Snow. Rain. Temperatures below zero. Schools closed for days. Then an 80 degree day. Some more rain and then the floods. Epic floods this year. Such is winter in West Virginia. I’ve been taking advantage of this dismal weather to work on my 2018 Spring Collection, and I’ve been having a ball. My new pieces have 2 basic themes: The Twigs, which are basically minimalist sticks and stones and delicate little things - perfect for summer, and The Mountains, which are near and dear to my heart.
To understand my inspiration and why these mountains are so special to me, you have to understand my home. West Virginia. The Mountain State. Name kinda says it all, doesn’t it? But not everyone is familiar with West Virginia. Ask a lot people from the west coast and they’ll say “Oh, I’ve been to Arlington before, that’s close to D.C.”
Nope, not us. That’s Virginia. We used to be Virginia. But the war between the states separated us. Our mountains are rich in American history.
My 1989 watercolor of the covered bridge at Philippi, WV
Philippi, West Virginia was the site of the first land battle fought in the Civil War on June 3, 1861. Built in 1852, the famous Philippi Covered bridge was heavily utilized by both Union and Confederate armies. It is on the US National Registry of Historic Places, and is the only covered bridge still in use as part of the US Highway System on WV Route 50. On April 20, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation granting independent statehood from Virginia, and we were officially admitted to the Union as the 35th state on June 20, 1863. Virginia remained part of the Confederacy until the end of the Civil War on April 9, 1865, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Courthouse.
My ancestors emigrated from Ireland long before West Virginia became a state. Hanging in my dining room is my great-grandfather’s naturalization papers renouncing allegiance to Queen Victoria signed by a Marshall County Virginia judge in 1860. It’s a beautiful document
My beloved home is a state of contradictions. We are called the Mountain State because we have the highest mean altitude of any state East of the Mississippi, and we also boast the largest natural scenic and outdoor recreational area in the Eastern US. West Virginia University is ranked in the top 100 Law, Medical, Nursing, Economics, Political Science, and Fine Arts colleges in the country.
You may be familiar with three very inspirational films. The 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, is about Nobel Laureate mathematician John Nash. Dr. Nash was a native of Bluefield, WV.
Hidden Figures, was a 2016 movie about the elite team of female African American mathematicians at NASA, including White Sulphur Springs native and WVU graduate Katherine Johnson who calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, as well as the calculations Friendship 7’s orbit around Earth at John Glenn’s personal request!
In 1999, October Sky told the story of NASA aerospace engineer Homer Hickam, who was from Coalwood, WV.
So, as you can see, some of the finest scientific minds of the 20th century hail from West Virginia. Yet we are fifth in the nation in unemployment and almost 18% of our population live under the poverty level.
We are home to the famous The Greenbrier Resort, nestled in the majestic Allegheny Mountains in White Sulphur Springs. The Greenbrier has been a Presidential resort since 1778, and during President Eisenhower’s administration, a 112,544 square foot bunker was constructed to offer safe haven to the President and Congress in the event of a nuclear disaster. It was the Cold War Era after all. The bunker housed a fully staffed hospital with 12 beds, a surgical suite, dentistry, a pharmacy, and an ICU. To this day, the Greenbrier Clinic is a state of the art medical facility, albeit above ground now.
Yet West Virginia is ranked number one in heroin overdose deaths. Number one in obesity. Number one in Type 2 diabetes. Second in cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, third in kidney disease, and eleventh in suicide.
If you’ve read this far, you might be wondering why in the world would a person ever want to live here? It’s not just the beautiful mountains and outdoor activities. It’s also the people. Educated or not, everyone treats you like a human being. Rudeness is almost unheard of. People wave as you drive down the road, whether they know you or not. Neighbors help each other, we keep an eye on each other’s kids and pets. Men actually hold doors open for ladies. Folks let you over in a lane of traffic, say please and thank you, give away their extra squash, tomatoes and cucumbers from their summer gardens. Sometimes I forget to lock my doors at night, and I rarely lock my truck. And I never worry. Naïve? Perhaps, but it’s the way I was raised, and I wouldn’t change a thing.
My Dad was one of the biggest West Virginia contradictions ever. He grew up in Grafton, son of 3 generations of B&O Railroad men. He enlisted in the US Army Air Corp in 1942, eventually earning the rank of First Lieutenant, and was a B-24 flight instructor in WWII.
After the war he attended WVU, graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering. He held executive positions in several WV chemical companies over the years, travelling the world scouting out locations for new plants in the burgeoning plastics industry. His travels took him to Sao Paulo, Brazil, Edinburgh, Scotland, and Amsterdam, Holland. I felt like half my childhood was waiting at the airport for Daddy to get home.
After his death, I discovered a few things that were either not known by my mother, or they were never spoken of. His passport showed that he travelled several times to mainland China in the late 1960’s, almost 3 years before Nixon travelled there and while it still clearly stated that travel there was strictly prohibited by the State Department. It’s just one of the mysteries I’ll never know since he started showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease in his early 80’s
Later in his career, one of his many titles was “Director of Safety and Environmental Engineering.” Before retiring, he spent much of his time at the state capitol in Charleston and also Washington, DC working with EPA legislators. Many of his meetings were held at that famous Greenbrier Resort.
He would ride his BMW motorcycle over the mountains to his meetings, because it was fun and because he could. His colleagues had much to say about their “safety person” riding a motorcycle, but not to his face. If you knew my dad, you’d know why. Many times, he refused to stay at the Greenbrier on those occasions, citing it was "too damned expensive" when he could just come home. He also refused to sign off on exorbitant expense accounts of his employees, calling them out on obvious charges. He was responsible for the corporations budget, and he was no more frivolous with their money than he was his own.
My dad had rubbed elbows with a lot of influential people, but he did not particularly enjoy it. I have photos of him with George H. W. Bush, when he was Director of the CIA as well as President. But that wasn’t my dad in his element, the dad I knew.
His element was the mountains. All mountains, but especially his West Virginia mountains. As a little girl, I remember him telling me stories about hunting on top of this mountain, or fishing in that particular stream, he’d talk about climbing and hiking and camping and dragging deer and I’d think “My dad climbed that HUGE mountain?” And although he wasn’t a large man, he seemed like a giant to me. Giant in his knowledge, his passions, his integrity, his love, in everything he did.
From the time I could walk, he and Mom dragged me all over these hills. I remember a particular hunting trip when I was maybe five years old. Mom the cook was warm and snug in “her” camper. But not me. I insisted on sleeping in the tent with Dad and couple of my cousins. When I woke up the next morning, my long hair was actually frozen to the ground! Dad didn’t miss a beat. He told me to go warm up by the fire with the boys and grab a cup coffee. I’m pretty sure I slept in the camper with Mom the rest of that trip!
I have never been a fan of cold, but I am a fan of these mountains, their beauty, their history, their flora and fauna. That’s where I find my inspiration, my materials, my peace, my muse. Dad gave that to me. I guess that is perhaps his legacy, one of them at least, and he’d be fine with that. These vistas were my views as a kid, my Instagram. Forever emblazoned in my mind.
On June 20, 1963, at West Virginia’s Centennial Celebration, President John F. Kennedy said “The sun may not always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do, and I am happy to be here. I know of no state whose people feel more strongly, who have a greater sense of pride in themselves, in their State and in their country than the people of West Virginia, and I am proud to be here today.” Some of the dignitaries in attendance that day were Senator Robert Byrd and Senator Jennings Randolph.
Five months later, JFK was gone. Twenty-one years later, my dad retired. Among the many cards and letters congratulating him, two were from Senators Byrd and Randolph, one from George Bush, and one from a gentleman named Ronald Reagan, although I haven't seen that one since long before my mom passed away.
Proud of his West Virginia roots, he was humble about his accomplishments. I never heard him boast or brag about himself, ever. He exuded a quiet confidence that came from within. But he sure did brag on me. I miss that.
And that, my friends, is why I will always call these Mountains my home.
*All photo creds go to Dad’s extensive collection of thousands of 35mm slides, painstakingly reproduced on my handy iPhone!