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West Virginia's prior celebration sheds thoughtful light on upcoming sesquicentennial

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Photos courtesy of W.Va. Division of Culture & History Photos courtesy of W.Va. Division of Culture & History
W.Va. Governor’s Office W.Va. Governor’s Office

West Virginians are a prideful bunch.

Grade-school children are taught the motto and the symbols as part of history courses; residents purposely wear marked clothing while out-of-state on vacation so they can share that knowledge; native son Brad Paisley frequently plays a custom-made blue and gold sparkle guitar with a Flying WV decal; and Charleston's sweetheart Jennifer Garner recently recited her Golden Horseshoe-quality knowledge on a late-night talk show, launching into the state song on national television.

West Virginia celebrates its heritage with gusto. 

The state's 150th birthday, the Sesquicentennial celebration, will be observed next week and organizers have orchestrated a flurry of statewide activity.

But for West Virginians of a certain age, this month has drawn their thoughts back to the last big celebration of statehood in 1963 when West Virginia turned 100.

For Kay Goodwin, cabinet secretary for the Department of Education and the Arts, that memory lane journey is as close as her desk.

"From the beginning of my tenure here, I've had on my desk a lovely folder that has two coins in it that were commissioned," she said.

Her mother was a member of the West Virginia Centennial Commission, and Goodwin was a teenager at the time. She has several memories of the many commemorative efforts that year, and a notable effort she recalls was for every county to be included.

Goodwin is a part of this year's Sesquicentennial celebration committee and points out several parallels.

"It's a different effort now, but it's very much the same community, state pride endeavor that it was back then," Goodwin said. "We're still, luckily, a small enough state to relate to each other in a community way, and I think that's what made it so special then and what makes it so special now."

She was a theater major at West Virginia University and remembers a contest to select a play because her mother asked her to help read some of the submissions. She vividly recalls the riverboat — something that has returned for the Sesquicentennial, along with an anniversary presentation of "Honey in the Rock."

And Goodwin remembers nearly every step she and her mother took on West Virginia Day in 1963 from their room at Daniel Boone Hotel to the Capitol — from the landmarks to the crowds.

Sen. Robert D. Beach, D-Monongalia, has a special connection to the Centennial, too. 

An avid stamp collector, Beach has plans to acquire several cachet stamps when the Sesquicentennial stamp is released June 20 in Charleston since he'll be in Wheeling for legislative interims.

He has the Centennial stamp, and while he's not positive, he has a pretty good idea where it came from. 

Beach's father, Robert C. Beach, served in the House of Delegates until his death in 1998. The younger Beach was first elected to his that seat in 2000, and when he prepared his office, he asked for a blotter for his desktop and received a good-quality blotter that had obvious marks of previous use.

"Soon after the blotter arrived, I discovered tucked into the leather sides a West Virginia commemorative envelope and stamp with the postmark Wheeling, 1963," Beach said. "To this day, I am convinced the blotter belonged to my father, as he was an avid stamp collector and loved this state with a unique passion.

"As you might imagine, following in my father's footsteps and beginning my first day of session with a find of this nature …. Well, let's just say that at that very moment I couldn't help but feel a connection to my father … all due to a five-cent, 1863-1963 West Virginia anniversary stamp." 

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said her family spent that time period going between Washington, D.C., and Charleston, with her father, former governor Arch Moore, in Congress.

She said she was only 10 years old at the time, and the family often took part in several different parades, but she has one distinct Centennial memory.

"They had license plates made, and we probably have one around the house somewhere, but everyone wanted the license plate," she said. "It was just a straight-up, non-decorated, gold and blue plate, nothing fancy, and that's really the biggest thing I remember."

West Virginia's current first lady, Joanne Tomblin, was not a West Virginian during the Centennial and she was quite young, but she often wears a piece of its history. 

During Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's inauguration, a woman gave the first lady a thick silver chain with a pendant made out of the Centennial coin.

"This symbolizes West Virginia to me," Joanne Tomblin said. "You look at the state seal and you see West Virginia history; you see the farmer, you see the coal miner and you see the symbols of our state, and that's what I think is precious about it."

She said she pulls it out of her jewelry box to wear often and sometimes flips it over to display both sides of the coin. But as for her Sesquicentennial coin? She already has plans to pass it down to her son.

Jane Marks of Charleston said she remembers her church, Sophia First Baptist Church, asking the entire congregation to dress in old-fashioned clothes to mark the occasion. Betty Bland remembers the railroad car stopping in Fairmont and said it was "fantastic" to see the original proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln that made West Virginia  a state. And Joseph M Hoskins III said he has good memories from New Martinsville's Centennial celebration at Bruce Park. 

Elizabeth Patterson-Johnson keeps her family's Centennial memories hanging on her wall in the form of a quilt created by the dress her mother wore for the Centennial celebration, and Chuck Hamsher of Charleston said he remembers the many tourist information centers that popped up throughout the state along with the West Virginia Moon. The West Virginia Moon was a painting from WVU art instructor Joe Moss that won a $1,963 check and plenty of criticism from West Virginians who thought the worn wooden boards, old screen door scrap and a wash of paint was atrocious. It's now on display in the West Virginia Culture Center State Museum.

Tom Ornbaun of Charleston said he remembers his grandparents taking him at 10 years old to see President John F. Kennedy, who Ornbaun said was his hero.

"The main thing I remember is that it poured the rain and we got soaked," he said. "He was assassinated on my 11th birthday."

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said most people's clearest memory from 1963 was that President Kennedy was shot, which put a damper on the celebratory spirit.

But Manchin has several memories from the Centennial celebrations, from glassware his mother had to seeing commemorative liquor bottles at the state stores.

"What I remember most about it was the opening football game with the Navy," Manchin said. "Roger Staubach came, and I think, if I'm not mistaken, Chuck Kinder was a freshman from Charleston and wore the number 100. 

"They whooped us something horrible; I remember Staubach just wore us out something terrible."

Gov. Tomblin said he remembers the Centennial celebration as a time to celebrate family heritage as well as the state's birthday, so in addition to his family's Sunday dinners every week with cousins who were more like brothers and sisters, he remembers the train and the traditional music.

"It was a time that made us proud to be West Virginians," Tomblin said. "And this year, we get to do it again — celebrating our heritage, our families and our state. 

"I hope 50 years from now our young people will look back on this year's 150th birthday with the same fondness as those of us who were fortunate enough to experience the Centennial celebration."