Nov. 4, 1955 – Jan. 6, 2019
Virginia R. Cody worked on Madison Avenue, was an Air Force spokesperson, taught school, wrote "Harry Potter" fan fiction online and ran for governor of Pennsylvania before she came to the Buffalo office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a technical writer.
The role that put her in the brightest spotlight, however, was whistleblower.
An East Amherst resident, she died Jan. 6 in Hospice Buffalo, Cheektowaga, after an 18-month struggle with colon cancer. She was 63.
When Cody learned that two-thirds of her rural county near Scranton, Pa., had been leased to natural gas companies, she was outraged to think that drilling would pollute the air and poison the stream that ran near her home. She became prominent in anti-fracking chat groups on the internet.
When another activist passed along a leaked copy of a bulletin from Pennsylvania’s Office of Homeland Security in 2010 that described how anti-fracking groups were under surveillance, she was astonished to see quotations from her blog.
“The idea that my government thinks that what I’m doing is worthy of anti-terrorism interest goes against everything I stand for and everything I ever stood for,” she said at the time.
She posted the bulletin online in the Susquehanna Natural Gas Forum and soon received an email from state Homeland Security Secretary James Powers. He asked her to remove it. In the mistaken belief that she was pro-drilling, Powers also revealed that surveillance information was being shared with drilling companies.
She testified before the Pennsylvania State Senate and, in the ensuing uproar, Powers was forced to resign.
Encouraged by environmental groups, Ms. Cody, a registered Republican, launched a write-in campaign for governor, calling for tighter regulations on gas drilling and shaming the major-party candidates for not addressing the issue. She received more than 5,000 votes.
She also made a video on domestic spying for the ACLU and appeared in the “Gasland Part II” documentary.
Born in Queens, she attended high school in Pittsford and earned money as a dance instructor teaching the Hustle.
At SUNY Brockport, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism in 1977, she was office manager and copywriter for student radio stations.
She went to New York City, becoming a media buyer for a Madison Avenue advertising agency, then enlisted in the Air Force in 1979. After officer training school at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, she was commissioned as a second lieutenant, specializing in public relations.
At the Space Division of the Los Angeles Air Force Station, she did media relations for the first launch of the space shuttle Columbia. Assigned in 1983 to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio as an environmental public affairs officer, she persuaded the Air Force to take the lead in informing the public about accidental fuel spills and in cleaning them up.
She then went to the Pentagon, where she drafted speeches for high-ranking officers, gave official statements to the press, implemented a highly regarded training program for public relations interns and helped explain to the public how the newly developed global positioning system worked.
During these years, she was twice married, first to another officer, Richard Wendell, with whom she witnessed a total solar eclipse from Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii, and then to Thomas Gouvisis, with whom she had a daughter.
Promoted to captain, she retired on disability in 1989 following complications from exposure to poison sumac while gardening.
Seeking a new career as a single mother, she completed a master’s degree in education at Marymount University in Alexandria, Va., then taught grade school science in Shenandoah, Va., and preschool in Hampton, Va.
From there she moved to Clarks Summit, Pa., teaching in nearby Scranton Hebrew Day School and as a substitute teacher, then deciding to follow her artistic passions.
Sketches of her Sheltie dogs led to commissions for portraits of other people’s pets. Her success in writing "Harry Potter" fan fiction online led her to start a novel, through which she met her third husband, freelance writer Patrick Walker.
After the fracking fight, she turned to civilian work with the military. She moved to Columbus, Ga., in 2012, where she taught military writing to officer candidates and sergeants at Fort Benning. She came to Amherst in 2015.
Known to friends as Ginger, in Pennsylvania she was president of the Endless Mountains Council of the Arts. In Amherst, she served on the board of the Charlesgate Village Association.
Survivors also include her daughter, Anna Gouvisis; her mother, Virginia; two brothers, Robert and Peter; and a sister, Marjorie.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20, in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst, 6320 Main St.