Twelve miles west of Charlottesville, the home of the University of Virginia (UVA) and also the racist attacks last August by white nationalists whom President Trump labeled as “very fine people,” is Crozet, Virginia. Not to be mistaken with the outdoor activity that Isaac Spratt scripted the rule book for, Crozet is a railroad and farming town inside Albemarle County. Today Crozet should be known for more than just its name that rhymes with a former Olympic sport, but rather for its people.
Crozet drew national attention last month because an Amtrak Train carrying GOP lawmakers rocked a garbage truck and killed one of its passengers at a railroad crossing in the small town. No members of Congress were seriously injured, but the truck shattered into two pieces. Its parts landed on the property of Benny Long’s estate.
While on assignment for CBS News the next day, I approached the owner’s home and his family members told me that Mr. Long was out feeding the hogs at that time but saw the train crash while riding the tractor. This was after I saw two horned rams in another neighbor’s backyard. But, really, what’s in Crozet, Virginia? One of my supervisors mentioned to me “they have great pizza,” referring to Crozet Pizza. Besides cuisine, the town appeared in the movie Evan Almighty, where Steve Carrell is Noah and builds an ark. That might explain the rams and hogs in a nearby backyard. The home with two rams out back is where I learned what Crozet had to offer though.
Here lived an elderly couple named the Lee’s. The wife opened the front door and told her husband “Jim, CBS wants to use you for a news story on the railroad crash.” I told the family that I came all the way to Crozet from Washington, D.C. because I read in the Associated Press (AP) that Jim had seen the safety arms at the railroad crossing malfunction, and that we wanted to interview him on-camera. After several minutes discussing the railroad area, Jim agreed to take me to the tracks. Well, as close as we could get to it at that point just one day after the crash. Before we left, Jim said to me “but wait we don’t get CBS in this house.” I looked at him perplexed because it's CBS not TBS or HBO. Then remembered that it is, in fact, Crozet.
All the trees outside blocked the antenna, depriving the family of CBS News. I explained to Jim that he could watch online as long as he had Wifi. Then Jim and I setup the laptop in his kitchen. Making sure not to disturb Jim’s granddaughter and her Valentine's Day card making-process, we sat down at the edge of the kitchen table and somehow got on the topic of sports, specifically UVA Basketball (pre-UMBC). Jim is a die hard fan, and his wife overheard us from the top of the stairs when I told him that I played football at Indiana University. “Tell him we’re from Indiana,” she exclaimed. Jim and his wife met in Fort Wayne, so we shared something in common besides our love for sports.
When I set up CBS News’ 24/7 streaming platform CBSN on Jim’s Macbook, it was time for me to retrieve our camerawoman from a news presser at the Albemarle County Police Station. I raced down the country roads--22 minutes each way-- to get her and head back to Jim’s house. Upon return, we found Jim donning a gray Virginia Cavaliers baseball cap in front of the driveway before following him to the railroad scene. My friend Jim told us that the garbage men are apart of the community, and it's sad that the victim’s family has a GoFundMe page setup now. In our five minute interview, Jim showed compassion and empathy for one of his own. It made me realize not what but who is really in Crozet.
Besides mountainous backroads, tractors and farm animals there are genuine people, like Jim, who take pride in their community. The citizens in this town of roughly 5500 residents root for each other. From the state’s top NCAA sports program down to the garbage men, everyone matters. Special individuals, who care about the township just as much as they do Wahoo basketball, live throughout Crozet. A devastating train crash couldn't decapitate the spirit of Jim that day; embodying what's really in Crozet.