Shihadeh Parade

Karen Schaufeld looks to the heavens when talking about her deceased father, Emil Shihadeh, during the grand opening ceremony for Winchester Public Schools’ Emil and Grace Shihadeh Innovation Center in Winchester Wednesday. At left is Winchester Education Foundation Executive Director Russ Potts.

WINCHESTER — Twenty-three speakers, including two Virginia governors and some of the biggest names in state and local politics, were on hand Wednesday afternoon to celebrate the grand opening of the Emil and Grace Shihadeh Innovation Center at 536 Jefferson St. in Winchester.

Why? Because former Virginia Sen. H. Russell “Russ” Potts Jr. asked them to attend.

“I’m proud to be here ... with Senator Potts, without whose work none of these doers would be the doers that they were on this project,” said Republican state Sen. Jill Vogel of Upperville, who succeeded Potts in the General Assembly after he retired in January 2008.

As a businessman and community activist, Potts was instrumental in the Shihadeh Center’s creation. With the Winchester Education Foundation, he spearheaded a fundraising effort that netted more than $4 million to convert the former John Kerr Elementary School into a facility that will train Winchester students to perform high-paying jobs in skilled professional fields including health care, construction and technology.

In appreciation, Winchester Public Schools Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum told Potts on Wednesday the city School Board voted this week to name the reception area inside the Shihadeh Center in his honor.

While Potts was repeatedly praised for his commitment to the center, his friends and colleagues in attendance also took a few good-natured jabs at the retired 27th District Republican senator who, in 2005, ran for governor of Virginia as an independent.

“When Russ called me, I did a smart thing,” Republican state Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. of Staunton told the crowd of about 300 people. “Instead of saying no, I said yes and it saved me a half-dozen more calls from him.”

“He kept calling me this morning and would not leave a voicemail,” said Del. Bill Wiley, R-Winchester. “Very persistent.”

John S. Whetzell Jr., a Winchester native who now lives in Seattle and serves as chairman and CEO of Northland Communications Corp., flew across the country Wednesday morning to be at the grand opening ceremony.

“I show you the long reach of Russ Potts,” Whetzell said.

Regardless of the teasing, it was evident from the comments given Wednesday that everyone involved in the ceremony genuinely admires Potts and his lifelong dedication to the people of Winchester.

“You are a dreamer, you are a builder,” said former Virginia governor and current gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe.

“Russ, you’ve made me really proud to be from Winchester,” Whetzell said.

— Contact Brian Brehm at

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