By Mannix Porterfield
Half a century ago, a smiling, youthful John Kennedy braved a showery day at the West Virginia Capitol to help celebrate the centennial.
Looking across a sea of umbrella-clutching admirers, the president quipped, “The sun does not always shine in West Virginia but the people always do.”
West Virginia is 50 years older come June 20, and to mark the event, legislators are heading into Wheeling for next month’s interims, right into the heart of the state’s first capital.
As veteran statehouse reporter Jim Wallace points out in his recent book, “A History of the West Virginia Capitol,” the state was born in the heat of the Civil War at the Second Wheeling Convention when it was decided to form the Reorganized (or Reformed) Government of Virginia.
Fully two years before the formal birth of the new state, carved out of Virginia by residents opposed to secession, Francis Pierpont was installed as the first governor.
Given that historical backdrop, lawmakers plan to hit the road in June and conduct interims in Wheeling to observe the sesquicentennial.
What’s a birthday without a cake?
Expect to see one, along with some Civil War re-enactors, historic remarks, the Wildcat Regiment Band, among other festivities.
“I’m excited to see the Legislature return to the site of the first West Virginia Capitol,” Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, said Friday.
“Holding interim meetings in Wheeling will allow lawmakers the opportunity to discuss issues relevant to the area while celebrating our state’s past, appreciating our present, and looking ahead to our bright future.”
Kennedy had ample reason to feel an affinity for West Virginians.
Back in 1960, he ran a celebrated Democratic primary campaign against Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey in a showdown viewed as a test of the religious issue, since the Massachusetts senator was a Roman Catholic in a land where Catholics were few in number.
While he easily outdistanced Richard Nixon in the fall election, Kennedy lagged behind other Democratic office holders in West Virginia — proof that the element of religion wasn’t entirely dismissed by many voters in his own party.
It was on that day in Charleston, five months before he would fall to gunfire in Dallas during a parade, that Kennedy referred to his pivotal campaign in the Mountain State.
“I would not be where I am now,” he told a cheering audience. “I would not have some of the responsibilities which I now bear, if it had not been for the people of West Virginia.”
One southern lawmaker, freshman Sen. Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming, who is planning to make the three-day interims trip beginning June 19, relishes the idea of meeting there.
“I think it’s an appropriate way for the Legislature to celebrate the 150th birthday,” Hall said.
Even with all the hoopla over West Virginia’s birthday, Hall says he is interested in seeing some serious discussions on issues.
“I’ll be highly disappointed if we don’t make some serious progress on issues for this year,” he said.
“I specifically have an interest in studying the public hunting lands issue we discussed a couple months ago.”
Hall wants the Legislature to look into opening up some private property in southern counties to hunters, who are finding it increasingly difficult to enjoy the sport.
“I’m hopeful we can work out some kind of public-private partnerships to allow for more hunting land access.”
While he has doubts it will be put on any committee agenda, Hall said he would like to revive the debate over failed legislation that would have subjected people getting welfare benefits and unemployment checks to random drug screens.
Another item of keen interest to Hall is a study of insurance rates and the rate approval process through the Insurance Commission.
“Southern West Virginians are facing greatly increased premiums for their insurance coverage,” said Hall, himself an insurance adjuster.
Hall said he has no explanation for the spike in premiums.
“I have been receiving complaints from people about auto and home specifically,” he said.
“I have also received complaints from insurance agents who can’t get answers from the companies, either. It makes it very difficult for citizens to obtain insurance and for agents to sell with these high costs.”
In advance of the West Virginia Day celebration, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin recalled the last milestone — the 100th birthday.
“I know there are some West Virginians who were not around the last time we celebrated a birthday this big — our centennial in 1963,” Tomblin said.
“I was, and it was something I’ll never forget.”
Tomblin recalled the appearance of Kennedy, viewed live by those at the Capitol, or remotely from thousands tuned in to television sets.
“For many of us, it was more than an important moment in our state’s history,” the governor said.
“It was a day that made us all proud to be West Virginians. This June, we get to do it again.”