I knew very little about West Virginia until I was 31 years old. In fact, the Mountain State was one of the very last of the lower 48 that I visited, so I obviously missed out on the Golden Horseshoe Test.
My wife, Kathy, and I moved to Charleston from New Orleans in 1979, little more than three months after we were married, with all of our possessions in a U-Haul and knowing only four Kanawha Valley people. We discovered quickly how accepting West Virginians are to newcomers, and it didn't take much longer to appreciate the level of civic engagement here by citizens from all walks of life. Very simply, there was an authenticity to my new home and its people that I had never before experienced.
Although we feel extremely fortunate to have come to live here 34 years ago, it is frustrating to me how many West Virginians, rather than relishing their "Wild and Wonderful" heritage, act almost apologetic about our state. I'm painfully aware that we have a multitude of societal and economic problems, starting with shortcomings in educational attainment and health, but our story is not unique.
As an example, look at New Orleans in the late 20th century -- a city whose citizens had a true love affair with its remarkable history and culture, yet its effectiveness was stifled by a closed upper society and a stuck underclass. People from "outside" often had a difficult time hitting their stride. It's no surprise that things were slowly deteriorating, when you consider poverty, crime, public education and health outcomes.
Amazingly, after Katrina in 2005, there has rapidly been a 180-degree turn in the average New Orleanian's attitude toward those "not from here." Now, being an outsider is considered a good thing. People from all over have come to live, work and make a difference in the rebirth of the "Big Easy." This welcoming attitude has helped attract do-gooders, entrepreneurs and creative types, and is a big reason why this once-devastated city is now the nation's fastest growing, has a blossoming 21st century health-care delivery system, and is called the "Silicon Valley of education reform."
The analogy to West Virginia is not perfect and the cause-and-effect likely oversimplified, but it still makes sense for West Virginians to consider this successful model. There is no doubt that we already have our arms out for those willing to join us. We must, though, not be afraid to display shameless pride for our state's fascinating past, spectacular mountains, rivers and valleys, untouched wilderness, vibrant urban areas, low crime rate, warm, hardworking people, and amazing array of natural resources, including, most importantly, abundant clean water.
The Boy Scouts were obviously impressed when they made the momentous decision to locate their new National High Adventure Base here. Personally, I feel I have found a place where access to diverse experiences benefiting both my body and soul is unequaled. There is absolutely no reason for West Virginians to have an inferiority complex.
My hope is that, just like in New Orleans, the synergy between enthusiastic natives and talented transplants will enable us to meet what may seem today like insurmountable challenges. As a West Virginian "by choice" and a professional optimist, I feel our state's future is incredibly bright. It will just take patience and persistence to, as they say in Louisiana, "laissez les bon temps rouler" -- let the good times roll.
Dr. Foster is a Charleston physician and former state senator.