by Tom Chillemi
HARTFIELD—It was Christmas in April when the Rotary Club of Middlesex presented Fred and Bettie Lee Gaskins its Pride of Middlesex award on April 8.
The annual award recognized the Gaskinses’ positive influences on the county since 1966 when they bought the Southside Sentinel, said Rotary emcee John Koontz. On center stage was the Christmas Friends program, which the Gaskinses co-founded in 1986, with the assistance of the Middlesex Department of Social Services.
Rotary International’s motto is “Service Above Self,” a slogan that reflects the dedication of hundreds of Christmas Friends volunteers that for 31 years have made Christmas better for the less fortunate in Middlesex.
Accepting the award Fred Gaskins referred to a well known poem, “Love Came Down at Christmas,” which became a hymn. “It goes a long way in explaining why Christmas Friends exists in our community,” he said. “The love that came down at Christmas spread around the world, and I’m thinking a giant portion of that love settled right here in Middlesex County and inspires us to share.”
For 31 years folks in this community have been donating, shopping, wrapping and delivering gifts to the needy through Christmas Friends, said Mr. Gaskins, and there are countless times where friends, neighbors and other organizations help each other. “When it comes to sharing ‘The Love,’ Middlesex County folks do it right!” he said.
The Pride of Middlesex award celebrates the people of Christmas Friends, said Mr. Gaskins. “Last year there were over 375 people, donors and volunteers, who made the program possible, and I’ll bet 95% of them have been helping Christmas Friends for years.”
With donations of time or money, each person “shares that love and perhaps make some dreams come true for a needy child or an elderly adult who would face a bleak Christmas without them. Thank you for joining us to be Christmas Friends to so many,” he said.
Christmas Friends wouldn’t exist without our partnership with the Middlesex Department of Social Services, said Mr. Gaskins. “There is no way we could do the screening they do to determine who needs a helping hand each year.”
Rebecca Morgan, director of the Middlesex Department of Social Services, has worked with Christmas Friends for the past seven years. “Fred and Bettie Lee remind us all during the Christmas season that the true meaning of the holiday is giving to those in need,” said Morgan.
She said that each year about one-fourth of Middlesex’s population relies on social services. “The majority of the families have working parents, however, these parents are not able to provide anything extra for their children at Christmas. In addition many older adults rely on a small social security payment each month and often are not able to afford extra things for themselves.”
The Gaskinses “are generous with their time and resources . . . but it was clear to me instantly that they do not want Christmas Friends to be about them, because the program is about helping those in need and that mission comes first,” said Morgan.
Aubrey Hall said he and his wife, Margie, have been neighbors of the Gaskinses for almost 38 years. “That’s a friendship that’s hard to describe. It’s a long life-time friendship, and that is so important in this day and time.”
He noted Mr. Gaskins sings bass in the choir at Urbanna Baptist Church, and Mrs. Gaskins is “magical on the organ.”
“I applaud the Gaskinses and their family for keeping the Sentinel going, because it’s important to our community,” said Hall.
Mrs. Gaskins thanked the Rotary Club of Middlesex for honoring Christmas Friends. “As long as the need is there, we look forward to joining you, and all our many volunteers, in keeping Christmas Friends alive for many more years.”
During Saturday’s ceremony, Mrs. Gaskins explained that Christmas Friends’ base soon shifted from the social services office to the former Sentinel office. As volunteers came in to pick up their shopping packets, and returned the bags of gifts, the Sentinel front office manager became the face of Christmas Friends to many. “We’re happy the current title-holder, Geanie Longest, is here tonight and we’re so thankful for her help wherever it is needed,” said Mrs. Gaskins.
Mr. Gaskins shared the history of their involvement with the Southside Sentinel and the multiple changes in publishing technology during their tenure.
He also recognized those currently working there.
“These are the people who do the bulk of the work to get your paper published each week. They are the “Pride of Bettie Lee and Fred” and truly share in tonight’s recognition,” he said.
Each employee prepared a brief comment that was read by Sentinel editor Tom Hardin. One reoccurring comment from the employees was how the Sentinel is like “family.”
The Gaskins children, Susan Simmons, Kate Oliver and Joe Gaskins, got together to write down some memories, which also were read at the award ceremony.
Simmons titled her work “The Good News” and touched on values instilled in them by their parents.
The values include:
“A strong foundation . . . with unconditional love. We were shown through example the value of a strong family unit that has not wavered.”
“Spirituality and service . . . We were given the gift of love for the Lord. We also witnessed their pride and service in our community. Never was it a burden.”
“Value Teamwork . . . our parents taught us how to be successful team members whether through our jobs or our own families.”
“Sense of humor . . . We learned to love to laugh and more importantly to be able to laugh at ourselves.”
“Independence . . . They let us choose our interests, hobbies and explore our gifts and talents.”
“Enjoy Life . . . We appreciate that our parents taught us that life is not just about work and service, it’s about having fun and doing what you love.”
“Humility . . . The final piece of good news is one that all three children immediately consider the best news about our parents. They are humble. They are never boastful and always thankful. They live their lives with acceptance of others. They have taught us how to handle adversities with thoughtful, calm grace and integrity. They give expecting nothing in return.”
“They are Good News,” concluded Simmons.
Mr. and Mrs. Gaskins are natives of Lancaster County and graduates of the University of Richmond. He majored in English, took journalism classes and worked part-time at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. She majored in math and was editor of The Collegian, the university’s student newspaper.
Mrs. Gaskins grew up in Kilmarnock where her father, J.E. Currell, owned and operated the Rappahannock Record for 66 years. She worked at the Record during summer breaks and after school as needed.
Mr. Gaskins grew up in Irvington. His father, Anderson Gaskins, was a waterman who dredged for oysters and fished pound nets and crab pots. Anderson Gaskins and his brother, Marshall Gaskins, operated as Gaskins Brothers and Fred Gaskins worked with them during the summer months while in school.
In 1987, they also began to help manage the Rappahannock Record. They became general managers of that business after her father’s death in 1993, a role which passed to their two daughters last year. The Record is owned by Bettie Lee and her sister, Clara Christopher of Williamsburg.
In 1993 the two papers started The Rivah Visitor’s Guide, which serves the entire Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck during the tourist season.