- Special Sections
- Public Notices
Leighton Langford, Bedford County’s director of social services is retiring, effective at the end of this month. Langford has held this post since 1976.
Langford grew up on a tobacco farm in Forest and graduated from New London High School in 1963. His first experience with the county’s department of social services came in 1964 as a college student intern. Langford said that this was back in the day when the courthouse still had segregated restrooms.
He majored in social work at Lynchburg College and was also in the Navy Reserve. His college studies were twice interrupted by calls to active duty.
In the Navy, Langford was a hull technician/damage controlman.
“My main thrust was damage control,” he said.
Hull technicians specialize in metal work and their job is maintaining shipboard structures and various systems. Damage control involves dealing with emergency situations aboard a ship which is at risk of sinking.
Langford spent most of his active duty time aboard destroyers.
One of the memorable aspects about service on a destroyer were the Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter (DASH) helicopters. These were remote control helicopters that were supposed to be able to fly a distance from the destroyer and drop a homing torpedo on a submarine. The DASH was developed as part of a program to modernize World War II destroyers. This drone was designed because these destroyers were too small to accommodate a hangar that could house a full-sized helo.
“They never worked,” Langford commented.
He recalls one exercise in which his ship was testing a DASH and, as it was returning to the ship, it went out of control. They ended up having to shoot it down to keep it from hitting the ship.
Later, Langford was on a destroyer equipped with ASROC, a rocket-launched torpedo system. The destroyer had an eight-cell box launcher with one rocket in each cell when loaded. The rocket carried a homing torpedo which would drop into the ocean a number of miles from the ship to destroy a submarine. When added to WWII vintage destroyers with an DASH hangar, lockers to hold these rockets were installed in the hangar.
“I would often go in there, throw some life jackets down on top of one of the lockers, and take a nap,” said Langford.
Langford said that he did this when the berthing compartment was too chaotic to catch some free-time shut-eye. As a first class petty officer, on a small ship, he could do that.
One time, as he was settling down for a nap, a gunners mate happened to come in and passed Langford an interesting bit of information about what was in the locker that he was lying on.
In addition to a homing torpedo with a conventional warhead, the ASROC could carry a nuclear warhead. The gunners mate informed Langford that he was taking a nap on top of one of those.
“You mean there’s a hot fish in there?” Langford replied.
These warheads had lead shielding, but Langford still decided that napping on top of one was not a good idea.
When Langford was on a ship in the Atlantic, it spent its time looking for Soviet submarines. When he was in the Pacific, his ship was often on plane guard duty, off the coast of Vietnam, ready to pick up downed pilots who ejected over the ocean. Once he saw the battleship USS New Jersey in action. The battleship was farther out to sea and its massive shells flew over Langford’s destroyer on their way to targets inland. Langford said crewmen could actually see them fly over.
“We’d pull into Hong Kong for R & R,” Langford recalled. And so would the Russians.
Langford said that the bars were full of sailors of many nationalities, including Americans, Brits and Russians.
“It was a real international experience,” he said.
Langford said that his Navy experience helped him prepare for his career as a social worker. He said that he had a lot of troubled 18 and 19-year-old sailors in his division. According to Langford, back in those days people thought that sending a troubled teen to the military would be a good way to straighten him out, and the armed forces would take them.
It didn’t work very well, although Langford said that they would find ways to use these young men aboard ship. Nevertheless, a teen who tended to get in trouble in civilian life, also got in trouble in the Navy.
When Langford first started at the county’s department of social services in 1971, he was a court social worker.
“I kind of ran into the same kind of kid I had in the Navy,” he recalled.
Social services has changed over the years. Back then, the social safety net consisted of food stamps, aid to dependent children and Medicaid. The entire department consisted of 16 people.
Today, Langford’s department has 70 employees, plus six in the domestic violence program and 30 at the group home. And, Langford has been director of social services for so long that everybody in the department is somebody he has hired.
Langford got the domestic violence program, Bedford Domestic Violence Services, started. It took some time to get the money together to get it going, but Langford said that the community was been very supportive.
Connie St. John, director of Bedford Domestic Violence Services, said that Bedford County’s domestic violence program is one of only a handful in the entire nation that operates as part of the department of social services.
St. John said that when she first came to take the job, she had never seen anything like it before.
“No one does it like this,” she said. “It’s brilliant.”
She said that this approach allows Bedford County to provide services for domestic violence victims that aren’t available in other communities. It also meant that the domestic violence program was also able to immediately benefit from relationships that Langford had built up with local law enforcement and the Commonwealth’s Attorney office over the years.
Bedford Group Homes also got started under Langford’s watch.
Prior to the establishment of the group homes, the county was having to send children with serious behavioral problems, out of the county for treatment mandated under state law. Although Langford oversaw the development of the group homes, located on Falling Creek Road, he credits District 1 Supervisor Dale Wheeler for the idea.
Wheeler said that he thought that these youth should be cared for locally.
“I thought we could do a better job,” he said. “But, I give him [Langford] all the credit. He was listening.”
“I think it’s Leighton’s baby and a wonderful success story,” he added.
Wheeler wishes Langford wasn’t retiring.
“I don’t think he’s old enough to retire,” he joked.
“I think he’s done an outstanding job,” Wheeler added. “I feel like it leaves a big hole.”
Langford believes that there are still challenges to which nobody has yet found an answer. One is nursing home care for elderly people who need this. He said that $4 million per month of Bedford County’s Medicaid expenditures go for long term care for the elderly. Staying in a nursing home costs between $6,000 and $7,000 per month. As a result, many people end up seeking Medicaid to pay for this because it doesn’t take long, at that rate, for them to outlive their resources. Langford said that Bedford County has 5,500 Medicaid cases and 40 percent of those are for long-term care.
Another issue is case management for mentally ill people. Some decades ago, Virginia got rid of its mental hospitals. The problem is, that there aren’t adequate resources to provide case management for them. There are medications that help some types of mental illness, but Langford said that they have side effects and mentally ill people often stop taking them.
Langford sees cows in his own future. Langford and his brother-in-law operate the farm on which Langford grew up. The tobacco is long gone and the two now raise Black Angus cattle.
“We have 75 brood cows,” he said.