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Arts & Extras: Writer spends time with 'walking man's best friend'

Arts & Extras: Writer spends time with 'walking man's best friend'


When Tim Thornton was 6 years old, his father landed a job as a bus driver.

“Sometimes I’d get to ride with him on those trips,” Thornton wrote. “I’d sit behind him and look out that wall-sized windshield while he commanded a vehicle as big as a house trailer.”

Now 58, a freelance writer, teacher and musician living in Shawsville, Thornton in a sense got to relive that childhood adventure as the recipient of the 2018 Writer on the Bus honorarium. That program is part of Art by Bus, a collaboration between the Greater Roanoke Transit Co., the Roanoke Arts Commission and RIDE Solutions, an alternative transportation awareness program run by the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission.

The scribes chosen for the Writer on the Bus program ride Valley Metro buses in the spring as inspiration. What they ultimately produce, be it poetry, essays or fiction, is published in the fall as a chapbook. Thornton’s chapbook of essays, “The Walking Man’s Best Friend,” was published in October and can be purchased online at

“Including my writing in the Art by Bus program may be stretching the definition of art past the breaking point,” Thornton joked. An award-winning journalist and former writer for The Roanoke Times, he approached the assignment as a reporter would.

“Being the Writer on the Bus was a continuation of what I’ve done all my working life,” he wrote. “I worked at newspapers in small towns partly because I like small towns, but also because I’ve always thought people in small towns deserve good journalism as much as people in big cities do. This time, I wanted to find and tell stories about folks who take the bus. People in big cars get enough attention.”

In search of subjects, he rode almost all of Valley Metro’s routes. “The miracle is I got on the wrong bus only once.”

Mostly, he observed and took notes. “I looked for interesting people, interesting patterns, little vignettes that might suggest a larger story. I think I conducted only two traditional interviews. One of them gave the chapbook its title.”

In the title essay, a 57-year-old named Jerome talks to Thornton about jobs he has held and people he has helped. Jerome declares himself a Valley Metro fan who uses the bus to get everywhere. “That’s the walking man’s best friend.”

Thornton wants to encourage other writers to apply to be the next Writer on the Bus. “It’s a great gig. There are plenty of stories and poems and essays out there. The application deadline is Dec. 17.”

To apply, visit

Neighborhood award

On Nov. 9 at the city of Roanoke’s annual Harvesting of the Fruits potluck in Jefferson Center’s Fitzpatrick Hall, longtime Old Southwest resident Jan Keister received the Neighborhood Arts Award from the Roanoke Arts Commission. A volunteer grant writer for neighborhood association Old Southwest Inc., Keister was responsible for setting in motion and organizing the Franklin Road Bridge Art Panel Project that will artistically decorate the lighted columns of the renovated bridge when it reopens in 2019. “Without her it wouldn’t have happened,” said Roanoke arts and culture coordinator Susan Jennings.

Women’s Luncheon awards

On Monday, the Taubman Museum of Art held its annual Women’s Luncheon fundraiser. The keynote speaker was Katherine Parkin, an author and history professor at Monmouth University in New Jersey. Parkin’s most recent book is “Women at the Wheel: A Century of Buying, Driving, and Fixing Cars,” published in 2017.

At the event, the museum gave awards honoring the contributions of women to art and arts education. The Ann Fralin Award for contributions to art and art education went to longtime Roanoke Valley nonprofit volunteer and philanthropist Charlotte Porterfield, wife of Roanoke business leader and Taubman trustee Bittle Porterfield contributions. An August contribution from the Porterfields will make it possible for the museum to renovate space on its third floor in 2019 to create the Charlotte and Bittle W. Porterfield III Education Center.

The Sheila S. Strauss Art Venture Award went to Burton Center for Arts and Technology in Salem, in recognition for its Center for the Visual Arts and Museum Studies program, founded 16 years ago.

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Mike Allen is the editorial page editor for The Roanoke Times. His past beats as a Roanoke Times reporter included Botetourt County, Franklin County, courts and legal issues, and arts and culture.

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