My Grandmother Virginia Finnegan

This is part of an ongoing series telling Brent’s story of living and working in the 26th District. This week's story is about Brent's reflections of his grandmother, whose trailblazing life continues to inspire him. Written by Martha Woodroof.

I’ve pretty much made a living out of listening to other people’s stories. And while I was listening, I developed an opinion that our stories reveal an awful lot about who were are. And this is the reason I talked Brent Finnegan into just telling me a few of his stories so that I might pass them onto you. My theory being that if I’m going to ask you to vote for Brent in the April 28th Democratic Primary, I should help you get to know him a bit better. Not to mention that I’ve really enjoyed listening to his stories…

My grandmother Virginia Finnegan (née Hawkins) was born on a farm near McGaheysville around the time World War I ended. She grew with a slew of siblings and played some pretty serious basketball in high school. Her childhood nickname was Peanut. When Granny was growing up, her family got where they needed to go with a horse and buggy.

Some of my Granny’s ancestors had helped to settle Rockingham County, and none of her relatives expected “Peanut” to do anything but stick close to home. Granny, however, developed a different idea about her future. As a teenager she discovered National Geographic, and became entranced with the magazine’s glorious photographs of strange landscapes, exotic people, and vastly different cultures. “Someday,” she announced to her family, “I am going to work for National Geographic.”

Her brother laughed at her. How on earth, he wanted to know, did a farm girl from McGaheysville think she was ever going to land a job in Washington DC at a famous magazine?

But Granny was undeterred. After high school, she paid her own way to secretarial college and after graduation took a job at the now defunct American Viscose Corporation in Roanoke. But her announced ambition to work at National Geographic never wavered, and in her mid-twenties Virginia Hawkins applied for an entry level position at the magazine and got the job.

Granny—still single—moved to Washington D.C., and went to work in the editorial department of the National Geographic. She stayed there for the next forty years, eventually working her way up in the department to a position on the masthead above the line. And to further confound her laughing brother, she didn’t marry until she was in her 30s, which was considered unusual back then for women from McGaheysville.

I really got to know Granny after she retired, moved back to Harrisonburg and had knee surgery that left her confined to a wheel chair. I was working at WVPT Public Television at the time, and I got in the habit of stopping by to see her on my way home to Broadway. Granny’s apartment was stuffed with artifacts the National Geographic writers and photographers had brought her from all over the world—Masai masks, arrowheads, petrified wood. On nice evenings, I’d take Granny out for a walk in her wheel chair, and the stories would just pour out of her—both from her time at the Geographic and her childhood on the Rockingham County farm. I always think of her as an immensely curious person who’d seen a lot and yet still loved where she came from.