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Rejuvenated Wildflower Garden is awash in native blooms

Spring has sprung, and the hard work of the Mill Mountain Garden Club is paying off with an explosion of brilliant colors lining the pathways of the newly restored Wildflower Garden atop Mill Mountain.

On a recent Tuesday morning, over a background of a trickling pond and chirping birds, came the sounds of shovels in dirt and eight women laughing. “The visionaries,” as they call themselves, were immersed in the never-ending job of removing invasive species from the newly restored garden.

These women, members of the Mill Mountain Garden Club and the driving force behind the revitalized garden, were surrounded by trillium, bluebells and columbine as they kept up the work before the ribbon-cutting ceremony scheduled for noon Thursday.

The Wildflower Garden, which is on city land, was started in 1971 through a partnership between the garden club and Roanoke Parks and Recreation.

“Anything 50, even a woman, needs refreshing,” laughed Forrest Moore, past president and member of the club.

The new infusion of native wildflowers, trees and shrubs did not come without a lot of hard work and planning. The preliminary work started four years ago with a restoration campaign launched by the garden club that raised $200,000.

The transformation includes more than just wildflowers to be enjoyed while walking through the 2½-acre garden, located between the Mill Mountain Discovery Center and Mill Mountain Zoo.

“We had to focus on what was really important in the garden and how we could re-imagine it so it was more relevant for today and how people enjoy the outdoors,” Moore said.

The new features include a restored cascading tiered pond, which was transformed into a frog pond in partnership with Mill Mountain Zoo and conservation biology students from Virginia Tech. It’s now home to scores of wood frog tadpoles, who this spring found the pond on their own after some major efforts by the Mill Mountain Garden Club members and their partners.

To help establish the pond, the goldfish that had been living there were removed and given a new permanent home at the zoo.

“The goldfish are non-native, likely suffer when dumped, and are predators of the native wood frogs,” Sarah Karpanty, a professor of fish and wildlife conservation at Virginia Tech, said in an email.

Karpanty’s students advised the garden club and the city to leave the leaf litter in the pond, as it is great cover for frogs and salamanders and shields them from predators. She says her students hope the pond will become a FrogWatch site through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ citizen science program.

The garden club worked with landscape architect Art Garst, who thought to include features for children to enjoy. Garst created an area with about 20 stumps for kids to jump on, and along with his brother John Garst built wooden stars that hang among the trees for children to find.

A new ADA-compliant walkway now leads through the heart of the garden, where before walls of invasive honeysuckle bush blocked vast vistas of the surrounding mountains and downtown Roanoke.

Removing such invasive species has required constant vigilance from Mill Mountain Garden Club members, who believe it’s critical for the garden to feature only native species.

“They are the plants that grow naturally here, so over the test of time they are low-maintenance because they don’t require additional fertilizer and water and they are adaptable to a change in climate,” Moore said. Native species provide food and shelter for wildlife, which sometimes won’t eat the non-native flowers, plants and berries that might not be recognizable to them, she said.

“Our whole purpose is creating a beautiful showcase where people can enjoy the garden but maybe take conservation information back into the way they garden,” Moore said.

The Mill Mountain Wildflower Garden is also part of Roanoke’s Historic Garden Week tour on Saturday. Tickets can be purchased to tour the eight gardens at

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Radford University hires Darris Nichols as men's basketball coach

RADFORD — Wednesday was homecoming day at Radford University.

The university named Radford High School graduate Darris Nichols as its new men’s basketball coach. He was introduced Wednesday afternoon at a news conference at the Dedmon Center.

“It’s great to be home,” Nichols, 34, said. “It’s special to be able to come back, especially to see my parents.”

The former West Virginia University point guard has been an assistant at Florida the past six seasons. He replaces Mike Jones, who stepped down Monday after 10 years at Radford to take the UNC Greensboro job.

“This is truly a homecoming,” outgoing Radford University President Brian Hemphill said. “Welcome home.”

As teenagers, Nichols and his brother, Shane (now an assistant at Murray State), played pick-up games at the Dedmon Center against Radford University players.

“Me and my brother used to have to sneak in here,” Nichols said. “I don’t think I have to sneak in here anymore.

“Those [RU] guys helped me figure out how competitive you have to be, because we played against older guys.”

This is the first head-coaching job for Nichols, who has eyed the Radford position during his coaching career.

“This has always been a job that I could see myself at because it’s home,” he said.

As Radford High School’s point guard, Nichols led the Bobcats to four appearances in the Group A tournament. He was the 2004 Timesland boys basketball player of the year.

“My teams, I want to be a direct correlation of this community,” he said. “The two things I think of when I think of the city of Radford and Radford University are edge and humility.”

Now each of the New River Valley’s NCAA Division I schools has a Radford High School graduate as head men’s basketball coach. Virginia Tech is steered by Nichols’ former boss, Radford High School graduate Mike Young.

Young attended Wednesday’s press conference. Nichols worked for Young at Wofford in the 2013-14 season, when the Terriers made the NCAA Tournament. Young was the Terriers’ head coach, and Nichols was one of his assistants.

“I thought he’d be a head coach before now. I thought he was that good,” Young said after the news conference. “He is ready for his opportunity and I couldn’t be happier for him.

“He’s a great communicator and really knows the game.

“He’s not soft, but he’s good. He’ll have a great relationship with them, but they’ll know from Day One who’s in charge.”

Florida beat Young’s Hokies in the first round of the NCAA Tournament this year, although Nichols was not on the Florida bench for that game because he had COVID-19.

Do not expect mentor and protege to schedule games against each other now that they are both in the New River Valley.

“I’m not playing that guy,” Young said. “There’s not a chance in hell.”

Radford University athletic director Robert Lineburg is also a Radford High School graduate. He is Young’s cousin.

“I just can’t imagine a better fit for this university and this community and Timesland than Darris,” Lineburg said after the news conference.

Lineburg wasted little time with the coaching search, introducing Nichols just two days after Jones exited. He feared Radford players would enter the transfer portal if he took too long with the search.

“This at least gives Darris an opportunity to … keep as many as possible,” Lineburg said.

Lineburg said he talked to three or four candidates on the phone. Lineburg, Hemphill and university vice president Chad Reed flew to Gainesville, Florida, on Tuesday to interview Nichols in person.

Nichols signed his contract Tuesday night. He agreed to a five-year contract worth $300,000 in annual base pay.

When Lineburg was a Southern Methodist assistant men’s basketball coach in 2001, he offered Nichols — then a Radford High sophomore — a scholarship.

Nichols opted for West Virginia instead. Jones was the WVU assistant who recruited him, although Jones left that school before Nichols suited up for West Virginia.

Nichols’ former high school coach, Radford High boys basketball coach Rick Cormany, attended Wednesday’s news conference.

So did Nichols’ parents, Bill (a Radford High assistant coach) and Donna Nichols.

“It’s unreal,” Donna Nichols said of Darris getting the Radford job. “I’m glad to have him home.”

Darris Nichols used to attend basketball camps at the Dedmon Center.

“As a young kid, all of the Radford University players, they were like idols to me,” he said.

Nichols played one of his final high school games at the Dedmon Center. He also played for West Virginia in a game against Radford there when he was a WVU senior.

Nichols played for John Beilein and Bob Huggins at West Virginia. The Mountaineers made the Elite Eight of the NCAAs when Nichols was a freshman and reached the Sweet 16 when he was a sophomore and senior.

After playing professionally in Hungary, Nichols spent a year as a West Virginia graduate assistant and two years as an assistant at Northern Kentucky before being hired by Young at Wofford.

“Stops like Northern Kentucky and Wofford I think really prepare you for a job like this [at Radford],” Lineburg said.

In 2014, Nichols left Wofford to join Mike White’s staff at Louisiana Tech. When White exited that school in 2015 to take Florida’s reins, Nichols made the move with him.

Nichols helped Florida make the Elite Eight in 2017 and the second round of the NCAAs in 2018, 2019 and this year. North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland were part of his recruiting territory for Florida.

Last summer, Nichols was ranked No. 18 on ESPN’s list of the top 40 Division I head men’s basketball coaches and assistants under the age of 40.

Also last summer, Stadium’s Jeff Goodman rated Nichols the No. 2 assistant in the Southeastern Conference, based on a poll of SEC coaches.

Nichols met with his new team before the news conference.

Although six Radford players entered the transfer portal before Jones left, no additional players have entered the portal since Jones left. No signees have asked to be released from their letters of intent since Jones left, either.

Photos: From news conference announcing Darris Nichols at RU's new men's basketball coach

Congress diving into policing laws

WASHINGTON — Bolstered with new momentum, Congress is ready to try again to change the nation’s policing laws, heeding President Joe Biden’s admonition that the guilty verdict in George Floyd’s death is “not enough” for a nation confronting a legacy of police violence.

Legislation that was once stalled on Capitol Hill is now closer than ever to consensus, lawmakers of both parties said Wednesday, a day after a Minneapolis jury found former officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death. Behind the scenes, negotiations are narrowing on a compromise for a sweeping overhaul, though passage remains uncertain.

Tuesday’s verdict launches “a new phase of a long struggle to bring justice to America,” declared Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., in urging passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. “This is the human rights issue in the United States of America.”

Meanwhile, the Justice Department is opening a sweeping investigation into policing practices in Minneapolis after Chauvin was convicted there, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Wednesday.

The Justice Department was already investigating whether Chauvin and the other officers involved in Floyd’s death violated his civil rights.

“Yesterday’s verdict in the state criminal trial does not address potentially systemic policing issues in Minneapolis,” Garland said.

The new investigation is known as a “pattern or practice” — examining whether there is a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing — and will be a more sweeping review of the entire police department. It may result in major changes to policing in the Minnesota city.

It will examine the use of force by police officers, including force used during protests, and whether the department engages in discriminatory practices. It will also look into the department’s handling of misconduct allegations and its treatment of people with behavioral health issues and will assess the department’s current systems of accountability, Garland said.

The Minneapolis police said in a statement that the chief, Medaria Arradondo, “welcomes this investigation” and will fully cooperate with federal prosecutors.

The revived effort in Congress, led by Black lawmakers including Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, comes at a pivotal moment. The nation is on edge over the Floyd case, the deaths of other Black Americans — including a 16-year-old girl brandishing a knife about the time the Minneapolis verdict was announced — and almost a year of protests accusing police of brutal actions that often go unseen.

The guilty verdict for Chauvin was a rare occurrence, not least because in this case an officer’s actions were recorded by a bystander and shown to the jury in court. That followed months of the video being played repeatedly on TV, imprinted in the minds of Americans everywhere.

With political pressure mounting on all sides, Biden is urging Congress to plunge back into policing legislation.

“We can’t stop here,” he said Tuesday after the verdict.

In private, Scott briefed key Republican senators on Wednesday, updating his colleagues on quiet negotiations that have been underway with Democrats for nearly two months. He told reporters he expected to wrap up those talks with the Democrats within two weeks.

“We’ve made tremendous progress,” Scott said on Capitol Hill.

Democrats say they are ready.

“This has to come to a stop,” said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the highest ranking Black elected official in Congress, after the Chauvin verdict.

He and others, including Scott, have told wrenching stories of their own experiences with law enforcement well into their adult lives as elected officials serving in the most powerful corridors of power.

Congress struggled with a police overhaul bill last summer in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death, but the legislation went nowhere after Democrats and Republicans could not agree to a compromise package.

The House, led by Democrats, has now twice approved a sweeping overhaul, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, that would be the most substantial federally ordered changes to policing in a generation.

The bill would allow police officers to be sued and damages awarded for violating people’s constitutional rights, limiting “qualified immunity” protections now in place for law enforcement.

The legislation would ban the use of chokeholds and would create a national databases of police misconduct in an effort to prevent “bad apple” officers from being hired by other departments.

A Republican bill from Scott does not go as far as the House-passed measure. It was blocked last year by Senate Democrats, a fact that Republicans are emphasizing.

The GOP’s Justice Act would step up compliance by law enforcement in submitting use-of-force reports to a national database. It also would require compliance reports for no-knock warrants, like the kind officers used to enter the residence when Breonna Taylor was killed in Kentucky.

The Democratic and Republican bills do share some provisions, including a measure making lynching a federal hate crime.

Talks in recent weeks have centered on one of the main differences, the limits on the public’s ability to sue law enforcement officers under “qualified immunity.” One alternative being discussed would allow police departments, rather than individual officers, to be held liable.

“I think that is a logical step forward,” said Scott, putting more of the burden on the department rather than the officer.

'It's not all in vain': Roanokers react to Chauvin verdict

Brenda Hale found herself holding her breath as she watched the judge take his seat and heard the words: “Members of the jury, I understand you have a verdict.”

In quick succession, the fate of Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, was pronounced as the nation watched.




The Roanoke Times File 2018 

When Brenda Hale, president of the Roanoke NAACP, heard the guilty verdict against Derek Chauvin, “I was able to exhale," she said. "I was able to breathe again."

“I was able to exhale,” said Hale, president of the Roanoke NAACP. “I was able to breathe again.

“I said, thank you, Jesus. Thank you for George Floyd’s family. Justice has finally been served for George Floyd.”

The swift convictions handed down Tuesday evening by a Minnesota jury came after three weeks of testimony and nearly a year of upheaval, activism and self-examination by the nation.

Taylor Saunders, a co-organizer of No Justice No Peace Roanoke, felt relief wash over her when she heard the verdict. She danced across her kitchen when the decision was announced.

“It felt like, OK, the protests and the work everyone is putting in is working. We’re getting somewhere. It’s not all in vain,” said Saunders, whose group formed last summer out of the first demonstrations sparked by George Floyd’s murder.

Tuesday’s news was met with a gamut of emotions from those who have been advocating for racial justice — hope, joy, tears, determination for the future and ongoing sorrow for the lives lost in other cases still unresolved around the country.

Jordan Bell — who co-organized Roanoke’s first large demonstration after Derek Chauvin was recorded pressing a knee to Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds as Floyd gasped for air — said he still feels the weight of the killings of Breonna Taylor and Daunte Wright and so many others.

“We can’t stop,” he said. “We can’t celebrate this and forget about the work and the fight that we’ve been in the process of having over the past year.”

The Roanoke Times File 2020 

Jordan Bell, who co-organized Roanoke’s first large demonstration after Floyd's death, said he still feels the weight of the killings of Breonna Taylor and Daunte Wright and so many others. “We can't stop,” he said. “We can't celebrate this and forget about the work and the fight that we've been in the process of having over the past year.”

He hesitated to describe Tuesday’s verdict as a reason for exultation. The outcome of that case reflected what should happen, what should be normal instead of extraordinary, when an act like that is committed, he said.

The question on Bell’s mind now is whether that accountability can be replicated again and again. The question that remains to be seen for him is what will come next.

“Derek Chauvin may go to jail for 40 years, but he’s just one officer, just one individual who did something completely wrong in a system that allowed him and made him feel that he could do that,” he said. “The system needs to be changed.

“We have to keep pushing. We have to hold elected officials accountable, we have to hold the police accountable, we have to hold community leaders accountable, we have to hold ourselves accountable. That, to me, would be justice.”

That question of what comes next was on the minds of many even in the first rush of feeling and reaction to the verdict.

Hale renewed her call for Virginia to eliminate qualified immunity for officers in civil litigation. The Virginia NAACP has started an online petition urging Gov. Ralph Northam to order a special session of the General Assembly around the issue.

“I do believe that is the most important mission on our radar at this moment. We must get that done in Virginia,” Hale said.

“We must press on and help all the other families who have lost so many,” she said. “We’ve been knocking, knocking on that door of justice, and today we feel that door has flown wide open. We cannot rest.”

Saunders said that even amid her first few minutes of jubilation for the verdict, she was quickly met with a somber reminder of the work that is still ahead. An alert on her phone carried the news of a new police shooting in Ohio.

But, she added, she moves forward with the knowledge now that change is possible. Justice is possible.

“This is fueling,” she said. “We did this. We can do it again.”