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."
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."