Driving the 55

From February 2015

Sitting in a sea of gold and blue, the roar of a “Let’s Go Mountaineers!” chant shot shivers up my spine.

The sun was beaming down on us in the stands as West Virginia University’s (WVU) marching band, our beloved “Pride of West Virginia,” marched around the football field.

No, this was not a scene from Milan Puskar Stadium at Mountaineer Field. In fact, we were not even in Morgantown. This culminating feeling came to me in the bleachers of River View High School in Bradshaw, tucked away in the heart of McDowell County.

Hearing and seeing the band energize more than 2,000 McDowell County residents made me pause. We were a good four-and-a-half-hour drive from Morgantown, yet the people in the southern coalfields treated the institution as a neighbor.

When I returned to WVU to serve as president in early 2014, I vowed to visit all 55 counties of the Mountain State. It had been nearly 30 years since my first presidential tenure, so I wanted to reconnect with West Virginians and the state—the same place that afforded me the opportunity to start my journey as a national leader in higher education.

Over the months, I climbed closer and closer to the goal. You know, there is a 1980s rock song by Sammy Hagar called “I Can’t Drive 55.”

Well, Mr. Hagar may not be able to drive 55, but Gordon Gee sure can. In fact, by the end of summer, I did drive 55: all 55 counties of West Virginia, from Weirton to Welch and all points in between.

It was both exhilarating and exhausting. I saw great success stories and great struggles. I saw children who are rich in potential but whose families lack basic needs. I saw communities thriving and communities faltering.

But most of all, I saw the opportunity we have to enrich West Virginia and its people.

As president of the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, I firmly believe WVU is West Virginia’s university. Our campus does not end at the borders of Morgantown; the entire state is our campus. And it is our responsibility to empower all 1.8 million West Virginians with the ability to rise higher.

It is important for all of us to travel the state, listen to the people and simply be present. After all, whether you are a CEO of a large company or an owner of a small-town café, we are all in the business of West Virginia and serving West Virginia’s people. And you can see from some of the highlights of my trip that our great state and its people are well worth our time and attention.



One of my many stops at Energy Express locations happened in Philippi, where I met a tremendous group of kids and volunteers. Energy Express is a summer lunch and reading program sponsored by WVU and Americorps.



I visited the Berkeley County WVU Extension office, talked with staff and met some enthusiastic 4-H’ers who are coming to the university.



My first Boone County pig roast was an absolute thrill. I am thankful no one tried stuffing an apple in my mouth and holding me over a fire.



Down routes 20 and 15, I found Sutton and the Braxton County Fair at Holly Gray Park, where I met up with WVU Tech President Carolyn Long. Carolyn is a familiar face in that area as a former schoolteacher and superintendent. She got teary-eyed when a young man, Ryan Hart, approached her and thanked her for the scholarship he received in her name to attend WVU. It was a touching moment.

Oh, and for anyone who knows me, I love ice cream. There was no way we were traveling through Flatwoods without stopping at the Custard Stand.



I enjoyed touring the Brooke County Museum and learning the history of this beautiful Northern Panhandle county. I also understand that the Grimes Golden apple originated in the lovely town of Wellsburg in 1832.



Some Mountaineers might consider this enemy territory, but I assure you the Marshall University folks welcomed me onto their campus with open arms. A group of creative arts students designed a magnificent handcrafted plate for me. It is perfect for serving flying WV cookies!

In all seriousness, it was a pleasure working with Marshall President Stephen Kopp before his untimely passing. He is dearly missed. We had an open dialogue about challenges and opportunities that face our campuses, and now I look forward to partnering with his successor Gary White. 



I climbed three flights to the WVU Extension office in the courthouse and met with their friendly staff. Shannon Jones Johnson, a WVU law grad and the county’s prosecuting attorney, warmly greeted me with rosemary muffins and local honey. I never forget food gifts.



The sun shone as I met with WVU Extension agent Michael Shamblin and other community members outside the courthouse. He took me to a local camp currently under renovation.



Long-time WVU Extension agent Zona Hutson noted that my visit to West Union marked the first time she recalled a university president stopping by to meet folks in that county. I told her that after seeing me, it might be the last time they let a president visit.

Actually, I clarified that I visited West Union 35 years ago when I first served as WVU’s president. Hutson was successful in making me blush, however, in front of dozens of folks when she said the community appreciated me for being present. I will not forget that.



This county serves as a backdrop for one of the most scenic landscapes in the country. The New River Gorge has such majestic views, and the community is a tightknit one. It reminds me a lot of our campus family.



We must be partners with all institutions of higher learning, and Glenville State College is one of them. I had a great visit on their campus with President Peter Barr. I enjoyed a tour of the Waco Center, a gorgeous athletic and convocation center, made possible largely through a generous gift from businessman Ike Morris.



One of this county’s gems is the Allegheny Wood Products factory in Petersburg. I love it even more because its founders, John and Patricia Crites, are WVU graduates. The firm produces high-quality lumber from the Appalachian region and ships it all over the U.S. and internationally. It is quite the impressive West Virginia success story.



I conveniently scheduled a trip here during the iconic State Fair of West Virginia. The steak sandwiches and hot, fresh Ben-Ellen donuts are worth the time. Sauntering around the fairgrounds, hopped up on sugar, I ran into a technical director for local CBS affiliate WVNS-TV. The young man, Michael Mann, thanked me. When I asked for what, he said, “I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for WVU and their awesome care.” Turns out Mann suffered from epilepsy, but after a procedure at WVU Hospitals, his seizures are far less frequent. Seeing the impact on individuals throughout the state reinforces my belief that WVU is West Virginia’s university.



One of the most overlooked assets of West Virginia is the School for the Deaf and Blind in Romney. Since 1870, it has served nearly 5,000 children. I had a chance to tour its grounds and classrooms, and I must say we have to continue to support its mission. We cannot forget about those students.



Hancock County is fun and quirky, much like yours truly! I never imagined posing for photos in front of the world’s largest teapot in Chester, but I did. Can we fill that up with Diet Dr. Pepper to keep me going through the busy days?

Then the fine folks at the Homer Laughlin China Company presented me with a specially designed bow tie mug during a tour of its factory. Maybe it’s more feasible to fill the mug with Diet Dr. Pepper instead.



A wonderful reception with friends and alumni at the McMechan House in Moorefield concluded one of my ventures to the Eastern Panhandle. The area has a rich Civil War history, and it is always a pleasure to visit colleagues at their beautiful log homes and farms.



I am proud to call United Hospital Center a partner of ours as then CEO Bruce Carter took me on a tour. Harrison County is also home to amazing FBI facilities with which we at the university hope to build relationships.



Luckily, the Jackson County Fair was in full force here in July. The fair, made possible in part by WVU Extension and 4-H efforts, had a little bit of something for everyone: rides, games and livestock galore. I got to observe a heifer-judging contest and received a nice ovation from the crowd. I noticed that the heifers moo’d when my name was announced. Was that their way of booing me?



Shepherd University President Suzanne Shipley was a gracious host before I went with Jefferson County youth to Camp Frame. There, they gave me a spirit stick, which I took back to my office. I occasionally use it at meetings to make sure people are paying attention.



For me, Charleston has become a sort of second home since returning to West Virginia. I am there every few weeks, whether for various receptions, Festival of Ideas events, media visits with top-notch reporters or meetings with our elected officials. Lots of great friends and a special bond exist between the cities of Charleston and Morgantown. The gold dome has to be the best-looking capitol in the country.



Jackson’s Mill is an impressive expanse that allows our young people to grow in talents and leadership skills. It hosts a rustic-style conference and event facility in a historic, heritage-based environment outside of Weston. And it’s all part of our university.



I met with community members here and checked out programs related to WVU Extension and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The people of Hamlin were very gracious.



I swung by Logan County to deliver the keynote speech at the West Virginia Southern Community Technical College Commencement. Thanks to President Joanne Jaeger Tomblin for hosting me. Logan County is in the heart of the state and has some of the hardest-working people I have ever seen.



Morgantown’s sister city to the south, Fairmont, has hosted various meetings from the West Virginia United Health System to the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission. And we have a friend in Fairmont State University.



Energy is key for the Mountain State moving forward. In Marshall County, companies like Noble Energy and Blue Racer Midstream were kind enough to give our team a tour of their facilities.

Our students benefit from their presence. A.J. Brewer is a petroleum and natural gas engineering major from Mingo County who spent a summer interning with Noble at its gas well. He is seizing opportunities made available to him through WVU and in partnership with businesses like Noble that invest in our state.



This might have been the scariest stop along the tour. I noticed some folks passing by the Mothman statue in Point Pleasant, but they probably experienced a greater shock when they saw me in the bow tie!

What an awesome treasure in folklore—the Mothman, not me. And the artwork and history depicted on the flood walls of the Point Pleasant Mural Project was just as extraordinary.



In addition to our band trip to McDowell County in August, I had the honor of touring the Kimball World War I Memorial in May. It is the only one built in the U.S. to honor African-American World War I veterans. I also got to help promote the McDowell CHOICES project, which aims to increase children’s daily physical activity levels to the nationally recommended 60 minutes. That project is made possible through a grant to WVU’s College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences.



WVU touches lives all across the state, even in one of its most southern counties. I want to give a special thanks to Dr. Pamela Faulkner at Harrison Medical in Princeton for seeing us and for allowing our medical students to serve there on rotation.



Let us never forget our magnificent divisional campuses, such as Potomac State College in Keyser. Not only did I have a productive meeting with President Len Colelli, but I was also greeted by Potomac State’s mascot, Paws, who managed to don a bow tie. I wonder how hard it was to tie a bow tie with claws.



Not all of my stops were filled with joy. In Mingo County, I said goodbye to a dear friend and proud West Virginian, Buck Harless. The self-made millionaire established the Larry Joe Harless Community Center in Gilbert, which paved the way for twin WVU Drs. John and Jim Brick to host monthly clinics there. Harless was a lifelong supporter of our university and a generous contributor.



Well, what can I say? I live here! I love the people, and I hope they love me. Morgantown is a place that touched my heart and called me home. Plus, the view from Blaney House is spectacular!



Monroe County is one of the most charming, quaint places I have ever seen. I had so much fun at Betty’s Korner Kafe in Union. The town’s friendly folks came up to chat and pose for photos. I also caught up with some of our dental students at Dr. Mark Kilcollin’s clinic.



Cacapon State Park is lovely. It was a nice, scenic breather to stop and pause there.



It was fun to be hosted by Steve and Jamie Antoline, WVU grads and loyal donors. I met 4-H’ers who made me scrumptious bow tie cupcakes. The county’s 4-H program loves to dance, so I learned some new dance moves from the youngsters.



Oglebay Park is truly one of a kind. I stayed at Oglebay Resort early on in the tour, and the view is priceless. It is a cozy getaway in the middle of a city. Deer and other critters lurked around the grounds to greet me. The only thing missing was the Winter Festival of Lights.



Unfortunately, I did not have time to hike up Seneca Rocks like some of our mighty Mountaineers have done, but I did have the pleasure of visiting Harper’s Old Country Store, built in 1902. The architecture of the building is a throwback and represents the vintage style of the 1800s.



Pleasants County Superintendent Mike Wells welcomed me to the construction site for the new St. Mary’s High School. When finished, the $21.5-million project will be a marvelous facility for students and residents.



Many may not know this, but Pocahontas County is home to the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope—the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope. It is stunning and a hidden gem. Here is why it matters: It turns our young people into future scientists. WVU has committed $1 million to the facility over a two-year period. In return, faculty and staff get 500 additional hours of research time on the telescope.



The folks here are an honest, friendly bunch. In September, I chowed down on my first buckwheat pancake at the 73rd Annual Preston County Buckwheat Festival, and I met King Buckwheat. Now that is a title I wish I could claim.



Touring the Toyota plant in Buffalo was wondrous. The $400-million plant produces engines and automatic transmissions. It is another mark that our good friend former U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller helped leave on our state.



I always enjoy stopping by my good friend Gaston Caperton’s house—well, the house that Gat built: Tamarack. What a showcase for West Virginia art and artisans! The pottery, wood products and glass leave me in awe. We truly live in, and create, a place of beauty known as West Virginia.



Elkins is a charming town blooming with character. I met with Michael Mahalyo, president of Davis & Elkins College. As part of our commitment to the state, it is crucial that we partner with other colleges in West Virginia. We are all in the “thinking business” together.



Berdine’s Five and Dime in downtown Harrisville is a surefire blast from the past. I felt like a kid again surrounded by toys, gadgets and candy. I left America’s oldest five and dime store with a bag of licorice and a smile on my face.



At the Chestnut Ridge Artist Colony, we saw the amazing work of blacksmith Jeff Fetty. That was followed by a community reception at the winery next door.



In Hinton, I ran into Ronda Dortch Sherman. She is part of an initiative to empower and support women in farming. She raises goats, rabbits and other farm animals and crops. From the goat milk, she makes a special soap. A colleague picked some up later at Tamarack.



A fun time was had at a community reception in Grafton. Mother’s Day, of course, was founded here in 1908 to honor our moms. I must say that mine did a bang-up job.



Tucker County welcomed me in style at Canaan Valley Resort with its sweeping views of the surrounding mountain peaks. I had the honor of speaking at the West Virginia Press Association Convention, and guess what? No reporters misquoted me.



If you want a model of a perfect, small American town, look no further than Sistersville with its unique, historical architecture. On a bright, summer day, the Ohio River is beautiful. Sistersville is home to the oldest ferry in West Virginia. Though I did not have enough time to hop on for a ride, I got to see the ferry in its majesty.



I popped into The Artistry on Main, a wonderfully vibrant artist co-op that features the talents of local residents. It reminded me of how important partnerships are to the success of any project, whether it be a collaboration between universities or a creative effort between community members.



The Heritage Farm Museum was a splendid way to end a trip through Wayne County. My dear friends Mike and Henriella Perry run the museum and have poured their hearts and souls into the replication of a time gone by. The experience is one I hope to someday share with my twin granddaughters.



I was amazed to find Camp Caesar, a 4-H-owned camp in Cowen, in a glorious backdrop of mountains and foliage. Betsy Morris, the director, and Mike Hall, the WVU Extension agent, showed me around the grounds, which include a pavilion, housing quarters, a dining hall and a swimming pool.



Wetzel County, like its neighbor Tyler County, is home to some amazing architecture. I love its courthouse. It looks like a castle.



Here, I had a tasty lunch at Vonda’s Café with the fine folks of Elizabeth. That came after another vibrant exchange with students at the nearby Energy Express site.



Even when I was president of The Ohio State University, I would often visit Parkersburg. Over the years, it has been a major artery for commerce between Ohio and West Virginia. Plus, the historic Blennerhassett Hotel is one of a kind.



Wyoming County is another southern coalfield county that impresses me. These are real West Virginians with heartland values, as I learned at a community reception.