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Book festival event uncovers little known facets of Charlottesville

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Posted: Friday, March 23, 2012 9:56 pm | Updated: 11:01 am, Wed Jan 23, 2013.

In the mid-1820s, a meeting at Monticello brought the hundreds who witnessed it to tears.

The Marquis de Lafayette, the French aristocrat and military officer who became a hero of the American Revolution, descended to the lawn from a horse-drawn carriage as Thomas Jefferson, the main author of America’s revolutionary declaration, walked down the steps of Monticello.

“Ah, Jefferson,” Lafayette exclaimed.

“Ah, Lafayette,” Jefferson replied.

The two esteemed men were feeble with age, but their steps quickened and they burst into tears as they came together in an embrace.

The story of that meeting was one of many shared Friday at panel titled “What You Didn’t Know About Charlottesville,” held as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book.

Five authors and historians shared little-known facts and anecdotes about Central Virginia with a crowd of about 75 people during the one-hour event at City Hall.

Margaret O’Bryant, librarian for the Albemarle-Charlottesville Historical Society, spoke about the Jefferson-Lafayette meeting as she highlighted portions of “A Guide to Historic Charlottesville & Albemarle County, Virginia,” by Jean L. Cooper.

Dr. Morton C. Wilhelm, professor emeritus of surgical oncology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, and historian Henry K. Sharp shared another Jefferson anecdote as they described their book, “A History of Cancer Care at the University of Virginia, 1901-2011.”

Sharp read a portion of a letter Jefferson wrote to John and Abigail Adams at the end of both men’s political careers, in which Jefferson offered thoughts on the death of the Adamses’ daughter from breast cancer.

“I have ever found time and silence the only medicine,” wrote Jefferson, whose wife died during childbirth. “And these but assuage and never suppress the deep-drawn sigh, which recollection forever brings up, until recollection and life are extinguished together.”

However, Jefferson wasn’t entirely silent on the issue of advancing medical science that could prevent such grief and loss, Sharp said.

“Jefferson’s dedication to scientific medicine laid a foundation for the medical school here at the University of Virginia and charted a path for the university which was taken up by other physicians and professors … who built a medical program and ultimately the cancer treatment program.”

Wilhelm traced the history of cancer care in Charlottesville back to 1933, when philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire, whose wife had also died of cancer, donated $100,000 to the UVa hospital to develop a cancer center.

“A hundred thousand dollars, as you can imagine, in 1933 was a humongous amount of money,” Wilhelm said.

Sharp said the long push for better cancer treatment culminated last year with the opening of UVa’s Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center, which unified various specialties in a $74 million facility.

“Both at the very forefront of medical care, and a very old idea,” Sharp said.

In non-Jefferson nostalgia, local historians Eryn S. Brennan and Margaret Maliszewski shared “fun” historic photos that didn’t make the cut for their Charlottesville entry in the Images of America book series.

“With photographs, you tend to have to step back and let others tell the story through the visual vignettes that you select,” Brennan said.

The images included party shenanigans from the 1960s, an overturned truck that spilled frozen turkeys in front of the Rockfish Gap Country Store, UVa students dressed up for an old-timey football game and Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Charlottesville in 1976.

The panel was moderated by former Charlottesville Mayor Nancy O’Brien.

“I saw some things I didn’t know,” O’Brien said as the event concluded.

The panel, sponsored by Davenport & Co., was hosted by Celebrate 250, the yearlong initiative to mark the city’s 250th anniversary, and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

For a complete schedule of book festival events, visit vabook.org.