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In the summer of 1993, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) announced that the Robert O. Norris Jr. Memorial Bridge would be resurfaced, necessitating its closure for 10 hours every night for the ensuing three years.

The Northern Neck and the Middle Peninsula immediately erupted in protest. The late Betty Barrack, a supervisor for Lancaster County, led the movement of opposition, the force of which was sufficient to cause VDOT to rethink its plans.

The principal concern for residents of the Middle Peninsula was access to Rappahannock General Hospital, especially for pregnant women planning to deliver there, whereas the major concern for Northern Neck residents centered on Newport News shipyard workers being able to get to and from work without having to go up through Tappahannock.

A regional committee, on which I served as the representative from Northumberland County, was formed to interact with VDOT. Several citizens’ meetings took place, at one of which the Commissioner of Transportation came from Richmond and pontifically responded to a question about babies being delivered at RGH by saying that the citizens did not understand the progress made by modern medicine whereby today a doctor could tell the woman when to deliver. One hoped that he knew more about transportation than he did obstetrics.

Throughout the long process RGH’s role was pivotal. In all of the confusion and resulting turmoil one consistent voice of reason was that of Emerson Gravatt, the hospital’s vice president. Amidst the din of yelling back and forth, Emerson exuded calmness, deliberation and determination, traits he exhibited throughout his entire life. In that vein he contributed to the ultimate resolution of the crisis whereby the bridge remained open to one-way traffic 24/7 throughout the reconstruction, which lasted for almost three years.

Emerson was the son of one of the Northern Neck’s most beloved physicians, Dr. A. B. Gravatt, who practiced medicine in Kilmarnock for over 60 years. Although not a physician himself, Emerson had an acute understanding of the health care system, which made him such a great asset to RGH for the 30-odd years he worked there. 

His family had moved to the Northern Neck from his native Richmond when he was a boy, and growing up he could observe his father frequently leaving the house to deliver another baby. As such, Emerson was not one to be impressed by a political bureaucrat attempting to respond to people’s legitimate medical concerns.

In his own career, Emerson contributed to the enhancement of health care in our area in many ways, one of the most significant of which was as RGH’s point person to attract quality doctors to come here to practice. He was committed to building community, as witnessed most notably by his decades-long service on the Kilmarnock Town Council, where again his was a consistent voice of reason. 

Emerson inherited the “medical gene” from his father, but he inherited the “political gene” from his mother, the late Ruth Gravatt, known to all as “Dimple”, who was one of the founders of the Republican Party in the Northern Neck. Like Dimple, he combined a great memory with profound understanding and insight into the nuts and bolts of politics. He enjoyed people and cared about the community, as does his wife, Joan, a longtime member of the Lancaster County School Board.

Today, health care, RGH, the Town of Kilmarnock and its citizens, and the countless numbers of people with whom Emerson interacted are better for his tireless efforts on their behalf. He did it all calmly and with a constant smile on his face which always shined through his beard of patriarchal proportions.

Emerson Latham Gravatt, March 18, 1947–March 19, 2023. R.I.P.

Rappahannock Record Staff
Rappahannock Record Staff
From the Rappahannock Record news team

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