By Mannix Porterfield
If this mid-autumn blizzard comes as a surprise, then there’s one explanation — you simply haven’t lived long enough to recall an earlier assault by nature.
Those with vivid memories of 51 years ago know what happened back on Oct. 19, 1961.
And mind you, that was 11 days earlier in the month than this week’s hurricane-laced snow blitz that is threatening to paralyze much of West Virginia.
So early in the autumn was the 1961 pounding that most of the trees were still heavily burdened with leaves, and the result was predictable.
“The snow came down pretty heavy,” said Paul Fox, now in his 22nd year as a substitute teacher in Fayette County.
“It got on the power lines and froze and broke some of those. The trees had such heavy loads of snow and leaves on them. They fell down across the roads and across the power lines.”
Fox and two teaching colleagues — Doug Kincaid and C. Adam Toney — were car-pooling back then, and bound for schools that day with a good reason.
“We left Oak Hill that day to travel over there because it was our first paycheck,” Fox recalled.
Toney taught English and ultimately became a sheriff, and Fox was an instructor in American government, world history and algebra, at Ansted High, while Kincaid taught at the middle school on a hill overlooking the high school.
“We were completely shocked that day going to school,” Kincaid said.
Of course, one must bear in mind this was before today’s sophisticated weather tracking systems, home computers and cable television.
“Back in those days, they didn’t call off school,” Kincaid said.
“If you could make it, you made it. If you couldn’t, you didn’t. Different counties had different rules on snow days. A snow day was practically unheard of back in ‘61.”
Fox was the designated driver that day, and says he wasn’t really worried when he got behind the wheel of his 1959 Ford Fairlane for the trip.
“On the way over, just before we got to Chimney Corner, there were a few slick spots on the curves,” he said.
“It was my week to drive. I got stuck one time, but it wasn’t bad for the old ‘59 Ford I had. It just came down really quick and the leaves had frosted. It just stuck to the tree leaves and brought the branches down on the power lines and across the road.”
The sudden snowstorm didn’t faze Fox.
“Not really,” he said.
“I was just 24 years old and not that scared of driving.”
Nancy Holt-Stewart of Beckley, a retired advertising employee of The Register-Herald, has good reason to remember the 1961 snowstorm. It began a day before her birthday.
“There was plenty of ice,” she said. “My oldest daughter was 9 months old.”
Kincaid left for Richmond to work as a timekeeper for Phillip Morris after graduation from West Virginia Tech, and from there departed for Albuquerque, N.M., to help a friend construct an adobe in Corrales, along with another friend, Wendell Ray Acorn, a Penn State wrestler who ultimately spent 7 1/2 years as a prisoner of war of the communist North Vietnamese — five of them captive with Arizona Sen. John McCain in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.”
After a year teaching social studies in Ansted, he moved on to Maryland for 12 years, where he also was an assistant principal of an elementary school, then returned to become director of personnel for Fayette County schools. He retired in 2002.
Is this impending blizzard a source of worry?
“Not really,” he said.
“You have to take what comes. I guess we’re better prepared. We have a generator this time.”
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