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Mark Holmberg looks back at 1959 murder in Monroe Park

RICHMOND, Va (WTVR)- Thursday night, City Councilman Charles Samuels hosted a meeting at the Dogwood Dell to discuss what would become of the homeless who frequent Monroe Park during its upcoming $6 million dollar renovation.

There was some passionate discussion among the 100 or so present, including demands that part of the park – which is Richmond’s Central Park- stay open for the homeless.

It’s the latest chapter in a long history of anxiety and contention surrounding the homeless and vagrants who frequent the park.

That controversy boiled over on February 21, 1959, when a prominent MCV professor was murdered in the park. It is believed to be the only murder in Monroe Park’s 160-year history.

CBS 6 did some digging in that old case, and recently interviewed the doctor’s son.

The victim, Dr. Austin I. Dodson, was a farm boy from  Pittsylvania County who had an insatiable hunger for knowledge, according to reports stored in a  Virginia Commonwealth University medical library. When he wasn’t working in the tobacco fields, he was devouring books.

Dodson would go on to establish the Medical College of Virginia’s urology department, and chaired it until his death.
His books on urology, particularly his surgical guide, were very significant at the time.

His son, Austin Dodson Jr.  followed his father into his uptown urology practice.

“He was an excellent dad,” Dodson said. He recalled weekly fly fishing trips with his father, who also loved gardening. Dr. Dodson Sr. had met his wife when she was a patient, after she had her appendix removed.
“They were very close, absolutely,” their son recalled.

The elder Dodson was a humble man who reflected his farming roots. “Absolutely no ostentation about him in the least,” his son said.

The doctor charged $4 for office visits. If you didn’t have money, you didn’t pay. He never charged ministers.

On his last night, Dr. Dodson dropped his wife at the Mosque for a show featuring a Boston Pops concert. He parked his car by the corner of W. Main and Pine streets. He was walking through the park on his way to briefly check on a patient at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital a block away on W. Grace Street, before joining his wife at the concert.

She would wait for nearly an hour.

“I got a call from the emergency room at the Medical College,” Dodson recalled,  “telling me they thought it was my father in there.”

It was. The elder Dodson had been found unconscious by the park fountain after two youngsters who saw some kind of scuffle ran for the police officers directing traffic for the show.

The doctor was gasping for his last breaths. He was rushed to the hospital where he  worked for most of his life, but there was nothing his co-workers could do to save him.

The murder rocked Richmond. It was front-page news for days. The doctor’s head had been smashed in from behind, likely with a lead pipe. The motive, blared the headlines, was robbery.

Police were looking for two black suspects, and a mystery witness who was much closer to scuffle than the boys who alerted police.

Austin Dodson Jr. remembers being shaken to his roots, and seeing the same impact the murder had on his mother. “She was devastated too, the whole family.”

The doctor had two one-dollar bills in his pockets, and about 80 cents in change.

He “never carried a billfold, just a few pieces of short change in his pockets,” his son said. “That  was it. He also had a nice pocket watch, which they did not take.”

It was a turbulent time in terms of race in Richmond, and across the country. Just the month before there had been a civil rights march through the park where Dodson was slain.

And there had been a lingering problem with vagrants at the park.

The backlash was significant. One city councilman wanted to turn the park over to Richmond  Professional Institute, now Virginia Commonwealth University. Others wanted the seven-acre park  turned into luxury apartments or a vast motel complex.

Eventually, the mystery witness surfaced, saying he waited for a police officer he trusted to come back from vacation. Two men of color were arrested and convicted. They were given life sentences but were apparently eventually paroled.

The benches were taken out of the park for a time in an effort to thwart vagrants.

But the benches eventually returned, along with the lingering and sometimes painful controversy over what to do with the park that was designed by the same architect who designed part of Central Park in New York City.

That controversy is, at the least, a contributing factor to an ambivalence about the park that has kept it from shining as it could.

The proposed renovation is the first major attempt to give Monroe Park a makeover since the time of Dr. Dodson’s death.

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