by E. Gordon Gee
For the Fourth of July, Time magazine is devoting a special print and digital issue to the people, places, ideas and institutions in America that deserve a brighter spotlight. The folks at Time sent me a note asking to weigh-in on the charms of West Virginia.
I crafted a response that began with, “The thing I love most about West Virginia is the resiliency of its people.”
I sent that prior to the devastating floods that plowed through several West Virginia counties and left thousands homeless, but not hopeless.
As I have thought about the daunting task facing many West Virginians, I believe that my message to Time was prescient.
Resiliency has always been woven into the fabric of our people and our place, dating back to our separation from the Old Dominion. West Virginia was born on the very foundation of grit. We boldly chose an uncertain pathway to establish our own identity as one unified, rugged and determined brand of people.
That grittiness persists in everything we do — from the uniqueness of our art and music which embraces Appalachian heritage, to the extraction of our energy resources to the ever-changing nature of our economy and our demography caught between many different vectors and many different worlds.
Our resilience is now being battle tested. And I must say we are answering the call faithfully.
I have already heard and witnessed so many acts of goodness and kind triumphs. As soon as our student leaders learned of the destruction that unfolded, they, without prompting or prodding, sprang into action. Within a few hours, they had developed a plan for delivering much-needed supplies to those in harm’s way.
This planning occurred on a Friday, when most of us might unfairly presume that young adults are mulling over their weekend social plans. But dozens, if not hundreds, of students set up donation stations around Morgantown bright and early Saturday. By mid-afternoon, the people of the city and West Virginia University filled three tractor-trailers, three box trucks and four pickup trucks with water, cleaning supplies, diapers and other necessities.
Our football team collected much-needed water. WVU Medicine connected with state medical and emergency responders to provide vaccines and other medical needs. Our Extension Service staff, some living in the very communities affected, also jumped into the fray.
Groups from West Virginia University visited Clay, Richwood and Rainelle, where one student pulled his family’s cattle truck packed full of supplies. The quick work of the Mountaineer community inspired many others around the state to engage in similar efforts. Resiliency, indeed.
Not only are West Virginians displaying their resiliency, but they also are expressing another one of their glowing qualities: compassion.
In the midst of our rebuilding and re-imagining, we shall not forget those who perished in the flood. Many of them, like Joni Adams, epitomized the Mountaineer spirit to the very end.
Adams quite possibly helped save her neighbors when she called the couple’s son to alert him about the rising, raging waters in their Big Chimney neighborhood. The son came and got his parents to safety.
Her kindness shined in her profession, too. Each holiday season, Adams, who retired last year as a teacher at South Charleston Middle School, would buy tickets to West Virginia University games and give them to kids in need. She was a huge fan herself, after all, and, sadly, it was reported that she was trying to retrieve family heirlooms and West Virginia University memorabilia during her final moments.
But even in death, Adams is giving back. In accordance with her wishes, her body will be donated to the WVU School of Medicine for research.
There is an uncommon essence of concern, camaraderie and collaboration existing in these beautiful hills. We have the power to nurture resiliency and reposition our state for prosperity after tragedy.
Perhaps this spirit is best found in that great, old Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts,” an anthem of this state and this institution. It states: “And when we find ourselves in the place just right, it will be in the valley of love and delight.”
One does not teach resiliency. It comes from the core and it is found “in the valley of love and delight.”