Monday, May 23, 2011

Not a bastard

Rodney Dangerfield was a hard core New Yorker, yet in some ways, he must surely have a West Virginian connection. Just like Rodney, it seems we get no respect. The mainstream media and societal trendsetters in major metropolitan areas like Hollywood and New York, as well as regular folks in regular states, seem to always want to stereotype us in less than flattering ways. It makes West Virginians (and I mean this to include those who may not have been born here, but who consider themselves as West Virginians) feel like we always have to prove ourselves. Thus, we revel in our successes, and savor our victories. We band together to support each other.

Why do we feel this way? This is a theory about one way West Virginia came to be seen as the red-headed stepchild (with no offense intended to red-heads or stepchildren, but merely as a phrase to describe anyone as undervalued and/or not fully accepted outcasts).

Our state was first populated by hardy settlers who decided the eastern seaboard area was not for them. Whether by choice or necessity, they moved from the flat lands of eastern Virginia to the rugged terrain of the Appalachian mountains. After all, much of the good land was already taken by rich planters, many of whom had been granted royal decrees of land by the king. Rather than buy existing land, early settlers were brave enough to venture into the wilderness to claim their own land that had not been owned yet (notwithstanding the claims by Native Americans, who mostly used West Virginia as a shared hunting ground). It wasn't easy living there, but at least they were free.

As the exploration and settlement of America continued, the flat landscape and rich farmlands of the midwest beckoned. To many, the Appalachian mountains were merely an annoyance to get beyond to better land on the other side. A flood of new settlers for the rest of America bypassed our state. Those who stayed in our hills and hollers were hard workers who loved the land as well as the majestic views in our world. The difficulty in travel here made us more isolated, but I think we liked it that way.

In the beginning, the original state of Virginia stretched all the way to the Ohio River. However, the vast majority of the Old Dominion population lived in the flatter eastern part of the state which had been settled first. For the most part, the citizens there looked down on the western counties as less civilized. Heck, we even elected frontiersman Daniel Boone (who lived near Charleston at that time) to the fancy halls of the Virginia legislature!

Our needs were much different than those in the rest of the state, and those in power mostly ignored us. They apparently were happy to have our tax revenue, but we never seemed to get much of it back. The only major expenditure made by the state of Virginia within our current boundaries was the Transallegheny Lunatic Asylum at Weston. Thus, the leaders in Richmond only saw fit to send us their insanity cases.

One big difference between western and eastern Virginia was the institution of slavery. The mountainous features of the western counties were not conducive to large scale farming of tobacco, cotton, etc. Thus, we never had a large slave population compared to the rest of Virginia and other southern states. Plus, most of us were too poor to own slaves. Ours was not a slave economy. This played a major role in the birth of West Virginia as its own state.

When the civil war came along, we saw no need to secede from the country we loved. We were strong believers in the United States. If the folks in Richmond were going to join the Confederacy, then this was our chance to win our freedom and go our own way. Our independent streak was strong! Thus, western counties refused to join the confederacy and originally set themselves up as the reconstituted state of Virginia. This allowed us to have a government with representation in Washington as the loyal Virginians.

What many of us in the western counties really wanted was to become our own state, rather than serving as a “shadow government” of our former state. We knew that we had not been treated fairly by the eastern Virginians who had always looked down on us. This seemed like our chance to free ourselves from their longstanding mistreatment. Otherwise, after the war would be over, we would once again be taken advantage of by Richmond.

The hard part was for the national government to decide whether the part of Virginia that stayed loyal to the union could be admitted as a new state. There was a major Constitutional obstacle--Article 4, Section 3 states “ State shall be formed or erected, within the jurisdiction of any other state, nor any state be formed by the junction of two or more States, or parts of States, without the consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned, as well as of the Congress.” Could loyalist Virginia, with an acting Governor and a portion of the Legislature sitting in Wheeling rather than Richmond legally consent to the creation of West Virginia? Even our great president from that era was torn as to what he should do. Obviously, eastern Virginia would be opposed to this, and although they were part of the Confederacy, one goal of the Civil War was to put down the rebellion and get back to being the United States. This controversy on how to get around the Constitution is why it took a few years until June of 1863 for us to become a state. It was not an easy decision. There is a famous statue of Lincoln in front of the West Virginia Capitol called “Lincoln walks at midnight” commemorating his deep contemplation of whether to allow our new state to be created.

This final decision was not without controversy. Since the Constitution clearly says that states cannot be made from other states, our statehood was questioned from the beginning. In fact, many referred to West Virginia as the bastard state, because of our illegitimate birth. From the start, we have always had to prove ourselves to others.

Once the Civil War was over, it didn't take long for the politicians in Richmond to go after us. First, they sued us over a technicality claiming that the eastern panhandle should not have been included in the new state of West Virginia. This bitterly contested case was taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1871, but in the end, Virginia lost. [It was probably fortunate that the Supreme Court was able to reach its decision rather narrowly, and did not examine the overall constitutionality of our statehood.]

That was merely the first round—there was another round to go. You see, the state of Virginia had the audacity to sue West Virginia for what some would call “damages.” Before the Civil War, Virginia had sold bonds and thus taken on debt for various civil projects—primarily to improve areas now outside the boundaries of West Virginia, such as harbor improvements. After the Civil War, Richmond felt like we were liable to pay our share of debt that had been incurred while we were considered part of Virginia (regardless of the benefit to us). They contended that based on the fact that West Virginia constituted one-third of the geographic size of the original state of Virginia (despite not having one-third of the population nor holding one-third of the wealth), we should pay one-third of the bill (plus interest!). We fought their allegations, and it was a long, hard fight all the way to the Supreme Court again.

As often happens, just like Rodney, we got no respect. The U.S. Supreme Court finally decided in 1911 to side with Virginia, and we had to make a huge payment to them. The court allowed us to set up a payment schedule, because we couldn't afford to pay it all at once. However, it still made it rough on the growth and prosperity of our little state (especially during the Depression). Unfortunately, most of us have forgotten about this injustice, but at the time, most Mountain State folks were very aware of and upset about these debt payments to Virginia. There was a big celebration when the last payment was made in 1939.

Even though knowledge of these events has bypassed most current West Virginians, I think that perhaps subconsciously the questions about our heritage still impact us. Maybe it is just floating in the mountain air, or perhaps it has somehow been passed down through our DNA. Without really thinking about it, we all realize that unlike the Dakotas or the Carolinas (both equally balanced between north and south), there is no symmetry with the Virginias. Our state is sometimes seen as a sub-component of another state, unlike all other states. It really irks us when we tell someone we are from West Virginia and they reply with “Oh yeah, I drove through Roanoke once”--oblivious to the fact that West Virginia is a separate state, and not a region of Virginia.

All West Virginians have a sense of being disrespected—we tend to carry a chip on our shoulders. We know what it is like to be that red-headed stepchild, who must constantly prove worthy. Others may look down on us, but we are strong, we are independent, we are beautiful, and we are valuable. Regardless of how the Constitution might be interpreted by some, West Virginia is not the bastard state—we are the Mountain State, known as “Wild & Wonderful West Virginia.” We are the 35th star on Old Glory, and it is indeed, almost heaven.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

My 3-word speech

During my tenure on the Wood County School Board, I had the opportunity to sit through a lot of graduation ceremonies. Early in my career, we voted to change the high school graduations from all three being on the same night (with one or two of five board members attending each ceremony), to having each school holding their own graduation on successive nights (rotating each year as to who goes first). This allowed family members who might want to attend more than one ceremony to do so (such as grandparents with graduates at different schools). Thus, all five board members attended three nights of graduation ceremonies all in a row.

As I sat through all those speeches, I would sometimes think back to my own Parkersburg High School graduation night (Was it really 35 years ago? My how times flies!). It had rained that afternoon, so the irreversible decision was made to move the ceremony from the football stadium to inside the Memorial Fieldhouse. However, the rain quit and the sun came out a few hours before the ceremony, making it a hot and humid evening—in fact, it was downright sticky with our dress clothes covered by the suffocating graduation robes.

PHS was the largest school in the state at that time, and I remember that the persons sitting on either side of me were strangers whom I had never met. The guy on one side was probably a vo-tech student. I think the girl must have been a teenage mom—back then, they didn't allow students who were pregnant to stay in school with the rest of us. That attitude is certainly antiquated today. By the time I was elected to the school board in 1992, one of our high schools had its own day care center, where teen moms could leave their babies while they attended class, and other students could get credit for learning child care while taking care of them.

Besides memories of my own graduation, the main thing that I thought about during all those graduation speeches was that they were too long. My own graduation in the stifling heat of the jam-packed Fieldhouse was way too long, and decades later the ceremonies had not become any shorter. I vowed to myself that if I were ever invited to give a graduation speech, it would be one of the most shortest graduation speeches ever. I decided to try and distill the essential message down to the fewest number of words. Eventually, I came up with my three word graduation speech.

You see, I think one of the most important thoughts to get across to young people finishing school is not about savoring the accomplishment of getting a diploma. Your education should not end with a mere handshake and a walk off the stage. Yes, graduation is a defined milepost that everyone should strive to achieve, but none of us should ever stop learning. Don't kid yourself into thinking that just because you now have a piece of paper, you don't need to study or read or learn new skills. The education process needs to be a continuing, life long practice.

The world is changing far too rapidly to not continue using the same study habits and inquisitive nature that leads to reaching the graduation milepost. Explore more about what interests you—there is a lot more to the Internet than just music, videos, and games. Feed your curiosity. Learn more about your job so that you can get ahead. Those who choose to never pick up a book again and who only want to watch Jersey Shore, Jerry Springer, or whatever other junk TV shows are popular hits of the day are going to get left behind in the game of life (anyone remember that board game?). They become the roadkill along the side of the information superhighway.

The key is to continue using the skills that allowed you to graduate, to keep you going as technology and society evolve. Graduation is not about finishing school—it is about starting life, whether it is life in a job, in a marriage, in another institution of higher learning, or whatever. In today's world, if you stop learning, you will soon be going backwards. You can't be stagnant. Always keep putting one foot in front of the other, and constantly add to your wisdom. This is how one succeeds.

And most of all, heed the three words of my graduation speech: NEVER STOP LEARNING!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth" (Proverbs 24:17)

After digesting yesterday's big news, I started to write an essay last night about the death of Osama bin Laden. However, I decided to “step away from the keyboard” and mull it over for another day. My fear is that some of you might take this as criticism—but that is not my intent. It is merely my way of recording my own thoughts, which I have found to be a cathartic exercise. I am not out to change the minds of those who disagree, but perhaps I can offer a chance to contemplate the complexities of this development.

Many of my friends were overjoyed with news of Osama's death, but that was not my first reaction. I can't say that I get excited about the death of any man, even one whose tactics I abhor. Instead, my first thoughts were that maybe the USA could declare victory, bring our troops home to their families, and use the savings to help balance the budget (can you say win-win-win?).

I also kept thinking about the simple saying “What would Jesus do?” I grew up with a red letter edition of the King James Bible, and always felt that the red verses were the most important. I admire that Thomas Jefferson created his own “Jeffersonian Bible” by eliminating everything except the words of Jesus Christ. From what I know of Jesus, I don't think his reaction to the big news would be the same as most Americans. After all, He said “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” There are many other similar passages urging us towards forgiveness of others, and trusting God to handle the judgment and punishment responsibilities.

I realize that Al Qaeda and the horror of 9/11 makes us want a special exemption from the need to forgive. I don't mean to sound like a cheerleader or an apologist for the despicable actions of terrorists. However, I am reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (a few of you shared this quote as your status): "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." Well said, Martin! I think Jesus would be proud of these remarks.

As an undergrad in the late '70s (during the Cold War days), I took a fascinating class on the history of Russia. I learned so much that I had not previously known during that semester (especially in those days, when the vast majority of Americans knew few facts about our avowed enemy). I remember writing a term paper on “The Mirror Image in U.S.-Soviet Relations” that explored how little we knew of each other, and how both sides often attribute positive characteristics to themselves and ignore any negative characteristics. We wanted things to be black and white; good versus evil. I won't complicate this essay by recreating that one, but in some of the same respects, we continue to only see what we want to see in Al Qaeda. We build them up into a formidable opponent, as if they are as organized and as large as the Soviet military was. Osama bin Laden served as the perfect boogeyman to fit our desired paradigm.

It seems to me that one of our life goals should be to become more civilized. Society must advance, mankind must evolve. Although humans are imperfect, we should still strive for improvement. Rather than falling into the same old trap of taunting and fighting, we should try to understand our differences. Rather than turning Osama into a evil tyrannical leader, we must make more of an effort to understand what motivates most terrorists.

While I don't claim to be an expert on this subject (there were no classes of this topic back when I was an undergrad), it seems to me that there are a few points that Americans must not ignore nor evade. First, is the way that Western countries decided to artificially turn Palestine into Israel (primarily as a response to the holocaust—something done by the Germans ended up hurting Palestinians, who had nothing to do with it). The vast majority of Americans are clueless as to how Israel was established, but if they really understood the history of the displacement of Palestinians, they might realize why we are so hated in the Middle East.

Another major factor that probably fuels anti-Americanism is the oil industry. Our insatiable appetite for oil eventually found a home in the Arab countries, overturning some governments and replacing them with puppet leaders (for example, the Shah of Iran). It made some families rich, and generally promoted the materialism and cultural values of the West over the traditional culture and local religion.

The preceding paragraphs definitely do not justify flying airliners into the World Trade Center, but peace will only come when we understand each other better. We can assassinate Osama or other individual leaders, but like the arcade game “Whack-a-Mole” another one will always pop up. Anyone can become a terrorists if they are so motivated, and little can be done to stop them. I fear that killing Osama does not end this jihad against America. Reprisals will likely come until we communicate with all sides better and understand what motivates them. I'm not saying they are right—but our enemies need to be understood rather than reviled.

Too often we want to paint things as a simple dichotomy—making everything either black or white, yes or no, right or wrong. However, reality is much more complex than that. We must explore the gray areas. This seems to me to be the direction towards the success we should all desire--lasting peace and prosperity.

Finally, I saw a bumper sticker recently that has stuck in my head through these latest developments. I like it when something short enough to fit on a bumper sticker can be so thought provoking. I think it makes a fitting conclusion.

The world is my country
Mankind is my brethren
Doing good is my religion

Party like it's 1949

Yesterday was the 37th Governor's Cup Regatta at the University of Charleston. Over the years it has developed into more than a crew race—even during my undergrad days, the races for some folks were merely an excuse to spend a Saturday afternoon on the campus riverbank (across from the state capitol), often with beautiful weather and blooms on the trees and flowers. GovCup became more a celebration of spring and a last big fling for students before final exams reared their ugly heads in a few weeks. Because of its popularity as a spring event on campus, GovCup became a favorite for alumni, providing a complementary event to Homecoming (Fall Festival) but in the first half of each year.

With the growth people from my generation using Facebook in recent years, lots of us have been reconnecting with our college classmates. Last year's GovCup was a phenomenal experience, with more alumni on campus than probably any event in UC history. This year, Easter (which is governed by the lunar calendar) came later than normal, and unfortunately coincided with GovCup. This conflict was sure to hurt attendance, plus the weather report was pessimistic. In fact, the rains, flooding, and debris on the river caused the regatta to almost get cancelled. A last minute go/no-go decision was made, and they ultimately decided to not cancel the entire event. Fortunately, the sun came out about noon, and it ended up being a beautiful day.

 Although there were fewer alums from my era in attendance this year, those who made it had a great time. The alumni office provided a nice buffet in the rotunda (one of the most beautiful rooms on a beautiful campus). Some of us ventured off to tour the campus. We marveled at the new student fitness center, with its windows overlooking the river. In our day, there was one universal gym weight machine in a windowless basement room in the phys ed building. Except for the new fitness center built onto the front, the rest of the phys ed building/Eddie King Gym complex was pretty much still the same, bringing back lots of memories for us—although it is overdue for an update. Fundraising is now beginning to replace this antiquated building (note to self—send a check).

 We got an official escorted tour to see the fancy suite apartments in the new East Dorm (and parking garage) that replaced Dickinson Hall girls dorm—they were amazing compared to the old-fashioned cramped dorm rooms we had. The only remaining dormitory from our era is Cox Hall, where I spent three of the best years of my life. After seeing the new dorm as part of an official tour, we had to try to relive our memories and get inside the old dorm, even if none of us had a keycard to get us in (hey, that was my home for years, and I still feel like I should be welcome to walk into that place). I found a door ajar that allowed us to get inside and roam around (and one girl invited us to check out her room). Cox Hall is now all single rooms, and the group restrooms now have individual shower stalls. The laundry facilities are no longer in the basement, but instead conveniently located on each floor. Cox Hall is not nearly as palatial as the other new dorms, but I would still be willing to live there today.

What struck me the hardest yesterday was realizing that we were wandering around the campus as alums who had come back although it had been 31 years since I graduated. During my student days, I can remember events that drew “old people” back to campus. It dawned on me that if I were a senior in 1980, our visit yesterday would be the equivalent to us seeing alums from the Class of 1949 roaming around (31 years earlier). Holy Cow! My former student self would have thought that folks who had graduated in 1949 were really old people, yet I don't feel all that far removed from those days (especially while visiting with my friends from that era). How could we now be the equivalent of the Class of 1949?

Later Saturday evening, a group of us gathered at a friend's house to socialize. All of us “old folks” continued to visit and tell stories from the old days, and enjoyed lots of music from that era (plus a special concert by Sue B., who is still as phenomenal on the guitar as she was when we were students). It was a great time that continued long into the night—just like it usually did when we were younger. Prince did a song in the early '80s that talked about partying like its 1999. Well, last night we partied like it was 1949! And I think we had a better time than whatever party those in the actual class of 1949 would have had after being on campus back in 1980. We still rock!