Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Beverly Heritage Center

I think everybody is familiar with Elkins (the county seat for Randolph County), but most folks don’t know much about Beverly, a smaller town a few miles down the highway. Beverly was the original county seat, but eventually lost that title to Elkins (formerly known as Leadville) in 1899, which had suddenly become a railroad hub just ten years earlier. How this happened (and how close it came to becoming a bloody intra-county war) is just one of the interesting stories explained in different display areas at the Beverly Heritage Center, which I had the pleasure of visiting recently.

An example of the nice signs inside the museum.

Another major component of this museum is Beverly’s involvement in the Civil War. Many people don’t realize how much western Virginia (prior to statehood in 1863) was in the national spotlight during 1861. One of the most significant early battles was fought near Beverly—the Union victory at the Battle of Rich Mountain. This key victory helped to drive the Confederates out of northwestern Virginia, protecting the vital B&O Railroad and setting the stage for West Virginia’s statehood. Later, the town was briefly raided by the Confederates four times over the course of the war. This museum has lots of artifacts and interesting displays about both the Civil War in the region as well as West Virginia’s statehood.

Beverly got its start as an early community along a route that became the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, an important road across the Appalachian Mountains from the Shenandoah Valley to the Ohio River. The history of transportation in the area is another focus at the Beverly Heritage Center. They cover the evolution from horses and stagecoaches, to the massive changes brought by the railroads, and finally to the automobile and how it changed American culture. The old Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike (which followed a path that is now covered by U.S. 250 from Staunton to Elkins, U.S. 33 from Elkins to the community Linn in Gilmer County, and Route 47 from Linn to Parkersburg) still runs through the heart of the town and in front of the museum.

The Beverly Heritage Center also focuses on the town of Beverly itself. This museum is actually four adjacent buildings (the 1808 Courthouse, a bank built in 1902, a former store built in 1912, and a residence from 1850) that have been combined together, forming an intriguing interior space filled with high quality displays telling about life in a small town in the old days, along with the other topics previously described.

While the Beverly Heritage Center provides a perfect place to capture the interesting history of this town and its surrounding, there is so much more to see there! After spending an hour and a half enjoying the displays, I didn’t have time to take the self-guided walking tour or to check out the Randolph County Museum diagonally across the street. Plus there are numerous antique shops and historical markers to read. I need to come back in warmer weather and check out the entire town as well as the nearby Rich Mountain battlefield.

The front of the museum along the highway through town
(the entrance and parking are around back).

[This story appeared in the March issue of Two-Lane Livin' magazine.]

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Perfect Prank

It was the spring semester of my senior year—the capstone of an enjoyable (as well as educational) four years at the University of Charleston. After spending the fall semester working as an intern on Capitol Hill in Washington, I was living those last collegiate months in the top floor of Benedum Hall, in a single room with a beautiful view of the West Virginia Capitol Dome.

As winter relaxed its icy grip, many of us (especially those of us with “senioritus”) were eager for spring break—just to relax from our studies and have some fun. In that era, not everyone disappeared for spring break, either because of lack of money to go back home (much less somewhere exotic, as many students today seem to do), or due to athletic team commitments, or just because we enjoyed being at our school.

There was a freshman who lived in our section of the dorm. He was basically a nice guy, but also someone who liked to kid around a lot (as well as talk a lot), and his nickname was “McChicken.” When he went home for spring break, some of us got together to pull off an epic prank that became a legend.

For some reason (notice that I did not use the word “unknown”), the key to his dorm room was available. It was decided to do something special for McChicken—a group project in which those of us staying on-campus over the week could participate. We came up with the idea to fill his room with wadded-up newspaper pages. It would be hilarious but harmless.

First, all electrical items such as lamps and the clock radio were unplugged—we certainly didn’t want to fill the room with tinder and then have a short circuit or some other calamity accidentally burn down the dorm! Then we started work gathering newspapers (e.g., some students were required to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal for business classes). We’d meet periodically in his dorm room and simply wad up the pages before tossing them towards the back of the room.

It wasn’t long before we had expended what newspapers we could find on campus. At that point, one guy who had a huge, early-1970s Chrysler Imperial (with trunk space large enough for the Mafia to carry numerous bodies) took some of us through the residential areas of Charleston, going door-to-door claiming that we were doing a recycling project and asking if we could take their newspapers off their hands. It was amazing how many folks were eager to contribute to this worthy project as we filled that Chrysler’s trunk!

With the supply of paper replenished, we were able to keep ahead of the wadding process. A party-like atmosphere soon grew around these nightly efforts (the attached picture shows a few of the participants about halfway into the process). It would surprise you how long it takes to fill a dorm room from wall-to-wall, from ceiling-to-floor, and from the window at the back to the final few inches next to the door. The last paper wads were forced through the narrow gap between the door and the door frame. We had succeeded in packing the entire room—all of the interior volume—with newspapers!

McChicken (I think the nickname had to do with his love for fast food from McDonalds, because he was not a timid, fearful person) had not returned from spring break over the weekend, but instead had waited until Monday morning to arrive. Given the number of students who participated in this stunt, as well as its audacity, it was hard to keep it secret.

Although I purposely tried to avoid seeing him that day, from what I heard he soon became suspicious because of the way people were reacting to his arrival. Despite his concerns, he had little idea what awaited him when he put the Schalge key into the knob of his dorm room door!

He had to use some force just to get it open far enough to see the problem. Even then, at first he couldn’t fathom that the wads of newspapers extended throughout his entire room. I was over in Riggleman Hall, innocently attending class when this happened, so I wasn’t there to see the initial reaction, but I remember hearing that he was impressed with our efforts. He was a good sport about the whole thing!

Eventually, with the help of push brooms, all those newspapers were swept down to the very end of the section hallway, beyond the side staircase. When I finally arrived at the dorm, the gigantic pile of newspapers had become a landing zone. Guys were running full-blast down the hallway, and hurling themselves into the forgiving newspapers, which were sloped at a 45 degree angle against the end of the hallway.

The best part was that if you were careful when getting up—extricating yourself just right—you would leave an exact imprint of how your body landed in the paper pile. Fortunately, I got a few turns at jumping into the pile—it was awesome! No one had anticipated that extra benefit when we had concocted the crazy idea of filling his room. It was a good example of a serendipitous result.

It seems to me that this was the perfect college prank. It involved lots of reading material, required community interaction, inspired our curiosity, and even provided some exercise activity—and yet this is just one of many treasured memories from my college days!

[If you have any connection to the University of Charleston, I would like to invite you to attend the “Close the King” celebration at UC’s Eddie King Gym this coming Saturday, February 28. Many of us will gather there that day to reminisce over beloved stories such as this one from our college years. It will be awesome, too!]

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Memories of the King!

Next Saturday, I will be returning to my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Charleston, for a very special alumni event. February 28 is “Close the King”—the last regular season basketball games (it is a double-header with the women at 2:00 and the men at 4:00) in UC’s Eddie King Gym. Later this year, the old gym will undergo a complete renovation and expansion. Among other changes, the basketball court will be reoriented 90 degrees (becoming perpendicular to the river rather than running parallel with the river). It will have a completely different “look and feel” after this season.

The old gym is long overdue for replacement, but it will be important to see it one last time. I have lots of good memories in that place, and it has changed little over the decades since my student days. Heck, it even still smells the same—not a bad smell, but just that old wood and varnish smell that permeates many old gyms.

I was never much of a basketball player, but I was a big fan in those days. UC didn’t have a football team at that time, and so basketball was clearly at the top of the athletic hierarchy. I loved going to the games and cheering loudly with all my friends. We’d go around to the student entrance on the river side of the gym, show our IDs to the old guys in green sport coats who controlled access, and scramble into the pull-out wooden bleachers close to the court.

Often, the TKE fraternity would have their big old church bell there in the corner, and we’d take turns yanking on the cable to ring the bell for every point scored. It was great to see the guys (as well as the cheerleaders!) whom we knew from our classes, the dorms, the cafeteria, etc., take the court against other WVIAC foes.

This was in the era before ESPN, when local communities would come out to support their hometown college teams. Even the students were more supportive of the teams than today’s students, who too often stay in their rooms playing video games (or whatever). This was in the good old days before three point shots, alternating possession jump balls, shot clocks, and long shorts that look more like pajamas. It was great entertainment!

We cheered not just for our men’s team, but we also had pretty good crowds for the Golden Eagle women’s teams. In my era, UC was the dominant women’s team in the conference. During my year as student government president, the Student Government Association (SGA) promoted “Women’s Basketball Appreciation Night” when we had a big game against WVU (yes, WVU came to Charleston to play in the Eddie King Gym). I’ll never forget the large crowd we had that night. Best of all, it ended up as a thrilling victory, with Cathy Penczak hitting a last second game-winning shot from deep in the corner.

Speaking of SGA, I will also remember the hassle of getting a large parachute hung inside the Eddie King Gym, along with the mirrored disco ball. Then, we spent many hours pinning to the parachute a hundred or so cardboard stars on strings that other volunteers had covered with glitter as decoration for the big Fall Festival dance—the only formal dance held in the gym during my days. It took a lot of volunteer effort to set up for that dance!

Another even bigger SGA event in the Eddie King Gym was the concert by the rock group Pablo Cruise (their hits included “Love Will Find A Way,” “A Place In The Sun,” and “Whatcha Gonna Do?”). Their opening act was James Taylor’s younger brother Livingston Taylor. For years, students had wanted to host a concert in the gym, so we finally got the go-ahead to give it a try. A big time concert was not easy to set up in the Eddie King Gym (not to mention meeting all the contract requirements and other hassles). Their stage took nearly a third of the floor, and the acoustics were terrible. But we gave it the old college try and pulled it off (and almost broke even).

Although I wasn’t a basketball star, I played various intramural sports in the gym, in addition to the physical education classes I took there. In my later years, the UC volleyball coach would invite guys who she thought were pretty good in her volleyball class to come scrimmage against her volleyball team. That was a lot of fun for me!

One of my final memories of the gym from my college days was that we held graduation practice inside the gym, which was also the alternate graduation location if it rained. Fortunately, the weather cooperated and we were able to hold the traditional UC graduation ceremony on our beautiful riverbank, with the West Virginia Capitol in the background.

As you can see, I may not have been a varsity basketball star, but I have a lot of good memories in that old gym. It is important for me to see it one last time in its current configuration. Best of all, there will be many of my fellow alums there, which is what really makes it special. As important as the building is to me, the people I knew in that era are even more important. We are getting older (one of our friends recently died unexpectedly) and so seeing each other again is very important. When we get together, we don’t see each other as being old—we see each other as the college students we once were we when first met each other. We talk until our throats hurt, we smile until our cheeks hurt, and laugh until our sides hurt. It may sound painful, but indeed, it is fantastic!

Especially if you live close by, please support this event, because many alums are coming from far away to be there, and they want to see old friends. Come early to chat with fellow alums (I plan on hanging out in the student union beginning around 10 AM until they open the gym doors for the game), wear maroon if you can, and stay afterward for a free reception in the student union. It will be a wonderful day! Go Eagles!

[A view from the home side seats taken with a fish-eye lens.]