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Wood, Wirt, Gilmer, Lewis and Harrison counties

After visiting all 55 counties of West Virginia last year, those winding, country roads started calling my name once again.

When I returned here in 2014, I professed that West Virginia University belonged to the state’s 1.8 million residents.

To this day, I hold that belief true to my heart.

Like Willie Nelson, I am on the road again – but on the country roads again.

This year I am going to travel to at least half of the counties. And to prepare, I stuffed my suitcase with my favorite bowties. I stocked up on Diet Dr. Pepper. And I recharged the battery pack secretly inserted into my back.

As president of a flagship, land-grant institution, it is vital for us to be present beyond Morgantown. Not every single West Virginian gets to come see us regularly, so we will go to them.

Partnering with communities and businesses from Weirton to Welch and all points between is vital to the growth of our University and our state as a whole.

While last year’s journey served as a personal learning experiment, this year, we are focusing more on how to fuel jobs and opportunities for West Virginians.

Below are my thoughts from a recent leg of the tour on June 24, in which I was accompanied by Student Government Association members, including President George Capel, as well as Ken Blemings, dean of the Honors College; Matt Harbaugh, director of Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Commercialization; and Geri Ferrara, editor of the Dominion Post.

June 24

Vienna (Wood County)
This first stop could have gotten messy. We arrived at around 9 a.m. at a well-known, family-owned staple of the Parkersburg-area – Holl’s Chocolates.

I could not think of a sweeter way to start the morning! Luckily, I had some spare bowties in case my chocolate-consuming decorum was subpar.

I also made a mental note to not say that Holl’s was based in Parkersburg. Technically, it is located in Vienna. I am sure there would have been beholders of accurate geography to call me out on that.

One of my favorite things about Holl’s Chocolates is that its president, Dominique Holl, is a proud WVU alumnus. He graduated in 1992 with his degree in international studies.

Dominique and his wife, Michelle, welcomed us with open arms and gave us a tour of their magnificent facility. They also gave us samples of their goods, including a bag of milk chocolate almond bark. It was delicious.

President Gee chooses a truffle from the plate.

The history behind Holl’s is a story of the American Dream and personifies the true Mountaineer spirit.

As a young man, Dominique’s father, Fritz, apprenticed in Switzerland in a conditorei (a combination pastry, chocolate and café shop). Fritz brought those talents to the United States in 1958, and after working nearly three decades for Ohio dairy company Broughton’s, he opened Holl’s in his kitchen in 1986.

Dominique joined the business in the 1990s after learning the recipes, the techniques and the craft of making chocolate – the same expertise that his father acquired in Switzerland.

West Virginia companies are extremely loyal to West Virginia, and we are proud that the Holl legacy continues to thrive right here in the Mountain State.

Elizabeth (Wirt County)
The Gee tour rolled into neighboring Wirt County, where we visited the county 4-H camp out Camp Barbe Road. WVU Extension agent Patti Morrison was on hand to greet us and show us how the 4-H’ers were spending their time this summer.

At one table we saw youth piecing together homemade sushi. At a nearby table, children were weaving baskets. Of course, it would have not been a successful stop without a hearty “How How” and a group photo with the 4-H’ers.

President Gee stands in a crowd of students.

After camp, we headed into town to the Energy Express site at the Wirt County Primary Center, where we met up with Liz Adams, a state business plan winner. I visited this same site last year and it was one of the highlights.

I am continually impressed with Extension’s role and the volunteers and workers who devote their time to youngsters in the program—feeding their hearts, their minds and their appetites.

Last year, the children constructed and adorned paper bowties for my visit. This year, the creative, energetic bunch created a giant paper bowtie for me. I am sure to be back again. Love those kids.

Glenville (Gilmer County)
It was a delight meeting good friends, including community stalwart Ike Morris, for lunch at the Pioneer Grille. Traveling on some of those winding West Virginia roads like Route 14 and Route 5 for a while can build up an appetite.

The folks at the Pioneer Grille fulfilled the task of satisfying our hunger to a T. They provided us with five-star service in their dining room. Everything from the fresh mozzarella/tomato appetizer to the grilled chicken to the strawberry shortcake was fantastic.

Weston (Lewis County)
Next stop was at the Lewis County WVU Extension office in lovely Weston. Lewis County is an essential part of our state. It is the home of the iconic Jackson’s Mill, the epicenter of West Virginia 4-H camping, which serves more than 100,000 people a year.

I want to thank agents Bruce Loyd and Liz Post and their staff for welcoming us and for the refreshments. They sure came in handy on a hot day.

In speaking with the Extension staff, I realized that West Virginia is not necessarily a state of big cities. Nor is it a state of big businesses. Rather, we are a state of big ideas. And it is the small businesses and small communities that create those big opportunities and big ideas.

We then hopped over to one of those small businesses with worldwide visions – Appalachian Glass.

Like Holl’s Chocolates, Appalachian Glass is built on family sweat and generations of dedication. Matt, Chip and Todd Turner are keeping the Appalachian Glass tradition alive.

President Gee and Chip Turner

We keenly watched as Chip and Todd demonstrated how they craft glass by hand and mouth. To create a piece of glassware, they rolled a glob of molten glass inside the furnace with a blowpipe. They then transferred the glob out to shape it before popping it back into the furnace.

To produce a friendship ball, they blew through the pipe into the glob to make a glass globe. Truly fascinating. In one example, Chip made a glass fish ornament.

I am glad they did not invite me to try my hand at it. I imagine it takes quite a bit of skill and caution to effectively handle glass that has been in a 2,200-degree furnace. Chip, who is Todd’s father, said it takes the right amount of balance and timing to perfect the art of glassblowing.

Chip told us this was his 34th year in the glass industry. He also said that Appalachian Glass produces 250 pounds of glass a day. It might not seem like a lot, but he reassured us, “That’s a whole lot of glass ornaments!”

Nutter Fork (Harrison County)
We topped off an eventful day with some exceptional people at a Special Olympics picnic at Veterans Memorial Park.

It was good seeing Donnie Tucker, outreach coordinator for WVU Athletics, bring a few of our superstar athletes down to greet the Special Olympians.

In tow were Brandon Watkins, of the men’s basketball team, and Kayla Montgomery, Chania Ray, Desiree Rhodes and Arielle Roberson from the women’s squad. I noticed them playing cornhole with our Special Olympics friends and I must say to our basketball players, ‘Stick to your day jobs.’

Brandon Watkins, Kayla Montgomery, Chania Ray, Desiree Rhodes and Arielle Roberson

The Special Olympics is a special program that we, at WVU, wholeheartedly support. It provides folks an outlet for physical fitness and, best of all, lifelong friendships.

It was a whirlwind of a day on the road and I enjoyed every second of it. Days like these remind me that I made the right choice when I moved back to West Virginia.