"I'd been putting in 10-hour days before they got there and knew everything about the place. I was on an expense account. I ate at the best restaurants. I tipped waiters as much as the bill.
"In 1961, John Kennedy announced the Peace Corps. The next morning, I called and put my name on the list. It sounded like the most wonderful thing possible.
"When I didn't hear anything, I figured they had passed me over. I got admitted to Georgetown Law School. I was going to go there at night and make Sidewinder missiles during the day. I was in training when I got the telegram from the Peace Corps. I was going to Nigeria to teach high school chemistry.
"Those were the most rewarding two years of my life. I was in a completely different culture. I saw what the outside world was doing to Africa, the exploitation of the natural resources. The railroad tracks go from each coast north and south. The British had that built just to take the raw materials out. The same thing is true of West Virginia. The railroads were built to take the timber and coal out of the hollows.
"I was 23. In a country of 65 million, did I make a difference? Maybe. I certainly made a difference with the kids I taught.
"While I was in the Peace Corps, the dean of women at WVU, Betty Boyd, started writing to me. She offered me a job as foreign student adviser at WVU.
"In housing then, they put whites with whites, blacks with blacks. They had 50 African students. They had them segregated into the medical center apartments as if they were all the same because they were the same color. But they came from three different countries and probably 10 or 15 ethnic backgrounds.
"I went to the housing director insisting on an integrated housing policy. We integrated housing and got the barbershops integrated.
"In 1968, I went to San Francisco for three years. I was national vice president of an organization of former Peace Corps volunteers advocating for ending the war in Vietnam.
"I hitchhiked back. That was an adventure. When I got this side of Cincinnati, I could smell West Virginia. The humidity thick and heavy, and I thought, 'I am home!' All of a sudden, the world had come alive. It's all parking lots in California.
"I got a job with the YMCA as urban outreach director. That was organic gardening and motorcycle riding for kids from Orchard Manor.
"In 1977, I started teaching at Duval. We stopped two strip mines in Lincoln County when I was there.
"My wife and I worked to reform the highly political Lincoln County school system. After one board meeting, the superintendent's brother-in-law hit me in the head. I had six stitches in my eyebrow. The State Police threatened to hit me. It was a bad night.
"I'm writing a book called 'The Soviet Union in Lincoln County USA,' a memoir of my 22 years in Lincoln County. I went to the Soviet Union on the way home from the Peace Corps. The Lincoln County politicians looked a whole lot like the politicians standing on top of Lenin's tomb in the May Day parade, just fat and ugly.
"I get frustrated about this stuff, but what are the choices? Coal and gas companies are destroying the environment, the very thing that keeps us alive. They are destroying the mountains. The mountains! In the Mountain State, they are blowing the tops off the mountains! What could be crazier than that?
"I've been very fortunate. I was lucky to have a dad who knew if I went to college, I would be better. He knew that the guys in hard hats and suits who visited the jobs he worked on went to college.
"Whether or not I've made a difference will be for someone else to say. I don't know if I can be objective. At times, I get depressed, thinking that I haven't touched it. At times, I get elated and think, 'Wow! We even got Patriot Coal to stop mountaintop removal!'
"A lot of good things have happened over my life, the difference in women's status and black status since the time I was a child. And I've been involved in some of those good things.
"It took all of us, not just Martin Luther King, but a bunch of us working at the grass roots level to change things. And we have done it, by golly. We have a black president!"
Reach Sandy Wells at san...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.