Wyoming, McDowell, Logan, Kanawha, Clay, Braxton counties
Traveling the southern part of wonderful West Virginia never fails to amaze me.
Truly, the landscapes and, even more prominently, the people shine so bright.
It was in McDowell County where I began my 55-county tour in 2014. I fell in love with it so much that I went back again (with the Mountaineer Marching Band) that fall and, now, I return yet again.
Accompanying me on this trip were a group of our University students; Ken Blemings, dean of the Honors College; and Tara Hulsey, dean of the School of Nursing.
Southern West Virginia has its own unique charm. I plan to keep returning to those hills and valleys often to remind the fine folks that our University has its doors open for them.
Herndon and Mullens (Wyoming County)
Our crew arose early to arrive at Herndon Consolidated School to interact with the youngsters participating in our fabulous Energy Express program.
For those who do not know, Energy Express is an eight-week, summer reading and nutrition program geared to children in rural communities. Approximately 3,000 kids benefit from Energy Express each year at 80 sites across the state.
In fact, Energy Express is a first – it was developed right here at West Virginia University for West Virginia.
Back when I was their age, many of us had three months off every summer and did practically nothing. What a wasteful way to spend our youth. Research now shows that children regress in skills, such as reading, if they remain idle over the summer months.
Thankfully, our amazing Extension Service is there to swoop in with Energy Express to further the development of minds and bodies.
In Herndon I received quite the gracious welcome as children greeted me wearing colorful, paper bowties they crafted themselves. I then had the joy of reading to them the children’s book “Living Life the West Virginia Way,” which was written by one of our faculty members, Carolyn Atkins.
The book covered West Virginia facts, such as the state bird, the state flower, the state tree and the state animal – all of which this group already knew. What a smart bunch!
They even learned a bit about our University, its mascot and its traditions from the book.
It was at that school where I met up with one of my favorite University students, Savannah Lusk. Savannah is a 2014 Foundation Scholar and Wyoming County native. She has already accomplished great things at West Virginia University and hopes to someday become an oncologist.
Savannah is a perfect example of the untapped talent in that part of the state. We need more young people like her who can realize their dreams and enhance their communities.
From the school, Savannah led us down Routes 10 and 16 to Mullens, where her grandparents run a local diner, the Second Street Station. It was a pleasure meeting members of her family, including her hardworking father.
Welch (McDowell County)
Eleven months had passed since I experienced one of the most uplifting moments of my travels around West Virginia.
In August 2014, we loaded up six buses in Morgantown with nearly 400 members of the Mountaineer Marching Band. We drove south to McDowell County and our Band put on one heck of a performance on the River View High School football field in Bradshaw.
Hearing more than 2,000 McDowell County residents lead a ‘Let’s go Mountaineers’ chant sent chills up my spine.
None of that would have happened without Extension agent Donald Reed bluntly asking me a few months earlier at a community luncheon, “What would it take to bring the Mountaineer Marching Band to McDowell?”
In Welch, I reunited with Donald and other McDowell County leaders at the Riverside Café and Bakery. They welcomed me with a huge gold-and-blue bowtie cake! Cake makes me happy.
I told folks there that I learned two things from my West Virginia travels, especially in McDowell County: West Virginians, no matter where they are, love West Virginia, and West Virginians love their University.
This will become even more apparent when we open up the WVU Beckley campus next year. Beckley is only an hour from Welch and we are planning to deliver the same Mountaineer value and quality to the doorsteps of southern West Virginians. The future of this state rests on building an educated citizenry.
Logan (Logan County)
I hopped onto an ATV here for the first time and let out a ‘Woohoo!’ Luckily for other ATV riders, and pedestrians in general, it will likely be the last time. Thanks to Extension agent Mark Whitt for that photo op.
On a more serious note, Mark informed us of the need for ATV safety awareness, particularly in that part of the state. If anyone can spread the word, it is Mark, who helped create the first national 4-H youth curriculum for ATV safety.
We had an encouraging conversation with Mark and other local leaders including Jeff Lusk, executive director of the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Trail System. Our meeting touched on ways to help the region continue to benefit economically from the trails and using reclaimed mining properties in productive ways.
Before we took off, my good buddy Bray Cary, CEO of West Virginia Media, sat me down for an interview on his “Decision Makers” show. Bray and I always have lively discussions on the issues that affect West Virginians.
St. Albans (Kanawha County)
It was time to finally end a long day with another good media friend, Mitch Vingle, who invited me on his sports radio show broadcast live from Grumpy’s Waterfront Grille.
How fitting that the interview took place at a grille, since Mitch grilled me on football and Big 12 expansion. I must give kudos to Mitch because he has always treated me fairly and never misquoted me. Although, it is often my actual quotes that do get me in trouble.
Mountaineer fans were in full force at Grumpy’s and snagged some pics with me. It never gets old seeing gold-and-blue and Flying WVs through every nook and cranny of our state.
Charleston (Kanawha County)
On Day 2 of this excursion, I did not need caffeine to jumpstart my morning.
We had the “Dean of Good Deeds” Randall Reid-Smith wake us up with his energy.
Randall, who is commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, is a true friend of the University. He graciously led our group on a tour of the West Virginia State Museum.
It was especially gratifying seeing our students awestruck by the exhibits in the museum. Every West Virginian needs to visit this museum.
Clay (Clay County)
Clay County has zero stoplights. That must explain why the people there do not stop.
Much like the Technology Student Association at Clay County High School, which recently traveled to Dallas, Texas and won a national parliamentary procedure contest. Hats off to that group. I got to meet these superstar students at the high school, as well as other impressive students who are making great strides and representing this state very well.
I also got to catch up with one of my favorite state legislators, Roger Hanshaw, a Clay County native who is also a graduate of our College of Law and the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. (He also holds a Ph.D. in chemistry from Notre Dame, but I try not to hold that against him.)
Roger has a brilliant mind, as do many folks in Clay County. I know what it is like to come from a small town. I grew up in a place called Vernal, Utah, and I can testify that people from small communities often go on to do big things.
Sutton (Braxton County)
This represented yet another stop that made me hopeful for the future of America.
I popped into Braxton County High School and met with some of our ultra-talented HSTA students. HSTA stands for Health Sciences and Technology Academy. Under the direction of Ann Chester, founder of HSTA, it is a program that offers intensive training in math, science and research to high school students.
In this case, many of the students tackled a community health issue. And I learned that HSTA yields success. One hundred percent of HSTA students graduate form high school, with 99 percent of them going to college.
One of our incoming freshmen, Lindsay Keplinger, was kind enough to join us on this stop. Lindsay, a 2015 Foundation Scholar, just graduated from the high school and will be studying biology at the University.
I am a strong believer in the story of West Virginia rising – its future is in the hands of young people like Lindsay.
I was also floored by the level of passion and dedication shown by the principals, teachers, staff and parents on this trip. I saw so much hope and compassion at every school that I want to support them 100 percent in their efforts with the youth.
After visiting Braxton County High School, there was only one way to cap off this leg of the tour – ice cream at the nearby Custard Stand!