Zack Harold

writer/editor

‘THIS MAY DO ME IN, I MAY RETIRE’

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on April 07, 2010. 

WHITESVILLE – Ed Runyon, 83, walked to the flag pole in his front yard shortly before noon Tuesday and raised his American flag for the first time this year. He tied it off at half-staff.

Although he didn’t know any of the victims of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, the retired miner said the incident troubles him deeply.

“It’s a sad thing,” Runyon said.

Runyon worked as a miner for 34 years, suffering two broken fingers and a broken toe during his career. The Korean War veteran said he counts himself lucky he didn’t see any explosions, although he was working underground when several men died over the years.

He said he knew something was wrong at the mine, located a few miles from his house, when he saw a slew of police cars and fire trucks speeding along W.Va. 3 to the scene Monday afternoon.

“We knew something happened,” Runyon said. “Then it got to us pretty quick.”

Many in this Boone County town of about 500 people expressed sadness and shock.

Marlena Adkins, 45, said her husband, Robert, works at the mine and could have easily been among the victims had the company not switched workers’ shifts.

Robert now works the same hours as the victims did – a six day-on, three day-off schedule. His first day off work was Monday.

“That would’ve been the shift he would’ve been on,” Marlena said.

She said her husband was hit hard by the tragedy.

“He was pretty shook up,” she said. “He said, ‘This may do me in. I may retire.’ ”

Tobie Hilderbrand, pastor at the Marsh Fork Worship Center in nearby Eunice, said his stepson, Kory Ferrell, 20, worked on the same shift until Massey transferred him a couple of weeks ago.

“All of a sudden they needed some guys at the other mine,” he said.

Hilderbrand said Kory was initially upset about the move because of the co-workers he had become friends with. Obviously, the family is now thankful.

“The Lord’s really worked on our behalf on that,” Hilderbrand said.

But the family did not escape the tragedy. Hilderbrand said his wife’s uncle, Ricky Workman, was one of the miners killed.

“It’s hit home pretty hard,” he said.

Hilderbrand’s church opened its doors to those needing refreshments and prayer.

The church also changed its front sign to read, “Pray for our miners.”

Someone later affixed a small paper note to the sign: “With deep sympathy and concern for all miners who have lost their lives and all who are still trapped – (from) students and faculty at Marshall University.”

Church member Billy Pettry said the church would remain open “as long as anybody needs us.”

Pettry, a retired miner with black lung, said he once worked with many of the victims and some of their fathers. He was close to Workman, a former classmate and basketball teammate.

“We were like brothers there for a long time,” he said.

Mike Gordon and other members of the New Life Assembly in Pettus are keeping their lights on, too. Gordon said he didn’t leave the church Monday night and he was still there at mid-morning Tuesday.

“We’ll be here all day, I know,” he said. “If we’re not, somebody will be.”

Gordon said about 80 percent of men in the church, including Pastor Gary Williams, are coal miners. He works at the Pine Ridge Mine in Prenter.

“It could’ve been us instead of them,” Gordon said.

He said no family members have passed through the church, but plenty of rescue workers and journalists have.

“They came in off and on all night,” he said.

Gordon said the church doesn’t have a radio or TV on hand to keep updated with the news but is monitoring a police scanner. He said church members get most of their news from people returning from the mines.

“The information we’re getting is only what people are getting and bringing back,” he said.

He said the church members were deeply saddened when they heard of the miners who had lost their lives but are praying for the four miners still trapped inside.

“We’ve got hope,” Gordon said.

Getting Over: The Disgraced W.Va. Gospel Music Promoter Who Found Redemption in Indie Wrestling

This story was published on 100 Days in Appalachia on July 30, 2019.

The sound of twanging electric guitars fills the Madison Civic Center, a small gymnasium in the heart of southern West Virginia’s coalfields. It’s “Ride Stallion Ride,” the entrance music for WWE Hall of Fame inductee Cowboy Bob Orton.

The 300 fans seated on folding chairs and wooden bleachers during this May 2018 show clap and cheer as they wait for the wrestler to appear from behind the black polyester curtain. But the Orton that finally emerges is not the young, scowling, curly-haired villain pictured on the posters for tonight’s show. It’s not the big dumb oaf who, during the inaugural Wrestlemania in 1985, accidentally whacked his pal Mr. Wonderful Paul Orndoff on the head to give Hulk Hogan an easy pin.

The fringe vest and Stetson are the same. So is the prominent nose. But this white-haired, 70-year-old version of Cowboy Bob Orton has a keg where decades before a six-pack used to be. Yet his feet are light as he trots to the ring with Louis Moore, his tag-team partner for the night. He scales the ringside steps and swings his body through the ropes, then jogs slowly around the ring as the ring announcer introduces his opponents.

Now it is Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries” blaring from the speakers. The good guy tag team O.V.E.R. appears from behind the curtain. Skinny, pale and dressed in black, Christian Kobain and Shane Kryzak look like members of a heavy metal cover band. They strut down the aisle, jump into the ring and mount adjacent turnbuckles to flex for their devotees — the majority of whom, from the sound of the squeals, seem to be women.

The referee checks everyone’s boots and signals for the bell.

If you’ve ever seen a tag team match, you can guess how this will go. Orton and Moore spend much of the match abusing Kobain while keeping him safely out of Kryzak’s reach. When the battered babyface finally gets to his corner and makes the tag, his comrade explodes into the ring — only to promptly fall into Moore and Orton’s clutches. For a moment, it looks like the bad guys will win. Orton goes for an RKO, a neckbreaker finishing move made famous by his son and fellow WWE superstar Randy Orton. But at the last second, Kobain reaches into the ring and pulls Kryzak from Orton’s grasp.

This destabilizes the big cowboy. He stumbles and falls to the mat. Both members of O.V.E.R. dogpile onto his hefty frame. The referee flops on his belly and pounds the mat with an open palm. One. Two. Three.

The ref signals for the bell and Fall Out Boy again fills the gymnasium, the emo pop mixing with shouts from fans. But instead of cheering the victorious good guys, the crowd sing-songs at Orton.

“YOU STILL GOT IT!” clap clap clapclapclap “YOU STILL GOT IT!” clap clap clapclapclap “YOU STILL GOT IT!”

Moore grabs a microphone and accosts Orton for losing the match. “All these people out here say ‘You still got it.’ From what I saw here tonight, you don’t have it anymore old man.”

The fans begin chanting again. “R-K-O! R-K-O! R-K-O!” In a flash, Orton locks his arm around Moore’s head and drops to the mat. Moore flops on the canvas like his spine has been separated from his brainstem. Now Orton’s music is blasting through the sound system.

The crowd erupts with a fervor usually reserved for tent revivals and championship football games. Grown men leap to their feet in ecstatic applause. Preteen boys in basketball shorts move to the aisle to slap Orton’s hands before he disappears behind the curtain. This is something they might tell their own preteen boys about someday, the night they saw Cowboy Bob Orton administer an RKO at the Madison Civic Center.

Little do fans realize that Gary Damron, who has promoted wrestling shows like this for the last 14 years under the name All Star Wrestling, has worked for months trying to bring this moment to fruition — and he saw almost none of it. Damron spent the majority of Orton’s match hidden away in the civic center’s kitchen, stuffing cash into white envelopes to pay his wrestlers.

Many wrestling promoters are former wrestlers themselves. Damron is not. He is a short, soft-spoken, soft-bodied, spectacled midnight shift movie theater custodian with plantar fasciitis. He loves All You Can Eat Wings Wednesdays at Quaker Steak & Lube, his dachshund Chico, and ’80s pop culture — especially The Golden Girls. He has no interest in administering or receiving a drop kick, frog splash, figure four, or piledriver. He has too much work to do.

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The Greatest’s First Foe

This story originally appeared in the Spring ’19 issue of WV Living magazine

In early October 1960, Associated Press teleprinters clattered to life in smoke-filled newsrooms across the United States. The harried editors assigned to monitor the machines couldn’t have known it at the time, but the rapid-fire hammers were pounding out words that would change the history of sports forever.

LOUISVILLE — Cassius Clay, the Olympic light-heavyweight champion, today signed for his first professional bout, a six-rounder against Tunney Hunsaker. Hunsaker, 29-year-old police chief of Fayetteville, W.Va., has a 15–7 record.

Although only 18 years old, Clay was already a global celebrity—not only for his gold-winning performance at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, but also for his outsized persona. After his medal ceremony, he treated members of the press to a celebratory poem that began, “To make America the greatest is my goal, so I beat the Russian and I beat the Pole and for the USA won the medal of gold.”

Now that he was turning pro, Clay agreed to be managed by a coterie of 11 businessmen from his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Choosing the first professional opponent for their star required careful consideration. Naturally, they wanted someone their man could defeat. But the opponent also needed to provide enough competition to showcase Clay’s fistic talents.

Although Hunsaker’s name probably did not ring any bells with newspaper readers, he was exactly the kind of boxer Clay’s people were looking for.

This is the story of a tobacco farmer’s son, a lifelong public servant, and a middling boxer whose athletic career might have been forgotten if not for a chance meeting with a man who would become the most famous athlete of all time.

* * *

Born in 1930, Hunsaker grew up on a tobacco farm in Caldwell County, Kentucky, about 170 miles southwest of Clay’s native Louisville. His father was a fight fan, naming his son for the 1920s heavyweight champ Gene Tunney.

It must have come as no surprise, then, when Hunsaker fought his first bout at age 14 in a makeshift ring at his high school. He continued boxing after joining the U.S. Air Force and became base champion at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, a title he held from 1951 until he was honorably discharged two years later. Hunsaker was also the 1951 Golden Gloves champion in San Antonio, Texas. After going pro in 1952, he fought to a 12–2 record and was named “Prospect of the Month” in the June 1953 issue of Ring magazine.

But just as his career was gaining momentum, Hunsaker threw in the towel. His hitch with the Air Force was up and his mother-in-law—who lived in Oak Hill, West Virginia—informed him that nearby Fayetteville was looking for a police officer. Hunsaker got the job in late 1955, packed up his wife and young daughter, and headed for the hills.

There was little time now to think about boxing. Hunsaker became chief of the town’s two-man police force after less than a month on the job, and his days were filled with rounding up AWOL soldiers, breaking up fights at football games, and ticketing license-less drivers. He hunt-and-pecked his own reports on a manual typewriter and, because his office was not equipped with a telephone, answered calls in a phone box outside the Ben Franklin five and dime.

While working the beat, Hunsaker met Skippy Gray, the 16-year-old son of the local grocer. Gray was a scrappy kid, always getting in fights. Hunsaker offered to train him for the Golden Gloves and the two began working out in a makeshift gym in Oak Hill.

He found his way back into the ring in 1958, winning five of his first seven fights. In the year leading up to the Clay fight, though, Hunsaker’s hot streak had cooled. He lost each of six fights leading up to the bout. Yet he remained optimistic. Writing to a childhood friend, Hunsaker predicted he would knock out the loudmouthed young fighter in an early round. “I have fought men whose record proved that Cassius Clay shouldn’t even be in the same town as them.”

No one else was quite so confident in Hunsaker’s ability, but sportswriters admitted he would not be easy prey. “Hunsaker is no Sonny Liston, but Hunsaker’s no cream puff,” wrote the Louisville Courier-Journal, referencing the then-reigning heavyweight champion of the world. “He hasn’t been dug out of the graveyard at midnight either and propped up on a Halloween broom to furnish Clay a target to shoot at.”

* * *

Hunsaker drove to Louisville with his friend John Witt, who would later become Fayetteville’s mayor. The fight was to take place at Freedom Hall. Hunsaker had fought in the cavernous arena twice before, winning the first time but losing the second. They arrived to a less-than-packed house. The building could seat 20,000 but only 6,200 people showed up to see the fight.

This didn’t seem to bother Clay, who acted as if the house was packed to the rafters. He arrived at the ring surrounded by a large entourage. Hunsaker, by contrast, was accompanied only by a few men working his corner. It did not matter, though. As the opening bell approached, everyone else slipped into the darkness of the arena. Only Clay, Hunsaker, and the white-shirted referee remained.

One wonders if Clay, looking at Hunsaker in the opposite corner, thought back to another boxing policeman—Joe Martin, the Louisville officer who taught him to box and changed the course of his life forever. There is no way to know. If Clay had any warm feelings toward his opponent, it is not evident in the newsreel footage that survives of the fight.

The jittering black-and-white film shows Clay’s impressive speed on full display. He deftly avoids Hunsaker’s blows, sometimes sending the older boxer stumbling when a punch fails to connect. He is also quick to invade Hunsaker’s space, delivering a jab and then getting out of the way in a blink. This was four years before the phrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” would forever establish itself in the national consciousness.

Clay concentrated his punches on Hunsaker’s face. His jabs busted the blood vessels in Hunsaker’s nose. By the end of the third round, it was bleeding freely. The bell clanged and the fighters returned to their corners for a short respite—too short for Hunsaker. In an instant they were back in the middle of the canvas to begin the fourth round. Clay continued his assault on Hunsaker’s face. By the end of this round, both of his eyes were nearly swollen shut.

Still, Hunsaker fought on. He continued absorbing Clay’s jabs throughout the next two rounds, taking a beating but mostly remaining on his feet. At the end of the sixth and final round, Clay’s pristine white trunks were stippled with blood. It was not his own.

The judges tallied their score sheets and the result was unanimous. The hometown hero had won every round. Clay’s professional record now stood at 1–0.

Although the fight would go down as an “L” on Hunsaker’s record, it did provide one point of pride. Of the 20 fighters Clay defeated on his way to the title, Hunsaker was one of only six who went the distance with the future champ.

Displaying his usual bluster, the “Louisville Lip” was a sore winner. “That Tunney Hunsaker I fought Saturday was too easy—I was fresher after the fight than I was before.”

Hunsaker, though, was generous with praise for his opponent. Although he said Clay, who turned up to the fight in a pink Cadillac, was too “spoiled” by his backers, Hunsaker told Charleston Daily Mail sports editor Dick Hudson the 18-year-old had real talent. “He’s very fast and can hit,” he said. “The kid can be the heavyweight champion of the world some day. He’s that good, if he settles down to hard work.”

* * *

This prediction came true, of course. On February 25, 1964, Clay defeated Liston by technical knockout to gain the world heavyweight title.

Then things began happening that no one could predict. Two days after the fight, Clay confirmed rumors that he was a member of the Nation of Islam. The following week, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad announced that Clay would now be called Muhammad Ali. Three years later, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title—not because he lost a boxing match, but because he refused to be drafted into the U.S. military, in protest of the Vietnam War.

For better or worse, Ali né Clay was more famous than ever. Hunsaker, meanwhile, had stepped away from the spotlight.

In February 1961, he left the Fayetteville police department to become an inspector with the state beer commission. He continued boxing but success eluded him, just as Ali had. He gained some national recognition in September 1961 when he traveled to the West Virginia State Penitentiary to fight inmate Thomas Dejarnette, the heavyweight champion of the prison. He lost by technical knockout in the eighth round.

This was becoming standard for Hunsaker. He won only two of his next six fights, which is why some worried how he would fare during 10 rounds with Joe “Shotgun” Shelton, scheduled for April 6, 1962.

Shelton, who hailed from Cleveland, Ohio, weighed in at 192 pounds and stood six-feet, one-inch tall, with 17-inch biceps and a body that looked like it had been chiseled from marble. One reporter described his physique as “more like a bodybuilder than a boxer.” Hunsaker was two inches taller than Shelton, but his 32-year-old body now weighed about 200 pounds, nearly 20 pounds heavier than he had been against Ali. Although he was fit, his frame belonged to an earlier generation of pugilists.

Raleigh Register sports editor Greg McLaughlin, a friend of Hunsaker’s, told readers the fight would be difficult for the former police chief, although victory was not out of reach. “Just flip a coin,” he wrote. “It’s going to be that close.”

This prediction proved frighteningly accurate.

Three photos ran at the top of the front page of the April 8, 1962, edition of the Raleigh Register. In the first, the camera captures the aftermath of a rushing right-hand blow by Shelton. Hunsaker’s face is contorted from impact. In the second, Shelton stumbles from the force of a left from Hunsaker. In the third photo, we see the large posterior of referee Cotton White. He is counting out Hunsaker, who lies face-down in the ring, his legs splayed unnaturally.

The headline: “HUNSAKER HAS A 50–50 CHANCE.”

The fight had been a brutal one, with both men sustaining significant damage but staying upright. By the beginning of the 10th and final round, it appeared the winner would be determined by judges’ decision. Then, with less than 30 seconds to go, Shelton caught Hunsaker with a hard left to the right temple. He collapsed onto the canvas.

When White reached the end of his 10 count, ring attendants lifted Hunsaker onto a stool where he regained enough consciousness to tell McLaughlin, “I want to fight him again. I’m OK.” But while being examined by fight doctor I. Braxton Anderson, he collapsed again.

By the time Hunsaker arrived at the Bluefield Sanitarium, still shirtless and wearing his trunks and boxing shoes, he sported a black eye and a bruise on the side of his head, and his right side was paralyzed.

Doctors discovered a bleed on the outside of his brain and rushed him into emergency surgery to relieve the pressure. After the two-hour procedure was complete, Dr. E. Lyle Gage told members of the media the outcome was uncertain. “In 48 hours, we’ll know,” he said.

Once again, Hunsaker made headlines. His fight with Shelton had occurred on the same day former welterweight champ Benny “Kid” Paret was laid to rest. Paret had died the previous Tuesday, 10 days after suffering a similar brain bleed in a nationally televised fight. The coincidence was too much for the public, and many called for boxing to be banned. This included Hunsaker’s wife, Phyllis. Speaking to reporters as she exited her husband’s hospital room, she said, “I hope they ban boxing, I’m against it all the way.”

Cards, prayer cloths, and flowers poured into Hunsaker’s room as newspapers worldwide followed his progress. He was finally released from the hospital after 17 days. Gage offered one piece of advice as he left: “Do not return to the ring.”

Later, in an interview with McLaughlin, Hunsaker conceded he would be “stupid” to return to the sport—although the money wouldn’t hurt, given the medical bills he had incurred.

Hunsaker had no memory of his fight with Shelton and asked his newspaperman friend how it had gone. McLaughlin told him the crowd had applauded after each round. “If that was going to be my last fight, I’m glad it was a good one,” he said. “I wanted to please the crowd.”

* * *

Hunsaker had no trouble building a life outside the boxing ring. He left the beer commission in 1967 to return as Fayetteville’s police chief—a job he would hold for the next 25 years.

Around that same time, he met a young woman named Patricia Halstead. He and Phyllis had divorced shortly after the Shelton fight and, though Halstead was 13 years his junior, the two became smitten with one another and eventually married.

While he had once been a brash young police officer, Hunsaker now became Fayetteville’s homegrown version of Andy Taylor, driving widows home from the grocery store, directing traffic for the local elementary school, and spending so much time walking the beat that his wife was continually buying him new shoes. The children of Fayetteville, when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, did not say “policeman.” They wanted to become “a Tunney.”

Hunsaker also became a Sunday School teacher at the Oak Hill Church of the Nazarene, taking over the junior boys’ class. “He wasn’t a scholar, but he got that Bible and he tried the best he could. He taught by example more than anything,” Pat Hunsaker remembers now.

He took his students on camping trips to Bluestone Lake, invited them to his big Victorian home on Fayette Avenue to bake cookies, and, when the boys kept up good attendance or invited friends to church, gave them cheap watches he bought at the local auction house. “They would work for those watches,” Pat says. The church named Hunsaker “teacher of the year” for the 1983-84 and 1984-85 school years and, in 1987, he was named “teacher of the year” by the Nazarene organization’s West Virginia South District.

Still, his six rounds with the fighter formerly known as Cassius Clay followed Hunsaker like a shadow. It became local lore, the kind of story fathers would tell sons when they passed Hunsaker on the street. It was international lore, too. Decades after the fight, Hunsaker still received fan mail from all over the world. He was featured on the game show To Tell the Truth, where Soupy Sales correctly identified him as Ali’s first opponent. Then, in the 1980s, he and Pat drove to Ottawa, Canada, for Hunsaker to appear on a similar show called Claim to Fame. This time he stumped the panel, winning $500—more than he’d made for the Ali fight itself. He used the money to take his wife out to dinner at one of those French restaurants where the waiters wear white towels across their forearms.

* * *

It was 20 years after their original meeting that Hunsaker again crossed paths with the man who made him famous.

Ali retired from boxing in 1981 following a disastrous showing against Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas. But, like Hunsaker, he had little difficulty transitioning into life outside the ring once his fighting days were finally over. Time had tempered his once-radical views on race, religion, and politics. He now traveled the world promoting peace, even as Parkinson’s Disease slowed his movements and snatched away his smooth speech. “I’ve always wanted to be more than just a boxer,” Ali once told an interviewer. “I wanted to use my fame, and this face that everyone knows so well, to help uplift and inspire people around the world.”

In 1987, Ali used his face and fame to help out some boxing boosters in Charleston, West Virginia, who were trying to revive local interest in the Golden Gloves. Event promoter Bill Picozzi booked Ali for an autograph signing at the Charleston Civic Center to raise awareness and money for the effort. Picozzi also invited Hunsaker to lend the event some historical gravitas.

Although they had not seen one another for 27 years, the former opponents acted like old friends, joking and throwing fake jabs. The event went so well that the autograph signings became a regular occurrence.

During what would prove to be the final one, in February 1992, Ali learned that Hunsaker was retiring from his position as police chief, and he wanted to do something special for his foe-turned-friend. “Ali said, ‘I want to come to your hometown.’ Well, we had nothing prepared,” Pat says. The Hunsakers rushed home that afternoon, booked a conference room at the local Comfort Inn for the next day, and called everyone they knew to invite them to the impromptu retirement party.

After the party, the outgoing police chief treated him to a grand tour, even stopping traffic on the New River Gorge Bridge so Ali could walk out to the middle. They visited a local flower shop, where the proprietress pinned a bud to Ali’s jacket. When the champion noticed a school bus of special needs children passing by, Hunsaker flagged it down so Ali could climb aboard and interact with the students.

As they ended their day together, Ali remarked that he would like to come back to Fayetteville for something less public, like dinner at the Hunsakers’ home. Pat told him he was always welcome, but the meeting never came to pass.

Like Ali, Hunsaker was beginning to see the after-effects of so many punches to the head. He would get lost while driving on his own. Later, when Pat took his keys away, he’d wander out of the house and walk through town. She would follow him, walking for miles until he collapsed from exhaustion. Then she would get someone to drive them home. People were always happy to help, she says. Hunsaker had spent so many years watching over the town, now it was time for the town to repay the favor.

Doctors at West Virginia University in Morgantown eventually diagnosed him with dementia. Still, he told Pat he did not regret his time as a boxer. “I regretted it for him,” she says.

When Hunsaker died in April 2005, his name appeared on the Associated Press newswire for one final time—although the clattering teleprinters had now been replaced by websites and emails. At the wake, Pat listened for hours as mourners shared memories of her late husband. “Anyone who ever met him, even briefly, had a story,” she says.

Hunsaker was laid to rest at Fayetteville’s Huse Memorial Park. He is buried in the veterans’ section of the cemetery beneath a tombstone carved from highly polished black granite, not unlike the material that was eventually used for Ali’s own grave marker when he passed in 2016.

On the left side of the gravestone, Pat had two engravings made. On top is a portrait of Hunsaker in his police uniform. Below that is a drawing of a much younger man ducking a punch from Cassius Clay.

At the bottom of the marker, there is a scripture from the New Testament.

“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”

Coach Kellie: A Tiny West Virginia High School is Making Football History

This story originally appeared on 100 Days in Appalachia on Nov. 9, 2018.

It took a few weeks for Hannan High School principal Karen Oldham to realize her school might have made history. She was so busy with the day-to-day grind of running the small, rural Mason County school that it didn’t cross her mind, until an elderly alumnus brought it to her attention.

Oldham still was not completely certain the school had done anything significant, so before making any kind of formal announcement, she phoned the West Virginia Secondary Schools Athletics Commission and asked officials there to do some digging. They called back a few days later.

It was true: Hannan had hired the first female head football coach in West Virginia history.

The Point Pleasant Register got the scoop. Then, Huntington’s Herald Dispatch and local television stations picked up the story, which led to national coverage in USA Today.

It was all a shock for Oldham. It seems that no one—not Oldham, not the hiring committee she put together, not the superintendent who added the hire to the school board’s agenda, nor the board members who unanimously approved it—realized they were doing anything newsworthy.

“Never did her gender come into our minds,” Oldham says.

All everyone knew was, they had found the best person for the job. And that person was Kellie Thomas.

* * *

The voice of Axel Rose singing “Welcome to the Jungle” cuts through the sour air of the Hannan Wildcats’ locker room as players lace up their cleats and tug navy blue jerseys over their shoulder pads.

In her office, Kellie Thomas is wearing her own uniform: a ballcap with a turquoise H, a Hannan polo shirt with a long sleeve shirt underneath, khaki cargo shorts with a Washington Redskins lanyard hanging from the left pocket and leather Carhartt boots with pink wool socks climbing her bare calves. She pulls on a hooded jacket to protect herself from the night’s drizzling rain and begins going through her pre-game preparations.

She replaces the batteries in the headsets she and her two assistant coaches will use to communicate during the night. She pumps up the three footballs that, as the home team, Hannan is required to supply for the game. Then she calls defensive back and running back Isaac Colecchia into her office.

Colecchia isn’t wearing pads. He suffered a concussion in last week’s game and is sitting out this week. Together, he and Thomas go through a checklist of symptoms—headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, insomnia, anxiousness, depression, and a few dozen more—that Colecchia ranks on a scale of zero to six. He gives most symptoms a zero, but ranks “sensitivity to light” and “sensitivity to noise” at one each. Once the symptoms go away and he’s cleared by his doctor, Colecchia will be eligible to play again.

The moment offers a glimpse at Thomas’s recent past. Although this is her first season as head football coach, she spent close to two decades as Hannan’s athletic trainer. She was there at every practice, scrimmage and game to tape up players’ ankles and wrists. Thomas was such a constant, stable presence that, over time, she became a confidant for players.

“She was their go-to when they had problems with previous coaches,” Oldham says.

That is why, when former Hannan coach Brian Scott resigned following the 2017 season, players approached Thomas and begged her to apply for the position.

With the questionnaire completed, Thomas dismisses Colecchia and leaves the office. She rallies her troops and leads the team out of the corrugated aluminum fieldhouse to a patch of grass just outside, where players arrange themselves into four rows and begin their warm ups.

The team normally warms up on the field, but tonight is homecoming. The field is currently occupied by members of the homecoming court and their parents, awaiting the announcement of this year’s king and queen.

As her players stretch and run drills, Thomas and defensive coordinator Thomas Miller size up tonight’s opponents, the Parkersburg Catholic Crusaders. The team isn’t much bigger than Hannan but the Crusaders are coming into this late October contest with a 7–1 record. Hannan hasn’t won a game all season.

When homecoming festivities are finally completed, the team moves its warm-ups onto the field. Then it’s the national anthem, handshakes between team captains and the coin flip.

Hannan wins the flip and elects to receive. Parkersburg punts and stops the return at Hannan’s 25 yard line. Then, in the first drive of the game, Hannan quarterback Matthew Qualls takes the snap, hops back on his right leg to pass and launches the ball into the air.

Immediately, a Crusader linebacker reaches up and swats the ball back to Earth.

“Oh, crap,” Thomas says.

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Jackie Mitchell Couldn’t Win

This article originally appeared on Lapham’s Quarterly‘s Roundtable blog on March 29, 2018. Click here to read the full story.

On the first pitch of that April 1931 game, Chattanooga Lookouts pitcher Clyde Barfoot gave up a double to New York Yankees outfielder Earle Combs. Then Lyn Larry singled to centerfield, bringing Combs home. Now Babe Ruth, who had led the American League the year before in both home runs and slugging, was coming to bat with no outs and a man on base.

Ruth approached the plate with “a wry smile playing at the corners of his mouth,” an Associated Press reporter wrote. The crowd of four thousand at Engel Stadium began cheering wildly. Like the smiling Ruth, they knew what was coming.

Lookouts manager Bert Niehoff walked to the mound, took the ball from Barfoot, and brought in his new pitcher—a seventeen-year-old left-hander named Beatrice Mitchell. Everybody called her Jackie.

Mitchell had first made national news two months earlier, in a short article that ran in sports pages around the country: “Enrolled in a new baseball school conducted at Atlanta, Georgia, by Norman (Kid) Elberfeld, former major and minor league figure, is Miss Jackie Mitchell, age seventeen, a left-handed pitcher.”

At the time, the sports media’s interest did not extend beyond that one sentence. For decades, women had been playing baseball in college intramural teams and novelty barnstorming clubs such as the Bloomer Girls, named for the billowy trousers they wore during games. Some women had even made it into men’s semipro leagues. It was hardly newsworthy that a girl would participate in America’s pastime.

But then, beginning the last week of March 1931, Mitchell’s name reappeared in the papers. Lookouts owner Joe Engel announced he was adding Mitchell to his team’s pitching rotation. Her first appearance would be in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees.

Mitchell was scheduled to make her first public appearance at Engel Stadium on March 31, where she was supposed to pitch for the press. But much to waiting fans’ disappointment, Engel kept her out of the public eye until the game and showed her off to reporters at a backyard pitching session instead.

It was at this point Mitchell’s origin story began to trickle into the papers. Her parents encouraged her to play sports from an early age—doctor’s orders after she was born premature. When she was seven years old, her family lived in a Memphis duplex beside future Hall of Fame pitcher Charles “Dazzy” Vance, who was then playing for the Memphis Chicks. When Vance saw his young neighbor playing ball with the boys and noticed she was left-handed—a coveted trait for a baseball pitcher—he taught her to throw.

As she grew older, Mitchell showed promise in tennis, swimming, and basketball. She thought about becoming an aviator like Amelia Earhart. But baseball remained her first love. When the family moved to Chattanooga, Mitchell joined the Englettes, a girls-only team owned by Engel and managed by her father.

Watching her pitch to a “boy friend” who agreed to serve as catcher, sports scribes noted Mitchell’s “odd side-armed delivery” but complimented her speed, control, and curve. They asked if she was nervous. “There is no use to get nervous over a ball game when I have been playing ball nearly all my life,” she said. “I will just go out there and do my best, and I believe I can fool the Babe.”

During his thirty-five years with the Lookouts, Engel became known for his vaudevillian antics. He once traded a slumping shortstop for a turkey, which he cooked and served to sportswriters. He staged a phone call to Adolf Hitler and held an “elephant hunt” in the outfield with papier-mâché pachyderms. Another time, he lured a newly recruited Native American player inside a teepee he’d erected on the pitcher’s mound. Engel emerged a short time later, bellowing “Custer’s revenge!” and holding a butcher knife in one hand and a “scalp”—actually a dark-colored wig—in the other.

But all that would come later. Engel’s first big stunt would be pitting a teenage girl against the Yankees’ Murderer’s Row batting lineup.

Newspapers across the U.S. picked up the story but remained skeptical. Writers pointed out the game was scheduled for April 1, a sure sign the whole thing was a prank. When a photographer telegraphed The Sporting News and offered to shoot Mitchell’s contract signing, the receiving editor thought it was a joke: “Quit your kidding. What is Chattanooga trying to do, burlesque the game?” The photographer wired back to assure the newspaper he was not kidding, but the editor was not convinced. “Yeah! Presume Al Capone or Charlie Chaplin will be catcher. In sending any more wires please pay for them so I can enjoy the laugh.”

The game would not take place on April Fools’ Day, however. Cold weather forced Engel to postpone until the next day. The delay did nothing to dampen anticipation. By the time the game began on Thursday afternoon, bells were ringing on teletype machines across the country as reporters filed accounts of the game.

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Paradise Lost

This article originally appeared on Lapham’s Quarterly‘s Roundtable blog on November 29, 2017. Click here to read the full story.

Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett moved to the United States to lay low. Although some have suggested they left England to avoid scandal—Margaret was both Harman’s wife and his niece—their flight had more to do with Harman’s political allegiances. Just a short time after receiving his inheritance from his wealthy aristocratic parents, Harman became a financial backer and secretary for the Society of United Irishmen, a group seeking to free Ireland from British rule. When British authorities began locking up its leaders and trying them for sedition, Harman sold the family estate and, in the spring of 1796, sailed from Europe with hopes of starting over.

The Blennerhassetts had the means to make nearly any kind of life they wanted. Harman sold his estate for £28,000, about $4.5 million today. But the couple wanted a secluded home, away from the East Coast’s major cities. They found one: a 169-acre plot on an island in the Ohio River, just south of modern-day Parkersburg, West Virginia. It would have made a perfect hideaway if not for the Blennerhassetts’ conspicuous tastes.

At a time when most nearby structures would have been built from logs, the couple set about constructing a mansion with a two-and-a-half-story main house and curving Palladian breezeways, all painted in brilliant white. They seated the home on the island’s highest point and had workers cut down trees along the water’s edge to create an unobstructed view. Passing boats couldn’t help but notice their miniature Mount Vernon.

Socialites from nearby Marietta, Ohio, and as far away as Pittsburgh flocked to what came to be known as Blennerhassett Island for dances, dinners, concerts, and readings. Everyone in the valley soon knew about Harman, the accomplished musician, amateur physician and scientist, lawyer, bibliophile, and businessman. He became known for his loyalty, kindness, and near-blindness. He was so myopic that he read with his hooked nose nearly touching the page and, when he went bird hunting, required assistance aiming his gun.

Margaret drew even more attention. She was tall and thin with fair skin, blue eyes, and a quick mind. She recited Shakespeare, read some French, was a talented cook and seamstress, and enjoyed dancing and card games. She wore high-waisted empire dresses around the house but, when riding her favorite horse, Robin, donned a scarlet habit with gold buttons, gloves, leather boots, and a white beaver fur hat with ostrich feathers.

The couple’s outsize personalities won them a prominent place among the frontier bourgeois in Marietta, Ohio, and nearby Wood County, Virginia. But that notoriety also brought trouble to their door.

One day in the spring of 1805, Aaron Burr’s boat docked at Blennerhassett Island.

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They Keep Old Trains A-Rolling

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

CASS — When something breaks on a train at Cass Scenic Railroad, whether it’s as small as a bracket or as big as a boiler, the men and women in the park’s locomotive shops fix it.

They have to. Chances are, you can’t buy a replacement part.

Forget about instruction manuals, too. Although the state park serves as a living museum of the United States’ steam-powered history, there aren’t many reference books lying around.

“You pretty well go by what’s already there. You make it as it was,” said Danny Hoover, engineer for the Cass No. 5 locomotive.

Hoover, 52, has worked at Cass for 15 years.

He said he always has been fascinated by the trains—he remembers when engineers from Cass used to drive their locomotives to the Strawberry Festival in Buckhannon—but had no real knowledge about the machines when he started working in the shop.

Like all of the railroad’s employees, Hoover learned on the job.

“These old men passed it down to us,” said longtime engineer Danny Seldomridge. “What we learned from them is better than books.”

Seldomridge, 56, has worked at Cass for 37 years, but has been around the trains for much longer. His dad worked on the park’s track crew and in the railroad shop.

He originally wanted to work with airplanes after high school but married a local girl and started working with his dad.

“They started letting me mess around with these things, and that was it,” he said. “I’m train crazy.”

Seldomridge said he enjoys the challenge of working on antique machines.

“I just like fooling with them. I like taking something, building it back to where it’s better than new,” he said. “Every day you learn a little bit more. I’ve never stopped learning.”

Although most of Cass Scenic Railroad’s 96 staff members are seasonal, the dozen full-time employees in the locomotive shop work year-round. During tourist season, which runs from Memorial Day to the end of October, they work six or seven days a week.

There’s always something to do.

In addition to their duties in the repair shop, they also ride the trains as engineers and firemen (the lucky souls who shovel coal into a locomotive’s white-hot fireboxes). When their trains aren’t running, they work in the shop.

Once a month, crews take the firebox out of each train, let the engine cool down and wash the sediment out of the boiler. The job takes a week “at the fastest,”Hoover said.

“That’s if you’ve got several guys to help you,” he said.

Then, after a locomotive reaches 1,492 hours of service, railroad mechanics have to break down the train’s boiler and replace its flues, the pipes that run through the water-filled boiler carrying hot gases from burning coal.

If, for some reason, crews can’t repair a part, they hire a pattern maker to fabricate a copy of the original. The shop is rarely able to provide blueprints, so they send either the old, broken part or exact measurements.

Crews don’t get to do many heavy-duty repairs until the off-season, however.
Most shop workers take their vacations between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, because the real work begins in January. That’s when the major repairs take place, when all the trains get broken down and put back together. Axles are replaced, boilers are overhauled and coal bunkers are rebuilt.

“I came here in the first of February and everything was torn apart,” park superintendent Rod Sovine said. “I said, ‘We’re not going to make it!'”

They made it. Cass Scenic Railroad has four trains up and running this season.

Seldomridge’s engine, the Western Maryland No. 6, is the newest train in the rail yard. Built in 1945, it’s the last Shay locomotive ever made. It worked for four years in Elkins before retiring to live in the B&O Railroad museum in Baltimore. Cass obtained the train in the early ’80s.

The Cass No. 5, Hoover’s pet engine, is the oldest train on the lot.
A Shay locomotive built in 1905, it;s the only train that worked at Cass when it was still owned by West Virginia Pulp and Paper. Cass No. 4 was built in 1922 but arrived in Cass in 1943, when the Mower Lumber Company owned the property.

The Cass No. 11 came from San Diego, where it started working in 1923. It is the railroad’s newest acquisition and has been in West Virginia for 12 years.

“It didn’t look like that when we got it,” Hoover said.

He said the shiny-black Shay arrived in West Virginia as a bucket of rust. Shop employees gave it a major overhaul.

Two trains are still down for repairs.

Workers are replacing the coal bunker on Cass No. 6, a Heisler locomotive born in 1928. The train worked in Rainelle for the Meadow River Lumber Co. before the state purchased it in 1967 and brought the train to Cass.

Cass No. 2 is getting a major overhaul. Built in 1928 by the Shay Locomotive Co., it originally rode the rails in Vancouver, British Columbia.

It’s now in pieces at the Cass Railroad shop. It doesn’t look much like a train. The firebox and coal bunker still sit on the axles, but workers have removed the engine’s boiler for repairs.

Boilers in steam-powered engines are constantly expanding and contracting, which eventually weakens the metal. Crews are working to replace those weakened sections in the No. 2 boiler. When they’re finished, workers will use an ultrasound machine to determine the thickness of the steel.

Once that’s completed, workers plan to take the axles from under the locomotive and reshape the wheels on the shop’s massive lathe.

There’s no guidebook to read, no website to consult and no schematic to reference. The older guys like Seldomridge and Hoover teach the younger workers. That way, when Seldomridge and Hoover retire, the trains will keep running. Some young fireman will take their place in the engineer’s seat.

That’s what Andrew Cassell, 27, plans to do.
He’s currently the fireman on the Western Maryland No. 6. When Seldomridge pulls levers to move the train forward and back, Cassell stomps on a pedal to opens the train’s firebox. He heaves shovel after shovel of coal into the opening, working almost the whole time the train is in operation.

Remember the Bible story about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and the great fiery furnace? That’s what Cassell stares into all day long.

He doesn’t make much money for the backbreaking work. Hoover said firemen make minimum wage. Cassell hopes to become an engineer, however. He’s worked at Cass since 2003.

“They handed me my diploma on Saturday, and I went to work on Monday morning,” Cassell said. “Once you get started. . .”

“You don’t ever leave,” Seldomridge said.

Live from Oak Hill

This story originally appeared in the spring 2017 issue of WV Living magazine.

Angel Acevedo was known to Saturday Nite Wrestlin’ fans as Assassin No. 1 of the tag-team duo The Cuban Assassins. Richie Acevedo did not doubt his father’s stories about being Fidel Castro’s bodyguard.

To his young mind, the evidence was all there. There was the star tattoo on father’s left hand, which he claimed was the secret brand of the Communist revolutionary’s inner circle. He also fit the part. Small but brawny, Angel Acevedo had a wild mane of thick black hair, an equally thick accent, an unruly beard, and the gaze of a man possessed. But perhaps most convincingly, all the adults in Richie’s life also seemed to believe his dad’s stories.

From 1969 until 1973, Angel regularly appeared in homes all over West Virginia as part of Saturday Nite Wrestlin’, broadcast live from the studios of WOAY-TV in Oak Hill. Known only to fans as “Assassin No. 1,” one-half of the fearsome tag team known as “the Cuban Assassins,” he was one of the program’s most ruthless characters, willing to take whatever means necessary to win a match.

But Angel’s down-and-dirty antics did not win him many fans, especially in an America where the Cuban Missile Crisis remained a not-yet-distant memory. Richie, now 46, remembers sitting in the auditorium where the show was taped and hearing spectators holler violent threats at his father. “I thought my dad was one of the most dangerous men in the world,” he says.

Angel, like many professional wrestlers of his generation, never broke character, even outside the ring. “What he told us was what he told everybody else,” Richie says. It wasn’t until his teenage years that Richie began to ask questions. He eventually found out his father actually hailed from Puerto Rico and had never met Fidel Castro. He also learned that Raul, the man he’d been raised to think was his uncle, was actually just his father’s tag-team partner.

You might expect Richie to be bitter about these revelations. He’s not. When he got old enough, he became a professional wrestler, too. Although he did not devote his life to the sport in quite the same way as Angel, he still spent decades bouncing between ropes and jumping off turnbuckles.

Richie says he understands his father’s deceptions now. He had a character to portray and a story to tell, and was willing to do whatever was necessary to keep fans invested. “Magicians have known this for a long time,” he says. “The word ‘fake’ is irrelevant.”

“Don’t let those people cuss on the air”

Professional wrestling, for all its artifice, has roots in reality. It began as a sideshow attraction in the 19th century. These were, for the most part, true athletic competitions—a direct outgrowth of Greco-Roman and “catch-as-catch-can” grappling, often featuring a traveling strongman going up against audacious locals. It usually wasn’t much fun to watch. A single match could last for hours. Competitors seldom left the mat as they shifted from one submission hold to another.

In an effort to liven things up for the crowd—and make more money—one 1920s sideshow act known as the Gold Dust Trio began fixing its matches. Wrestlers Ed “Strangler” Lewis and Joseph “Toots” Mondt, with help from manager Billy Sandow, adopted outlandish personas and began scripting dramatic near-defeats and comebacks. Since they weren’t actually trying to hurt one another, they could work together to make fights seem more violent than ever.

By the end of the ’20s, there was a clear distinction between the two varieties of wrestling: the legitimate competitive version and the scripted “professional” version. While it is sometimes suggested fans in the early days did not know professional wrestling was scripted, newspaper and magazine clippings reveal a winking acknowledgment of what was really happening in the ring. Fans weren’t too naive to realize wrestling was “fake”—they just didn’t care.

Wrestling came to television early in the medium’s history. KTLA of Los Angeles, California, began broadcasting matches as early as 1946. Promoters initially worried television would hurt ticket sales to live matches, but the opposite proved true. Television offered something traveling shows never could: an opportunity to create ongoing storylines and feuds between wrestlers. This made fans more invested in their favorite characters so, when the wrestlers came to their towns, they flocked to see their heroes in person.

Wrestling came to WOAY-TV in 1954. A station in Columbus, Ohio, was already broadcasting live wrestling, which a station in Huntington picked up and re-aired with great success. WOAY’s owner Robert Thomas smelled an opportunity and struck a deal with a band of wrestlers who regularly performed at the Memorial Building in nearby Fayetteville. The wrestlers would get 90 minutes of free airtime. In return, the station got free content as well as proceeds from advertising revenue, ticket sales, and concessions sales. Bob Kent, the manager of the Memorial Building, agreed to be the program’s host. But after the first night, when a flying chair knocked over his announcer’s desk, Kent told Thomas he would have to find another emcee. Thomas had just the man for the job.

About a year earlier, Thomas’s father had discovered Shirley Love singing in the choir of the local Methodist church and got the honey-voiced youngster to drop by the station for an audition. Soon Love was working the microphone on WOAY-FM, doing public service announcements, station breaks, and newscasts. He began working at the company’s TV station, too, manning the microphone boom and cranking the homemade teleprompter.

Now Love, still in his early 20s and with little broadcasting experience, was being offered a high-profile job. He didn’t want it. “I said, ‘Mr. Thomas, I can’t do that. I don’t know anything about wrestling,’” Love remembers. “He said, ‘All you’ve got to do is describe what they’re doing.’” So, with his blonde hair perfectly coiffed, Love stepped in front of the cameras to host the second-ever episode of Saturday Nite Wrestlin’. He would continue hosting the show until its finale in 1977.

Despite his initial reluctance, it wasn’t long before Love was getting in on the act. One night, when wrestlers staged a very real strike against promoter–wrestler Jan Madrid and refused to perform, WOAY instead devoted the entire night’s program to an impromptu grudge match between Madrid and one of the auxiliary police officers hired to provide security for the event. It ended with an enraged Madrid grabbing both Love and co-host Sandy Higgins by their shirts—which, unknown to viewers, had been pre-slashed with razor blades—and ripping them off.

Now naked to the waist except for his sport coat, Love picked up his microphone. “I said ‘Sandy, I come out here and try to be as dignified as I can. This is humiliating. Look at me. I don’t know about you but I’m going home.’” The show only ran a half-hour short that night. By the next week, the strike was settled and it was back to the regularly scheduled entertainment.

One of the show’s most popular features was Love’s interviews with spectators between matches. While the action in the ring was prearranged, these provided truly unscripted entertainment. One night Love complimented a young boy on his coonskin cap. “He said, ‘Grandpa found it in the trash dump!’”

Another time, a man from Prince bragged he’d killed 12 squirrels on the first day of squirrel season. “I said, ‘No, you only killed four.’ He said, ‘No, Shirley. I killed 12. We fried four and I got the others in my sister’s freezer.’” It wasn’t until Love gingerly pointed out the state’s four-squirrel bag limit that the man’s count suddenly changed. Love later learned the local game warden was watching that night. “He fell off the couch laughing. He said, ‘I couldn’t have arrested that guy, he was so serious.’”
Sometimes even the most unassuming interviewees could cause trouble. One Saturday, Love noticed Madrid flick sweat on an elderly heckler. She was first in line for an interview when the match was over. “She looked like a little old Sunday school teacher. I said, ‘What do you think of Jan Madrid?’ She said, ‘I’d like to smack that son of a b—h right in the mouth.’

“The boss would always tell me, ‘Don’t let those people cuss on the air. I could lose my license.’” It was an ongoing struggle.

Wrestlin’ gets real

Unlike Richie Acevedo, Jan Madrid’s son Monty was in on the act—literally. “They called me ‘the booker.’ Dad would let me carry a briefcase to the matches. That way I felt included. It was my little make-believe thing,” says Monty, now 53.
Monty was not much of a wrestling fan, though. He was a shy and nervous kid. Even though he knew everything was prearranged, he’d hide in the locker room or at the back of the auditorium during particularly brutal matches.

Things were much different outside the ring, however. “Wrestlers were my playmates growing up,” he says. He remembers dinners at his house with all the WOAY wrestlers, since the good guys and bad guys couldn’t be seen together in public. “Everybody was friends. Gosh knows it cost a fortune to feed all those wrestlers,” he says.

Sometimes a wrestling bear would show up. Whoever was scheduled to wrestle the creature that night would earn its trust by feeding it Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies in the Madrids’ backyard. “It would just grab me up and put me in its paws and just roll me around the yard. It was the sweetest thing in the world,” Monty says. “Growing up like that isn’t the real world.”

But as Monty would find out, real life has an unfortunate tendency to infringe on make-believe. Jan Madrid always wrestled as a villain, or “heel.” That way, the wrestlers he booked always had a bad guy to play against. He portrayed himself as a cocksure, arrogant immigrant “from parts unknown.” “He would talk about his country versus America. He was an American-born citizen, of course,” Monty says.

It was all scripted, but the bad feelings he created among fans were very real. Monty remembers getting threatening phone calls at the house. More than once, disgruntled viewers mailed the Madrids receipts for new televisions—seeking reimbursement for the TVs they had shot in rage. “We’d come out many times, all four tires slit, sugar in the gas tank,” Monty says. “It cost a lot of money, being a villain.”

It wasn’t just the fans. In 1969, the West Virginia state government came after the wrestlers—who were listed by both their ring names and given names in court documents—of WOAY. On a Monday night in August, promoter Warren Schernbach had booked eight of Saturday Nite Wrestlin’s most popular wrestlers—including Jan Madrid and the Cuban Assassins—at the Bluefield Auditorium for a show benefitting local church and school groups. But then the police showed up. They rounded up all the wrestlers, along with Shernbach and referee Larry Swiger, and placed them under arrest. The charges: wrestling, refereeing, and promoting without a license.

Since Shernbach, Swiger, and the wrestlers had not paid their Athletic Commission dues, West Virginia Athletic Commissioner Doug Epperly contended they were violating state law. He told reporters he was hesitant to stop the event, especially since it was a charity event. “However, fair is fair,” he said.

Each of the men posted his $280 bond and was released. Schernbach maintained everyone’s innocence from the start. “The commission is trying to deprive us of our right to entertain the public,” he told a reporter with the Beckley Post-Herald. “Legally, we are entertainers. Not athletes.”

The gang of 10 was scheduled to appear before Mercer County Magistrate Court but, before that could happen, their lawyer, W. Dale Greene, made an appeal to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals to prohibit further proceedings on the charges. “The petitioners are showmen, actors, artist thespians, not engaged in any contest of strength but rather engaged in the thespian arts of facial grimaces, make-believe, mat pounding, and use of all the props,” Greene wrote in his memorandum. “While the petitioners may have billed themselves as wrestlers, a rose is a rose and the public at large knows it.”

The high court granted a hearing on the matter, barring any proceedings on the misdemeanor charges until a ruling was issued. Newspapers lose the thread of the story there, and court documents are nowhere to be found. But an entry deep in the Supreme Court’s daily ledger, recorded January 23, 1970, shows that judges dismissed the case. The Athletics Commission evidently decided not to pursue the charges further. The reason behind this change of heart is lost to history.

The Athletic Commission also came knocking on WOAY’s door early on in Saturday Nite Wrestlin’s history, threatening to shut down the broadcast unless Thomas paid his fees. The station owner responded by changing the spelling on the marquee from Wrestling to Wrestlin’ and adding a disclaimer to the beginning of the broadcast: “Pre-arranged for your entertainment. This is not an athletic event.”

The changes satisfied the government, but Love says it didn’t have much of an effect on the fans. “The people didn’t pay attention to it,” Love says. “They got right into it.”

Down for the count

Saturday Nite Wrestlin’ came to an end in a deservedly dramatic fashion. In September 1977 a generator overheated, caught fire, and burned WOAY’s studios to the ground. The station, scrambling to get back on air, moved its operations next door into the auditorium where matches were broadcast. When everything was back up and running two months later, WOAY had nowhere to host its wrestling program and lacked the equipment to do a remote broadcast. It was the end of a 23-year run. “A year longer than Gunsmoke,” Love says.

There’s no way to really know how popular Saturday Nite Wrestlin’ was during its run. Thomas, a consummate penny pincher, refused to pay for Nielsen and Arbitron ratings. But in 1972 he hatched a scheme to get his own demographic data: he convinced Love to run for a spot at the Democratic National Convention. Since it was a statewide election based mostly on name recognition, Thomas knew he could tell where his station was most popular by seeing which counties gave Love the most votes. Love came in ninth out of nine delegates, but was the top vote-getter for Nicholas, Clay, Fayette, and Raleigh counties.

For Love, it was an introduction to a whole new kind of bloodsport. He ran several more times for the Democratic National Convention and, in 1994, he was elected to the West Virginia State Senate. He served 15 years in the chamber before retiring. Then, in 2017 and at the age of 83, he was sworn in for his first term in the West Virginia House of Delegates.

Love has now spent longer as a politician than he was a wrestling announcer. But he knows Saturday Nite Wrestlin’ will be his legacy. “We could go anywhere right now and if we met 10 people, eight of them—if they’re over 40—would say ‘I used to sit on Grandpa’s lap and watch you,’” he says. “It was everybody’s Saturday night opera.”

 

Protectors of the Forest

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Thursday, May 3, 2012. 

LANSING — Zeus has been growing in Mill Creek canyon for four centuries.
The massive hemlock tree stood watch as white explorers moved in, replacing the land’s native inhabitants.

Zeus was there as the descendants of those explorers formed a new country, and looked on as the sons of those descendants ripped the new country apart.

The old tree, named by Adventures on the Gorge when the company set up its zip line course in 2008, has seen generations of fishermen, hunters and hikers.

Some have patted his trunk, and some have climbed his branches. Some, undoubtedly, didn’t even notice the silent giant.

But Zeus might not see his 500th birthday.

There’s another hemlock standing near the old sentinel. On a recent day, that tree looked like it had just received a light snowfall, except it was late April and the weather was a comfortable 70 degrees.

Almost every limb is covered with tiny white dots. They are hemlock woolly adelgid, pests that live and lay eggs in waxy coverings between a hemlock’s needles.

“They feed on the starches within the hemlock tree, that the tree needs to grow and thrive,” said Andrea Brandon, Central Appalachian program coordinator for The Nature Conservancy.

“It’ll essentially suck the juice out of it.”

Under ideal conditions, trees can live up to a decade after they’ve been infested.

“It can live another six to 10 years, if it’s in a healthy stand and there aren’t any additional stressors,” Brandon said.

But ideal conditions rarely exist. If the tree encounters any other stressors, like unseasonable weather or a lack of water, death is expedited.

“If they get hit by a drought, it puts them over the edge,” Bartgis said.

In the late ’90s, the Mountain State saw a mild winter followed by a really hot, dry summer. Hemlocks in the Eastern Panhandle, already infested with woolly adelgid, became drought-stressed and died. Shenandoah Mountain was hit particularly hard.

“It killed over 90 percent of the hemlock trees,” Bartgis said.

Slow-moving threat

The hemlock woolly adelgid came to Appalachia from southern Japan over half a century ago.

Bartgis said Asia’s climate is very similar to that of the United States. The woods of eastern China are filled with maple trees, oaks, pines, hemlocks and dogwood trees, just like West Virginia. It even has rhododendrons.

“You walk through their forests and they’re amazingly like this,” Bartgis said. “Except there are monkeys in the trees.”

That makes it easy for pests like the woolly adelgid to survive the transcontinental trip, catching a ride with goods shipped from the Far East to the East Coast.

Adelgid are good hitchhikers, traveling on the wind, animal backs, bird feathers, people’s clothes and tractor-trailers. The pests reproduce asexually, so it takes only one healthy bug to start an infestation.

Hemlock woolly adelgid were first spotted in the United States in 1951, in Richmond, Va., but didn’t arrive in West Virginia until 1992, when arborists found them in trees in Grant and Pendleton counties.

Since then, the bug has slowly moved westward. The adelgid is only now reaching trees in West Virginia’s western counties.

Bud Frantz, manager of Treetops Canopy Tour, said it was difficult to spot woolly adelgid on the Adventures on the Gorge property about four years ago.

“In a few years, it exploded,” he said.

Brandon and Rodney Bartgis, state director for The Nature Conservancy’s West Virginia chapter, are worried about the recent mild winter. They said temperatures were much too warm to hurt the woolly adelgid population, and the state appears to be moving into a warm, dry spring with possible drought-like conditions.

“What could be happening is the development of the perfect storm,” Brandon said.

Trees in trouble

It’s easy to gauge the health of a hemlock: You stand at its base and look up. If you see lots of blue sky as you peer through the canopy, the tree is not very healthy.

“Fern,” the first hemlock on Adventures on the Gorge’s Treetops Canopy Tour, is not very healthy. In some places, the tree offers an almost unobstructed view of the sky. Some of its branches are almost completely barren of needles.

“If we get a warm summer, that tree’s going to be in trouble,” Bartgis said.

Cold temperatures are the pest’s worst enemy. That’s why the adelgid have ravaged hemlocks in the south, including Tennessee’s Smokey Mountains. The winters are much milder, so the adelgid populations don’t get thinned out as much.

Bartgis said temperatures must reach 16 below to significantly affect woolly adelgid populations. He said this year, temperatures barely hit zero in the coldest parts of the Mountain State.

Some pesticides can be used against the adelgid. Workers at Adventures on the Gorge treat their hemlocks with a nicotine-based compound. The chemical shrinks the adelgid’s appetite, just as cigarettes work as a hunger suppressant for humans.

“They starve themselves to death,” Frantz said.

The treatment appears to be working.

Walking across the tour’s first swinging bridge, you can see the first stand of trees Adventures on the Gorge treated against the woolly adelgid. These trees are doing well, with evidence of new growth and healthy green buds on the tips of the branches.

Zeus also was among the first group of Adventures on the Gorge’s trees to be treated against the woolly adelgid in 2009. Because of that early intervention, it has never had a bad infestation.

Unfortunately, treatment is extremely labor intensive. Workers have to treat each hemlock individually, by burying pesticide pellets in the ground near the root system or drilling a hole in the tree’s bark and injecting the chemical directly into its stem.

Scientists around the country have been trying for years to find widespread treatment against woolly adelgid. So far, they haven’t had any luck.
Bartgis said researchers have looked at beetles that might eat the woolly adelgid, but those tests have not been successful.

Brandon said in some stands of hemlock in the eastern United States, one tree is perfectly healthy while those around it are dead, victims of woolly adelgid infestations. Researchers are studying those healthy trees to figure out what made them resistant to attack.

“We really don’t have an answer right now,” she said.

‘About a hemlock’

Hemlocks make up about 1 percent of trees in West Virginia’s forests. According to a state Department of Agriculture forest health study in 2010, more than 200,000 acres in the state are at risk for hemlock woolly adelgid infestations.

Tucker County has the highest density of hemlocks in West Virginia, with the trees accounting for 7 to 9 percent of the forests there. Pocahontas and Mercer Counties come in second, with 4 to 6 percent of their woods populated by hemlocks.

Although they’re not the most common tree in West Virginia’s woods, hemlocks are very important.

“Hemlocks are like beaver. They really affect their surroundings,” Bartgis said.

Some birds prefer to nest in hemlocks. The shade from the big evergreens makes their surrounding environments cooler.

“That’s important for species that need that cool climate, like brook trout in the stream,” Bartgis said.

Adventures on the Gorge co-owner Dave Arnold said he had no idea what woolly adelgid were when the company started planning its zip line course.

It wasn’t until an arborist was hired to determine the health of its trees that Arnold learned the hemlocks were in danger.

The company has since built a prevention plan into its business strategy. One dollar of every guest’s zip line tour goes toward treating the hemlocks. There are about 5,000 mature hemlocks on Adventures on the Gorge’s 40-acre plot.
Workers now have treated more than 1,000 of the trees. The company has spent about $30,000 on treatment, not including some labor costs.

Arnold, a longtime whitewater rafting guide, said the hemlocks along the Gauley River are among his favorite features of the waterway. He said the shady evergreens give the forest an intimate feel rafters just don’t get on the New River.

“It makes the Gauley,” he said. “These hemlocks create a mood. They create an atmosphere. Any trout fisherman understands it.”

Arnold said rafting the Gauley might be a completely different experience 20 years from now, if scientists don’t find a way to stop the woolly adelgid.

“Someday we may really have a unique place. If something doesn’t change, you’re going to have a few small places where hemlocks exist,” he said.

The stakes are high. If researchers don’t find a way to wipe out woolly adelgid once and for all, West Virginia’s forests—already irrevocably changed over the state’s history by forest fires, disease and irresponsible human behavior—may never look the same.

And the next generation of explorers will never see a tree like Zeus.

Carnival of Soles

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, May 7, 2012. 

Jina Jordan has held several jobs in her life.

She owned a cleaning business and then worked as a pizza dough maker at Gino’s Pizza in Sissonville. She drives cars for the St. Albans Auction and repairs purses and leather jackets at the Fife Street Shoe Shop in downtown Charleston.

But over a decade ago, Jordan, 53, held her coolest gig of all. For one day, she was KISS bassist Gene Simmons’ cobbler.

The storied rock band played Charleston on May 2, 2000, on the first leg of their “Farewell Tour.”

KISS didn’t actually retire after that tour – they’ve embarked on seven more since then – but the Charleston date was one of the last times the band’s original lineup took the stage together.

Chris Dickerson, the Daily Mail’s city editor at the time, was eagerly anticipating that concert.

“I’m a huge KISS fan and over the years I became friends with KISS’s tour manager,” Dickerson said.

Tommy Thayer, who now plays lead guitar for the group, was KISS’s manager during the 2000 tour.

“I don’t remember all the details, but they had just got into town and there was something wrong with Gene’s boot. Tommy called me and asked me, ‘Where’s a good place I could take them?'” Dickerson said.

“I suggested the Fife Street Shoe Shop.”

That was the last Dickerson heard of Simmons’ boot problems. But it was the beginning of a very interesting day for Jordan.

On the afternoon of May 2, one of Simmons’ assistants brought the boots into the shop.

“It was a rush order,” Jordan remembers.

She had worked at the Fife Street Shoe Shop for about a year, spending much of her time repairing leather jackets and purses, mending rips, replacing zippers and fixing busted buckles. She learned to sew from her mother, Nadine.

“She sewed my sister’s wedding dress and bridesmaids’ dresses,” Jordan said. “I’ve got her old sewing machine, one of those real heavy-duty ones that you can sew blue jeans with.”

Jordan didn’t do a lot of work on shoes, though. Most of the broken heels and worn-out soles went to Andy Arthur, the shop’s manager.

But Jordan knew her client well. She graduated high school in 1977, two years after KISS got its first top 40 hit with “Rock and Roll All Nite.”

“I used to jam out to them when I was younger. I used to have them on an 8-track. We had a Cutlass, we called it a ‘Gutless.’ We used to jam to that,” she said.

The wildly costumed group became as famous for their onstage antics – Simmons’ fire breathing and blood spitting, Ace Frehley’s fireworks-spewing guitar, Peter Criss’ levitating drum set – as for hard-rocking hits like “Detroit Rock City” and “Calling Dr. Love.”

Well, Gene Simmons had aged a lot since Jordan was riding around in the Gutless.

He still was breathing fire and letting his foot-long tongue unfurl, but his ankles were swollen when he arrived in Charleston.

He needed wider zippers installed on the sides of his platform boots.

Though Jordan had done similar jobs before, replacing the zippers on Simmons’ boots presented some unique problems.

First, they were heavy. Even with all of Simmons’ metal adornments removed, the oversized footwear still weighed 35 pounds.

“I don’t know how he wore them onstage,” she said.

The boots also were wet when they arrived on Jordan’s workbench.

“That leather was real soft and the boots were still sweaty from the night before. It was hard to get them cut out,” she said.

Jordan was working on deadline, too: KISS was performing at the Civic Center that night and Simmons needed his boots fixed, pronto.

She started by slicing the threads that held the zippers to the boots’ leather. She had to be careful not to cut the soft, supple, soggy leather.

With the zippers removed, Jordan glued new ones in place. The glue normally sets up fast, but Jordan said the wet leather slowed the process. She used a fan to dry them, but that didn’t work very well.

Finally, after about an hour, the glue set up and Jordan stitched the zippers back into the leather.

“I guess he made it. He performed that night,” she said.

Jordan didn’t get to see her handiwork on stage, though.

Arthur told her he had received free tickets for helping the band, but that was just a little good-natured teasing among co-workers.

Jordan left the shoe shop about eight months after her chance encounter with the famous footwear. She got her old job back about two months ago but spent the intervening years as business-cleaner, dough-maker and car-driver.

She never forgot her most famous job, though.

“I still have the zippers.”

She put them in a plastic bag and placed it in a Pintor cigar box with newspaper clippings from the concert. For a long time, the zippers still smelled like Simmons’ sweat.

“I said, ‘I’m going to keep these ’cause someday something might happen with them.'”

If nothing else, the zippers help her prove that she’s not lying about her most famous client.