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The Franklin News-Post
P. O. Box 250
310 Main Street, SW
Rocky Mount, Virginia 24151
540-483-5113
Fax: 540-483-8013

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Morris mourns the loss of Powell
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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

By MORRIS STEPHENSON -

I lost Jack Powell, "my best buddy" for last 15 years, Saturday when he died in a lawn mower incident at his home on Yellow Mountain Road in Roanoke County.

As this column is being written Monday, it is not known if Jack lost his life in the crash or if he had a "medical emergency" prior to the machine's impact among rocks and trees at the bottom of a hill near his house.

"Jackson," as I nicknamed him, was an agent for 35 years with the state's ABC enforcement division before his retirement. He then served a stint in the U.S. Marshal's office in Roanoke. He authored four "Dying Art" moonshine books and was by far the best moonshine story-teller I've ever heard.

Jack and I renewed our old friendship when I returned to the News-Post in 1999. He was the one who encouraged me to start writing "A Night of Makin' Likker." And he continued to keep me going until I finished it in 2011. I guess I can say he "pushed" me into making my lifetime dream come true.

He had just turned 80 a week or so ago and was still going "flat out" in the same way he'd lived his entire life. Instead of busting up illegal moonshine stills, he used his retirement years to write and tell stories, with gusto, about his many escapades.

We were looking forward to once again appearing on the moonshine stage at Saturday's 40th annual Blue Ridge Folklife Festival, something we had done together for nearly 10 years.

Jack and I always worked well together when we were on moonshine panels. For some reason, I became an unofficial moderator at these Ferrum events. If there was a lag in the storytelling, I'd ask Jack to relate one of his experiences. And any time I'd talk on stage about my night of makin' likker, he'd always come back with some kind of crowd-pleasing comment like, "It's a good thing I didn't know about that still," or "You were lucky I didn't catch you!" He'd always draw laughter from the crowd.

I did not learn of Jack's death until Sunday morning through a strange series of missed cell phone calls. The night before I was guest speaker at the Lions Club's 24-E Zone meeting at Holiday Inn's Airport location in Roanoke. My topic was Franklin County's moonshine heritage. District Gov. Kirk Sampson used "Shine on Harvest Moon" as the convention's theme. I didn't arrive home until about 11 p.m. and went to bed almost immediately thereafter.

Sunday morning, I turned on my cell phone and had missed two calls. The first one came in at 11:30 Saturday from Kevin Slough, a county native who is a Roanoke County deputy. His message was to return his call.

The second call was from John Wright of Amherst, one of Jack's former directors of the ABC enforcement division. John and others had conducted a moonshine panel discussion Saturday for the historical society in Bedford. The program was followed by a tour of old moonshine locations.

When I returned his call, I expected to hear a report about the program I had first been scheduled to attend as a participant. Just before John answered my call, a weird thought about Jack flashed through my mind.

Jack was also scheduled to be a part of the program but had "begged out of it" the last time we had talked. I wondered if Jack had changed his mind and had gone to Bedford. But instead, it was John who broke the news about Jack's death.

I was in shock. I couldn't talk for a minute or two as the news began so sink in. He told me what he knew about the accident and how it may have been caused by a health issue.

Afterwards, I sat on the porch swing for a while just thinking about good times spent with Jack. Several months before, Jack and I had a memorable boys' day out traveling together to a book-signing in my hometown of Marion. It was held at the Moonshine Mercantile Store operated by Scott and Dana Schumaker, who founded the distillery that produces Virginia Sweetwater Moonshine.

We spent an enjoyable day at the store. We sold and signed some books, ate a delicious barbecue meal with Scott and arrived back home late that afternoon. The two 90-minute trips between C-burg and Marion gave us plenty of time to recall still raids of the past, along with some personal things that happened to us along the way. I told him as we parted that it was one of the best days I'd spent recently. He agreed.

Last Wednesday, the couple from England who came to visit Franklin County after seeing the movie "Lawless" had gone to see Roddy Moore at the Ferrum BRI. Shortly after, Jack called and said he was coming to Franklin County to check on some locations to see if they needed more of his books to sell. I told him I'd meet him in about 20 minutes at my office. That was his estimated time of arrival. I called Ferrum and gave the couple the message about Jack coming to town. They immediately headed back to Rocky Mount.

Jack proceeded to "wow" Gary and Lin Hopcroft of Essex with his charm, manners and stories. He satisfied their thirst for more history and background on Franklin County's moonshine heritage. His storytelling skills were at their best.

I coached Jack into relating his encounter with a UFO one night while observing a moonshine operation off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Although he would never call the cigar-shaped object a flying saucer, he wrote about it in "Dying Art II" and included a sketch he had drawn of the object. The story is, perhaps, my favorite of all the ones I had the pleasure of hearing.

That day was the last time I saw Jack, and he was at his best. He came into the office wearing Bermuda shorts, a "Dying Art" short sleeve shirt and his favorite pair of shoes. And he was wearing a "Navy" hat that I'd never seen. But judging from its wear, it had to have been one of his older favorites.

When I slowly returned to reality, his death began to sink in. My friend Jack is gone forever. Then some words of advice from my father came to mind. Years ago, I was in a similar situation. My father put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Son, sometimes it's good to cry." And I did.

 
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