Offbeat Entrepreneurs Recall Their Different Paths

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The Boars Head Balloon

The Balloon Pilot

He said he’s never had a “grown up” job, but Ivy balloon pilot Rick Behr uses plenty of grown-up skills in his job. In 37 years of firing up his hot-air balloon at the Boar’s Head Inn, there’s never been an injury, thanks, he said, to obsessive attention to weather conditions and conscientious maintenance. Then there’s a certain amount of mature diplomacy needed for the thousands of interactions with the public, some of whom are anxious, difficult, or uncertain about the outcome of a marriage proposal made while aloft.

Over the years he’s learned a few things: “We used to serve champagne on board, but no more.” People can celebrate afterwards, on level ground, with a photographer. Although he attributes his safety record to experience and caution, he’s the first to say that blind fate played a large role in his choice of career.

Rick Behr aboard his balloon. Submitted photo.

His prospects as a young graduate of the University of Colorado were pretty grim: He had drawn a very low lottery number in the days of the Vietnam draft. “It was pretty certain I’d be going,” he recalled. “All that was needed was a physical exam.” He had spent four years playing soccer so he knew he was unlikely to fail the physical. While waiting to be called up, he worked as a substitute teacher and crewed on a boat bound for the Bahamas.

When the time came, the procedure was to return to his family home on Martha’s Vineyard for the physical and to be inducted from there. Once he arrived––hitchhiking from Colorado–– the doctor found a heart murmur. “It never bothered me before or since,” he said. “But the service didn’t want me.”

A couple of chance encounters followed the diagnosis that kept him out of the jungle. One was with Buddy Bombard, a pioneer in the early days of adventure travel. Behr worked with the legendary adventurer in New York and eventually got his balloon pilot’s license in 1974.

When urban ballooning proved unprofitable, Bombard moved the business to France, where Behr gave balloon tours of the Lombardy Valley for several years. Aware that he was growing older, Behr felt it was time for him to be thinking about a family. “The only women I met in France were wealthy divorcees from Beverley Hills,” he said. “It was time for me to go home.”

He took a bus to Paris and sat next to a woman who advised him to look up John Rogan, the owner of the Boar’s Head Inn. Behr had enjoyed his one previous trip to Charlottesville, so he followed up. “As soon as I walked in there, I felt at home,” he said. The Rogans liked the idea of a balloon business at the Boar’s Head, and even offered to buy the balloon.

“It all worked out,” Behr said. Since then, he’s gone up 8,000 or so times, both as the pilot for the Boar’s Head and for other businesses. Almost all of his experiences have been positive.

He told a story he heard at a balloon pilots’ convention one year. It was about an elaborate marriage proposal aboard a balloon. “The man had even hired a plane to fly by with a banner saying, “Will you marry me?” The story was that the woman refused and the pilot turned towards home, a silent trip made longer and grimmer by prevailing winds. “That was me!” Behr said, “The longest trip ever.” But that was the exception, he said. “What a great time I’ve had, working at something that makes people happy.” Find out more, or schedule a balloon ride: boarsheadballooning.com.

Cari and Judd Culver. Photo: Mike Marshall.

The Turkey Farmers

Judd and Cari Culver raise Kelly Bronze turkeys on their farm in Greenwood, but it wasn’t in the original plan. Judd said he kind of wandered aimlessly into the field of agriculture, “I actually wanted to be a fighter pilot,” he said in a lecture last month at The Lodge at Old Trail, “but my eyesight is terrible.”

With that goal eliminated, he decided to be a chef, where the only victim of his eyesight might be an occasional onion or carrot. His new choice didn’t go over well with his mother, who wanted him to attend a traditional, four-year college. He had some vaguely formulated ideas of being a horse veterinarian, so Virginia Tech seemed a logical choice. Once he had some practical experience, though, his contacts with wealthy horse owners gave him a glimpse of how the relationship difficulties of the rich affect all those who serve them.

So how about hogs? “Too smelly,” he concluded. Poultry seemed to be the best choice, and he stayed on at Virginia Tech to study the reproductive physiology and nutritional needs of poultry.

He’d also met Cari, his future wife. If Judd’s path seems a little crooked, Cari’s was a mountain switchback. Like Judd, she started off wanting to be a veterinarian, but soon found out she loved research, and had a talent for it. Most fascinating to her were studies of immunology, and she was able to translate some of her experience with animals into human cancer research. Eventually, she got a post-doc position as a researcher in Scotland, studying the complicated connections between fat and inflammation, with implications not only for heart disease but also for cancer. Judd was able to use his experience with poultry nutrition––he’d worked for Butterball in North Carolina while Cari was accumulating degrees––to call on farmers throughout the UK.

They eventually ended up in England, where two events put them on another turn-around, this time on a path back to Virginia, The first was meeting Paul Kelly through Judd’s job and becoming familiar with the “Kelly Bronze” turkey, a breed as “close to wild as is possible on a farm,” Judd said. Then there was their first son, Afton, who was diagnosed with autism while still very young. With support and training from Kelly, the couple accepted the challenge of raising the Kelly Bronze not far from U.Va.’s Autism Center.

These days, Cari walks fence lines, transports children and interacts with the llamas who protect the turkeys from predators, accompanied by her sons and Judd when he’s not at his job dispensing advice to other poultry farmers. The flock is expanding, and so is public demand for a turkey allowed to grow slowly, roam freely, reach maturity and taste rich and moist. To find out more, or order a turkey, go to www.kellybronze.com.

Johannah Dottore and Crystal Oliver of A Place to Breathe. Photo: Theresa Curry.

Meditation Teachers

The two women were part of the same family and also connected through their high-energy, government jobs in suburban D.C. Johannah Dottore had a job in the Clinton administration and Crystal Oliver was a Lt. Colonel in the Army, working in communications at the Pentagon. Their world changed forever when Chris, Dottore’s brother and Oliver’s husband, was diagnosed with fatal brain cancer. The large family would gather at Oliver’s house in Alexandria, huddling together for comfort. “It got to be a struggle when Chris started losing his words,” Crystal said. “We all wanted to be with him, but we didn’t want to just sit there staring at him.”

They began to meditate, a practice Chris himself had begun as part of dealing with his illness. “One time, when Chris was still walking, he fell down and said, ‘why can’t we just stay on the floor for a while,’ so I sat down, too, and we just sat together.”

Another sister-in-law, Marcia, was a Zen Buddhist monk and sometimes led them. They became accustomed to having family together every night, leaving from time to time to have private conversations, or walk the dogs, or drink beer on the porch, or fix a meal. But they’d return to the circle, sitting in peace by the patient’s bed.

“It saved me,” Dottore remembered: “By then I had moved to Crozet and I’d be driving up to see Chris, almost frantic. I’d be in all the traffic and feel worse and worse, then get there and be at home.” Nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters gathered, all of them sitting in stillness at times, just doing their best to be there for Chris and each other.

Once, when Chris could still talk, he told the women that there should be a place where people could gather to meditate without distraction. “That stuck with us,” Dottore said. “We began to talk about it and make plans.”

“Whenever we talked about it, we’d feel better,” Oliver said. “To me, that was an important sign we were headed in the right direction.” Then Chris told them, “You have everything you need to make this happen.” With this blessing, they proceeded, and it helped them get through the darkest days after his death in 2008. And they got closer and closer to each other: “It took me 20 minutes to get from my office in the Pentagon to my car,” Oliver said. “I’d call her, and she’d always answer. She’d talk me through it, going home to that empty house.”

It moved fast: Oliver retired, sold her house, moved to Crozet. They found a cottage for rent at Ivy Commons. Both women received instruction to be yoga as well as meditation teachers. In 2010, A Place to Breathe opened. From the start, their mission was to be accessible: to offer gentle yoga and quiet space for those who needed it. They’re also out in the community almost every day, offering classes to seniors or those in rehabilitation.

Looking back, they both realize that they learned from their suffering as well as their disciplined reflection. “We don’t hold back,” Oliver said. “If something looks like fun, we’ll jump right in.”

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