by John P. Flannery, II
Charlie Waddell, 90, always had a touch of Georgia, of Braselton, on his mind and, given his deep country voice, seemed a moment away from sharing songs he loved to sing at political gatherings.
When young, Charlie lived on a cotton farm and worshiped at Zion Baptist Church; his Dad was the Choir Director.
He fondly remembered how, at the Barrow County Court House in the 40s and 50s, men played checkers under the shade trees.
Charlie was all about service, he had a thirst for it, unquenchable, both in private acts and public service.
He liked people, being around them, talking, persuading, and helping.
When Charlie came to the Commonwealth of Virginia, he worked for the airlines in customer relations, for American. He also walked miles as a postman. In his later years, his legs complained a great deal but Charlie accepted the infirmity — the cost of the miles of joy he’d walked.
Charlie’s eyes squinted so tightly even in a dimly lit room, it was an ophthalmological miracle he saw anything at all. He seemed focused, only on you, what you were saying, what mattered to you.
His wide smile was a greeting — “come over here and talk to me, can I help you, tell me what’s on your mind.”
But it had to end. On July 19, 2022, Charlie passed into the unseen mist that awaits us all, whether it’s a pause or a full stop.
I met Charlie in 1984, when I thought to challenge a popular incumbent in Northern Virginia, Congressman Frank Wolf.
I was working to gather support to win a primary, to raise funds, to collect endorsements. I was making some head way when Charlie said he was thinking of running, encouraged by his supporters.
My fund-raising and endorsements paused.
Charlie was a challenging opponent, nor was there any question he’d make an effective Congressman.
By 1984, Charlie had been a local county supervisor for Broad Run from 1966 to 1971, and a State Senator starting in 1971, and he ultimately served in the Virginia Senate for 26 years.
We talked about our interests. We were both concerned about preservation. In 1975, Charlie had sponsored a bill in the Senate designating Goose Creek as a state scenic river, signed by then Governor Mills Godwin, Jr., the second stream so designated under the Scenic River Protection Act.
In our discussion, we formed a friendship those many years ago, we spoke, entirely transparent to doubts and hopes and dreams, and Charlie decided to give me a hand, gave instructions on what he’d learned about Virginia politics, said where he thought the votes were, and what issues concerned his constituents.
We took a drive one day and Charlie described how Loudoun was divided East and West by Routh 15, North and South and how public water favored development in the East but wells in the West did not, he added, but of course some day that will change, and development will explode. So it is written.
The Congressional District ran from Arlington County west to Loudoun County. We won the primary by a 10% margin. Charlie and many others made that possible.
Though we won 95,000 votes in the General Election, it wasn’t enough. The voters decided I should remain a trial lawyer instead.
When I was chair of the local Democratic Committee and there was one of those inevitable organizational dust ups, Charlie said, “I hope you understand if I don’t get involved in all that.” “Of course,” I said.
Charlie had served as the Chair of the Democratic Committee in 1967, so he knew of what he spoke.
To have any salutary effect in politics, the art of the possible it’s said, you have to play a long game, and politics is a contact sport, so you are always at risk to lose your franchise in whatever elective office you serve.
Because Charlie had vision and staying power, he managed to make a difference on transportation issues, became the Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.
When he left the Senate, he was appointed Deputy Transportation Secretary.
Charlie worked hard on legislation but he was also there for many other candidates over the years.
When Charlie gave you a hand, it also meant a public serenade at campaign events, winning for Charlie, the sobriquet, “Viginia’s Singing Senator.”
Charlie recast the words of the Wabash Cannon Ball for whatever candidate at hand he was supporting.
You can find examples of this going back to the candidacy of Lt. Gov. Henry Howell. (This is a recording of that rendition — https://soundcloud.com/gibsonprint/the-howell-cannonball?fbclid=IwAR3vo83-_aQcSlAFS9hMA-zyp0kygiPJ8NIQ8vF3e-awcOEabd6bXqlixVA .)
I’ve had political receptions when Charlie spoke in depth about the politics of the day, but what he really liked was singing for the honored candidate of the hour.
If I took a hand at remembering Charlie that way, as the Waddell Cannon Ball, it might go like this:
From the great Atlantic Ocean to the Loudoun County line,
The fields and green blue mountains lead you to this warm welcoming sign,
Charlie Waddell, mighty tall and handsome, known quite well by all,
A rolling powerhouse of action known as the Waddell Cannonball
Many have heard Charlie, the jingles, his populist sentiment, and his roar
He glided one place to another along our woodlands and lake shore,
To change things for the better, his words, a resounding summoning call
So remember now and forever he was the one the only Waddell Cannonball
Here’s to Charlie Waddell may his name and work forever stand
In the hills of Virginia, our public halls and throughout the land
His earthly race is over, his work all done, the curtains round him fall
But we shall never forget — Charlie — the Waddell Cannonball.
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