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'You were always welcoming'

Kenny Kemp
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., stands near the town sign in Emmons, on the border of Kanawha and Boone counties, where he served as a VISTA volunteer from 1964 to 1965.
Kenny Kemp Sen. Jay Rockefeller looks at quilts made by Shirley Giles, one of his closest friends when he was a VISTA volunteer in Emmons nearly 50 years ago.
Kenny Kemp Shirley Giles serves Sen. Jay Rockefeller some cake on Saturday. Rockefeller remembers when she used to serve him pie nearly 50 years ago.
Kenny Kemp Sen. Jay Rockefeller talks with Bobby Baire along the main road through Emmons.

EMMONS, W.Va. -- A shocked Shirley Giles hugged her surprise visitor when he walked into her house in Emmons, a rural town split by the Little Coal River between Boone and Kanawha Counties, on Saturday.

"You were an anchor for me," the visitor told Giles. "I could always get a little piece of pie from you. You used to give me blackberry pie, apple pie, pecan pie. I look back on those days with great happiness. And you are not very different today than when I was here back in 1964."

The surprise visitor was U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, West Virginia's senior senator, a Democrat, and a former governor and secretary of state in West Virginia.

On Saturday, Rockefeller returned to Emmons, the town where he lived in 1964 and 1965, after he had moved to West Virginia to serve as a VISTA volunteer. He had not visited Emmons since the late 1990s.

"You were always welcoming. Everyone wasn't, at first," Rockefeller said to Giles during an afternoon spent reminiscing about poaching coal from shuttered mines, raiding an abandoned school for lumber to build a community center and the time football legend Jim Brown got snubbed.

Rockefeller said his time in Emmons -- meeting people, helping to build a library, a community center and a baseball field -- convinced him to stay in the Mountain State.

Before moving to Emmons, Rockefeller had graduated from Harvard and spent three years studying and working in Japan and one year in Washington, D.C.

Looking for Giles' home on Saturday, Rockefeller stopped to ask another resident for directions. After Bobby Baire told him, Rockefeller introduced himself and shook his hand.

"I didn't know who he was right away," Baire said, "but I was so happy to shake his hand. I don't think I'll wash my hand for three days."

Giles spent most of her career teaching second grade at Alum Creek Elementary. Her husband, Fred, was a chemical worker for FMC Corp. in South Charleston and a preacher at several Free Will Baptist churches.

Today, Shirley, 84, cares for Fred, 85, around the clock. Fred suffers from severe Alzheimer's disease.

Rockefeller remembered the same type of spirit and hard work from when he lived in Emmons, nearly 50 years ago.

"Nobody really had a job. But people were incredibly wonderful. A lot of them had been miners," Rockefeller said. "Some parents never went beyond the third grade. Many told their kids to drop out of school to work at home or find jobs. Back then, people would sometimes go into a mine that had already been mined out so they could dynamite some of the coal still left. Then they could make $7 or $8 a day if a coal train was coming through. I did it myself a couple of times."

Some local residents lived very isolated lives, never even traveling to downtown Emmons.

"People would grow their own food and stay at home," Rockefeller said.

Rockefeller remembers bringing Jim Brown, the legendary Cleveland Browns star, to visit people in Emmons one day.

"I brought him up to the Holstine family home," Rockefeller said. "When they said they never heard of him, Jim Brown got mad and demanded to go back to Charleston."

Community service

In Emmons, Rockefeller set up his own office.

"I parked a little camper truck under a tree near the CSX Railroad and the Emmons town sign," he said. "It became a gathering place."

The nearby 50-acre park and community center were used to host picnics, play games, teach piano lessons and hold fundraisers.

"But the community center is not there anymore," Rockefeller said Saturday. "In the community center, we created enough room to have a dance -- but nobody knew how to dance."

Rockefeller worked hard to bring a variety of services to Emmons, including school bus service, the community center, paved roads and clean water.

"Back in 1964, Emmons didn't have a school bus, because the Kanawha County Board of Education decided we were too far away," Rockefeller said. "We met with them three times. We didn't get the bus until the third time, because we were persistent."

Rockefeller remembers efforts to build the community center.

"Some teenagers and myself found an abandoned elementary school in the Charleston area. We stripped out all the boards and put them in the back of a pick-up truck. Several trips to the school helped us [get the boards to] build the community center and library," he said.

Rockefeller also worked to get Emmons clean water.

"Everybody washed their laundry in the Little Coal River. There were no toilets, no running water, no clean water. People's wells would go dry," he said. "I spent more than 30 years trying to get clean water in here. Then it finally came."

In 2000, West Virginia American Water Co. began serving customers in Emmons, 63 in Boone County and 46 in Kanawha.

"For 36 years, I've been working to bring safe, clean, drinking water to Emmons," Rockefeller said at the time. "The town's isolated and bi-county location made it difficult and expensive to expand the waterline. Now, after their long wait, the people of Emmons can finally turn on their taps and receive clean water."

As a VISTA volunteer, Rockefeller also wanted to pave the curvy, dirt and gravel road that led through town.

"Arch paved the road just before the 1972 election," Rockefeller said. "I remember his talking to me about it."

Gov. Arch Moore, running for re-election, defeated Rockefeller in the 1972 governor's race. Rockefeller had been elected to the state House of Delegates 1966 and elected secretary of state in 1968.

After his loss in 1972, Rockefeller served for three years as president of West Virginia Wesleyan College, before being elected governor in 1976 and 1980. In 1984, he was elected to the U.S. Senate and has since been re-elected four times.

In January, Rockefeller announced that he will retire when his current term ends in 2014.

Town growth

Giles and Rockefeller talked about how Emmons has grown since the mid-1960s.

"There are three times as many houses now as there were when I was here," Rockefeller said.

Today, Emmons has one large mansion and many well-maintained homes and mobile homes.

"I was born here, right across the railroad tracks," Giles said. "Today, I have five children, 16 grandchildren and 29 great-grandchildren.

"I have seen this community grow. It was a coal camp when I was a kid. We had a little old wooden house."

Back then, Giles said, many Emmons residents worked in nearby coal towns like Olcott, in Kanawha County, and Dartmont, in Boone County.

"They used to dam this river so barges could go up and down, hauling coal," Giles said. "Today, Fred and I are about the oldest ones here. I was born and raised here. I lived here all my life. And I will be planted from here, in a cemetery."

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette,com, or 304-348-5164.


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