Mayor Danny Jones looks back on his eclectic life
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- He's the quintessential man about town, Charleston's high-profile third-term mayor, Danny Jones.
He's intense, forceful, exceedingly candid and frequently controversial, a maverick of sorts. And, at 61, he still disarms with flashes of boyish charm.
A free spirit unfettered by his affluent South Hills upbringing, he learned about life in pool halls and bars, working at a gas station and residing at the legendary Holley Hotel.
He graduated last in his class at George Washington High School, worked as a bartender, bouncer and gravedigger, for starters, and served in Vietnam.
He made a household name for himself as a rib-specialist restaurateur, a former sheriff, legislator, radio talk show host and community theater performer. He collects antique radios and owns four classic cars.
The recent cancer diagnosis overshadows all of that. Two young sons make survival mandatory.
He looks ahead to a fourth run for mayor.
"I identify with the rich and poor. It doesn't matter. But I learned early on that the power is in the money. My mother would get in the car, and I would turn on 950 AM. She would flip it off and turn on 1240, the beautiful music station. Because it was her car and her radio paid for with her money.
"That's when I decided I was going to get my own car paid for with my own money and listen to whatever damn radio station I wanted to.
"I lived at 1202 Virginia St., the old Lawrence Frankel Institute, for a couple of years. About 1954, we bought the old Clark house. When Mrs. Clark got murdered there, nobody in the family bought the house, so we ended up with it.
"There was a big garden out back. My mother wanted to put a patio out there. They cleared out the garden and this gentleman named Monroe came up to do the patio. With him was a 14-year-old boy named Otis Laury. And that's how we got to know each other. He taught me how to do the twist and the mashed potatoes. He taught me a lot of stuff.
"There were kids to play with but not like over on Oakmont Road. I was envious of those kids because there was a Little League ball field over there. I'd rather all of us had been over on Oakmont where all the action was.
"Mom had her store, the Hilltop Shop, in South Hills. My dad sold insurance. He may be the smartest person I ever knew. He went to Wharton and had a law degree. He could answer questions about everything.
"In 1986, I played the prosecutor in 'The Trial of Lizzie Borden.' He proceeded to tell me everything you wanted to know about that case. He was most well read person I knew.
"In the seventh grade, I went to Greenbrier Military School. It was my idea. I wanted to get away. Military school was great. In the summers, I went Camp Shaw-Mi-Del-Eca, which was owned by Greenbrier Military School. I spent seven weeks there every summer for five summers.
"I liked being away. I liked the structure of military school even though I got smacked around quite a bit. I had quite a mouth on me.
"The ninth grade was not a good year for me, and my mother said I was coming home. That is a decision she came to regret. I was 15 and learning the ways of the streets and hanging out in Charleston.
"By that November, she said I could go back to Greenbrier, but by that time, I had seen the legs. When you go to a school where there are no girls, you don't miss them until you walk in commons area at George Washington High and all you see are miniskirts. And I thought, 'Oh my goodness!'
"GW was completely unstructured. It was practically run by the students. This was the school's first full year. If you didn't want to go, you didn't go. In my junior year, we went downtown every day. I'd go to homeroom and go to the Hub and play the pinball machines.
"People under 18 weren't supposed to be back in the Hub poolroom. Every once in a while, they would run us out. If you wanted some bootleg liquor, there was a guy named Harvey and an ABC store next door. It was home.
"There were 331 students in the GW Class of 1968, and you are talking to No. 331. I had to go to summer school to get my diploma.
"I got a work credit for working at the Sterling. At military school, I was a waiter, and when I was 15, I got a job at the Sterling for the summer.
"I had two really good friends, Richard Butler and George Jarrett. A guy who played pool at the Hub was somehow connected to the Roaring Twenties. His nickname was Minnesota Fats and he looked like Minnesota Fats.
"He hired Richard to wash glasses there for $10 a night. Next thing you know, Richard is a bartender and George is washing glasses. Those guys could pass. I couldn't. I looked too young. So I went back to the Sterling and worked there the rest of high school. A person willing to work can always get a job in a restaurant. It has always been there for me.
"I moved from busboy to the kitchen. I really felt like I was the man. I was working the line, cooking food from 9 at night until 6 in the morning on weekends and in the summers.
"Those were the bootleg days. There was no legal liquor served, so there were no governing rules. The clubs stayed open all night. We didn't get hit until about 4 in the morning when huge parties of people would come in. That's where I really learned to cook.
"At the same time, I was working up on the hill at the filling station. Don Harless -- we called him Doc -- was my boss. I learned more from Doc about how to deal with customers. And he knew more about cars than anybody. He also owned motorcycle shops.
"I was building race cars and drag-racing in Winfield. I won six trophies. In April of '69, I was running this guy, and he got killed. I finished ahead of him. His car turned over, and I could see him rolling around there. There were no seat belts, nothing. Here I was with a seat belt and helmet and all that, and they thought I was nuts. The next week everybody had them.
"In September of '69, I got drafted. On Nov. 4, I left. They picked me to go into the Marine Corps. I just wanted to get it over with. I had the military experiences in military school, so it helped me on Parris Island. They didn't have to teach me to do the movements and drills. I already knew all that.
"I ended up driving a truck in Vietnam and Okinawa. My units were MAGS 11 and MABS 11.
"Dope was everywhere. At 7 o'clock at night, the smell would overwhelm the complex. I wasn't into that. I just wanted to get done and not get in any trouble. When we pulled out of Vietnam, we came back to California. I got out in August 1971.
"All that business about spitting on veterans, I didn't go through any of that. What I remember about getting back from Vietnam was pure, complete apathy. People just didn't care and didn't want to hear about it. They were tired of the war.
"I had read where you could get out of the service 90 days early if you go to college. I was in Okinawa, and I was looking at the paper, the Stars and Stripes, and they had this big story about a plane wreck back here where the whole football team died. I thought, 'I can go there, to Marshall.'
"They didn't want to let me in. They said, 'Look at your high school records.' I said, 'I'm a war veteran. You can't turn me down.' I went there a year and did all right.
"I started hanging around clubs and working at No. 8. Ross Tuckwiller and Carl Carothers had it. I was digging graves up at the cemetery in the daytime for the city and started working at No. 8 at night as a bouncer.
"I couldn't make much money, so I went to the Athletic Club as a bartender, then to the 1791 Tavern at the Daniel Boone. When the management changed, I knew I didn't fit. I decided I either had to get a legitimate job or buy a place. So I bought No. 8.
"Otis and I started talking and decided to set up that soup-and-sandwich buffet. We stayed there five years. Then I went over to Lee Street and set up Danny's on Lee Street. That was very successful. I was there 10 years.
"I owned the Owls Club for six months and sold it to Otis, so he had his restaurant. He started Laury's in 1978.
"I'm down on Lee Street and life was good. I drank every day. My drug use has always been grossly exaggerated. My interest was more into booze, blended Canadian whiskey.
"I owned a bar. It was free, so I drank more than I should have. I never drove drunk. I lived downtown into the 80s. I was young and slim. It was a great life. But I was tired of the work.
"I decided to run for sheriff. I knew I would win. I had been on the Deputy Sheriff's Civil Service Commission and had learned about the sheriff's department. Ned Chilton suggested it. I said, 'But Ned, I'm a Republican.' He said, 'Well, we will whip their asses into line,' meaning the Gazette editorial board. And he did, him and Jim Haught.
"I spent four years as sheriff. We reorganized the tax department. I think I did a good job as sheriff.
"When I left the sheriff's office, I opened a place where Impulse is now and did that for 18 months.
"I lived at the Holley Hotel between 1973 and '78. [Hotel owner] Frankie Veltri and I had a very close relationship. If he said it, I did it. If he told me not to do it, I didn't. He was the man. Very intelligent. I learned the most stuff from Frankie.
"I had a motorcycle, a big Honda. He says, 'I'm worried bout you being on that bike.' So I sold it. He had that kind of effect on me.
"He always wanted me to run for mayor, and he didn't live to see it. That's a regret of mine.
"So I had Frankie to advise me and, earlier, Doc Harless and my dad. And Tim Barber in the '70s helped shape my mind.
"I spent two years in the Legislature, but that was a lost cause. There were 100 members. I wasn't going to be anybody in the Legislature.
"Zack was born in '89, and I didn't have a job. So I tended bar at the Plaza Lounge in Dunbar. Nobody knew it. I didn't know what I was going to do with myself. I had failed at the place on Capitol Street. The Lee Street place burned in 1986. My mother bought the building and Otis opened it back up later.
"Then I went to Nitro and was there four years. It was the most successful restaurant I ever owned, Danny's Rib House. It was unbelievable. People came from everywhere. I lived out back.
"Then we had that murder in February of '93. One dishwasher turned on another for no reason. He just wanted see what it felt like to murder somebody. He was a sociopath. He killed the guy with the most potential in the whole restaurant. It was real sad. Every three years, we go up there to testify to make sure he stays in prison.
"I wanted to come back to Charleston. By that time, I was doing talk radio. I've always been an AM radio guy. I've got 45 antique radios. I've got the first radio I ever bought at Heck's.
"I came back downtown in the spring of '94. I knew I had to stop drinking. On May 24, 1994, 18 years ago, I took my last drink.
"Federal agents interviewed me in the drug bust [involving Mayor Mike Roark]. It was mostly pot. I did a little cocaine, but I didn't like it. But pot, well, that was different. They didn't like the fact that I was nonchalant about what I'd done. I was honest, and I made a mistake by ever cooperating. They couldn't prosecute me, so they leaked my file.
"The stuff on me was too old, and they wouldn't have known about it if I hadn't volunteered it. I was trying to posture myself different from Mike. Roark had done stuff while he was an elected public official. I never did and never would, and that was the difference.
"The radio talk show went on through the '90s. I ran Coonskin for a year, and did very well. In 2000, I did the Regatta. They were $120,000 in debt. They gave me $50,000 and we actually made a profit of $96,000.
"We turned it into a four-day event. All the sponsors were leaving. There was nobody left to pay for those things. When [Will] Brotherton was fired, they got rid of someone who could bring in the dollars. You have to have sponsors.
"I started selling barbecue and hot dog chili to restaurants. I did that until 2002. Then I got a job with the city picking up garbage. I was assistant refuse director. One day, the day after the Fourth of July, it was a disaster. We didn't have enough help. I went and got a bunch of inmates to help me. We all got on a truck, and we worked until dark, picking up garbage.
"When I was out driving around on back of those trucks, people would say, 'Why don't you run for mayor?' I thought, what the heck. I will give it a shot.' So I ran for mayor and got elected. I like it. It's me.
"Chris Smith made a mistake running against me. People all my life have made the mistake of underestimating me. I like Chris, but I knew I was going to win when Jay [Goldman] got beat in the primary.
"This is not a job you work. It's a job you wear. It goes to bed with you and gets up with you. The first 18 months, I was going to everything and trying to do everything. If you try to micromanage this, you are going to fail. You have to be part of the bigger picture and answer to people's ideas and give them ideas and run things around them.
"That's how FestivALL all got started and all this stuff on the Boulevard and that cover for the park. I think that cover was Sen. Byrd's last earmark. Then we got Betty Schoenbaum involved. She wanted to put the stage in the river, and we had to get her away from that, because the river goes up and down, and it just wouldn't work. So she contributed to putting a stage there, and every time we have a band, we save. For a good stage, you pay $20,000.
"I think my major achievement was the ballpark, because that was dead. I'm proud of all those events on the Boulevard and FestivALL and shutting the Regatta down. A lot of mayors wanted to do that. They knew it was time. I just did it. A lot people are still upset about that. But show me the money. They say I shut down Regatta to have FestivALL. We didn't. You give me half a million dollars, and we will do a Regatta next Labor Day.
"I don't regret the user fee one bit. You take that $6 million out of the budget and what are you going to do? How many police do you want to lay off? What services do you want to get rid of? We've paved more streets in the time I've been mayor longer than any mayor in the history of the city.
"The user fee will probably have to go up next term. They charge $4 in Huntington, and in Parkersburg, they charge $3. Most cities get an income tax, 1 percent. Pittsburgh gets 3 percent. Two bucks? Three bucks? What's the deal? It's something you can drive on, policemen you can see. That's the best $2 or $3 you ever spent.
"What we are able to manage for ourselves we do very well. When the state gets involved and puts us in pensions that we can't possibly pay for, that's them, not us.
"Will I run for re-election? That will be in three years. I say yes.
"The [prostate] cancer diagnosis is changing everything because of my boys. Frightened? Certainly. And I am very humbled. I was with the doctor all day today. I'm still trying to figure out what path to take. Some people just watch and wait.
"If it weren't for those kids, a 5-year-old and a 4-year-old, I wouldn't do anything. Now I have to try to stay alive. Sara [his ex-wife] and I get along very well. My sons were with me last night and will be with me tonight.
"Men stop me now and say they got their PSA checked because of me. That made it worth going public. And a lot of men who have prostate cancer have told me their experiences.
"There is nothing in my life I would have changed. I wish I could have raised my older son. Back then, the guy who wasn't married to the mother got to write checks.
"Maybe I would have gotten a college education, but what would that have done for me? I've done a lot of fun stuff. I did a lot of theater. I've had a good time. It's been quite a ride."
Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.