Growing up Out Proctor: My Introduction to Politicians
By Gary Eller
My Dad was a solid Roosevelt/Kennedy Democrat with distinctly middle of the road politics. He was a Chemical Union member since he worked as a pipefitter at the PPG plant that made chlorine a few miles up the Ohio River from Grandpap Frohnapfel’s bottomland farm. I am quite sure Pap wouldn’t be a Democrat today but I also don’t know that he would be a Republican. I believe he would be splitting his votes. When I was growing up, Donald Duck generally would have been elected for most elected offices in West Virginia if he ran as a Democrat. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the strength of unions had a lot to do with that. The political winds have really changed in West Virginia since I was a kid!
When I was around seven years old, Pap took me to a political rally at the packed one-room schoolhouse at the village of Wileyville in the rural middle of Wetzel County. There a U. S. Senator named Robert Byrd gave a campaign speech. As a youngster I knew nothing about Robert Byrd, but of course he was revered throughout West Virginia as a fiddle-playing self-made man from the coal fields in the southern part of the state, who bootstrapped himself up to a law degree and national political prominence. He became the longest-serving U. S. Senator in history and was noted for his mastery of U. S. Senate parliamentary minutia and, even more in West Virginia, for “bringing home the bacon.” An amazing number of federally funded facilities and organizations in West Virginia bear his name, attesting to his ego and the money he brought into the state.
I don’t recall the fact that Robert Byrd had been a KKK leader in his younger years ever being mentioned. When Byrd became old and feeble and was serving as a U.S. senator way past the time he should have been in office, many living outside the state considered him an embarrassment to West Virginia.
I suppose my Dad took me to the Robert Byrd rally to expose me to the political process and to see one of his heroes. The event made a life-long impression on me, but not in the way my Dad intended. I remember that Byrd gave a fire and brimstone “all Republicans are Satans” type speech consisting almost entirely of ad hominem attacks on the opposition, while giving little or no insight into what he actually was FOR. I left the rally convinced, even at that young age, that I would NEVER vote for such a partisan demagogue. I have held to that belief throughout my life, even though for numerous political races (presidential especially) I have found it hard to find a candidate to vote FOR.