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Radford engineer hailed by Russian officials


Luther Dickens is the first American recognized with this builder's award.

 A building outside Moscow is covered with ThermaSteel panels, a Styrofoam-like material that takes the place of wood-frame construction. The Radva Corp. of Radford patented the material, and it is now produced in a plant about 80 miles north of Moscow and used throughout the country. Above: The same building is shown after construction was finished

RADFORD -- They know Luther Dickens in Russia.

In fact, they have honored him with an award called "Honored Builder of Russia."

Dickens, who is chief executive officer of Radva Corp. in Radford, is only the second foreigner to receive this national Russian award. The only other was from


Although Dickens was among those slated to receive the award back in April, the presentation ceremony took place just last month.

"They make a big deal out of it in Russia," Dickens said. "If you were a Russian living in Russia, there are some benefits." Recipients would get perks such as special utility rates, he said.

Dickens became CEO of Radva in 1998. He had been president of the company from 1965 to 1998.

A Carroll County native, Dickens earned a degree in chemistry from the University of Richmond and became an engineer at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant. He and three other RAAP researchers developed a plastic packaging wrap. It started as a

sort of hobby, but they took it seriously enough to found Radva.

Radva's business grew, and Dickens left RAAP to devote all his time to the new enterprise. He is the only one of the original founders still with the company.

In 1976, Radva patented a building panel material made of a Styrofoam-like material that took the place of wood-frame construction. Dickens then became president of ThermaSteel Corp., which developed its own production facility in Radford.

A decade later, Dickens started making trips to Russia and exploring the possibility of a ThermaSteel production plant there. The Radford company proved the durability of the material by constructing three model homes.

The Russian plant was built about 80 miles north of Moscow and has been turning out product and shipping it throughout Russia and other former Soviet republics.

"The main plant started in 1993. We were going there before that, and we actually shipped some product from here before that," Dickens said. "The system is now pretty well established here. It's literally created an industry in Russia."

The product performed well in the Arctic regions of Russia. It has been used in Alaska, too.

The Russians also recognized Mike Farrell, project manager and interpreter for Radva, with a certificate of honor.

"The award that I got was, I guess you'd say, a level lower," Farrell said. The Honored Builder of Russia award, he said, "is from the ministry in Moscow. It's a federal or national level acknowledgement."

In Russia, there are profession holidays, such as for the medical or education trades. The builder's day is when nominations are made for both levels of awards.

Farrell began studying Russian in the 1970s at age 13, when he was a scholarship student at a Massachusetts prep school -- the same one, incidentally, that both George Bushes attended.

In 1974, the year before he got his degree, he went to Moscow as a cultural exchange student. In the 1980s, he worked for a translation bureau in Washington, D.C.

He met Dickens while he was escorting Russian visitors in this country, came to work in Radford as a part-time translator for visiting Russian delegations, until Dickens hired him full-time.

Dickens brought back a small medal and two proclamations, written in Russian, documenting the award.

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