.
There isn’t enough India Ink in the world to print my memories of time spent with John Warner.
He was the quintessential Virginia gentleman or in the parlance of the U.S. Senate which he loved so much, “THE gentleman from Virginia.”
Surry resident Henry Doggett penned these reflections at the request of Publisher Emeritus John Edwards. We are honored to publish them. Doggett can be reached by email at email@example.com.