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Doddridge, Tyler, Pleasants, Wood, Wirt, Jackson, Ritchie counties

July 23-24

I have entered the home stretch of this marvelous 55-county tour of West Virginia. The calendar does not deceive. Only a month remains until the start of the fall semester and I still have around 15 counties to visit.

Time to double down on Diet Dr. Pepper.

This particular leg of the tour is a unique one that took me through seven counties in the western part of the state. It began with a bang in West Union (Doddridge County) where I met with residents, alumni, leaders and students at the local Extension office.

Zona Hutson, a long-time Extension agent, noted that my visit marked the first time she recalled a university president stopping by to meet folks in Doddridge County. I told her after seeing me, it might be the last time they let a president visit.

Actually, I clarified to everyone that I visited West Union 35 years ago when I first served as West Virginia University president.

Also greeting me at the Extension office were incoming freshmen Jesse Lackey and Joshua Briggs. It was refreshing to see their enthusiasm for joining West Virginia University this fall. Jesse will study secondary education and English, while his friend, Joshua, wants to major in aerospace engineering.

President Gee with WVU students Jesse Lackey and Joshua Briggs

I am thrilled they are joining the Mountaineer family, as I am sure they will go far here with their exceptional attitudes. They also challenged me to a game of cornhole. Bring it on.

Also in attendance were local officials, including public school administrators. As I have said before, we cannot have an outstanding university without outstanding public schools. All phases of education must be woven together – starting at preschool. We can no longer be segmented into categories of K-5 or K-12 or just college. Education is pre-K through life.

It was a pleasure mingling with the dozens of folks in West Union. Doddridge County is in the heart of West Virginia and the people there have great heartland values.

Sistersville (Tyler County)

If you want to see a model of the perfect, quaint American town, look no further than Sistersville with its unique, historical architecture. And on a bright, summer day, the Ohio River is beautiful.

President Gee and Steve Bonanno look out over the Ohio River.

Sistersville is home to the oldest ferry in West Virginia. It has been in continuous operation since 1817 and is one of only four ferries left on the Ohio River.

Though I did not have enough time to hop on for a ride, I got to see the ferry in its majesty and meet the fine men (Phil Konopacky, Herman Hause and Chuck Tippins) who maintain the boat.

Phil Konopacky, Herman Hause, President Gee and Chuck Tippins

Then I was off to lunch a block away at the historic Wells Inn. A West Virginia landmark, the hotel is more than a century old. To my surprise, when seated at the hotel restaurant, a server handed me a menu with my face on the cover. I hope they do not do this for all of their menus because people would lose their appetites.

The Wells Inn menu with President Gee's photo on the cover

My salad was delicious, and Wells Inn owner Charles Winslow gave us a quick history lesson of the area. I am grateful for people like Charles and his wife, who moved from upstate New York to invest in West Virginia. They purchased the hotel to keep it flourishing, and they also produce a community newspaper called the “INNformer.” They are true West Virginia converts, and we need to open our gates and let more folks like them in.

St. Marys (Pleasants County)

Pleasants County Superintendent Mike Wells welcomed me to the construction site for the new St. Marys High School. When finished, the $21.5-million project will be a marvelous facility for students and residents.

Mike Wells and President Gee inside new school

Parkersburg (Wood County)

Parkersburg is one of my favorite cities. When I served as Ohio State’s president, I would frequently visit Parkersburg. Over the years, it has been a major artery for commerce between Ohio and West Virginia.

I swung by the WTAP-TV headquarters for an interview and was graciously welcomed. There I met up with anchor and producer Ashley Sturm, a proud alumna.

President Gee with WTAP staff

To cap off the eventful day, more than 60 Parkersburg-area alumni and friends greeted me at a reception at the Blennerhassett Hotel. West Virginia University-Parkersburg Interim President Rhonda Tracy and several local legislators, including Sens. Donna Boley and David Nohe and Delegates Dan Poling, Tom Azinger and Bill Anderson, were there.

President Gee with area legislators

The following morning, I popped into the offices of the Parkersburg News and Sentinel for an interview with reporters Michael Erb and Jesse Mancini. The Ogden Newspaper chain is one of America’s greatest family media holdings. Before leaving Parkersburg, I had to stop and see the wonderful folks in the Wood County Extension Office. They won me over with donuts from the local JR’s Donut Castle!

President Gee at Wood County Extension office

Elizabeth (Wirt County)

Some of the highlights of my excursions across West Virginia have occurred at Energy Express sites. No matter the county, 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.

Group hug with Wirt County Energy Express students

At the Energy Express site in Elizabeth, children constructed and adorned paper bowties for my visit. What a creative, energetic bunch.

President Gee with Energy Express students and volunteer

From there, some of the Extension staff and local leaders joined me for a tasty lunch at Vonda’s Café, where I ran into Natalie McVey, a junior in exercise physiology in our College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences, and her dad, Tony.

Cottageville (Jackson County)

If you want to explore the heart of a community, spend some time at a local fair. Luckily, the Jackson County Fair was in full force during my tour. The Fair, made in part by our Extension and 4-H efforts, had a little bit of something for everyone. Rides, games and livestock galore.

President Gee at Jackson County Fair

Dean Hardman, a program specialist at Jackson’s Mill, demonstrated how string was made in the old days. He had a little help from an area 7-year-old, Timothy Crihfield.

Dean Hardman demonstrates string-making as President Gee and Timothy Crihfield watch.

I got to observe a heifer judging contest and received a nice ovation from the crowd. But I noticed that the heifers ‘moo’d’ when my name was announced. Is that their way of ‘booing’ me?

Harrisville (Ritchie County)

Just like visiting Energy Express sites, it is just as refreshing meeting students and volunteers at the many 4-H camps scattered about West Virginia. In Harrisville, I saw a few familiar faces, including 2014 Foundation Scholar Anna Cokeley, who plans to major in chemical engineering.

Anna says she chose West Virginia University because of the intimate campus and travel abroad opportunities. We are glad to have her join us in the fall. I also had a fun time talking with Delegate Woody Ireland, who is active in the local 4-H efforts.

President Gee with Delegate Woody Ireland

Lastly, I ventured off to a unique gem of West Virginia—Berdine’s Five and Dime in downtown Harrisville. Berdine’s is “America’s oldest five and dime” and is definitely a blast from the past.

President Gee browses at Berdine's Five and Dime.

It was a jam-packed two days on the road but every second was worth it. I look forward to continuing my travels through the wonderful counties of West Virginia.