BELLEVILLE, W.Va. -- Dannie Cunningham, 61, climbed the steep hill behind his house, crunching briskly through oak leaves, whacking weeds with his walking stick. "Maybe I'll get lucky and flush out a rabbit," he said.
He was headed for his hunting camp at the top of the second hill, hustling up the path, laughing and teasing a reporter trailing along behind him. "I hear you puffing a bit there, don't I?" he called over his shoulder.
This is a man who beat back diabetes and chopped his blood pressure and cholesterol in half.
Experts have advised West Virginia to establish statewide diabetes management programs. Dannie Cunningham can testify that they work.
"Last year, I couldn't have climbed like this," he called. "I owe it to Devena."
Devena Moore is one of the state's too-few diabetes reduction counselors. "I lucked into her program," Cunningham said.
He stopped to philosophize. "Now I'll ask you a question," he said, jabbing the air with his finger. "Why aren't we as careful with our bodies as we are our cars? I'm a stickler when it comes to my cars and four-wheelers, stuff like that. I change the oil when I'm supposed to. I change the air filters. But before Devena, I was nowhere near as careful to maintain my own body. Why is that?"
Not missing a beat, he shrugged and started back up the path. "Now I'll tell you how I got in trouble," he said. "After my first wife died, I spent eight years as a bachelor. That's when I packed on the pounds."
He was working at a glass plant as he had for 20 years, he said, mostly running machines. "I had a long drive to work, so I got used to shoveling the fast food in. I'd eat a hamburger while I drove to work, then throw down a hamburger on the way home.
"I never thought a thing of it, kept it up till I got married again. To me, food was just food, like fuel for your car, except I have to say, I was a whole lot more careful about what I put in my car."
He stops to point out deer tracks. "These are fresh," he said.
He pointed up a second steep hill. "My wife and I, we'll stay up at hunting camp two or three days at a time," he said. "It's a real getaway." Turkey and deer stroll by their window in the morning, he said. Nobody can reach them by phone. The stars shine clear and bright at night.
"My grandkids love it up there," he said. They set a bathtub against the hillside by the stream. The pond's full of bass and bluegill. "My wife shot our first deer this year up there, with her crossbow.
"The grandkids like to wrassle their old poppy," he said. "I can keep them going now. Last year, I couldn't."
Last year, he weighed almost 250 pounds at 5' 7." "I couldn't go anywhere without huffing and puffing," he said. "In church, it had got so I had to prop my Bible on my belly, because I couldn't get it down between my legs."
Cunningham stopped walking and laid his hand over his heart. "I'll tell you what happened to me," he said. "One day, I was walking to the mailbox, and all the sudden, I felt like somebody had grabbed me from behind and was crushing my chest."
His blood pressure shot up to 220 over 180. His wife rushed him to the hospital. The doctors put a stent in his heart and sent him home. "Three months later, it happened again. That time, they put in a longer stent."
He patted his chest. "My doctor said if I didn't lose the extra weight, I'd be gone from this world," he said. "I made up my mind to shed some pounds."
He stretched out an arm over the broad farming valley rolling out below the hill. "You can see why I'd like to stick around,' he said.
"And I'll tell you something else," he said, cocking his head, "It's kind of embarrassing to see a doctor write out that word 'obese.' That was a real wakeup call all on its own."