Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Community Celebrates Legacy Of Disability And Cultural Advocate Jim Wark

Man in front of microphone
Jim Wark was a volunteer and advocate at Richmond Folk Festival since its early days. (Photo: Dave Parrish)

Jim Wark knew the power of stories, how they could connect people. His colleagues say he had a big smile and an even bigger heart. 

“He was probably one of the most trusting and forgiving people I have met in my entire life,” said Virginia Voice’s Office Manager Kenneth Wene.

Communications and Development Director Scott Kocen said Jim was a natural born leader who inspired others.

“He’s a players coach,” said Kocen. “He’d stand by his staff no matter what and as a consequence, we felt more empowered to go that extra mile.”

Kocen and Wene say Jim saved the non-profit organization from financial collapse after learning they only had $84 in the bank just a month after he started as CEO.

“I think the biggest highlight of his time here is he kept us from going under,” said Wene.

The nonprofit Virginia Voice has partnered with VPM for more than 40 years. The organization serves the blind and visually impaired with 24/7 programming online and through a special radio receiver that picks up a signal through VPM's non-broadcast FM bandwidth, what’s also called a “subcarrier transmission.”

Volunteers read the daily newspapers, periodicals and books, and the non-profit creates some original programming profiling local people and accessibility issues in the community. 

Virginia Voice board member and VPM staffer Alex Wiles worked with Jim on an initiative called Live Audio Description. The program provides blind and vision impaired audience members with live, play-by-play of cultural events, from stage performances of Mary Poppins to the Nutcracker. 

“It’s about families being able to experience something together,” said Wiles. “And that togetherness, that inclusivity, that welcoming feeling is something that is just part of who Jim was.”

Born in New York City, Jim lived in Richmond for more than three decades. He spent many years in local media, at the Richmond Times Dispatch, Style Weekly and WRIR. He taught in Richmond Public Schools and worked for the Partnership for Families. 

He was a talented musician who played in numerous groups, including the Janet Martin Band, Chrome Daddy Disco, Super Sugar Beat, the Taters and Billy Ray Hatley and the Show Dogs.

“He was technically an awesome guitar player, he was also a great arranger, a great writer,” said Bassist Michael Moore who knew Jim for 31 years and played with him in multiple bands. “And his solos always took you somewhere, they were always very melodic and they’d also lift you up, his solos had a lot of emotion to them.”

Venture Richmond’s Stephen Lecky says Jim was pivotal in the success of the Folk Festival, especially running the after party.

“He could run a jam session with the blues artist, he could run a jam session with the go-go band, he could run a jam session with the bluegrass guys or the African band or the klezmer band,” said Lecky.

With all those genres and worlds colliding, Lecky says Jim could hold it steady. One year the jam sessions led to a dream come true, says friend and longtime radio personality, Tim Timberlake. After so many years working behind the scenes at the Richmond Folk Festival, rock and roll piano player Jason D. Williams noted Jim’s talents at the informal jam. With a sick guitarist, Williams asked Jim to sit in for the next day’s performance in front of thousands of cheering Folk Festival fans. 

“It was epic,” said Timberlake


Friend and former co-worker Chris Dovi says Jim was a well-rounded human who embraced everybody.

“He didn’t take a lot of guff, he didn’t take nonsense and didn’t take to nonsense but he was willing to give everybody the benefit of kindness,” said Dovi who noted that Jim was a star guitarist with the annual Hamaganza event.

Former coworkers at Richmond’s Blackwell Elementary admired that Jim started a new career - public school teaching - in his 40s. 

“I remember him always including my students with special needs into his classroom. He would always bring special guests or play music,” said teacher Maggie Harrington. “That’s something that will always stick with me.”

Teacher Matthew Kirkby said Jim would bring a juggler in every year just for the third graders. “It was special because it was something only third graders got to do.” said Kirkby.

Both Kirkby and Harrington also point out Jim’s willingness to speak out after allegations that a former principal held an “unauthorized meeting” at the school weren’t addressed.

“It shows Jim’s dedication to his students and his co-workers, wanting them to get the best out of their education and wanting everyone in the building to really feel safe,” said Kirby who added the principal in question did not return to Blackwell.

Friends and colleagues say Jim always put family first, adored his wife Mary, children and grandchildren; that just by being who he was he helped others be their best selves, how to be happy and how to treat people.

“Jim’s legacy is to encourage us to reach out and to connect, to say yes wherever we’re able to help,” said Wiles.

Musicians are planning a tribute show for Jim that will benefit Virginia Voice and the Folk Festival will honor him in October. 

“He left his mark,” said Timberlake. “It’s an indelible one and we will keep him in our hearts always.”