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Story by Jeannie Dortch.
Photos by Jeannie Dortch and Allen Cumbia. Video by Allen Cumbia and Sean Cook.

Blackwell honoredIn December of 2012, with former governor Douglas Wilder at his side, Stuart Blackwell received the Unsung Heroes Award for Excellence in Virginia Government for his 50 years of service to the Virginia State Capitol. His selfless public service in preserving Virginia’s living history and his bright attitude were noted as examples to emulate. In his home, I read letters written to Stuart by many Virginia notables and saw photographs of him and his wife, Isabelle, with George Allen, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barak Obama.

Stuart Blackwell’s name may not be familiar to First Baptist Church members, but it certainly should be! Most take for granted the importance of a Grounds Supervisor who maintains the land that surrounds FBC’s prestigious edifice. While Len Morrow is remembered for his stewardship of FBC’s beautiful gardens, Stuart has been in charge of enhancing what hems in those flower beds for over 40 years.

It's not work if you love it.A humble but highly motivated man, Stuart grew up in Brunswick County. He enjoyed horticulture classes in high school as well as working on the family farm. But like many young men, he itched to seek work in the big city, so in 1963, at the age of 20, he moved to Richmond. Even after he got his first job at the state capitol laying pipe under the 13 acres of ground surrounding the buildings, he continued taking horticulture classes at night in Henrico County. One of his classmates was Len Morrow. During this time, he also met Anne B. Taliaferro, not only an educator and principal in Henrico but also an FBC member for whom he did yard work for 20 years. Through these connections, he became acquainted with FBC.

As Stuart’s expertise with plants became recognized downtown, he moved from laborer to foreman, and eventually from foreman to supervisor of a 19-member crew that helped him groom the Capitol grounds. In 1973, when Paul Moss, FBC’s Building Supervisor, was looking for a landscaper, he hired Stuart sight unseen to take care of the grounds because his reputation had preceded him. With the help of his wife and three men he hired, Stuart began his tenure at FBC.

Over the years, Stuart has been asked to work at many other churches, but the only one he has ever agreed to help has been FBC. His friendship with associate pastor Phil Cumbia, another Brunswick County native, grew, as it did with others in the congregation. “I thank God and the members of FBC for letting me work for them. I love what I do and I love people appreciating what I do.” To emphasize, Stuart recalled, “During the early 1980s, I mentioned that an illness made pruning several American Holly trees on the property too unwieldy. Frank Glover, Building Supervisor at the time, arranged to have the trees removed.”

When asked how he was able to juggle both the Capitol and FBC jobs at the same time, Stuart continued, “Better equipment and good people working for me in both places.”

Mr. and Mrs. Blackwell

Mr. and Mrs. Blackwell

As he was approaching 70, Stuart considered retiring completely, but in a conversation with Jim Somerville, FBC’s Senior Pastor, Stuart was flattered when Jim told him, “There are over 3,000 people who do not want to see you go.” He reconsidered and now works his own hours but still keeps FBC’s grounds beautiful year round. An early riser, he always arrives in his red pickup before the building opens. Quietly working among the greenery, Stuart may be hard to spot by FBC members and neighbors, but “when they see me, they always have nice things to say about my work.”

The neighborhood also profits from Stuart’s work. Jim mentioned that it is a wonderful example of FBC’s intentional efforts to contribute to our neighborhood and develop relationships with other Fan residents.

What Stuart loved became his life’s work and for that work he is loved and appreciated.

Watch a video about Stuart Blackwell produced by Allen Cumbia and Sean Cook.

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