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Columnist's book should delight W.Va. trivia buffs

By James E. Casto

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Readers of the Sunday Gazette-Mail know Rick Steelhammer from his weekly humor column. However, many readers may not realize that Steelhammer is also an author whose books show much the same offbeat slant.

Steelhammer has been a reporter at the Gazette for more than 30 years and a columnist for nearly that long.

"In addition to working for the Gazette," he says, "I have served as news editor of a tiny weekly newspaper in Heppner, Ore.; worked for the now-defunct Dayton Journal-Herald while attending (and eventually graduating from) Antioch College; worked on the lobster boat Kingpin in the Gulf of Maine; was a copy boy (now called 'news aide') for Newsweek magazine, and operated a backhoe for a landscaping crew at an Oregon golf resort."

Over the years, Steelhammer has traveled to each of West Virginia's 55 counties to cover news and feature stories for the Gazette. Obviously, he's done most of that traveling by car. But, tucking his tongue firmly in his cheek, he notes that he's also traveled by "plane, helicopter, raft, canoe, kayak, train, speeder car, horse, skis, snowshoes, zip line and on foot."

In 2010, he took some of the quirky characters, roadside oddities and other offbeat stuff he found during his travels and packed them into a book, "West Virginia Curiosities," published by Connecticut-based Globe-Pequot Press. Next year, Globe-Pequot is scheduled to publish another volume by Steelhammer, "It Happened in West Virginia."

In the meantime, Charleston's own Quarrier Press has issued a slim little paperback by Steelhammer that surely will be welcomed by West Virginia trivia buffs.

Steelhammer's "The Ultimate Book of West Virginia Lists," updates and broadens the scope of "The West Virginia Book of Lists," released by Richard Weigen and Gerald Tomlinson in 1994, and long out of print.

"A lot has happened in the 18 years since the first 'Book of Lists' was published," says Steelhammer. "While some things never change, like the longest rivers, the highest peaks and the towns with oddball names, there's a new generation of athletes, actors and authors with West Virginia roots."

Entries in the book range from the obvious to the arcane. Where else would a reader find a listing of state records for garden crops, like a 142.5-pound watermelon and a 9.6-pound turnip?

"I was surprised at the large number of business and government leaders with connections to West Virginia," says Steelhammer. "It was inspiring to find out that a guy like William Batten, who grew up in Reedy in Roane County ended up becoming the CEO of J.C. Penney & Co., plus the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. Before doing the research for this book, I thought Cyrus Vance, who served as secretary of state under Jimmy Carter, was the only West Virginia native to hold a Cabinet post. It turns out there were at least five more."

While Steelhammer concedes it's a safe bet that the National Book Award will go to another author this year, he hopes his little book is worthy of a home, "if not in your bookcase, on your fishing camp windowsill or bathroom shelf."

The book retails for $8.95 ($13.99 with tax and shipping) and is available at stores throughout West Virginia, or it can be ordered through the West Virginia Book Co. at 888-982-7472 or www.wvbookco.com.

James E. Casto, a retired Huntington newspaper editor, frequently reviews books for the Sunday Gazette-Mail.


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