BUCKHANNON, W.Va. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., returned to West Virginia Wesleyan College to host a public policy forum and reflect upon his time in public service.
Rockefeller served as president of Wesleyan from 1973 to 1976.
Ted Koppel, broadcast journalist best known as the longtime anchor for "Nightline," moderated the April 22 event.
The two reclined in arm chairs for what was described as a "fireside chat"-style discussion.
Rockefeller discussed his journey to public service and away from the family business.
"I didn't want to be a person without a mission or a person who just automatically followed into the family work," Rockefeller said. "I wanted to do something larger than life. I wanted to do something really, really hard. The problem was how to get to that point."
He started that journey with experiences abroad, first in Japan after his junior year in college, then in the Philippines when he joined the Peace Corp.
"I came back, and I was clearly changing," Rockefeller said. "It wasn't just about my family or what job am I going to have. It instilled in me a desire to do something important and something hard. I didn't know it was going to be public service."
What really changed and directed him were his experiences once he returned to the United States, acting as a VISTA volunteer in the community of Emmons in southern West Virginia in 1964 and 1965.
"It was Emmons against the world," Rockefeller said.
Rockefeller said that the most important decision in his political career was the decision to "stay the course," and stay in West Virginia.
"I wanted something that would be almost impossible to do, but I would have a chance of trying to do it, which was to give the people in Emmons, and later on, on a wider scale in West Virginia and even the country, a sense that life can be better," Rockefeller said.
At the forum, Rockefeller also advocated for young people entering into public service.
"So many people do what their parents do, what their father or mother does, and they don't put themselves outside of their comfort zone," Rockefeller said. "Commit yourselves to helping other people's lives get better."
Rockefeller emphasized that public service isn't just about politics.
"The whole concept that if you're in public life, then you have be a governor or a senator or something of that sort is nonsense," Rockefeller said.
Rockefeller said that public service work can also include work as a social worker, a teacher, a nurse, an EMT or a firefighter.
"It's not just called an elected political office; it's called serving your community in some way," Rockefeller said. "You'll never regret it."
Rockefeller also expressed optimism in West Virginia's economic future.
"If we're that kind of people, that have all the economic problems that we do, if we can catch some breaks, and if we can diversity our economy . thinking about ourselves, and what is really good for us, there are some unbelievable things happening in technology in West Virginia," Rockefeller said.
Koppel praised Rockefeller's 50 years of service in the U.S. Senate.
"Look at the extraordinary career of this man, and all of you whom he has touched, whether you knew it or not, directly or indirectly, and the impact that he has had in intelligence and foreign policy and health and education," Koppel said.
After discussing Rockefeller's service, Koppel asked Rockefeller selected submitted questions from the audience. All questions that were not answered during the forum will be answered and put up on Rockefeller's website at rockefeller.senate.gov at a later date.
Dr. Pamela Balch, president of West Virginia Wesleyan College, said that the talk was a great opportunity for students to hear about the real value of public service.
"I think the message that he gave to students really resonates with what we as a college focus on, and that's really serving others," Balch said.
Information from: Times West Virginian, http://www.timeswv.com