One of Roanoke’s tallest structures, the Poff Federal Building, was named for Richard H. Poff long before he died in 2011. The honor seems befitting. The Radford native was a decorated World War II bomber pilot and later a lawyer who went on to represent the Sixth Congressional District for 10 consecutive terms.
Poff was a chief drafter of the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and after his service in Congress, he had a 16-year stint as a justice on the Supreme Court of Virginia. After his death, accolades poured forth from the likes of former Gov. Linwood Holton, then-U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte and then-Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Why, then, is Poff buried in an unmarked grave in a Christiansburg cemetery? That’s something Chris Tuck wants to know. The lawyer and Montgomery County supervisor stumbled upon this conundrum recently, as a part of an annual project he performs for veterans’ graves.
For each Memorial Day, Tuck locates a deceased veteran from Montgomery County whose grave lacks the military honors it deserves. To rectify that, Tuck works with the veteran’s family, the Veterans Administration and staffers in U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith’s office.
There are forms to fill out for the cemetery, Tuck said, and for the VA, and once everything gets approved, the federal agency provides an engraved headstone, Tuck said. But the process isn’t necessarily a quick one.
Tuck’s 2018 Memorial Day project was on behalf of Leon Willard, who died at age 20 on Aug. 13, 1968, eight days after he landed in Vietnam. Tuck helped Willard’s sister fill out the necessary paperwork, and Griffith’s office shepherded the process to secure a correct marker.
This year, the headstone denoting that Willard had earned a Bronze Star finally arrived. While dealing with its installation at Sunset Cemetery on North Franklin Street, Tuck learned about Richard Poff’s unmarked grave.
That information came from Kevin Poff (who’s no relation to Richard Poff), cemeterian for the Town of Christiansburg. The former congressman is buried next to his wife, Jo Ann T. Poff, who died in 1978.
“His wife has a marker, and they have what they call a family stone,” Kevin Poff told me. “It just says, ‘POFF.’ The funeral home was out of Richmond. No one’s contacted me since he’s been buried.”
Tuck couldn’t believe it.
“Poff has been dead for eight years. He flew 35 combat missions in World War II, and he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross,” Tuck said. “He’s got a building named after him in Roanoke. ... but he doesn’t have a headstone” in Christiansburg.
Poke a little into Poff’s background, and it’s no wonder a big federal courthouse bears his name. The Radford native was raised in Christiansburg, and until his surprising election in 1952 he was known as a lawyer who spoke with a country twang and had a knuckle-bruising handshake.
According to one article following his death, “some women took off their rings before offering their hands to the congressman.”
His election in 1952 — at age 29 — astonished many pols because the Sixth District seat had been held by Democrats since Reconstruction. Poff freely admitted that he rode to a slim victory on the coattails of that year’s presidential winner, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Although Poff never went unchallenged in nine subsequent elections, he breezed through most of those. In 1968 he garnered 92% of the vote, and in 1970, he was reelected with 75%.
While in Congress, Poff pioneered a “Dear Folks” letter to constituents. During his tenure in Congress, he was a principal sponsor of the landmark Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, also known as RICO.
Poff also was instrumental in drafting the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1967. It addresses presidential disability and succession, and allows a vice president, along with a majority of the presidential cabinet, to temporarily remove a president from office. That amendment got a brief flurry of publicity after the 2016 election of President Donald Trump.
At one point in 1971, President Richard Nixon hinted that he was considering Poff for a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. But Poff asked Nixon to withdraw his name from consideration for two reasons. One was, he had an adopted 12-year-old son who at that time didn’t know he was adopted. Poff feared the information would become public as part of the nomination process.
The other was, Poff early in his career had been one of the few Republicans who signed the Southern Manifesto opposing public school desegregation. He feared that would be used against him in any Supreme Court confirmation process. (Poff later said segregation was wrong.)
Anyway, after he quit Congress in 1972, then Gov. Linwood Holton appointed Poff to the Supreme Court of Virginia. He retired from the court in 1988, and he died June 27, 2011, in Tullahoma, Tennessee.
All of the above more or less explains Tuck’s bewilderment about the unmarked grave. I decided to try to find out more.
Among those I interviewed were Tuck’s daughter-in-law, Lynn Poff of Madison, Alabama. She’s the widow of one of Poff’s sons, Richard H. Poff Jr. I also spoke to the ex-congressman’s daughter, Rebecca Marshall of Gainesville, and his grandson, Stephen Marshall, a lawyer in Midlothian.
None of them know why the grave remains unmarked.
Stephen Marshall said he discovered that last fall, when he stopped at Sunset Cemetery to pay his respects to his grandmother and grandfather. But he didn’t follow up with any specific inquiries, he added.
“When the burial happened, everything was prepaid by the Poffs,” Lynn Poff told me. “That was supposed to be taken care of. It’s something that’s not a good thing.”
Probably part of the problem, she added, is “all of his family lives hours away from the cemetery.”
A receptionist for the undertakers who handled Poff’s funeral service, Woody’s Funeral Home in Midlothian, told me it neither sells nor installs grave markers. Kevin Poff, the cemeterian in Christiansburg, said: “We don’t sell markers at our cemetery.”
I reckon this may remain a mystery. Tuck said he’s unlikely to take any action. His schedule’s pretty crowded with his service project, and his law practice, and his supervisor’s duties.
After Poff’s death, one of the luminaries who spoke about him was the late Caldwell Butler, Poff’s successor in Congress. “He did his job well and he was conscientious about it,” Butler told this newspaper. Butler also noted Poff “didn’t showboat at all.”
Who knows? Maybe he wanted it this way.