Innerviews: Retired Senate clerk can't walk away
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Note to West Virginia legislators: You thought you'd seen the last of Darrell Holmes? Think again.
Holmes retired Jan. 9 after 22 years as Senate clerk. Before that, he served eight years in the Senate. Before that, he served eight years in the House of Delegates.
The casual, aw-shucks demeanor reflects his farm boy upbringing at Wolf Pen near Sissonville. He served his country in Okinawa and made his living as a millwright at Union Carbide.
But the heart of his life was the West Virginia Legislature.
After 38 years under the dome, he can't just quit cold turkey. The 78-year-old Capitol fixture will find a way to keep rubbing elbows with lawmakers, even if it's just hanging out in those marble halls to schmooze.
"I grew up on Wolf Pen out toward Sissonville. My dad was in the coal and dairy business. He had about 15 coal miners working for him. Coal was about $4.50 a ton then. Now it's about $75 a ton.
"My parents raised 10 children, eight girls and 2 boys. You can imagine what I went through. He put all those kids through college. I went to college on the G.I. Bill, so I'm the only one who didn't cost him a penny.
"I thought I wanted to be like my son, Eric, a lawyer, but I never did make it. I graduated from Sissonville in 1953, went into the service station business then went in the Air Force in '55.
"In high school, I played guard on the football team. I had a scholarship at Glenville State. Going from Kanawha County to Glenville State then took every bit of 12 hours. The coach took me up there and showed me where I was going to stay. He said I would be there a month before I could leave. I said I wasn't going. I didn't want to be away from home that long.
"I took my friend, Boogie Thaxton, to Beckley to join the Air Force. The lady said, 'Sign here since you transported him here.' When I got ready to leave, she said, 'You can't leave. You just joined the service. You signed your name right there.'
"I spent three years on Okinawa. I was a national security guard. They had 18 atomic bombs there in this security place. We had to guard those. They had rockets right here, bombs right there. Within five minutes, they could load those bombs on the rockets and shoot them off. This was between Korea and Vietnam.
"I didn't have any money. I realized I could have a little money from the service and go to college on the G.I. Bill. I got 18 hours at West Virginia State, then transferred to Morris Harvey for a degree in business administration.
"State was $125 a semester. When I transferred to Morris Harvey, I was filling out this stuff, and the woman asked me how much I got from the G.I. Bill. I said I got $250 a semester. So they charged me $250.
"I started working at Union Carbide as a millwright. I had a machine shop myself. My dad taught me. I grew up with it.
"I was elected to the House of Delegates in '74, put in eight years there and was elected to the State Senate in '82.
"My dad was always involved in politics. He and my uncle always worked at the polls. I worked at the polls when I was 16. I would haul voters to the polls.
"The thing that really surprised me about the Legislature was the influence the lobbyists would have on the delegates and senators. That's nothing compared to Washington, D.C. I spent some time there when Senator Byrd was majority leader. That was 15 years ago. They had receptions for those senators every night.
"If somebody was interested in something, they would be your friend. If you vote against them, they were no longer your friend. They'd talk to me, and I'd listen, but I always voted what I thought was the right thing to do.
"The sessions could be frustrating. You'd think they were going to vote one way, and next thing you knew, they had voted the other way.
"There are 100 members in the House and 34 here in the Senate. In the Senate, you had a pretty good idea of whether a bill would pass. I liked Senate much better.
"You ever hear of Tony Shepherd? We both ran for Senate and we both lived out Sissonville. On the ballot, they had his address at Sissonville and mine as Charleston, because I lived in Martins Branch. We had both served in the House.
"Tony was sure he was going to get elected to the Senate, but I defeated him. I called him for two or three days and couldn't get hold of him. On the third day, I caught him. I said, 'Tony, where have you been?' He said, 'Darrell, after you defeated me, I've been drunk for three days.'
"Cecil Underwood was the governor when I was first elected to the House. I enjoyed him. I served with seven governors, and I have pictures with all of them, and I've had them all to my house. I really enjoyed Rockefeller. When Rockefeller was governor, we didn't have financial problems. He was very dedicated, to my surprise since he was not born here.
"Caperton was one of my favorites, too. He's the one who appointed me clerk in 1989. Todd Willis, the clerk, had a stroke, and I filled out his term for two months before I was formally elected by the Senate.
"I thought about moving on to Washington, but I never gave it a try because unfortunately, it takes a lot of money to run. Those people spend, even in West Virginia for Senate, a million dollars.
"I used to think, well, everybody runs for governor, so maybe I should do that. But you've got to have the money. I didn't have the money for the big stuff. It would have been nice to have been governor.
"I was Senate clerk for 22 years. Even when they're not in session, you get a lot of contacts from Senators needing this and that. In session, if they had meetings at 7 in the morning and some meetings until 8 or 9 that night, I would still be here. I was here all the time they were here.
"Being 78, I thought it was time for me to step away. They had a big reception for me. I miss it. I was occupied constantly when I was a clerk.
"I'm going to come up here during the session and maybe be a lobbyist. Or I might start my machine shop back up. I still have all the equipment. When I had that machine shop, Carbide had 12,000 employees and DuPont had 4,000, and I did side work for them. Now DuPont has less than 2,000 and Carbide may have less than 700 full-time employees. I retired from Carbide in '89.
"I still live on Martins Branch out Sissonville way. I have a farm in Jackson County, close to 100 acres. Before they put in the dam, I had a big two-story house, and I would rent that, and people would go out and make a garden in the flat ground there. When they put that dam in, they took my house.
"I didn't have a phone there, not even a cellphone. I would go out there and not receive any calls. I'd go out on weekends and do a little work. And nobody could reach me.
"Jan. 9 was my last day. I plan to visit here at least occasionally. If I can get a part-time position, I will come to work just to keep busy. I've been busy all these years. It's kind of depressing.
"I plan to do more deer hunting. When I was 16, there were only three counties in the state that you could deer hunt in. Tucker County was one of them. My dad took me up there when I was 16. Three deer were going to cross the track, two does and an 8-point buck. I had a rifle with five shells in it. I shot at that buck four times and missed. The last shot I killed it. It really surprised me. I was 16 and I'd killed an 8-point buck. I got the fever.
"Where I went is where Timberline Ski Resort is now. It was all owned then by timber and coal companies. They would charge you so much a day to go hunt.
"Now I hunt on my farm in Jackson County, and I've got 70 acres at the homeplace in Wolf Pen. Deer are everywhere today.
"You know, I would start everything all over again if I were younger. This has been quite an experience." Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5173.