Herndon's new field was valuable to the coal industry, and she began working for various coal companies, including A.T. Massey, in government affairs and policy work while she finished her dissertation; but she was not just an office worker.
She went underground.
"Both of my great-grandfathers were mine superintendents, but that is different work from carrying a bucket into the mine," she said. To understand the coal business, she believed she needed to know where the underground miners "were coming from and how they did what they did."
She soon realized, though, that she needed skills that could transfer from the coal industry to other fields. "Coal can be cyclical," she said. "People told me I argue a lot, and I thought I'll just go the way that works for me." That way was a legal career, and she graduated with a law degree from the Saint Louis University School of Law in 1995.
She met Blair Gardner in 1988 when they were both working in fields connected to the coal industry. The two fell in love, and were married in Paris in 1990. Her husband announced, "I am going to take you to France every year for the rest of our lives," and he kept that promise. After 23 annual trips back to Paris, Herndon developed a love of French culture that influences her art. "The French have a unique blend of order with a huge commitment to artistic expression and imagination," she said.
Capturing unusual architectural symbols in France with her camera, Herndon began developing her passion for photography. "I wondered why, for example, there were so many dolphin door knockers, and learned it was a tribute to Dauphin lineage. Everything I researched helped me learn about how a culture's people feel about their connections, institutions and environment."
Herndon holds law licenses in Illinois, Missouri and West Virginia, and she and Gardner had "a commuting marriage" for five years. She began practicing law in St. Louis just out of law school, and started a practice in Charleston in 1995; she then moved to St. Louis again in 1998, and then to Chicago in 2000 to head litigation for Potash Corp., a company that produced commercial fertilizer. That position required her to travel wherever there was a claim against her company. "I had no other life," she said.
Her husband began working for Jackson Kelly, in Charleston, in 2001, and she found her way back to the city in 2005 as general counsel for the water company. Her father suggested that she develop a solo law practice in his field of wills, estates and trusts. She now divides her time among her legal practice, helping her own parents with their personal needs, and pursuing her photography.
Herndon's life path is winding, yet it circles to a strong sense of purpose and passion.
"I will never go out and photograph mountains, valleys and trees. There are plenty of people who do that," Herndon said. "I'd much rather focus on things that everybody overlooks. I enjoy finding pieces of cultural puzzles and putting them in a context to share with others."
Learn more about Deborah Herndon's art at www.rivetingnotes.com.
Reach Elizabeth Gaucher at Elizabeth.Gauc...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.