There are still bright spots, if you look for them

December 16, 2020 12:01 am

(Getty Images)

This dispiriting, tumultuous year has shaken this country. 

We’ve witnessed a quasi-coup by a president who refused to accept his defeat — and who was cravenly supported by elected officials who knew better. It was no less than an assault on democracy. 

People who had jobs when 2020 started are out of work. Schoolchildren struggle to learn at home, with parents who may be ill-equipped to help. We chafe at the endless Zoom calls, and the selfish louts who won’t wear masks. There’s the sheer absurdity that the richest country in the world has been so utterly inept at fighting COVID-19; the death toll is now above 300,000.

May the following, then, be a Christmas/Hanukkah/holiday gift to all of us:

Michael Esmond of Florida, a business owner who decades ago had his own heat shut off while raising his children, donated more than $7,600 to pay the overdue utility bills of 114 households. CNN reported that it was the second straight year he’d helped people in Gulf Breeze, a community of nearly 7,000 people near Pensacola. 

Esmond said this year’s monetary gift “to me probably is more meaningful (than) last year with the pandemic and all the people out of work having to stay home.” He noted the impact of Hurricane Sally, too: “We still have a lot of the blue roofs here, where they’re just covered with tarps.”

The 74-year-old veteran runs a pool and spa company, and he said business was good this year. Esmond could remember a time, though, when things weren’t so well. 

He couldn’t pay his bills in 1983, and his gas and electricity were cut off. “We had icicles hanging off our windows,” Esmond told the Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal. So he was happy to help folks who were up against it this year.

His generosity, the act of paying it forward, got to me to thinking: Is there a like-minded Good Samaritan in the commonwealth? 

I’m not talking about foundations or social service agencies that can tap hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’m looking, instead, for somebody who’s an everyday citizen, the person who sees a need and goes beyond writing a small check. 

The utility companies and government agencies I interviewed were impressed by Esmond’s story, but they couldn’t identify anybody who had done something similar in Virginia. That might be due to federal funding that’s helped utilities keep the lights on and the homes warm. 

 “We’ve been doing a lot of digging,” Rick DelaHaya, spokesman for Virginia Natural Gas, said after I asked about such donations. “We haven’t found anybody that’s a Secret Santa – yet.”

May hope spring eternal in the winter.

Rhonda Johnson is a spokeswoman for the city of Richmond’s Department of Public Utilities. It operates several services in Richmond and the surrounding region. Johnson said the department didn’t have a story similar to Esmond’s, but DPU also hasn’t shut off anyone for nonpayment during the pandemic.

The agency has received money through the federal CARES Act, allowing it to fund expenses because of the pandemic. Johnson said the funding will allow the utilities department to pay customers’ bills that are at least two months behind. 

Bonita Billingsley Harris, a spokeswoman with Dominion Energy, told me the utility is forgiving all past due bills as of Sept. 30. Nor is the power company disconnecting customers because of nonpayment. 

A story like Edmond’s got me to thinking about Thomas Cannon, the late Richmond man who wrote $1,000 checks to people he read about in the local newspaper. The retired postal worker was of modest means, yet he’d donated more than $150,000 – often to strangers – by the time of his death in 2005. 

I’d like to believe others are taking up Cannon’s mantle. Maybe they’re shy. Maybe they simply don’t seek attention for their good works.

Until they come forward, let’s hear it for Michael Esmond. In this year of so much strife and sadness, he provides a reason to cheer. 

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]