Why Crozet: The Two Years That Changed Everything

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Jeff Stone went from the corner office of an executive suite to a corner of the WAHS auditorium, where he monitors study halls. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

From what we hear at the Crozet Gazette, it seems everyone’s lives were changed by the pandemic, and not always for the better. But we’ve also heard some remarkable stories of positive transformation through changes, large and small. If you have a pandemic story, we’d love to hear that, too.

“Why Crozet” is a monthly feature that began in January, 2019, and examines the people and natural features that make Crozet a remarkable home. We welcome your suggestions for future stories.

From the Corner Office to the Corner of a High School Auditorium

Jeff Stone was a rising star in the world of high-level advertising and marketing, and he paid a big price. “I worked 60 hours a week, did a lot of traveling, and wasn’t able to spend the time I wanted with my family,” he said. “I knew I loved Crozet, but I never had time to really get to know the community.” He said it wasn’t only the demanding job, but the mental and emotional space it took in his life that affected even his time off. 

Stone said he’d spent 10 years climbing the corporate ladder, working for huge companies like Proctor and Gamble, General Mills and a number of beer companies. Finally, he arrived at a point where he put together sponsorship and advertising for large-scale events. In early 2020, the looming pandemic canceled one of his NBA events mid-game. “It was all over in a blink,” he said.

One by one, all his events for the foreseeable future were canceled, and he had to let his whole division go. “They were like family to me,” he said. “I was offered a different kind of job, but I decided to ask myself some hard questions instead.” He knew instinctively that the pandemic break in his career would present some answers. 

He was surprised to see that his family was well aware of the stress he’d been under all those years. “I tried to hide it,” he said. “But my wife kept reminding me that it was not normal to wake up feeling sick day after day. Everyone was relieved and supportive.”

First up in his new life was to improve his overall health. He began to accompany his daughter, a runner, to the Western High School track. “I walked while she ran,” he said. It dawned on him: “High schools make me happy. They’re kind of a microcosm of real life, with ups and down, tears and laughter. There’s always something happening.” When in-person school resumed, he decided to work as a teaching assistant at the school.

“Obviously, I couldn’t teach,” he said. “I didn’t have a certificate.” But he could monitor study halls and do other odd jobs. He looks back on his high-powered former life as a kind of addiction, and once he got some distance, knew he didn’t want to go back. “I went from the corner office to the corner of the auditorium,” he said.

“I was spending my time making rich people richer,” he said. “Advertisers have a couple of goals: get people to buy what they might not need, or convince them they need something they didn’t know about before.” 

These days, Stone loves being more present for his family, enjoying nature, getting lots of exercise and trying his hand at a couple of creative pursuits, including writing screen plays and stories instead of writing for a brand. “Who knows what will come of it? Maybe I’m just a hack.”

Meanwhile, he keeps a diary of his days and finds the students fascinating. There’s some informal ad hoc teaching: “I walked past some economics students writing on a whiteboard in the hall, and I was able to clarify some points about supply and demand and inflation,” he said. When the students began to unmask, he was happy to see their faces.

He doesn’t know where he’ll go from here, but is not much bothered by it. “I’m just happy to be a witness to it all,” he said.

Culture Shock Times Two

Laurel Chruma’s family watched the pandemic advance twice, first from China’s Sichuan province and then from their Cory Farms home in Crozet. The family was living in Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital city, when they first became aware of what was happening in Wuhan. 

The timing couldn’t have been worse, Chruma said. In January of 2020, they were planning an Asian vacation ahead of their return to Crozet, where they’d lived for several years before their move to China. Chruma’s parents had joined the family in Chengdu to join the family’s farewell tour of Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. The night before their departure, strange things began to happen. One by one, flights were canceled, businesses shut down and the family learned about the deadly virus. “We decided it was best for us to stay put, rather than go to the airport and be turned away,” she said. 

It turned out that staying put was their only option. Chruma explained: “In China, there’s top-down authority from the central government, but also a lot of local variation, depending on where you live.” They were far (800 miles) from Wuhan, and the nature of each neighborhood determined how restricted they would be. The outer walls of the huge apartment complexes in her area served as a kind of barrier to the neighborhood, with gates opening at intervals, manned by guards. “We were lucky enough to have several gates, with many guards,” she said. “Those in poorer neighborhoods might just have one or two guards.” It was in those apartment complexes that stories arose of people being bolted in when no guard was on duty. “Our friends back home were horrified,” she said.

Before the lockdown, Justus, Laurel and Violet Chruma enjoy the safe streets of Chengdu.

Meanwhile, her Chinese friends were horrified, too. “They thought the U.S. was about to declare war on China,” she said. “They really believed it.” 

Meanwhile, movement outside the buildings, whatever the neighborhood, was severely restricted. Her family was invited by other tenants of the building who were already on vacation to house her parents in their empty apartment. “That apartment had access to a rooftop garden, with trees and plants,” she said. “It really saved us.”

One person from each family could go out for groceries once each day, but there were other opportunities to get food and supplies. Chengdu is a city of nearly 16 million, and its residents were accustomed to round-the-clock delivery. “You could get a cup of coffee from MacDonald’s delivered at midnight,” she said. “The delivery person would bring it to the guard, then you could collect it. So, no one was starving.” There were very few COVID cases in her area, and most of the population supported the restrictions and failed to understand the growing U.S. controversy over masks.

In July of 2020, it was possible for her family to return to Crozet. “It was just as much a shock coming back as it was adjusting to life in Chengdu,” she said. The kids (Violet, 16; and Justus, 12) had been homeschooled in China but wanted to try in-person school when it became available. They were used to safe streets, no matter what the time of night, and were worried about the widespread violence they’d seen on television. Gradually, they began to relax when they saw Crozet was different from images they’d seen from Philadelphia and New York. They both adapted well to their new lives. Violet’s at the Miller School and Justus at the Field School, both schools that didn’t have the same restrictions as the public schools.

At first, Chruma was confused by the wildly differing approaches: “I’d go to Waynesboro and no one would be wearing a mask, even when the numbers were at their highest; then I’d go to Charlottesville and no-one would be without one, and people felt so strongly against the other point of view.”

“I thought I just had culture shock,” she said. “After a while, I realized that we all––meaning not only our country, but the whole world––we all have culture shock from this pandemic.”

Rediscovering a Lost Passion

In the midst of a dark time, Scott Apicella found optimism and strength. He was furloughed from his job selling beer in a large, familiar territory in North Carolina. “I’d also gained a lot of weight, had high cholesterol, hadn’t exercised in 20 years, and turned 40,” he said. Scott also had a kind of chronic heart arrhythmia and worried about its effect on his health.

He knew things could be different. An enthusiastic high school soccer player, he was encouraged to run track to improve his game. There may have been a bit of a hidden agenda: His father was a dedicated runner, and it was no surprise to anyone who’d seen Scott run on the soccer field that he soon quit soccer to focus on track. He became a bit of a young athletic prodigy, an elite athlete at the high school and junior college level, competing in a number of track events and winning at the state and national levels in the mile and relay. When he left school, he left it all behind. 

“It’s always haunted me,” he said. “I missed it, but years went by and I was completely sedentary.” He couldn’t figure out how to fit running into his life, and was a little frightened about his heart condition. 

Then came March 2020. He was jobless, with plenty of time. His doctor cleared him for running, in fact, told him it would help his condition. With no excuses left, and badly in need of an uplifting experience, Apicella took one step, and then another. It all came back, faster than he even expected. “I felt so much joy,” he said. “I wondered how I had lived so long without running.” From that day until now––more than two years––he hasn’t missed a day of running.

Scott Apicella at the 2022 Tobacco Road Marathon. Submitted photo.

Other events kept changing his life. He went back to work, but was assigned a different territory centered on Charlottesville. He moved to Crozet and then to White Hall. “Once I saw the beauty of the countryside to the west, I knew that’s where I wanted to live,” he said. He lost a lot of weight, found tremendous support from the local running community, and developed a routine that he could stick to even while working full time. He loved having the same athletic interests as his daughter, Abbie, a runner at Western. He has run two marathons and recently qualified for Boston. Both Abbie and his son, Ethan, joined him to run the last 400 meters of his most recent marathon. “That reminded me that I always want to set a good example for them,” he said. “You can set goals and persevere.” A photo on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch shows Ethan beaming up at him as they ran.

Best of all, “I have a much better outlook on life,” he said. “Setting and reaching my goals with this has encouraged me to set goals in other areas in my life.” It’s not easy, he admits. His long runs are on the weekends, starting pre-dawn in the winter months so he can have some family time later. 

He meets other runners at 6, sometimes at 5:30. “I don’t mind at all,” he said. “I jump out of bed with a smile on my face. I just love it.” 

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