Rev. Steve Edington | Guest Column | Winter 2023
There is a scene near the end of the movie “We Are Marshall” that touched me deeply. It involved Ian McShane and Kate Mara. The film was about the tragedy, and its aftermath, of the November, 1970 plane crash in Huntington that took the lives of nearly all of the Marshall football team, most of the coaching staff, and several of Huntington’s team boosters.
McShane’s part was that of a composite character comprised of one of Huntington’s more prominent citizens, a mover and shaker on Marshall University’s Board of Trustees, and the father of the quarterback on the Thundering Herd football team who went down in the plane crash. Mara was portrayed as a Marshall cheerleader and the fiancé of McShane’s deceased son.
McShane and Mara take a walk in a park along the Ohio River. McShane gently tells his would-have-been daughter-in-law that it’s time for her to be moving on with her life, following the grief and shock they had both known nearly a year earlier. He thinks it would be best if she left Huntington, and his admonition to her is: “If you don’t leave now, you never will.” One of the final scenes in the movie shows Kate Mara driving away from Huntington, and away from West Virginia, in a tan VW Beetle.
I graduated from Marshall in the spring of 1967, three years prior to the tragic plane crash recounted in “We Are Marshall.” While my circumstances were light years away from those of the characters portrayed by McShane and Mara, I had reached the same conclusion by my senior year that McShane gave her: “If you don’t leave now, you never will.” I got accepted at a mainline, liberally-oriented theological seminary in Rochester, New York. Believe it or not, as I drove away from West Virginia in 1967, I was at the wheel of a tan VW Beetle.
That was more than 50 years ago. During that half century plus, I’ve come to see that McShane’s character was only half right. I had to leave when I did. I’ve lived over half of my life now in the Northeast—with most of that time in southern New Hampshire as a Unitarian Universalist minister. My leave taking was the right call for me. Yes, I had to leave, but West Virginia is still my home country.
West Virginia Trifecta
I share a similarity in this regard with my mother, who lives in West Virginia’s capital city of Charleston. My mom was a World War II British war bride. She became a naturalized American citizen more than 70 years ago, and has since lived her entire American life in West Virginia. But England is still her ancestral home, to which she has family ties and feels a strong connection.
It’s the same with me and West Virginia. I’ve lived other places for most of my life by now, but West Virginia remains an important piece of my identity. In following some recent news stories about my home state, three items jump out:
- In the 2020 Presidential election, West Virginia voters gave 68% of their votes to Donald Trump.
- According to an on-line outfit called WalletHub, West Virginia is “the unhappiest state” in the Union, whatever their criteria for “unhappiness” may be.
- According to the same source, West Virginia ranked 49th in safest states from COVID. This made it one point away from being the most unsafe place in America with respect the ongoing presence of COVID.
The unhappiest state in America; one of the least safe places to live in America when it comes to COVID; and the state that—going by percentage—gave the most votes to Donald Trump of any State in America. That is quite the trifecta! I can see where someone with no ties to West Virginia would look at that trifecta, shake their heads with a few tsks, tsks, and move on to other matters.
But I can’t. For all the many miles and all the many years that have come between me and my home state. It is still my ‘Mountain Mama’ (thank you John Denver), and that trifecta is somehow about me as I try to make some sense of this ongoing Trump phenomenon, now that he is running for the Presidency again.
Where to start? Any thoughts about my West Virginia origins, and their continuing impact on me, begin with my father. He was born in 1909 in a hamlet called Nat, which I can’t even find on a West Virginia map. It’s somewhere out in the back country between Buffalo and Point Pleasant.
His formal education went to the eighth grade in a couple of one-room schoolhouses. In time he developed a trade as a house painter, and moved to Charleston to find work as the Depression took hold. He lived in a rooming house, sent some of his earnings back to support his family—who had moved to Gallipolis, Ohio—and faithfully attended Charleston’s Emmanuel Baptist Church.
Dad was in his early 30s when the United States entered World War II. He enlisted in the Navy and was stationed on a Naval base in Plymouth, England as a SeaBee (the name derived from ‘CB’ as an acronym for Construction Battalion). He met a British lady at a local church. They were married in August of 1944. I was born a year later in Plymouth.
When the war ended, just as I was born, my dad and mom came to live in the Charleston area where dad took up his painting trade. They raised four children, and built much of their lives around a Baptist Church in St. Albans. Dad was very proud to serve as a Deacon in that church. Five or six days a week he put on clothes that smelled of paint and when off to work, although sometimes work was scarce. But on Sunday he put on a suit and was Mr. Edington, Church Deacon.
Being a Republican
Ours was a close, loving family, who sometimes lived on the economic edge. We never lacked for the necessities of food, clothing, and housing; but there were times when it wasn’t much more than that. Thinking of my dad during those years brings to mind a line from Stephen Stills’ song Four and Twenty: “He worked like the Devil to be poor.”
One story that stays with me has to do with my saving up money from my newspaper route to buy a tennis racquet. The City of St. Albans, W.Va., built a couple of tennis courts just up the street from where we lived. They became the hangout place for many of us neighborhood teens as we learned the game and spent much of our summers there. It kept us out of trouble and off the street.
Part of the tennis courts pecking order had to do with who had the coolest racquet. In those days, $20 would get you a top-of-the-line Wilson; and I had my $20 all saved up. As I was drifting off to sleep one evening, I overheard my mom and dad talking in the living room about how they were going to get the money to buy that week’s groceries. Dad had just started a painting job, but wouldn’t get paid in time for that week’s grocery shopping. That’s how close to the edge we lived at times.
Believe it or not, $20, if spent wisely, would buy a week’s worth of groceries for a family of six—which we were. The next morning, after dad had gone to work, I told mom I’d heard them talking the night before, and that I had $20 that I could loan them if they needed it. They took me up on my offer and bought the groceries the next day.
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GUEST ESSAY: Sermonizing on what Joni Mitchell said: March 14, 2023: Spinning up a sermon from how Joni Mitchell’s song “Passion Play (When All the Slaves are Free)” speaks to the mandate to reach out to those the powerful and mighty consign to huddling in the darkness—just as stories of the life of Jesus show him doing constantly.
When dad finished his paint job, he paid me back. I bought my tennis racquet and didn’t give the matter much more thought. It was not until many years later that I wondered what the effect was on my father that he needed to borrow money from his 16-year-old son to by the groceries for his family for a week.
For all of that, dad was a staunch Republican. He voted for every GOP presidential candidate in his lifetime, including Barry Goldwater in 1964. I’m sure it had to do with his pride. While one might have thought he was voting against his own working-class interests in supporting Republicans, it was dad’s identity—his image of himself—that overrode such matters. You made it on your own. However difficult your economic situation might be, you didn’t look to the “the government” for help.
I guess if the only thing standing between him and his family going hungry was government assistance of some kind, he would have taken it; but it never quite came to that. Being a Republican played into dad’s identity as a self-made man who could stand on his own and manage his life without relying on “the government,” no matter how tough life got for him.
One continuing lesson I take from these reflections is that often when it comes to matters of politics and culture, it is one’s identity, one’s sense of who they are, and one’s sense of their self-worth, that actually overrides things like political positions and policies. More on this later.
His faith, his family, and his being a staunch, conservative Republican went a long way in making up my dad’s self-image. I’ll always be a part of the family my dad and mom brought forth until my dying day, and with my undying gratitude. For a time, I shared my father’s faith and his political leanings, before going in some markedly different directions of my own. How all that came about is another story, other than to say that those four years at Marshall had a lot to do with it before I headed north in my VW Beetle.
It was near the end of my time in seminary that I had to stand up to my father in a way that I know was very painful for him. The oldest of my three younger sisters, Rose, ended up attending the same theological school in Rochester, New York, as I did. While there she fell in love with, and became engaged to, one of the school’s Black students. They were married at the seminary during my senior year.
My dad could not accept it. Mom and one of my other sisters came up for the wedding. I believe it was the first time my mother ever did something contrary to my father’s wishes; or something that momentous anyway. Rose knew she was risking being alienated from our father with her marriage. For a time, she was right. Dad let it be known that he could not deal with the two of them coming to our West Virginia home.
Hard is it was for me to do, I felt I had no other recourse than to send my father a letter letting him know that if my new brother-in-law and sister were unwelcome in our St. Albans home, then I did not feel like I could be there, either. Dad did not directly reply to me, but according to my mother it hit him pretty hard. In the end, he knew he could not handle cutting off his relationship with his son and one of his daughters. He relented.
Several years later Rose, and her husband, Mel (who both later served as co-ministers at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Charleston) had a daughter at about the same time my wife and I were married. They visited St. Albans with their newborn baby and dad got to hold her.
As it turned out, she was the only grandchild he would see. At around this same time, dad began having a series of what were first diagnosed as mini-strokes, before a brain tumor was discovered. It was a pretty rare type, and while never definitively proven, my guess it came from the years of him inhaling lead-based paint before latex paint came into widespread use. As difficult as his passing was—at the age of 69—my sister and I found peace in knowing that he had reconciled himself to her marriage and got to hold a grandchild a few months before he died.
Seeing through Trump
With all of that as backdrop, I have to wonder if dad would have supported Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. I’ll never know for sure, of course, but my best-guess answer is probably not. I say this largely due to matters of morality.
In addition to everything else I have said about him, my dad was the most moral-minded, and moral-behaving, person I have ever known. He didn’t smoke, swear or drink (he was, in fact, death on anything having to do with alcohol consumption). The harshest expletive I ever heard him use was “Oh shucks!”
While he never forbade my playing card games—with your basic deck of cards, I mean—he was uncomfortable with it. It was the same with dancing. He never forbade me from going to school dances, but would have just as soon I hadn’t gone to them. He was an absolutely faithful husband throughout my parents’ marriage before he passed away in 1979.
As much, then, as my dad may have resonated with some of Trump’s message, in the end I have a hard time seeing him supporting an unfaithful husband, a serial adulterer—including a dalliance with a porn star, no less—and someone who openly bragged about grabbing a woman’s genitals.
Add to that that Trump made millions off of his gambling casino and resorts, where the bets and the booze flow freely, and I just don’t think dad could have stomached all that—deep-down, dyed-in-the-wool, Republican that he was. Along with all that, as just noted, was dad’s complete aversion to any kind of swearing. With Trump being a world-class cusser, I think that would have further alienated him from my father.
Now, throw religion into that mix. As limited as his formal education was, dad was a smart and insightful person. I think he would have seen through Trump’s use and manipulation of a religious faith that was the sustaining factor in my dad’s life. Given the iconic status my father gave to the Bible, I think he would have been insulted by Trump’s referring to a New Testament book as “One Corinthians.” His response to that may well have been: “If you can’t even get the name of a Bible book right—it’s ‘First Corinthians’ for heaven’s sake—then don’t go quoting from it.”
Yet I am also sure there is no way dad would have ever supported a Democratic Party nominee for President. But for the reasons I’ve just cited it is difficult for me to see him supporting Trump, either. Dad wasn’t one to quote Shakespeare, but for the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections he probably would have decided, as that line in Romeo and Juliet has it: “A plague on both your houses,” and voted for none-of-the-above, or for a third-party candidate.
No, dad would have had little, if any, use for Donald Trump the person. But there are certain aspects of what has come to be called “Trumpism” that he may well have connected with. This is what I focus on when I try to make some sense of that West Virginia trifecta with which I led off this piece. While my father has been gone for over 40 years now, when I seek to get a handle on today’s West Virginia culture (and, yes, I know it is not a mono-culture), I think on the world my father saw though his eyes, and through his life, as he lived it out in southern West Virginia while I was growing up there.
There was the isolation. The interstate highways, I-79, I-77, and I-64, were not completed in West Virginia until near the end of my dad’s life. So, while West Virginia is not as closed in now as it was when I grew up there, I still detect a certain sense of isolation among its people. It’s like: ‘We’re down here in our hollows and valleys and struggling little towns, and the rest of the world is out there somewhere …’
‘The Land Out There’
Time for another story: My first trip to New York City was in the spring of 1967, at age 21, when Marshall’s basketball team made it to the equivalent of the NCAA Final Four for the National Invitational Basketball Tournament that was played in Madison Square Garden. Marshall students started jumping in cars and driving to New York as if it were 100 miles or so up the road.
One of the campus ministers with whom I’d developed a good friendship—and who had the unlikely nick-name of “Corky”—had a VW bus. He let it be known that the first six or seven people who could come up with the gas money, and cover the lodging arrangements he was making, could leave with him and his wife for New York that night. I ran around the campus borrowing five bucks here and ten bucks there until I had what I needed. We hit the road at 8 p.m.
I was overwhelmed and captivated by New York City. I could hardly believe such a place existed. For all of the countless trips I’ve made to NYC since then (and I’m 40+ years married to a woman from the New York City area), I still remember well the rush I felt when I first saw it.
I’d been given a glimpse of the world beyond West Virginia; a world beyond the one my father knew so well. I saw a piece of the world that was “out there.” And, in a way that actually surprised me, I found it attractive. When the fall of that year rolled around, I was ready to roll myself. Rochester, New York, was more than 300 miles from New York City, but it was still close enough. I had made it to The Land of Out There.
So, coupled with that sense of isolation I’ve described about living in West Virginia was this idea that those people “out there” are—or think they are—smarter, more refined, more sophisticated, more with-it, than we are “down here” in the Mountain State.
I have to admit, that once I got “out there” I didn’t really see all that much more in the way of smarts, refinement or sophistication than I’d known in my home state. But such was the perception by those who saw themselves as being “down here” anyway. To be “down here” was—by and large—to feel that you were being looked down upon by those “out there.”
My dad saw himself as being among those who were “down here.” I know he felt conflicted as he saw my life moving beyond my West Virginia origins—pleased that I was moving along with my life and with a sense of direction for myself, while also uneasy that I was moving into the world of those “out there.”
My sister’s marriage, I’m guessing, was—among other things—a message to my dad that those who were “out there” were sophisticated enough that they didn’t have to concern themselves with the feelings of those who are “down here,” and who couldn’t wrap their heads around interracial marriage—especially one in their own family. As terribly misguided as dad’s initial feelings were about my sister’s marriage, I do have some sense of where they were coming from.
When I think about that aforementioned trifecta, and what I might want to say to the Trump supporters who make part of it, I find myself thinking about what I’d want to say to my father were he still alive. As already noted, while I don’t—in the end—think my dad could have brought himself to actually cast a vote for Donald Trump, he came from the same West Virginia socio-economic-cultural milieu that overwhelmingly gave Trump their votes.
With my dad in mind, here’s what I have to say to that 68% of the West Virginia electorate who voted for Trump in the past Presidential election: I think I have a good feel for where many of you are coming from. I was there myself and haven’t forgotten it. I know the feeling of being “down here,” while there is some other world “out there” somewhere that somehow feels superior to you. What I don’t get is your apparent belief that Donald Trump is on your side—that he knows and cares about you.
Look, according to something called the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, as of March of 2021 Donald Trump was worth $2.3 billion dollars—with $413 million of that inherited from his father over the years since his father’s death. He has a global empire of hotels, golf courses, and who-knows-what other similar kinds of real estate. His mismanagement of his empire has cost him dearly from time to time, but an empire it remains.
Why, then, do you think he gives two hoots in hell about you? Trump has gotten to where he is by using the people who happen to be useful to him at certain times in his life. When it comes to his Presidential ambitions you happen to be useful to him—no more and no less. He has no knowledge and no feelings for the culture—okay, cultures—of West Virginia than I would have for a Martian culture, if such a thing existed.
He knows—or thinks he knows—that all he has to do, when it comes to courting your allegiance and your vote, is to offer some empty slogans about making America “great” again and “owning the libs.” It’s a cynical move: Tell people who may not be feeling that their lives are all that great that he is going to make America great again, and they’ll think this “greatness” will somehow rub off on them.
C’mon, surely you are able to see through all that. Really, does wearing a MAGA hat, or a sweatshirt like the one I saw being worn in a shopping mall not far from where I live here in New England that said, “Make a liberal cry” give your life some kind of an uplift? Does it really make you feel better about yourself? Once you take off the hat or the sweatshirt or the T-shirt, is your life in any kind of a better place?
My guess is that when you get up in the morning, you’re like my dad on many mornings of his life—still getting up to face another day of hard work just to stay afloat. And Donald Trump couldn’t give a rat’s you-know-what about any of that.
About this “owning the libs” business, try just this one item on for size: According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 29% of all West Virginians are on Medicaid, making WVA the state with the highest percentage of its population on Medicaid. The health care needs of 52% of West Virginia’s children are covered by Medicaid; and 75% of West Virginia’s nursing home residents are covered by Medicaid. If it weren’t for these “libs” you somehow want to “own” or make cry, Medicaid would not even exist. And no, that is not fake news!
A hopeful place
Okay, I get it that you’ve probably got these “libs” you want to “own” somehow mixed in with all those “out there” people who look down their noses at hillbillies. That’s how Trump and his handlers want you to see it anyway. All I ask here is that you not be fooled by them. I’m guessing that your minds are as good as my father’s was—his rural, West Virginia eighth grade education notwithstanding. Use your minds, as I know you’re capable of doing, to think for yourselves and to do some honest mind and soul searching.
However challenging your day-to-day life circumstances may be, do some hard thinking. Think on what you can do—on your own or with others in your community—to enhance your lives and the life of your surroundings. Think on what your vision of “the common good” might be. Think on what that “more perfect Union” that the Framers of our U.S. Constitution wrote about might look like, especially in the places where you live.
I feel safe in saying that to think and act in these kinds of ways, as I know you can do, will put your lives in a far more positive and hopeful place than will hats, T-shirts, and empty slogans. Give it a try.
My dear mother—now in her late nineties—and one of my sisters and her family live in Charleston. My wife and I get down for a visit a couple of times a year. Whenever we cross into West Virginia, as we come over from that stretch of western Maryland, I start humming “Country Roads.” For all the years I’ve been away, it is still “take me home” time.
It’s a home I still care about; otherwise, I would not have written this.
Rev. Steve Edington is the Minister Emeritus of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashua, New Hampshire, where he and his wife reside. He is a 1963 graduate of St. Albans High School and a member of the Class of 1967 of Marshall University.