The Rappahannock News is pleased and proud to announce that Noel Laing of Amissville and Lilo Foster of Flint Hill have been chosen as our 2012 Citizens of the Year. They are the most recent recipients in a tradition dating back almost half a century.
After the newspaper announced last month that it was renewing the tradition this year, a groundswell of support from local residents brought the names of the two eventual recipients to the newspaper’s attention. More than 100 emails, letters and phone calls in support of the two candidates were recorded.
Many other excellent candidates were considered, all of whom are deserving of recognition for their place in and contributions to the Rappahannock community. (The other worthy candidates are recognized in this week’s editorial.)
This year, we also decided to award Citizen of the Year distinctions to two members of the community, one man and one woman – in part because the list of distinguished and exemplary lives being lived in Rappahannock County appears to be growing at such a rate that we thought we might actually be able to keep up with it if we gave two awards a year. It isn’t the first time two have been chosen, though in past years those two have usually been a couple, with 2009 winners Hal and Beverly Hunter being the most recent example.
The 2012 Citizens of the Year are not related, by marriage or blood, but by a certain spirit that appears to transcend both. They are Noel Laing, 73, a soft-spoken retired veterinary researcher and salesman turned full-time community volunteer, and Lisolette “Lilo” Foster, an 85-year-old yoga teacher whose Rappahannock-raised husband met her in Berlin after World War II, married her and brought her back home.
As you can say for many in this diverse county, these are two lives being led in ways that, on the surface, appear to be quite different. But beneath the surface, both have been quietly contributing to this community’s continued well-being in ways that are worth recognizing.
Lilo Foster has been teaching regular weekly yoga classes, at Washington’s Trinity Episcopal Church and in various locations in Warren County, for as long as most of her regular students can remember, though most agree it’s been more than 20 years. What they remember clearly, however, is how Foster’s firm but flexible presence, both on and off the yoga mat, has inspired them.
“After many surgeries as a result of injuries from a severe car accident in the 1980s,” wrote Fran Krebser, a longtime student and friend, “Lilo has helped me maintain flexibility, enhanced my rehabilitation and helped me to ward off further issues. Lilo also gives to her community in a myriad of ways, and does so in a quiet and gentle manner.”
In class, Krebser says, the diminutive Foster “can make fun of herself and the poses and contortions we find ourselves getting into. She’s very direct, but you never feel like she’s criticizing you, because she’s laughing quietly at herself all the while.”
“She’s played a very special role in my own daughters’ lives,” said Sperryville artist Brenda VanNess, whose now 16- and 17-year-old daughters started attending Foster’s classes when they were young children. “Her classes are open to women and men, and they are filled with such good nature that . . . they are hard to miss.
“She has more joy than anyone I have ever met,” VanNess said. “Perhaps it comes from being a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps during World War II.”
As a teenager in Berlin at the height of the war, Foster – then Lilo Rosengarten – endured horrors at the hands of the Nazis that she could not even talk about publicly, she told one interviewer, until she was in her 50s. The daughter of a Jewish father and an Aryan-Lutheran mother who raised her children in the Jewish faith, Lilo worked in labor camps and lost her father, mother, brother and numerous other loved ones.
“When I think back, I don’t know how we lived through this,” she told the Northern Virginia Daily, which profiled her in 2009. “But we did.”
Foster told some of her stories for the “No Ordinary Person” storytelling evenings at Ki Theatre (now RAAC Community Theatre). Her experiences were also videotaped as part of a Steven Spielberg project to document the stories of Holocaust survivors and others, now part of the Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education archive in California.
After the war, while working for the occupation troops, Foster met and married a gentlemanly U.S. soldier from Rappahannock County. She wed James Foster in 1947, and the two moved to the house in Huntly where he’d grown up.
After her three sons were grown, she started teaching reading and other subjects at Rappahannock Elementary – a practice she continued for 26 years. Trained as a dancer, she first began teaching yoga to her school colleagues as a way to deal with the stresses of the job.
As she told an interviewer four years ago: “Yoga is the taking over of your mind and spirit, not just your body. It helps me accept things as they are, people as they are. I became an entirely different person with yoga.”
“She is a remarkable woman, who through her positive spirit and sense of humor, has made a significant healing impact on so many of Rappahannock’s residents,” said longtime student Anne Robertson.
“Lilo has shared herself and her passion for her yoga practice with the community over the years,” said Dee Vest, “when she could enjoy just being retired. She is truly an inspiration to us all to try something new, and to keep moving.”
“Irrepressibly optimistic” is how Mary O’Meara put it. “A role model in terms of her own health and well-being, and still going at the age of 85.”
“She has provided many of us a role model for how to approach the last decades of our lives with dignity, grace, humor and with a spirit to overcome obstacles,” said Jo-An Getsinger.
“No matter how many problems you have, when you [practice yoga] for an hour and a half, your mind cannot be anywhere else,” Foster said in 2009. “I’m going to do it till I drop.”
For more information on Foster’s classes in Washington and Front Royal – and regular teaching collaborations with her granddaughter Ariele Foster – visit sacredsourceyoga.com.
When we were trying to round up photos of Noel Laing, one who had lots of them said, when we asked: “Oh my, I don’t think I have any of him smiling broadly or anything. In fact, I doubt there are any pictures of Noel like that.”
Until last month, when Laing consented to be elected president of the Rappahannock Food Pantry, where he’d volunteered weekly since it opened, a high public profile was not among the man’s priorities.
“He’s not a reclusive person,” said Rev. Jenks Hobson, himself a former Citizen of the Year who is pastor at Trinity Episcopal Church, where Laing has been a longtime parishioner and lay volunteer. “He’s just not a boisterous person. I traveled all over Europe with him. He’s great to have around, great to sit down and have a conversation with, but when you’re just going out to do something – it’s just let’s get it done and not talk about it. He’s really good to be with. He just never stops moving.”
Laing, who trained as a young man to become a veterinarian, decided to give up the practice (in the early 1970s he practiced in Loudoun County and in Amissville, the latter being where his grandfather had first bought property and built a home in the early 1900s). He worked in veterinary research, and wound up leading pharmaceutical research and sales efforts for a number of pet food and livestock feed companies, including Iams. He traveled to the Pacific Rim and many other parts of the world.
Many who wrote in to support Laing’s choice as Citizen of the Year mentioned his unwavering volunteer spirit, evident most regularly since he retired five years back in the work he’s done at the Food Pantry, in offering medical transportation, and in Trinity’s many community efforts.
“He spent a lot of time on the road,” Hobson says, “working to support his family, and I think when he retired here, he retired ready to roll.”
“And that’s not only the right thing to do, but the joyful thing to do.”
“He’s quite a modest, self-effacing and absolutely industrious man,” said fellow Amissville retiree Jed Duvall. “He might be conservative politically, but not at all personally. He’s an open-minded, open-faced person. I don’t think he’s got a dishonest bone in his body.”
Kathleen Hutcheson would agree. She is one of Laing and wife Charlotte’s six or seven children (“One of them is not really officially adopted but sort of adopted,” as Hutcheson puts it), and she knows her father as a man who does everything he does “because it’s the right thing to do, and he wants to do it.”
This included, she said, the fact that the Laing household was “always open; it was always the place where people went when there was nowhere else to go. And his children lead their lives the same way.”
“I can not envision anyone who could more embody what the spirit of this award is about,” Hobson said. “Most Wednesday mornings, Noel leaves his farm in Amissville, travels to Castleton and up a very long driveway to the upper edge of Red Oak to pick up Barbara Kiley, and bring her to Trinity to our weekly Bible study. Then reverses the path, or takes her to the Senior Center. He does this kind of thing all day, every day!”
“He is always willing to assist or run any project,” said outgoing Food Pantry president Bette Mahoney, who notes that Noel was one of the Food Pantry’s first volunteers when it opened three years ago, and its most regular ever since. (He also supervised grandson Main Hutcheson’s Eagle Scout project to build a storage shed at the pantry this fall.)
Laing is also a mentor with Headwaters’ Starfish Mentoring program, which pairs struggling kids with adult mentors/friends, a connection that often extends well beyond school years, and is an active 4-H volunteer and board member and a regular worker at the Rappahannock Library’s Book Barn. In his spare time, he’s an avid photographer and woodworker.
Laing is “constantly hunting ways to help others,” said Trinity member and photographer Ruthie Windsor Mann. “The guy is amazing.”