Zack Harold

freelance journalist

How West Virginia’s decade of bad luck steeled it to fight Covid

This story was originally published by The Guardian on February 10, 2021.

It’s usually bad when West Virginia makes headlines. The state has a long, sad history of severe poverty, bad health outcomes, political corruption and disasters both natural and manmade.

But by mid-January, some very good news started coming from West Virginia: somehow the Mountain state was putting 81% of its available vaccines into the biceps of its citizens while bigger states struggled to distribute even half of their available vaccines.

As national media descended on the state to figure out why, much of the reporting focused on the state’s decision to distribute vaccines through local pharmacies, bucking the federal plan to use the national chains CVS and Walgreens.

That isn’t the whole story of West Virginia’s vaccine triumph, however. The state’s path to success started long before there was a thing called Covid-19, much less a vaccine to fight it, and was grounded in the state’s unique response to a series of tragic disasters. One that may be hard to replicate.

In March 2020, as Covid-19 cases crept higher, West Virginia’s governor, Jim Justice, established a “joint interagency taskforce” to oversee the state’s pandemic response.

It’s a simple idea borrowed from the world of military strategy: bring anyone involved in an operation to the same table, so everyone can share information and coordinate their efforts. This particular taskforce would be made up of federal, state and local government agencies, the West Virginia national guard, and groups representing hospitals, pharmacies and nursing homes.

“We took the construct of what the military does in operations, mission planning, and we applied it with our public health partners. We operationalized a public health emergency,” said Maj Gen James Hoyer, who serves as director of the Covid taskforce.

Hoyer, who recently retired from the military after 40 years in uniform, has participated in several joint interagency taskforces during that time, because West Virginia has suffered an extraordinary run of bad luck over the last decade.

Click here to read the rest.

Patrick Morrisey and the Five Bears — a story in five parts

“Morrisey and the three bears: There’s a story behind popular figures guarding attorney general’s office”

This story originally appeared in the November 29, 2012 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

Heads are bound to roll when Patrick Morrisey becomes West Virginia’s attorney general in January, but it now appears some of Darrell McGraw’s most popular staff members will get to keep their jobs.

Political adviser Scott Will said Morrisey currently has no plans to remove the stuffed black bears from outside the attorney general’s office.

“We will not rush to judgment on this critical issue of whether to keep the bears,” Will wrote in an email earlier this week. “We may even decide to hold off deciding until we finish our first 100 days in office. Getting this decision right is that important.”

The three bears came to live outside McGraw’s office in 2001, but the display originally started with just one bear outside former Secretary of State Ken Hechler’s office.

When Hechler took office in January 1985, he already had a collection of art depicting the state fish, the state tree and the state flower.

“Since the black bear is the state animal, I wanted to obtain a black bear or two to keep in the entrance to my office,” he said.

He called up the state Department of Natural Resources. Employees there had killed an ornery black bear in Clay County a few years before when it was caught robbing people’s beehives.

The animal was already at the taxidermist’s shop, so Hechler called up the owner and made arrangements to purchase it, according to a Daily Mail story at the time.

He parked the bear outside his Capitol office, where it quickly became a popular stop for passing constituents. Members of the public often would stop by his office, to be photographed not with the secretary of state, but with his pet bear.
Hechler added another bear to the collection in 1994.

The original bear was looking a little scraggly after many encounters with visiting school children, so the secretary decided to have it restored and get another one.

It’s unclear where this second bear came from.

Three years later, Hechler used the bears for a tongue-in-cheek statement on the Second Amendment. He placed a rifle in each animal’s paws and hung a yellow sign around one’s neck. It read, “We support the right to arm bears.”

After announcing he would not seek re-election in 2000, Hechler began hunting for a new home for his bears. His only requirement was the new owner must continue to display the “arm bears” sign.

According to a Daily Mail story from the time, he received more than 30 offers from around the state to adopt the creatures.

It was Attorney General Darrell McGraw’s offer that won over Hechler.

He said McGraw had always expressed interest in the bears, and the attorney general promised to keep them outside his own Capitol office so they would remain on public display. In return, Hechler eased his requirement on the sign.

When Hechler left office in January 2001, the bears were wheeled down the Capitol’s West Wing, through the Rotunda, and into an alcove outside McGraw’s office.

A third bear joined the family some time after the display arrived in the East Wing. This one is smaller than the first two, but strikes a much more ferocious pose with its teeth bared and one paw raised, ready to strike.

It hasn’t scared anyone off, however.

“You’ll see people down there taking pictures all the time,” said Capitol tour guide Mary Ann Long.

Although the bears are not on the official tour, Long said she takes groups past the animals if they request it.

Tour guide Grace Welch said the bears are especially popular with students, who like to stop on their way to the state Supreme Court chambers.


“Capitol office bear-en, bear-eft”

This story originally appeared in the December 4, 2012 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

The halls outside Attorney General Darrell McGraw’s office are looking a little “bear.”

That’s because on Monday, some of McGraw’s office staff loaded up the three stuffed black bears that have lived outside the office for the last decade and transported them back to their original owners.

“The attorney general wanted to return them to their rightful owners. They were always on loan to him,” said Joe Clay, McGraw’s chief financial officer.

Clay also serves as the office’s comptroller and, by his own admission, “occasional bear distributor.” He and some other staffers unbolted the bears from their wooden pedestal Monday morning and loaded them into a truck.

Two went back to Ken Hechler, the former secretary of state who brought the first stuffed bear to the Capitol in the 1980s.

“Since the black bear is the state animal, I wanted to obtain a black bear or two to keep in the entrance to my office,” he told the Daily Mail last week.

Hechler added another bear to his collection in the 1990s, and then loaned the animals to McGraw when he left office in 2001 after the attorney general promised to keep them on public display.

When McGraw lost to Republican challenger Patrick Morrisey in November, he called the former secretary of state and asked if he wanted his bears back.

“Ken was very excited to see them this morning,” said Linda Harvey, Hechler’s administrative assistant.

The animals now will reside at Hechler’s Kanawha City office. Harvey said they would remain in the office until Hechler, 98, dies.

“They’d been putting all kinds of stuff in the newspaper, as if the state government was going to decide where they went,” she said.

She said the government never had any claim to the bears, however, since Hechler purchased them with his own money.

Upon their return, Hechler promptly renamed one of the bears “Gibson,” after his friend, mountaintop removal activist Larry Gibson.

The third bear, the baby of the family, came to live at the Capitol sometime after 2001, when Hechler left office and loaned the animals to McGraw’s office. That bear belonged to former senior assistant attorney general Rex Burford.

Burford now lives in Wilmington, N.C., but said in a short phone interview Monday that his bear would be sent to live with “a nominee” here in the Mountain State.

The Daily Mail’s interview with Burford was cut short.

“You’ve had your fun,” he said before hanging up. “It’s over.”

Clay said the animals would be missed around the Capitol. Visitors, especially schoolchildren on class trips, often stopped by the Attorney General’s Office to pose for photos with the bears.

“You get a 3- or 4-year-old running through the Capitol, it’s something they like to look at,” Clay said.

“The bears have been quite a staple around here for quite a while. Maybe somebody else will start a bear collection.”


“Attorney general’s office: incoming official taps key staffers”

This story originally appeared in the January 10, 2012 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

When attorney general-elect Patrick Morrisey takes office next week, he will take a Charleston city councilman, a former attorney general candidate, a former U.S. Supreme Court clerk and the executive director of a lawsuit abuse group with him.

There also could be a few black bears tagging along.

Morrisey announced upcoming changes to the Attorney General’s Office during a press conference Wednesday afternoon in the state Capitol Rotunda.


Although he would not say how many former McGraw staffers would get to keep their jobs, Morrisey said not everyone from his predecessor’s administration would be fired.

Also at Wednesday’s press conference, Morrisey showed off a letter from the West Virginia Bear Hunters Association, promising his office “one or more black bear displays” to display at his Capitol office.

McGraw’s office previously had three stuffed black bears sitting outside the East Wing office, but those were on loan from former Secretary of State Ken Hechler. When McGraw lost in the November election, attorney general staffers took the bears to Hechler’s Kanawha City office.

Morrisey said his office would hold an official ceremony and naming contest when the new bears arrived at the Capitol.

He said he also would announce how the office would handle leftover “trinkets” from the McGraw’s administration.

“I think this is going to be a made-for-TV event,” he said.


“Office of Attorney General vandalized, theft of bear’s paw called ‘serious crime'”

This story originally appeared in the August 12, 2013 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

Each day, dozens of people walk past the taxidermied bear sitting in front of Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s office. Visitors often stop to take its picture. School children frequently pet the animal.

For Capitol regulars, the bear sometimes just blends into the east wing’s marble walls.

But last Tuesday, a receptionist noticed something that gave her pause.

“Somebody, we don’t know who, cut part of its paw off,” said Attorney General spokeswoman Beth Ryan.

The two middle toes on its left front paw are gone, and the taxidermy mold is showing from underneath.

“It looks like they used a pocket knife or something,” Ryan said. “It’s crazy.”

“I don’t see the point in defacing something that represents the state animal.”

She said the vandalism probably happened either Sunday or Monday, but no one noticed the damage until Tuesday evening. Morrisey’s office promptly filed a report with Capitol police.

The Daily Mail was unable to obtain a copy of the police report, as officers are still investigating the claim. The officer conducting the investigation was not in the office Friday and calls to Kevin Foreman, deputy director of the state Division of Protective Services, were not immediately returned.

Finding out who defaced the poor bear might be difficult, however. Ryan said there are no security cameras monitoring the hallway outside the Attorney General’s office, just the entryways.

But if the culprit is ever caught, they could face serious charges.

State law forbids anyone from having possession of a bear or parts of a bear unless the animal was killed in hunting season and properly registered with the Division of Natural Resources.

According to state law “bear parts” include, but are not limited to, the animal’s pelt, gallbladder, skull and claws.

“Basically, you’d have to have a checking tag or a special tag to possess it,” DNR training officer Lt. Tim Coleman said.

The laws are meant to discourage poachers. Bear gallbladders are considered aphrodisiacs in some countries, Coleman said.

The internal organs were quite expensive a few years ago and Coleman said DNR officers would sometimes find dead bears in the woods, with just their gallbladders cut out.

Coleman said the law would apply even to taxidermied bears.

“There’s no expiration date on possession of the parts,” he said.

Anyone caught with unauthorized bear parts faces a fine of $1,000 to $5,000 and up to 100 days in jail. The offender’s hunting and fishing licenses also would be suspended for two years.

The charges could be bumped up to a felony if the culprit has violated these laws before.

“It’s a pretty serious crime as far as wildlife is concerned,” Coleman said.

This is just the latest drama involving the Attorney General’s office and stuffed bears.

Former Attorney General Darrell McGraw had two stuffed bears in front of his office. Some worried Morrisey would remove them once assumed the office in January, but Morrisey vowed to keep the animals in place.

That all changed when former Secretary of State Ken Hechler decided to reclaim the bears. Hechler purchased the bears in the 1980s and 1990s to decorate his office, but loaned them to McGraw after he left office in 2001. The attorney general promised to keep them on public display.

When McGraw lost to Morrisey in November 2012, he called the former secretary of state and asked if he wanted his bears back. They now reside in Hechler’s Kanawha City apartment.

The West Virginia Bear Hunters Association then pledged to donate more bears to Morrisey’s office.

Those bears have not shown up yet, but Morrisey’s staff found another taxidermied bear while cleaning out storage space in the Capitol. It’s unclear where the bear came from.


“Morrisey’s office gets new stuffed black bear”

This story originally appeared in the August 27, 2013 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

After becoming nearly extinct earlier this year, the black bear population in the West Virginia Capitol is slowly rebounding.

The West Virginia Bear Hunters Association on Friday delivered a 200-pound stuffed black bear to Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s Office.

The animal now sits where former Attorney General Darrell McGraw kept his own taxidermied black bear collection, in an alcove near the Capitol’s east wing.

Mounted by Warner’s Taxidermy in Buckhannon, the female bear stands on a three-foot-tall barn wood pedestal, covered with moss, leaves, roots and greenery. The four-year-old sow stands semi-upright, with her front paws leaning on a rock.

She’s a friendly-looking bear, with a slight smirk and playful posture. Her coat is solid black, except for a buff-colored muzzle.

“It’s a really good, pretty mount. It’s a nice addition to that section of our office and that section of the Capitol,” Attorney General spokeswoman Beth Ryan said.

Miranda Ware, 18, of Upshur County, killed the bear on Dec. 14, 2012. Her family had it mounted, and then loaned it to the Attorney General’s Office through the West Virginia Bear Hunter’s Association.

Ware accompanied the bear to its temporary home last week, even posing for a few pictures with Morrisey.

The animal will remain at the Capitol for a year, after which the Bear Hunter’s Association will replace it with another stuffed bear.

“The goal is, they want to have a new bear put on display each year,” Ryan said.

McGraw’s three bears were returned to their rightful owners – former Secretary of State Ken Hechler and former senior assistant attorney general Rex Burford – just before Morrisey took office in January.

Morrisey is now slowly building his own collection. Staff members found a stuffed bear in one of the Attorney General’s storage spaces. That animal now protects the office’s main entrance.

A few weeks ago, someone – no one is sure who – tore off part of that bear’s left-front paw. The Attorney General’s Office filed a complaint with Capitol police over the vandalism, but Ryan said they have not received any updates.

There are no security cameras in the hallway outside Morrisey’s offices, so the culprit might never be caught.

Ryan said the office is looking at ways to fix the bear’s wounded paw, however. She had members of the Bear Hunters Association take a look at the other bear, to see if there is a way to repair it.

“It should be something that’s repairable,” she said. “We’re working on it.”

The Attorney General’s Office will soon launch a naming contest for both stuffed bears through its Facebook and Twitter pages.

While the names will be left to voters, Ryan has a suggestion for the office’s maimed mascot: “Lefty.”


This column originally appeared in the May 16, 2014 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

We all know those people who seem to have it all together.

They’re never late for work. They always have time to go to the gym. They make shopping lists before they go to the grocery store. They never forget to do laundry and end up using a beach towel after their shower.

I have never been – and suspect I never will be – one of those got-it-all-together people.

In fact, as I’m writing this, I just remembered I forgot to pay this month’s credit card bill. Hold on.

OK, I’m back.

As much as I hate to be this way I can’t seem to do much to change it. I’ve tried.

But there’s something I’ve learned from years of interviewing important people: everybody struggles with something.

Maybe they don’t struggle with the same kind of stuff as me, with the beach towels and credit card bills, but everybody has some thorn in their flesh that makes them feel small and silly.

Successful people just don’t let those insecurities and flaws get in the way of their work. Sometimes you just have to fake it til you make it.

Last month, I had the chance to interview Melissa Etheridge ahead of her performance at the Clay Center.

She was embarking on her first solo tour in a decade. For two weeks she would take the stage without a backing band, supported only by a dozen guitars, some cool effects pedals and a piano.

Etheridge said she liked touring solo because it’s a throwback to her days as a bar musician, but also because working alone is a challenge.

She said for a long time she was not confident in her abilities on the guitar and piano.

“I used to hide behind my band sometimes,” she said.

A legendary rock star, lacking in confidence? What about all those Grammy awards? What about those platinum-selling records?

“It’s funny how you can get onstage and project a certain image, yet inside those voices are telling you something different,” Etheridge said.

She overcame that self doubt by . . . well . . . faking it.

She reorganized her band, making herself the lead guitar player, and found the confidence she needed just by sticking her neck out.

Rodney Crowell, who performs on this Sunday’s “Mountain Stage,” had a similar story to tell.

Crowell said he became confident in his abilities as a songwriter years ago. But he’s just now getting gaining confidence as a recording artist and a singer.

This is the guy who had five No. 1 singles on one album, his 1988 release “Diamonds and Dirt.” He has also written spades of songs that became hits for other artists, including “‘Til I Gain Control Again” for Crystal Gale, “Making Memories of Us” for Keith Urban and “Please Remember Me” for Tim McGraw.

Yet, it has taken Crowell a long time to get comfortable behind a microphone.

“I’m harder on myself than you would ever be,” he told me. “The maturation of my vocal chords has been a long, slow process for me.”

He says his new album, “Tarpaper Sky,” is his best project yet, although he’s not completely satisfied.

But instead of letting that dissatisfaction cripple his creative efforts, Crowell uses it as fuel. It’s what forces him to keep writing and recording, because he hopes someday he’ll reach his full potential.

“I think it would be the kiss of death if I were ever truly satisfied,” he said.

That seems a little bleak, but I think it’s a pretty good way to look at things.

I’m not satisfied with myself right now. But if I keep striving to get better, I might someday be the responsible grown-up I want to be.

Until then I’ll just fake it ’til I make it.


This story originally appeared in the July 4, 2014 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

VIENNA – Josh Buskirk’s garage workshop has been known to produce some strange sounds: bangs, crashes, the eerie sound of old piano strings snapping.

He says his neighbors probably think he’s a mad scientist. They’re not far off.

Buskirk doesn’t reanimate dead bodies like Dr. Frankenstein, but he does turn old, dead pianos into brand new guitars.

It all started when Buskirk found an old Steinway square grand piano at Parkersburg’s Habitat for Humanity ReStore.

Square pianos were popular in the 1800s, but fell out of favor as piano makers discovered ways to make louder, better-sounding instruments.

Buskirk learned this Steinway had been in the thrift store for a year but had yet to find a home.

“They told me a museum in Charleston called and wanted it, but realized they couldn’t afford to restore it, he said.

But Buskirk wasn’t interested in restoring the piano.

He knew the old Steinway was built in the 1800s, which mean its wood was even older – probably from trees that were born in the 1700s.

The piano’s soundboards were made of red spruce, which is now quite rare since many of the trees were cut down to build airplanes in World War II.

The piano case was veneered in Brazilian rosewood. The hardwood has been illegal to trade since 1992, when it landed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s “red list.

Buskirk thought the inside of the instrument might be made of Brazilian rosewood, too.

He bought the huge piano for $200 and got one of his friends, a professional piano mover and restorer, to help him get it home.

Then he got cold feet.

The piano was so pretty and had so much history, Buskirk felt bad about tearing it apart.

He spent three weeks trying to decide what to do.

His piano restorer friend eventually assured him the instrument wasn’t worth saving. Restoration would be incredibly expensive and take about a decade to complete. Plus, the old square grands don’t sound very good anyway.

“I said Okay, that makes me feel better. I’ll cut it up,’ Buskirk said.

But even that proved more difficult than he expected.

Buskirk tried using chisels to break the wood apart, but nothing budged.

He switched to crowbars. That didn’t work, either.

“I took sledge hammers to it. I took a Sawzall to it. Nothing would break that glue, he said.

Finally, he asked one of his buddies to loan him a chainsaw. And that’s when Buskirk knew he’d struck gold.

Buskirk initially thought the piano’s interior was made from Brazilian rosewood, but then realized that wasn’t quite right.

After a few weeks of research, he realized it was American chestnut, which was almost completely wiped out by blight in the early 1900s.

“It’s the equivalent of extinct now, he said.

Using a band saw, Buskirk began breaking down the wood into manageable chunks.

He cut strips from the chestnut to bend into the guitar sides, and used larger pieces for the guitar’s back.

Buskirk used the rosewood and elephant ivory from the pianos keys for decorative inlays.

He cut apart the spruce soundboard to make the guitar’s top. He cut strips of chestnut to make braces for the inside of the guitar.

Using old materials presented a few challenges, however.

Normally, Buskirk bends the sides of his guitars by steaming the wood and clamping it into a mold.

The process will not work for his Steinway wood, since it is much drier than younger materials. He had to bend the wood over a red-hot metal pipe, heated by a butane torch.

“Everything seems like a challenge. Most of it is just little puzzles, he said.

Despite the constant frustrations, Buskirk said he loves the thought of giving the old Steinway new life.

“This thing has been a musical instrument for 100 years or more. It gets to keep making music, he said. “At the risk of sounding like a hippie, it’s pretty great to not send something to the dump.

Buskirk fell in love with guitars when he was nine years old. And he fell hard.

He’d spend hours every day just practicing, sometimes forgetting to eat and drink.

As he got older, he began playing gigs around the state, traveling to bars and coffee houses in Charleston, Morgantown and Parkersburg.

But performing eventually lost its luster for Buskirk. He realized he doesn’t need an audience to enjoy playing guitar. He just wants to play.

“Every day I’m more excited about guitar than I was the day before. And it’s been that way since I was nine, he said.

He began building guitars two years ago. He was already doing instrument repairs, and building an instrument from scratch seemed like a natural thing to do.

He had virtually no tools, however, and very limited woodworking experience.

“Before I’d built my first guitar, I’d built a CD rack. It was like a high school shop class.

He spent a lot of time staring at guitars and books about guitar making, then took the plunge.

“I went to Harbor Freight, bought some clamps, went to Lowe’s and got some wood glue and ordered some wood.

He has built three guitars to date and is hard at work on his second Steinway guitar. Buskirk also has his next victim in sight.

A local man recently dropped off an old Windsor upright piano at Buskirk’s shop.

For more information about Buskirk’s guitars, visit or check him out on Instagram at buskirklutherie.


This story originally appeared in the December 7, 2011 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

Wetzel Sanders received the rudest awakening of his life 70 years ago today.

He was 18 years old and sleeping in the barracks at Camp Malakole about eight miles from Pearl Harbor.

Sanders had driven an Army leave truck to Honolulu the night before, a 50-mile round trip. He picked up some servicemen from the YMCA there, plus a few from the local jail, and brought them back to the barracks.

He didn’t make it back to his bed until about 1 a.m. Although he planned to sleep late that Sunday, loud noises woke him about seven hours later.

“I woke up and everybody was running and carrying on,” Sanders said.

Somebody said Japanese planes were bombing the island.

“A boy from Kentucky said, ‘Are they supposed to do that?'” he remembers with a laugh.

The men headed for the armory to get their Springfield rifles. They got to the guns but didn’t have any ammunition: the supply sergeant was on leave.

The soldiers broke down the door to the supply room. One of Sanders’ friends grabbed two clips of ammo and Sanders grabbed one. He ran through the barracks cafeteria onto the parade grounds.

Just then a Japanese plane flew by. The pilot’s canopy was slipped back, and Sanders saw the man smiling right at him. He didn’t return the sentiment.

“I was trying to shoot him in the side of the head,” Sanders said.

Once the plane had passed, he headed for the motor pool to get a truck.

Another plane came flying by, and Sanders noticed pebbles flying from the gravel road. The Japanese fighter plane was laying down a spray of bullets. Sanders jumped behind a concrete pillar to avoid being hit and then proceeded to the motor pool.

Almost immediately after he reached his vehicle, another enemy plane came by. Sanders jumped out of the truck and crawled underneath it.

“I wrapped my arms and legs around the drive shaft and kind of pulled myself up,” he said.

Still unscathed, Sanders and other soldiers headed toward Pearl Harbor. More planes passed while they were on the road, strafing the truck. The soldiers escaped danger by ducking into roadside sugarcane fields.

“When we got there, I had seven holes shot in my truck,” Sanders said.

Sanders’ gun crew shot down one Japanese fighter right after it dropped a bomb on the airstrip.

“That’s about the prettiest sight you’ve ever seen. A Japanese plane falling out of the sky and blowing up before it gets there,” he said.

When they ran out of ammo, they went to the water to help pull bodies from the ocean. More than 2,300 Americans died in the attacks.

This wasn’t at all what Sanders had signed up for. He had just wanted out of the coal business.

Born and raised in Lincoln County, Sanders moved with his family to Wayne County as a teenager. His dad had opened a few coal mines there. By the time he was 16, Sanders was hauling coal from East Lynn to Huntington and unloading it by hand.

“I got tired of that,” he said.

When he was 17, he ran away from home, lied about his age and joined the Army.

Sanders said nobody in his family knew where he had gone. They eventually turned to the local Red Cross to track him down. By that point, he was in boot camp in Hawaii.

“We never dreamed we were going to be attacked by the Japanese or anybody else,” he said.

Sanders stayed in Hawaii until March 1942. From there, he crisscrossed the Pacific, fighting the Japanese on Guadalcanal and Bougainville Island.

His outfit was about to head to the invasion of the Philippines when a colonel from Morgantown sent him home.

“He said, ‘How long have you been over here?’ I told him and he said, ‘Lord God, how do you stand it? I’ve been out of West Virginia for six months, and it’s about to kill me.’

“He said, ‘If you’ve got anything to pack, pack it.’

“I agreed with him,” Sanders said. “I spent three years and four months overseas and finally made it back home.”

He returned to West Virginia and spent some time as a truck driver. After a few years, he went to work for the state Department of Highways, where he retired 17 years later.

He then drove a van for the veteran’s hospital in Lexington for a while before taking a job at Tri-River Transit in Lincoln County.

Sanders retired from that job in May, after 11 years.

“I was the oldest bus driver in the United States,” he said.

He had a perfect driving record, too, until his last day on the job. He had dropped off a woman at the shopping center in Logan when a guy rear-ended the bus.

“One accident in 11 years. And it wasn’t my fault,” he said.

Sanders has returned to Pearl Harbor twice since leaving the Army. He traveled to the memorial there for the attack’s 60th anniversary in 2001. He returned last year for the 69th anniversary.

He will observe the 70th anniversary in Charleston.

The American Legion John Brawley Post No. 20 will honor Pearl Harbor veterans at noon today in downtown Charleston.

The event will take place at the intersection of Lee and Capitol streets. A member will read President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous “Day of Infamy” address from that day, and Pearl Harbor survivors will place a wreath on the spot.

Post members also will present a 21-gun salute.


This article originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on December 3, 2012.

In a year’s time, Charleston Area Medical Center uses 385,500 adhesive bandages, 17,000 toothbrushes, 3,500 boxes of tissues, 8,080 rolls of toilet paper and more than a million Styrofoam coffee cups.

And each of those items passes through the hospital system’s warehouse, located in the employee parking garage on its Memorial Hospital campus.

If “warehouse” conjures up images of Sam’s Club, think again. CAMC’s stockroom is a relatively small operation, with just 24 employees and a space more akin to CVS than Costco.

Alan Shearer, CAMC’s director of material handling, said the warehouse keeps about 1,700 different items in stock – worth about $650,000 in all – and turns over that inventory about 30 times each year.

That means in the span of eight to 10 days, every single item on the shelves is stocked, used and restocked.

“It’s very challenging; the volume of work is incredible,” Shearer said.

It’s a seven-day-a-week job.

Beginning at 6 a.m. each day, warehouse workers visit each of the hospital system’s nursing units to take an inventory of their supplies. At each of the 105 supply closets, workers use a handheld computer to record how many gloves, masks, bandages or alcohol wipes are left in stock.

The computers then calculate how many items the supply rooms should have in stock and transmit that information back to the warehouse.

Shearer said it’s especially important to keep certain hospital departments well stocked.

“If you can imagine the emergency room, labor and delivery . . . you can’t predict what’s going to happen,” he said.

He said it’s especially important to keep the labor and delivery department at CAMC Women and Children’s Hospital well stocked when a full moon is approaching. Apparently there’s some truth behind the old tale about the moon’s sway in such matters.

Once workers return to the warehouse, they print out a “pick list” of all the supplies they need to restock. The sheets conveniently list items according to where they are located on the warehouse shelves, saving workers the trouble of running back and forth while completing their shopping.

The warehouse, which handles every item used by the hospital except pharmaceuticals, is separated into three sections. The first, located closest to the shipping dock, is the “bulk area” where the most frequently used items are stored. You’ll spot boxes upon boxes of saline flushes for IVs, paper isolation gowns, gloves and those all-important Styrofoam coffee cups.

Farther back is a section filled with large shelves holding high-use supplies that do not fit into the “bulk” category. This is where you’ll find the toilet paper and tissue boxes, non-slip socks and gowns, as well as an entire wall stocked with a variety of special baby formulas for premature infants or those suffering from “fussiness and gas,” disposable bottles and several different kinds of nipples.

The third section contains smaller, less frequently used items. One aisle contains stacks of forms, pamphlets and fliers used throughout the hospital system. Each is produced in CAMC’s print shop, also located inside the warehouse.

A few rows over, the shelves are filled with smaller items like roll-on deodorant, toothbrushes and small tubes of toothpaste, baby lotion and even flashlights. These shelves also have some medical supplies, including catheters and guide wires, that doctors use fairly frequently.

Once their shopping lists are complete, workers load the supplies into trucks and spend the last hours of their workdays restocking each of those 105 supply closets.

Sometimes, however, the warehouse doesn’t have what hospital staff members need.

Shearer said deliveries from manufacturers are sometimes delayed.

“Just because a manufacturer can’t get it to us, doesn’t mean the hospital stops needing it,” he said.

The warehouse tries to get the supplies from alternate vendors but if that doesn’t work, it sometimes must borrow supplies from other hospitals. Warehouse workers have driven as far as Parkersburg and even Columbus, Ohio, to pick up supplies.

“When there’s supplies a patient needs, everybody’s on the same team,” Shearer said.

When a nurse or doctor needs a special product, they contact CAMC’s purchasing department, which places an order with the supplier. The supplier then ships the item to the warehouse, where the receiving department intercepts the package.

“Receiving” gets hundreds of packages each day from UPS and FedEx, containing a wide variety of items such as freeze-dried human tissue, furniture, wound dressings and laser printers. Once staff figures out what the box contains, they attach a special order slip and put it on a truck for its intended location.

CAMC processes about 900 purchase orders each week. And, whether the order is a hernia patch or a special kind of heart valve, it is transported to the hospital the same day it arrives.

“It works like clockwork,” Shearer said.


This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on November 1, 2010.

West Virginia has gained many things through the 2010 special Senate election. National attention. “Star Wars”-inspired campaign ads. A free Ted Nugent concert.

And “rubber stamps.”

Almost from the get-go, Republican candidate John Raese has accused opponent Gov. Joe Manchin of being a “rubber stamp” for the much-derided Obama administration and Manchin is using the same phrase in his rebuttals.

But don’t bring that up at Beverly Ford’s Almost Heaven Scrapbooking Store, located near Chamberlain Elementary in Kanawha City. Those folks take stamping seriously.

“I don’t like the commercials. Rubber-stamping, it’s almost like it’s a carbon copy,” said frequent customer Vicki Thomas, 54, of Hurricane. “That’s not a correct usage of the words ‘rubber stamp.’ ”

True rubber stamping doesn’t end once the rubber meets the paper.

“With our rubber stamping, we do images and it doesn’t look the same every time. You can spin it however you want to,” Ford said.

Stamping might start with a crafter inking their stamp and pressing it, firmly and gently, onto a greeting card or some other surface. But all bets are off after that, Ford said.

Stampers color their designs with pencils, watercolors or alcohol-based Copic markers, a recent rubber stamping fad stolen from Japanese manga artists. Unlike conventional coloring book markers, Copics make clean lines, blend well and don’t streak, Thomas said.

She said rubber stamp enthusiasts, often scrapbook addicts in disguise, also use their stamped designs to create design elements for scrapbook pages.

By her definition, Ford says it might be a good thing if Manchin started rubber stamping for the Obama administration. He could take an idea from the President “and color it a whole different way with a rubber stamp,” she said.

She admits her problem with the Raese ads isn’t all about defending her business, however.

“It’s not so much because I sell rubber stamps. I’m not real crazy about that ad because I’m a Manchin fan,” Ford said.

Ford said she thinks the Raese campaign just picked up their “rubber stamp” mantra because it “sounded kind of neat for them to say.”

Almost Heaven patron Kathy Burke, 60, of Charleston, says she’ll vote for Raese on Tuesday but also wishes his campaign had picked another catchphrase.

“It’s not the same. It’s totally different every time. I wish I could get the same stamp every time. I wish I could,” Burke said.

And though stamps come in all shapes, sizes and designs, Thomas, Burke and Ford say they have never seen a rubber stamp featuring President Obama.


This article originally appeared in the March 17, 2011 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

IRELAND – Leprechaun hats, Shamrock Shakes and green beer are fine for St. Patrick’s Day amateurs, but those seeking a big Emerald Isle bash should just go to Ireland.

Head north on I-79 and take the Flatwoods exit.

Ireland, a small Lewis County community just over the Braxton County border, is celebrating its 30th annual Irish Spring Festival. It started last Sunday, but most events will occur today through Sunday.

Residents have decorated their homes with leprechauns and rainbows. Four-leaf clovers abound.

Festivities include a “snake chase,” which is a 10-kilometer run named for St. Patrick’s legendary expulsion of snakes from Ireland; the “Tour de Shamrock,” a 10-mile bike tour; a four shooting contest; a fried potato contest; and a “lucky charm” horseshoe-throwing contest, among other events.

Road bowling, one of the festival’s most popular events, takes place on Saturday and Sunday.

The rules of road bowling are more like those of golf than typical 10-pin bowling. Bowler stand behind a starting line and roll a 28-ounce steel ball toward the finish line. Bowlers make their next roll from wherever the ball stops.

The bowler who reaches the finish line with the fewest number of rolls wins. There are no pins to knock down and, unfortunately, no gutters to return your ball if it leaves the course.

The competition takes place on Wild Cat Road, behind the Ireland post office. Though true Irish competitions limit the course to a mile or a mile-and-a-half, the community of Ireland’s course is about two miles long.

Postmaster Sharrey Craig said balls don’t usually land in convenient places when they run off the road.

“They’ve been in the creek in March. It’s pretty interesting,” she said.

The sport first came to West Virginia in the 1990s. David Powell, whose aunt lives in the community of Ireland, brought the sport home from a trip to the country of Ireland. He saw some men rolling balls down the street and asked what they were doing.

After they explained the sport and its rules, Powell decided it would be a good addition to the Irish Spring Festival. He was right.

Ireland, W.Va., hosts one of this country’s three road-bowling leagues. The other two are in Boston and the state of New York.

Travis Craig, Sharrey’s son, won the North American Novice 2 Championship in 2008. He traveled to the country of Ireland to represent the United States in the All-Ireland Championship, where he placed third.

The next year, Travis placed first in the North American Novice 1 Championship and again traveled to Ireland.

He said American bowlers face stiff competition on the Emerald Isle.

“Those boys over there have done it since they were 4 years old,” he said.

The country of Ireland even has professional road bowlers who make a living from the sport. He said European competitors can spot ruts in roads, allowing them to send their balls flying around turns. Some can even put “English” on the road bowl, spinning it like a cue ball.

“Very few guys can do it,” he said.

Road bowling is much more casual in Ireland, W.Va. Sharrey says the community doesn’t even flag traffic while the competition is going.

“You just yell, ‘Car!” and people move out of the road,” she said. “Here, it doesn’t matter. If you’re two or if you’re 90, you can still road bowl.”

The town also is marking the 29th anniversary of its post office’s special cancellation stamp. Collectors send letters to Ireland in March, just to have postmaster Sharrey cancel the letter.

“It’s just something the Postal Service does,” she said.

Every year, the post office makes up a special design for its cancellation stamp. Craig designed this year’s model, which features the Irish Spring Festival’s logo.

Lewis County Printing in Weston produces the stamp and for 30 days, from March 17 to April 17, Craig cancels her letters with the design, inked on a green pad.

“Is there any other color in Ireland?” she said.

The stamps truly are limited editions: Craig destroys each year’s stamp after the 30 days expire.

“I just tear it off and cut it up,” she said.

She said she receives letters from around the United States and overseas including Germany and Ireland. She said many of the envelopes come from repeat customers who have collected the commemorative stamps for years.

The U.S. Postal Service also advertises the stamps in collector publications. Craig spent time Tuesday canceling a big stack of letters, all from one person. The canceled letters were headed to family and friends in Tennessee, Michigan and beyond.

She said about 300 letters usually filter through the tiny post office for the special cancellation stamp.

“For this small of a community, that’s a lot,” she said.

Anyone wishing to receive a stamp should send an envelope – along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope tucked inside – to Postmaster, P.O. Box 9998, Ireland, WV 26376.

The post office also acts as a polling place, where Ireland residents can vote for the year’s King Andrew and Queen Elizabeth.

Named for the community’s founder and his wife, kings and queens must be at least 60 years old to compete. Votes cost a penny, with proceeds going toward Ireland’s community center. The community will host its annual coronation ceremony at 9 p.m. today at the community center.

At the festival’s 10th anniversary, Craig’s mother and father, Rex and Madeline Perrine, were named king and queen. They were the first married couple to hold the titles simultaneously.

“We’ve had several since,” she said.

For more information on the Irish Spring Festival, visit springfestival.


This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on September 26, 2012.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin’s latest ad claims his wife, Gayle, has cut his hair for more than 20 years.

What the ad fails to mention is Gayle routinely receives assistance during those ear-lowering sessions.

Joe Manchin – former W.Va. governor and secretary of state, licensed pilot, Harley-Davidson rider and yacht co-owner – is a devout user of an electrically powered vacuum cleaner attachment made for cutting hair.

Yep, the senator is a fan of the Flowbee, that technological miracle and pop culture sensation.

Manchin’s campaign unveiled the ad, titled “Haircut,” in an email Sunday night to supporters. It was uploaded to YouTube on Monday and is running on television stations throughout the state.

“For more than 20 years, Joe Manchin has got his hair cut by the same barber . . . his wife, Gayle,” the announcer says.

In the commercial, Joe sits in his Charleston townhouse kitchen, a towel draped over his shoulders. Gayle snips at his graying hair with a pair of scissors and trims the back of his neck with electric clippers. He occasionally inspects her work with a hand mirror and sometimes touches his hair as if to say “a little more off the sides, please.”

“I’m Joe Manchin and I sponsor this ad because a penny saved is a penny earned,” he says at the end of the 30-second clip.

“And he’s cheap,” Gayle adds.

The Flowbee never appears.

Was the campaign worried the as-seen-on-TV device would look too hokey for a U.S. senator? Were Manchin staffers trying to avoid a backlash from fans of the Robocut, the Flowbee’s longtime rival? Was Joe just hesitant to reveal his styling tips?

In an exclusive interview with the Daily Mail, Gayle explained why she chose not to use the Flowbee on television.

“With a sweeper running, there would be a tremendous amount of noise,” she said.

Oh. That makes sense.

Joe used to go to a real barber, the kind who works in a barbershop, when he and Gale lived in Farmington. The barber cut Joe’s hair for years and even gave the future governor a pre-wedding trim before his marriage to Gayle in 1967.

But one day the barber moved to a shop in Morgantown and Joe, then a busy businessman, found it difficult to make the drive.

“He had come to me a couple of times and I said ‘Joe, I don’t cut hair,’ ” Gayle remembers.

But her husband, a born negotiator, eventually wore her down. Though her training was limited to a few suggestions from Joe and what little she learned from watching stylists cut her own hair, Gayle took scissors to his head.

It turned out quite well.

“I am a woman of many talents, what can I say?” she said.

The arrangement worked wonderfully during the summer months. Anytime Joe needed a haircut, he would pull up a chair on the porch. Gayle could just sweep away the hair when they were finished.

But the process got complicated as the weather turned colder. When it was too chilly to sit on the porch, Joe had to get his hair cut in the house. That created a mess. Gayle tried to get him to sit in a chair in the bathtub, but that did not work very well.

They faced this dilemma every winter for years until Joe found the solution to their problem in a late-night infomercial.

“My husband, a lot of times at night if he can’t sleep, he’ll turn the TV on and he’ll turn it on QVC. Which is dangerous.”

One fateful night the shopping network was hawking the Flowbee, a haircutting attachment for household vacuum cleaners. Joe called the 1-800 number and ordered one.

Gayle didn’t learn of his late-night purchase until a box appeared on the porch a few days later.

“I said, ‘I can’t believe we’re cutting your hair with a vacuum cleaner,’ ” Gayle said. “As it turns out, it’s a pretty nifty device.”

The Flowbee is a simple machine: You just attach its hose to your household vacuum cleaner and then point it at your head. The hair gets sucked into the Flowbee, where spinning blades chop it off at a prescribed length.

“The results are a refreshing vacuum haircut,” according to the company’s official website,

Although Gayle still uses scissors when she and Joe are on the road – it’s too difficult to lug the Flowbee and a vacuum cleaner along on trips – she much prefers the Flowbee.

“It cuts every hair exactly the same length. And I can’t guarantee that. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect haircut, if you layer your hair,” she said.

She said Joe has recommended the Flowbee to many of his friends. He also has offered to cut his friends’ hair using the device, though only his grandson has accepted the offer.

The Manchins are still using the same Flowbee that Joe purchased on QVC more than a decade ago.

When they moved into the Governor’s Mansion in 2005, they took the Flowbee along with them. It did not make the trip to Washington, D.C. when Joe became a Senator, however. Gayle said he makes it back to Charleston often enough she can just cut his hair when he’s here. If he needs a trim while in the nation’s capital, she just uses scissors.

“He definitely has got his money’s worth,” Gayle said.

She said she thinks the haircut commercial is “hysterical,” even without the Flowbee.

“It’s just who Joe is at the end of the day. He’s all about what’s most efficient, most effective and cheap,” she said.

She said the ad’s light-heartedness also provides a respite from the typical mud slinging commercials that usually hit television screens in the months before a general election.

“I think things have gotten real cynical. We need to lighten up a little bit. Maybe it is just kind of a little breath of fresh air before the nastiness comes back,” she said.


This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on January 9, 2013.

Problems with a contractor hired to process state background checks are leaving job seekers in limbo for months and costing state businesses lots of money.

The holdups have even slowed the adoption process for some children.

Speaking at a legislative interim meeting on Tuesday, Mark Drennan, executive director of the West Virginia Behavioral Health Care Providers Association, told lawmakers that glitches with MorphoTrust have caused some employers to wait three or four months before receiving results of background checks for potential employees.

“This broken system prevents individuals from being gainfully employed,” he said.

Scott Boileau, executive director of the Alliance for Children, Inc., said parents wanting to adopt or foster children have experienced similar delays.

Background checks are required in West Virginia for anyone wanting to work with children, the elderly or the mentally ill. Anyone wanting to adopt or foster a child who has been deemed a ward of the state also is required to get a background check.

Boileau said he knows of one family that has waited nine months for the results of their background check. Other families become frustrated with the process and drop out.

“Folks are not going to put up with that,” he said.

Although problems with background checks have not slowed any active adoptions, Boileau said the slow turnaround times have kept some children in the state’s care for much longer than necessary.

“The fact is, there probably have been kids that could have been placed sooner,” he said.

The state hired MorphoTrust, previously known as L-1 Enrollment Services, in August 2011. Before that, the State Police processed all background checks.

The contract was renewed in August, even though Drennan wrote a letter to Tomblin in July warning of problems with the contractor.

Capt. Michael Corsaro of the State Police told lawmakers on Tuesday that before hiring the company, background checks sometimes would not be processed for two months or longer.

He said the Huntington State Police detachment often had so many people waiting in line for background checks that troopers could not respond to calls because they had to stay in the office and take fingerprints.

Members of the Legislature’s Select Committee on PEIA, Seniors and Long Term Care were not pleased to hear of the problems.

“In an age of technology, it’s not acceptable to have to wait that long,” Delegate Larry Williams, D-Preston, said.

Williams is the co-chairman of the committee.

Delegate Denise Campbell, D-Randolph, said she knows of businesses in her district that have waited two or three months to receive the results of a background check.

“By then, somebody has already found another job,” she said.

Hiring MorphoTrust was supposed to free up troopers for police work and reduce the turnaround time for background checks.

“Our excitement quickly turned in the opposite direction, to agitation,” Drennan said.

Drennan said there were often problems with the company’s digital fingerprint system, so MorphoTrust would take old-fashioned ink fingerprints. The company purchased a scanner to digitize those inked cards, but the device did not work.

Drennan said everyone who had their fingerprints taken while MorpoTrust was using that scanner had to go back and get new prints.

He said many providers have returned to inking fingerprints themselves and sending the cards to MorphoTrust for processing. It’s the same process as before the state hired the company, he said, except it costs businesses $9 more per background check.

There are other problems, too.

Drennan said the company does not cash checks in a timely manner, knocking many businesses’ bank ledgers out of whack. MorphoTrust also bills providers for background checks not connected with their business, and contesting the charges takes a long time, he said.

One member of his association received a $12,000 bill from the company, though it insists it owes only $8,000, Drennan said. The disagreement has dragged on for four months.

Drennan also sent a letter to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Tuesday regarding MorphoTrust’s service.

“We have tried to make this work for more than a year and, frankly, have given up on this vendor,” he wrote.

“They promised an electronic process that reduces errors and improves access. Instead what we have is a fragmented system that does not provide enough active centers across the state to accommodate the demand.”

Drennan told the governor members of his organization have paid $220,000 to MorphoTrust since the state hired the company.

“It is unacceptable that we should have to pay for a service that, at a minimum, does not deliver the expected results,” he wrote.

Representatives from the company assured lawmakers they would fix any problems with the state background check system.

“We realize we screwed up. That’s all we can say,” MorphoTrust representative Patrick Kelly said. “We get it. There’s been a lot of problems with our technology and what we’ve done.”

Kelly said the company has flown 25 people to West Virginia over the last three weeks, including an engineering team, to fix technical problems.

Danny Wear, senior director of program management for MorphoTrust, said the company also is meeting with agencies to find out what problems they are having and is now reviewing all 12 fingerprinting sites to see where it can increase staff.

Wear said the company hopes to open three additional fingerprinting sites in the next few months.

He said the company also held a three-and-a-half-hour training session with call center employees to teach them to be attentive to customers’ needs and follow up on every question that comes in.

He said the company is working to set up an email notification system to keep agencies updated on the status of potential employees’ background checks and also hopes to build a secure website that would do the same job in case employers miss the email notifications.

Speaking after the meeting, Kelly said he was not aware of months-long turnaround for background checks but said it could happen. He said the backlogs were not caused by staffing problems but blamed “technical issues.”

He said turnaround times for background checks have dropped each month.

“It’s trending the right way,” he said.

Drennan said he is skeptical. He knows of businesses that are still awaiting background check results from May.

Boileau said ultimately he would like to see all background checks processed within 72 hours. He said he does not care how that is accomplished, whether the state fires MorphoTrust or allows the company to get its act together.

Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, committee co-chairman, said MorphoTrust’s service has been “unacceptable” so far. He said the subcommittee would continue to watch the company’s progress over the next few months.