Zack Harold

freelance journalist

‘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.

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.”

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.

Click here to read the rest. 

The making of Robert C. Byrd’s “Mountain Fiddler”

This story originally appeared in the July 6, 2010 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

In all of the obituaries written about the late Sen. Robert Byrd over the last week, there’s one detail nearly everyone made sure to include alongside his political victories and infamous missteps—his love of traditional mountain music.

A longtime fiddler himself, Byrd held onto his love of old-time tunes when he left the hills of West Virginia for Washington, D.C.

Among his countless, historic accomplishments, the nation’s longest-serving senator is also the only person to have recorded a musical album on Capitol Hill.

His record, “Mountain Fiddler,” was released on County Records in 1978. The project began two years earlier, when Alan Jabbour from the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center contacted Barry Poss, a producer with the record company.

“They had been talking with Sen. Byrd about doing some recording, but it really wasn’t part of the Library of Congress’s mission to get involved. They weren’t really set up for this kind of venture because it was a public recording,” Poss said.

So Jabbour asked if Poss was interested in the project. He was, and made a trip to D.C. to meet with Byrd.

“It was a little bit different. My normal routine was to meet artists at a club or backstage at a festival at 2 o’clock in the morning,” Poss said.

Instead, Poss met the senator in his Capitol Hill office, where Byrd played him some rough demo tapes he had already prepared. The men met several more times to work through Byrd’s extensive repertoire and come up with songs for the record.

Poss said the goal was to cover a broad range of music, from old folk songs and dance to gospel tunes.

“The kinds of music that, growing up in rural West Virginia or even anywhere in the southern Appalachians, you would have heard,” Poss said.

The men eventually chose 14 songs, including “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Cripple Creek,” “Durang’s Hornpipe,” “Turkey in the Straw,” “There’s More Pretty Girls Than One” and “Don’t Let Your Sweet Love Die.”

Surrounding Byrd

The producer then was charged with booking a recording studio and finding musicians to back the Senate majority leader. And he knew exactly who to call first—Doyle Lawson.

Poss had just produced Doyle Lawson’s first solo album, “Tennessee Dream,” also released on County Records.

Lawson, a multi-instrumentalist who first appeared on the national bluegrass scene in the early ’60s as Jimmy Martin’s banjo player, was at the time playing mandolin in the Washington D.C.-based group the Country Gentlemen.

“He was just the right person, because Doyle is a born leader,” Poss said of Lawson. “He has this incredible ability to bring others around him to inspire him and bring them along to where there’s really good studio-quality material.”

Although he was an accomplished musician, Byrd performed solo for most of his musical life. He often would crack open his fiddle case to play some tunes at fundraisers, rallies and campaign stops but was unaccustomed to playing with other pickers.

Without a strong, talented rhythm section behind the senator, Poss worried the songs might fall apart.

“People who (perform by themselves) have a different sense of rhythm. They can be a little freer with the rhythm,” he said. “I had to make sure the caliber of the musicians was high enough to bring Sen. Byrd along.”

Lawson accepted Poss’ offer and recruited Country Gentlemen band mate James Bailey to play banjo on the record. Lawson then picked Spider Gilliam, the Gentlemen’s road manager and sometime bass player, to hold down the low end.

Recording site

Poss said his original plan was to have Byrd record in a professional studio. He took the senator to Bias Studios in northwest Virginia for a pre-recording visit but could tell something was wrong.

“He looked a bit uncomfortable to me, and of course you wouldn’t want someone to be uncomfortable in a recording,” he said.

Poss said he thinks the jungle of microphones, mixing boards and isolation booths intimidated Byrd.

“It was a little bit of an alien environment,” he said.

With a professional studio out of the question, Poss now had to find a place where Byrd would be more comfortable, a place where he spent a lot of time.

For Byrd, an infamous workaholic, that place was his Senate office. So that’s where Poss decided to hold the recording sessions.

He tapped Bias recording engineer Bill McElroy to make it happen.

“I asked him to build a portable console that would be stripped down and unobtrusive. I guess the idea was to have the recording process be as natural as possible,” Poss said.

McElroy built a two-track recording unit and set it up in Byrd’s conference room.

Completely live

With only two tracks to record on – one for the left stereo channel and another for the right – the band recorded the album completely live. They couldn’t go back and overdub any flubbed parts. If someone messed up, everyone had to redo the song.

“What went on there, that’s what you had,” Gilliam, the bass player, said. “It put the pressure on.”

Poss said, “They basically stood in a circle, performing live, just as though they were playing in his living room.”

Lawson said, “We didn’t practice or anything until we got to the Capitol building.”

Lawson said Byrd had some trouble getting started so he suggested the senator warm up with a “Georgia shuffle,” where fiddlers run their bow over the strings in rhythm for a song intro.

He said the recording went smoothly after that, except for some false starts and a few other typical studio mishaps.

“If he got in a big way of fiddling, his bow might hit the microphone,” Lawson said.

Multiple rehearsals

The senator soon grew accustomed to his new band, and the music fell into place.

“He was really open and very observant and picked it up immediately,” Lawson said. “To be honest, I was really surprised at how well he played old-time fiddle. He had drive, authority and passion.”

He said Byrd’s singing wasn’t anything to be ashamed of either.

“He would sing with the same gusto that he played with. It was a lot of fun,” Lawson said.

Banjo picker Bailey said he also was impressed by Byrd’s knowledge of old-time music.

He said Byrd knew lyrics to songs that most musicians only know as instrumental numbers, like “Cumberland Gap.” And if the senator knew the words, he would sing them all.

“If a song had 15 verses, that’s what he did,” Bailey said. “He looked at a song as a work and that’s what he would do. He would cover the whole thing.

“His heart and soul were in old-time numbers,” he said.

Poss remembers recording the album was “amazingly fun” and said Byrd’s enthusiasm for his music infected everyone involved.

“He wore everybody out,” Poss said.

“Musicians typically tend to like to warm up a little bit to limber up, but not too much because they don’t want to lose that edge. Sen. Byrd was different. The more he rehearsed, the more he wanted to rehearse.”

Byrd on tour

After the record was finished and released, Byrd and his band went on a short promotional tour.

One of the first stops was at Discount Records and Books, a record store in Washington, D.C. Byrd gave an in-store performance and signed records for fans.

“I remember showing up. It was a scene like I’d never seen,” Poss said. “The store was mobbed, the street was just jammed with cars and people lined up around the block.”

The tour also included stops on the hit variety show “Hee Haw” and the “Grand Ole Opry.” Byrd’s appearance marked the Opry’s second-ever national broadcast, shown then on PBS.

Poss, Gilliam and Bailey accompanied Byrd on his trip to Nashville.

“It was just one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences,” Poss said.

Byrd listened to AM broadcasts of the Opry as a child, and sawing his fiddle on its hallowed stage was a lifelong dream.

But when his moment in the spotlight came, Poss said the senator was quite nervous. “That quickly went away because of what goes on backstage at the Opry,” Poss said.

Byrd and his band hung out in Opry legend Roy Acuff’s dressing room that night. As country music stars like Minnie Pearl and fellow West Virginian Little Jimmie Dickens stopped by to chat, his nerves started to calm.

“They welcomed him, not as majority leader of the U.S. Senate, but as a fellow artist. They really made him feel right at home,” Poss said.

“I almost had the feeling he was ready to go on the road.”

Gilliam remembers stopping at a restaurant after their Opry performance. It was about 3 a.m.

“He asked me, ‘How old are you, Spider?’ “Gilliam said. The bass player was 38 at the time. Byrd was in his late 50s.

“He told me, ‘If I was your age, I’d give up my seat in the Senate and do this for a living,'” Gilliam remembered. “I thought, ‘Yes, sir. And you would flat starve to death.'”

Mission complete

While Byrd stuck to his day job, he continued to wow D.C. crowds with his playing.

Gilliam said the senator often invited him and Bailey to Capitol Hill get-togethers, and even to the National Democratic Convention a time or two. Lawson often couldn’t make the performances, since he was on the road with the Gentlemen and later his band Quicksilver.

Gilliam said he saw Byrd play so long and so hard that he wore the hide off his fingers.

But even that wouldn’t stop the senator from sawing the strings.

“He’d bandage those things up and keep on going. One of the hardest-working people I’ve ever seen. He’d work all day and beat on that fiddle all night if he could,” Gilliam said.

But Poss said there was never talk of doing another album.

“I think he understood that this was something he needed to do and this wasn’t his career,” he said. “I think that was kind of a mission accomplished.”

Still the record producer, who went on to found Sugar Hill Records and sign artists like Nickel Creek, Del McCoury and Ricky Skaggs, said he’s proud of his work with Byrd.

Recently, he and Jabbour wrote a new set of liner notes for “Mountain Fiddler’s” first CD release.

“It’s great,” he said. “I was delighted to hear how well it stood up, and I think that was his goal. The music had already stood the test, and I think his recordings will stand the test of time.”

Poss said, “He had put as much work into this as he did anything else in his life.”

“Mountain Fiddler” is now available for sale at www.countysales.com. The album will appear in music stores and online in a couple of weeks.

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.

The Quest Gets Tougher

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

Becoming a knight or lady of the Golden Horseshoe has never been a small feat, but winning the state history award now requires an even deeper understanding of West Virginia’s past.

Every West Virginia student takes the Golden Horseshoe test during his or her eighth-grade year. The top finishers from each county are invited to Charleston to be “knighted” by the state superintendent and receive a Golden Horseshoe pin.

For years, the test was made up of trivia questions like “What year did Morgan Morgan establish the first settlement in modern day West Virginia?” The correct answer is 1731, but Mary Johnson, a historian at the state Archives, said questions like that don’t do much to further students’ knowledge of history.

Historians don’t just memorize facts: they analyze original documents, oral histories and other primary sources to understand history. The Golden Horseshoe now reflects that.

“The test doesn’t deal directly with just trivia. It’s important that our students use critical thinking skills,” said Joey Wiseman, social studies coordinator for the state Department of Education.

The education department keeps a database of about 500 Golden Horseshoe test questions and uses it to come up with five different tests for students around the state.

Each year the department releases 30 questions from its archives as a practice test for students. Staff at the West Virginia State Archives replaces those questions with 30 brand-new ones.

Over the last few years, the education department has asked Culture and History staff to come up with more map- and data-based questions.

Students also have to read passages from speeches or documents important to West Virginia’s history—maybe a stump speech during John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 campaign, or a snippet from John Brown’s diaries—and answer questions about the passage.

“What they’re looking for is having students read primary source materials and understand that. They’re coming a little closer as a researcher, understanding material at a deeper level than just the bare facts,” Johnson said.

“It’s a very important skill to develop, whether you’re taking an English course or a history course,” said Joe Geiger, director of the state archives.
Wiseman said it’s still important to know the facts. The test covers a wide swath of West Virginia’s history, from before white settlers arrived in North America to current events.

If students don’t know the context behind some famous document or speech, it’s still difficult for them to answer the questions correctly.

The top finishers in each county visited Charleston on Thursday to be knighted by state Superintendent Jorea Marple and receive their Golden Horseshoe pins.

“I thought it was a joke when they told me they were going to knight my kid,” Meena Bunn said.

She and her son, Francis, moved to West Virginia from New York three years ago. Bunn said she quickly found out how important the Golden Horseshoe is to state residents.

“A lot of West Virginians I told about it got really excited.”

Marlene Simmons’ son, Chase, was really excited when he learned he would get knighted at Thursday’s ceremony.

“He said, ‘Our teacher told us it is one of the most prestigious awards you can get,'” Simmons said.

Marple, her husband, Attorney General Darrell McGraw; Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin; Secretary of State Natalie Tennant; and state Board of Education member Priscilla Haden all attended the ceremony to congratulate this year’s 222 winners.

“This will be one of the most memorable days of your young life,” Marple told the students.

She said McGraw and their son, Darrell McGraw III, are both knights of the Golden Horseshoe and still talk about the experience.

“It’s a symbol of academic excellence, and it’s a symbol of your knowledge and understanding of this great state,” she said.

The governor also spoke to students before the knighting ceremony began. He told them about the history of the Golden Horseshoe award, how it was inspired by Virginia Gov. Alexander Spotswood’s 1716 expedition into what is now West Virginia.

Each of the 50 members of that expedition were given small, golden horseshoes upon their return. West Virginia began giving awards in their honor in 1931.

“You should take note of Gov. Spotswood’s courage. Never stop learning, and never stop exploring,” Tomblin told students. “You are the future of our great state, and I can’t wait to see what each of you become.”

W.Va. Knights, Ladies Honored: Rumors Surround Golden Horseshoe Artifact

This story originally appeared in the May 7, 2010 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

This morning, State Schools Superintendent Steve Paine will dub more than 200 West Virginia eighth-graders “knights and ladies of the Golden Horseshoe” for their knowledge of state history.

But there’s one question none of these adolescent history aces, or anybody else for that matter, can answer: Where did the silver sword, used for decades to knight students, come from?

There’s only one thing officials know for certain about this antique weapon.

“The sword is really old, I can tell you that,” said Regina Scotchie, the state Department of Education’s social studies coordinator.

“All the history that we have on where the sword came from is hearsay,” she said.

Scotchie said she heard a men’s club donated the piece years ago and that the current sword is the second in the Golden Horseshoe’s history, but has no proof that would substantiate either rumor.

The sword’s ornate scabbard features several images of the Crusades and an engraving that reads, “Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life.” There’s also a large, fanciful engraving that says “Howard S. Chenoweth” in an Old English font.

The pommel on the end of the sword is shaped like a knight’s helmet. The weapon’s cross-guard, which separates the blade from the grip, displays a sword and crown emblem.

The sword’s ivory grip features an “HC” engraving on one side – presumably for “Howard Chenoweth” – and a cross passing through a triangle on the other side.

The blade is stamped with a logo, “The M.C. Lilley & Company, Columbus, Ohio.” It also features several more Crusader scenes and an engraving that reads “memento mori” -“remember that you must die” in Latin – with a skull and crossbones.

Ron Ruble, owner of an online antique weapon shop (www.ruble-enterprises.com), said those markings indicate the sword once belonged to a Mason.

He said a sword was a standard-issued weapon until after the Civil War. Even a company’s musicians carried swords.

But following the war, Ruble said government officials realized a soldier’s sword was a “worthless piece of crap,” seldom used and extremely outdated in an age of long-range weapons like cannons and guns.

So the military stopped ordering as many swords for soldiers and started using the pieces for ceremonial purposes only. Ruble said the drop in sales put sword companies in difficult financial straits, forcing them to adapt their business strategies.

Because most men alive at the time were either Civil War, Mexican-American War or Indian War veterans, members of fraternal organizations like the Masons, the Grand Army of the Republic and the Independent Order of Oddfellows started wearing ornamental swords to the groups’ ceremonies.

“Since they were so used to carrying swords in the military, it was a natural thing,” Ruble said.

Sword manufacturers realized this business opportunity and started making personalized weapons for members. Ruble said this tradition lasted up until the 1920s and 1930s, when a new group of members came along that weren’t so “sword-oriented.”

“They made literally thousands of different ones,” he said. “They’re all over the place if you really start looking around.”

Ruble said West Virginia’s Golden Horseshoe sword is a replica of an 1840 model militia blade and Howard Chenoweth was probably the weapon’s original owner.

He said the manufacturer’s logo indicates the blade was manufactured between 1882 and 1925, making it 85- to 128-years-old.

Scotchie said the weapon’s age might negate the rumor of an earlier Golden Horseshoe sword, but questions remain.

Who, for instance, is Howard S. Chenoweth?

Joe Geiger, director of the state archives, provided the Daily Mail with a death certificate for a Howard Scott Chenoweth, an Elkins native who died in Huntington in December 1943 from a diabetic coma.

A 1944 obituary from the Elkins Inter-Mountain newspaper reveals that Chenoweth, 60 when he died, was a member and former master of Elkins’ Masonic lodge. According to Ruble’s timeline, it’s likely this Chenoweth would have owned a ceremonial sword.

It’s still unclear, however, how the sword made it to the state superintendent’s office.

Social Security death records indicate that Chenoweth’s wife, Helen, and children, Robert Neil and Mary Virginia, are all deceased, and further research didn’t turn up any additional heirs.

Chenoweth has no apparent connections to the state Department of Education, and members of Elkins Lodge 108 say they don’t know anything about the sword or Chenoweth.

The case of the Golden Horseshoe sword may have grown cold, but no matter its origins, it’s still part of a memory thousands of “knights” and “ladies” share, and it’s an artifact of the West Virginia history it represents.

As another group of amateur historians prepared today to have their shoulders tapped by its silver blade, Scotchie said she would like them to remember one thing: Don’t get nervous.

“I always say ‘Guys, we could not cut soft butter with this sword,'” she said.

“He hasn’t cut an ear off yet.”

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.”

 

Silver Bridge tragedy still haunts river city residents

This story originally appeared in the December 11, 2012 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

Ben Cedar crossed the Silver Bridge three times on the day it fell.

He was working as a Kirby sweeper salesman back then, and crossing the bridge was the fastest way to get across the Ohio River from his home base in Ravenswood.

“I was worried about that bridge every time I crossed over,” he said. “If you got stuck in the middle of that bridge, it would wave back and forth, back and forth.”

He crossed the Silver Bridge for the final time just before 5 p.m. on Dec. 15, 1967, headed for Gallipolis, Ohio. Once there he stopped at a Kroger store and used a payphone to call his office, just to check in.

As he was in the store, he overheard other customers talking about a bridge collapse. “I didn’t have any idea what they were talking about,” said Cedar, now 75. He asked someone what had happened, and they told him the Silver Bridge had fallen. “I said, ‘I just crossed that bridge 15 or 20 minutes ago.'”

Cedar headed back toward the span. He remembers seeing a large truck stuck on the Ohio side of the bridge, its trailer hanging down into the water. One of his co-workers was supposed to meet him in Gallipolis but had not yet arrived. For all Cedar knew, the man was on the bridge when it fell.

About the same time, 31-year-old State Trooper Rudy Odell was standing on the West Virginia side of the river. He also was surveying the damage. Odell, now 76, might have been the first law enforcement officer to respond to the disaster.

He was in downtown Point Pleasant when the bridge collapsed. Earlier that day, a man from Hutchinson Insurance called the local State Police detachment office wanting to talk with Odell, but he wasn’t at his desk. The secretary radioed Odell and asked him to stop by the man’s office. He parked his car on Main Street, just two blocks from the bridge’s on-ramp. He got out of the cruiser and had started to walk inside the insurance agency when he heard a low rumble. “It sounded like someone upstairs moving furniture,” he said.

Odell stepped back onto the sidewalk. A man across the street hollered at him, saying someone had gone through the bridge. Odell ran toward the river and up the bridge’s ramp, where he found a “very pregnant” lady standing beside her car. Her name was Charlene Clark. She had been on the bridge as it began to fall. Seeing the road collapsing before her, she shifted into reverse and sped backward toward land. Odell said Clark was “shook up,” but otherwise fine. “I would have been shook up, too,” he said. “It sheered off right at the water line on the West Virginia side.”

He left Clark and continued toward the collapse. It was a dreary, murky day, so Odell couldn’t see much of the wreckage. Some trailers had broken loose from their trucks and were floating downstream.

The murkiness did nothing to quiet the cries coming from the river, however. “I could hear them hollering for help. I didn’t know how many there were at that time,” he said. “There was absolutely nothing I could do. It was a long way out into the water. Nobody could get to it.”

Odell headed back to his car and radioed the State Police headquarters in South Charleston. He doesn’t remember what he did for the rest of his shift, but for the next few weeks he was stationed on a river barge helping recover vehicles and bodies from the river.

Forty-six people died in the disaster, but Cedar’s coworker was not one of them. He was one car back when the bridge collapsed, right behind Charlene Clark.

* * *

Opened in 1928, the Silver Bridge connected Point Pleasant and Gallipolis and was the first bridge in the United State to forgo a wire cable suspension for an “eyebar link” suspension, according to the West Virginia Encyclopedia. The bridge was held above the water using a series of flat metal links joined by steel “eyebars.”

These eyebars were about 12 inches wide and 2 inches thick, resembling giant-sized automotive wrenches. A crack in eyebar number 330, on the Ohio side of the bridge, brought the entire structure down. Odell said as the bridge collapsed, the deck turned upside down, dumping cars and trucks into the water. The bridge fell moments later, crushing many of those vehicles.

Workers had to remove pieces of the bridge from atop the cars before they could bring the vehicles out of the water. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers leased 50-ton cranes to make the work easier, but the process was painfully slow.

Odell’s primary job was to tag victims found inside the cars with the location and approximate time of their deaths before sending them to the morgue. He said police weren’t attempting to identify the bodies at that point, but often could.

The State Police had received calls from people all over the United States concerned their relatives might have been on the bridge when it collapsed. When one of those loved ones arrived home safely, Odell said the families often called back so police could remove their names from the list of the missing. “We never brought up a vehicle or a person that we didn’t know was there before they came up,” he said.

Once, when the Army Corps of Engineer’s crane brought up a car, Odell found a father and the man’s young son. “He had one of those little winter suits on, with the fur around the collar,” he said. “And I knew the little boy. I knew his mother. You don’t get used to it.”

* * *

The Point Pleasant River Museum will have a special memorial service at 2 p.m. this Saturday to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Silver Bridge Disaster and remember the 46 people who died.”

This is a part of history. A lot of people have been affected by this,” said Ruth Fout, who works at the museum and helped organize the event. “If they didn’t have a loved one on the bridge. . . they knew someone, or maybe their best friend’s father was on the bridge.”

Three of Fout’s neighbors died in the collapse. She was working as a clerk at Mason County Insurance at the time, just a few blocks from the bridge. “We were getting our coats ready to go home, and we heard a large noise. I can’t exactly explain how it was; I can just remember it sounded like a swoosh. Then the lights went off in the office. We didn’t know what had happened,” she said.

Then Steve Darst, her supervisor’s husband, came into the office. He always picked up his wife, Virginia, from work. As he was driving to the office that evening, he got held up in traffic near the bridge. While he waited, he watched as the bridge began to shake.” He said the eyebars looked like clapping hands,” Fout said. “He saw it fall.”

Fout was parked near the base of the bridge, but a floodwall blocked her view of the river. She could have walked another block to look in the water but did not want to. She got in her car and went home.

When she returned to Point Pleasant for a hair appointment the next day, Fout said the town was very quiet yet busy with activity as recovery efforts began. She continued to avoid looking at the river. “I never went back there during the time of the recovery,” she said.

Fout no longer averts her eyes. Beginning last year, she and her sister Ruth helped Hartford College professor Stephan Bullard and student Bridget Gromek write a new book, The Silver Bridge Disaster of 1967.

The book, which contains 200 photos and a history of the bridge and its collapse, debuted Oct. 1 and has been an instant success.”We’re trying to keep it alive for the future generations because, as time goes on . . . the story gets fainter and fainter,” Fout said. “It is something we don’t want to forget.”

And even a half-century later, parts of the story are left to be told.

About three years ago, Bill Needham, a former truck driver from North Carolina, came into the river museum and told Fout he was on the bridge when it collapsed. Needham said his rig quickly sank to the bottom of the Ohio River. He held his breath until he was able to roll down a window and swim out.

Fout said Needham told her the water was pitch-black when he finally escaped his truck but as he got closer to the surface, “he could feel the water getting lighter.” He grabbed onto some floating debris, and after 15 minutes in the water was pulled onto a rescue boat.

Needham’s driving partner, Robert Towe, did not make it out of the truck. Towe, of Cana, Va., was a husband and father of three small children. He had just built a new home and purchased a farm.

It was to be his last day as a long-haul trucker.

Renaissance man saved Daily Mail from bankruptcy in 1914

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Friday, April 4, 2014 to mark teh newspaper’s 100th birthday.

One hundred years ago this Sunday, a former Alaskan governor purchased a small bankrupt newspaper in Charleston, W.Va.

The publication, known at the time as The News-Mail, had spent decades in and out of financial difficulties.

But Gov. Walter E. Clark was a man of unique experience, having spent years as a Washington correspondent for some of the country’s biggest newspapers.

He also had spent time as a gold prospector, so he knew buried treasure when he saw it.

Clark changed the paper’s name and spent the rest of his life helping it thrive and grow into the newspaper you read today.

This Sunday marks the Charleston Daily Mail‘s 100th birthday, and this is the story of the man who started it all.

Walter Eli Clark was born Jan. 7, 1869, in Ashford, Conn., the son of a farmer. He attended the local public schools before heading to the Connecticut State Normal School, where he graduated in 1887.

He spent the next year working as a schoolteacher in Waterville, Conn., before, at age 19, becoming principal of the Manchester, Conn., grade schools.

Clark quickly left the education world behind, however, returning to school at Williston Seminary and then Wesleyan University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1895.

After graduation, Clark got into the newspaper business.

He became a reporter at the Hartford Post in Hartford, Conn. but left that position for a job in the nation’s capital, working as a telegraph editor at the Washington Times.

He then became Washington correspondent for the New York Commercial Advertiser and, in 1897, the New York Sun.

In 1900, he took a yearlong leave of absence from the newspaper to travel to Alaska and prospect for gold. He didn’t find his fortune, but contributed articles to several papers during his time in the Final Frontier.

He returned to Washington in 1901 and, over the next few years, worked for the Sun, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Toronto Globe.

Governor Clark

In 1909, Clark again left the newspaper business for Alaska…but this time at the request of President William Howard Taft.

Clark never sought political office but had developed a reputation as a man “unusually well-informed on Alaskan affairs,” according to a front page New York Times story on May 19, 1909.

Taft and Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger asked Clark to become the first territorial governor of Alaska.

Local newspapers criticized Clark as a “carpetbagger” but Taft believed putting an outsider in charge would help resolve political squabbles that were hampering efforts to establish a territorial government in the district.

Indeed, it was Clark who oversaw the establishment of Alaska’s first legislature. But after four years he grew tired of the job and in early 1913 submitted a letter of resignation to President Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson asked Clark to stay in Alaska until the legislature completed its session. Clark relented and stayed until May 21.

Although some might have expected Clark would return to Washington once back in the continental United States, he chose instead to relocate to Charleston.

And although he never again held (or even sought) political office, friends and colleagues would affectionately call him “Governor” for the rest of his life.

The Charleston Daily Mail

Upon arriving in West Virginia, Clark received several offers from state Republicans to run for office. But he wasn’t interested.

His only ambition, he said, was to “publish a good newspaper.”

It was a crowded business.

Publications popped up and disappeared all the time in Charleston, almost as quickly as their daily editions. One writer called the Kanawha Valley “the graveyard of newspapers.”

In the late 1800s, there were nine newspapers being published in the area. One of those was The Evening Mail, founded in 1893 by F.R. Swann.

That paper lasted only until 1894, when it was sold to John B. Floyd and John W. Jarrett.

Floyd and Jarrett changed The Evening Mail into a morning publication—renaming it The Charleston Mail—because they figured morning trains offered faster service through the state. That would improve the newspaper’s coverage and allow for a wider distribution.

The plan didn’t work, however.

Financial troubles forced The Charleston Mail out of business after only a few years. The newspaper was purchased by another company and consolidated with other publications to form the Star-Tribune.

It would not reemerge until 1899, this time with Charleston Gazette owner Moses Donally at the helm.

He changed the name back to The Charleston Mail but allowed it to remain a morning newspaper, since the Gazette was an evening paper at the time.

Donally sold the Gazette in 1900, however, and in 1901 switched the Charleston Mail to an evening paper so the two could compete head-to-head.

He also brought in five prominent Republicans to serve as editors while he handled the business side of the operation.

It was a disastrous decision.

The politicos found it difficult to agree on anything. The newspaper would pick a candidate to endorse, then switch sides and back another candidate in the very next day’s edition.

Readers found it difficult to trust a publication that couldn’t even agree with its own editorials.

Donally eventually fired the editors, but financial difficulties forced him to sell the newspaper in 1910.

It was merged with another local paper, The News, to become The News-Mail. This newspaper, too, was doomed and wound up on the auction block in April 1914.

And that’s where Gov. Clark found it.

He purchased the News-Mail, returned its name to The Charleston Mail and installed himself as editor and publisher. He would hold the position for more than 30 years.

Things started small—Clark and managing editor Grady Damron were the paper’s entire editorial staff for a time—but the business began to grow almost immediately.

Clark added a Sunday edition on April 4, 1920, and changed the name of the newspaper to the Charleston Daily Mail. The publication soon outgrew its headquarters at 1002 Virginia St. East. It moved into a brand new building across the street in April 1927, where it remains today.

A newspaper for the whole people

Clark came to the Charleston Daily Mail with a wealth of experience, having worked in Washington as a political journalist for several different newspapers.

His experience as a territorial governor also gave him a unique insight into politics on both the state and national level.

But in spite of his background—or maybe because of it—Clark came to the Daily Mail with somewhat of an aversion to politics.

He styled himself an “independent Republican.

One of the first editorials he wrote for The Charleston Mail declared the publication would be “a Republican newspaper—mighty positively so—but not a factional opponent.

“It will be a political or personal organ of no individual, not even the owner,” he wrote.

Instead, Clark assured readers his newspaper “will serve no interests except the interests of the whole people.”

Clark’s commitment to fairness also extended to his staff.

Columnist Adrian Gwin recalled a time when, as a young reporter, Clark summoned him to his office.

“To my knock on his door he said come,’ and then sit down sir,’ offering a chair beside him. He handed me a three-paragraph story clipped from a previous edition, asking if I wrote it,” Gwin remembered in a 1996 column.

It was short article about an unruly drunk who had been arrested. The story listed the man’s address, which Gwin had copied from an official report at the police station.

The drunk had lied to police, however, and gave them someone else’s address.

“Mr. Gwin… The family at the address has notified us that they will sue the newspaper and the writer of the article for a million dollars.

“I just want you to know, Mr. Gwin, that the newspaper will stand behind you 100 percent, regardless of what happens.

No lawsuit was ever filed, but Gwin said the experience was a perfect example of Clark’s character.

“He was courteous, crafty, industrious, gentlemanly, hard shelled, soft-hearted, aspiring, considerate and willing to give more than he demanded, he wrote.

Former lifestyles editor Julie Kemp began working in the Daily Mail newsroom about a year before Clark’s death.

Although he was 80 at the time, Kemp remembers Clark was very hands-on with his staff.

“He was just quite a presence in the newsroom,” Kemp said. “He didn’t sit in his little office. He roamed around.”

One day he hand-delivered a copy of one of Kemp’s stories, clipped from the newspaper.

“He had written on it ’good yarn.’”

Even as he became head honcho of a successful newspaper, Clark’s love of writing never waned.

He regularly wrote for the newspaper, mostly in his front-page editorial “At This Hour.” But he still occasionally turned in news stories, too.

“Just to keep in touch with the news,” he would say.

A lasting legacy

Clark remained an active presence in the newsroom even as his health began to fail. He had suffered recurring heart attacks but, by early 1950, appeared to be in comparatively good health.

But about 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 4, he suffered another heart attack.

He was admitted to the hospital, where he died at 1:27 p.m.

Clark requested no elaborate obituary, commanding the staff to only write “a few words at the top of the editorial column, and that is all.”

Editorial writer Jack Maurice respectfully disobeyed his final wishes, however.

Maurice remembered his boss and friend as a man of keen wit, “a student’s understanding of history,” and a “deep and abiding concern for what he felt right and proper.”

“If one word can suffice to characterize him it is integrity’ – both personal in his life and publicly in his conduct of a newspaper, Maurice wrote in the Sunday newspaper.

Clark’s funeral was held the following Monday at the Kanawha Presbyterian Church, right next door to the Daily Mail building.

Maurice and nine other Daily Mail employees served as pallbearers.

Clark’s widow took over operation of the paper when he died, appointing her brother Fred Staunton as publisher.

Her son Lyell eventually took ownership of the newspaper and continued operating the publication until 1987, when the family sold The Daily Mail to Thomson Newspapers.

Without, or with, offence to friends or foes

When Clark began the difficult task of revamping the Charleston Daily Mail, he sought a motto to convey his guiding ideals for the newspaper.

He found what he was looking for in the eighth canto of Lord Byron’s epic poem “Don Juan.”

“Without, or with, offence to friends or foes,” the poet wrote. “I sketch your world exactly as it goes.

The slogan began appearing in each edition of the newspaper, but Clark also had the line emblazoned on a plaque to hang in the newsroom.

The Daily Mail has seen many changes over the last century, but that plaque still hangs in the newsroom, right behind the copy desk.

It serves as a daily reminder of our forebears, as well as the principles we still espouse.

Thanks, governor.