High-profile activist thrives on grass roots
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- He's one of the state's best-known activists, a familiar protester and prolific contributor to the newspaper editorial page.
A coal miner's son and a passionate environmentalist, he devotes much of his remarkable energy to saving West Virginia mountains from the ravages of coal mining.
Rising from his roots, he was an honor student at West Virginia University, where he earned a degree in chemical engineering. As West Virginia's first Peace Corps volunteer, he spent two years teaching high school chemistry in Nigeria. He recently wrote a book about that special time.
Now he's writing a book about his tumultuous crusade to reform the politically driven Lincoln County school system. He taught for 22 years at Duval High School.
Julian Martin will need more than two books to cover the colorful story of his 76-year life. Chapters mount daily. After the interview, he hurried off to a protest rally at the Capitol. Busy. Busy. Busy.
That soapbox doesn't stay idle for long.
"I was born on Big Coal River, eighth generation. My dad was an underground coal miner. He had his eye put out in the mines. My mother's dad was in the Battle of Blair Mountain, one of my favorite brag things.
"My dad and grandpa were strong union people. I heard a lot of discussion about not taking anything off anybody. My dad liked to say, 'Nobody is better than you.' He wasn't taking a backseat to anybody. So I guess I inherited that spirit.
"I went to first grade at Emmons Grade School on Coal River, a one-room school. I couldn't read. That was detected in second grade when we moved to St. Albans. I finally picked it up. By the time I was in fourth grade, I was a straight-A student. I graduated from St. Albans High School.
"One of the things I am proudest of is that I made the football team. They didn't even think I was good enough to play, but I made all-conference. That's because we had a coach, Sammy LeRose, who was a saint.
"I was always aware of environmental stuff. I can remember going for a hike with a friend in high school, and he threw down a chewing gum wrapper. I picked it up and put it in my pocket. He said, 'Why did you do that?' I said, 'Why did you throw it down?'
"When every house in your community turns brown, you know there is something bad wrong with the environment. One day, the air smelled like rotten eggs. Every house that had lead-based white paint turned brownish. That was hydrogen sulfide reacting with the lead paint.
"We lived right on the Kanawha River, and here comes a flotilla of dead carp, all killed by chemicals dumped upstream. There was a sewer pipe going into the river, and you could see human waste going right out into the river. You had to be living under a rock not to know the environment was taking a hit.
"When I was 14, I wrote a letter to the editor about the Coal River. One day, the riverbanks turned black. They were washing coal at the mine site, and the dirty water was going into the river. After that letter, I was famous in our community for a short time.
"The summer before I went to college, I sprayed the power and telephone right-of-way with a component of Agent Orange. We sprayed that on anything that had bark. Anything with bark grew so fast inside that it busted the bark, and in a day and a half, everything with bark was dead. I would go home every day soaked in Agent Orange. That must be why I'm so crazy.
"I made a couple hundred dollars on that job. I got through my first year at WVU on $700. Tuition was only $43 a semester.
"There was no money. Dad was unemployed twice in the '50s. Mother put $10 a week in the bank. I didn't even have a heavy coat in Morgantown. I hated that place. But I stuck it out. I have three siblings, and we all got college degrees, the first in our family.
"I majored in chemical engineering. It was easy then to get a chemical engineering job. I chose American Cyanamid at Willow Island because they had a great big yard in front of their plant. I had that sensitivity to my environment.
"I did basic training in the Air Force and was in the Reserves for eight years. When I went back to Willow Island, they transferred a bunch of us to Connecticut to start a new plant, a rare opportunity for a young engineer. I was the boss. I had a shift of men all old enough to be my dad.
"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 email@example.com or 304-348-5173.