PARKERSBURG -- Here is the prepared text of Justice Larry Starcher's comments Oct. 10 at the Appalachian Heritage Day at West Virginia University-Parkersburg:
Good morning. I am honored to be asked to give a talk today as part of Parkersburg West Virginia University's Appalachian Heritage Day. I want to say "thank you" to Prof. Gregg Busch for inviting me, and thanks to all of you for showing up to hear my remarks. I'll try not to go too long, because I want to leave plenty of time for questions and discussion. Also, I am a great believer in the modern beatitude for public speeches – "Blessed are the brief, for they shall be invited to return!"
I want to begin, and spend most of my time, by telling you about an early part of my personal Appalachian heritage. Then I'll try to connect some of my personal experiences with more general observations and ideas. And then maybe we can discuss those ideas.
For the first part of this talk, I'm going to draw on the start of an autobiography that I began several years ago. It's a little embarrassing to subject an audience to a piece of my own life story – up to about 12th grade, but I think you may find it interesting.
On Sept. 25, 1942, I was born in an old farm house, down a dirt road on Henry's Fork (a small creek that divides Roane and Calhoun Counties), about 3 miles "from the blacktop." The house consisted of four rooms, two up and two down, each room having an open fireplace. The kitchen was detached, but joined to the main house by a small covered walkway.
It was 1942 – World War II was consuming Europe and the Pacific Ocean. My mother, Susie Roach Starcher (age 22) lived alone down that dirt road with my 3½-year old brother, Ronald, and 15-month old sister, Carol. My father – who had failed his military physical because of diabetes – was in Ohio working in a defense plant. My paternal grandparents lived perhaps three-fourth mile (by the path through the woods) from my mother, yet when I was born, my mother was the only adult present in our house. My Grandmother Starcher had been checking in on Mom daily, but I came as a surprise one evening. When I was born, my mother had no assistance, and her only company was two other very small children.
I have been told that Grandma "came the next day." Once I asked my mother, "What did you do until Grandma arrived?" Her response was, "What do you think I did; I cleaned you up."
Now I suppose that is a sensible, logical response, but think for a moment how it had to be done. The kitchen was a room – actually a separate small building – detached from the main house. A fire had to be built in the wood burning cookstove (with wood my mother or grandmother had to keep supplied), and water had to be drawn from an outside well. The house had no electricity, gas or inside plumbing.
So, never tell me that women are the "weaker sex."
Our family was – like many Appalachian families – rather "close-knit." My paternal grandparents lived on the Roane County side of Henry's Fork, less than a mile up the creek from my birthplace – in my dad's boyhood home. My maternal grandparents lived, by dirt road, about five miles "up on the hill" – as we called it – over in Calhoun County, across Henry's Fork.
Almost exactly across the creek from where I was born, in Calhoun County, up on a hill, is the Starcher Cemetery. It is this little rural cemetery that holds the remains of many of my relatives up through my grandfather's generation. Next to the cemetery is a small single-room building that served as a non-denominational church for many years. It was pretty much the creation of my grandparents on my father's side – Andrew Jackson and Reta Starcher. And, it was pretty much built by Grandad Starcher. The church served as a community church during my boyhood while both of my grandparents were living, but with their deaths in the early 1960s, the demise of the church soon followed.
My childhood was filled with experiences at that church – family funerals, Sunday School, church singings – including the old-fashioned "note singing," and church picnics in the church yard that doubled as cow pasture.
Within a year of my birth, my dad returned from his work in Ohio and moved his family about 12 miles into town – Spencer. There I grew up.
As a youngster I was a very good student, always at or near the top of my class. And it was my scholastic achievement that gave me confidence in myself, acceptance by my peers, and, ultimately, resistance to the fatalistic message that I received at home – "it has been good enough for us; it is good enough for you."
We were a poor family, so there were no such things as vacations, shopping trips or even recreation for which one would have to pay. I have truthfully said many times that not once did our family take a vacation, or go to a restaurant for a meal when I was a child.
For my family, "eating out" was going to the store, buying a loaf of bread and a pack of bologna, and stopping at one of Governor Barron's roadside tables. As a special treat – sometimes after Sunday School – "the kids" might be treated to a nickel popsicle that was purchased at a "filling station" – split in half so that one popsicle served two. The order of the day for our family – every day – was work, work, work.
Play was frowned upon, discouraged and even prohibited at times. I recall an occasion when my father gave me a "whipping" for going to the city pool to swim – it probably cost a quarter. A neighbor lady had seen me at the pool and casually commented on it to Dad one evening. And, one year I even managed to play little league baseball for half a season before my father learned about it. I kept the secret by leaving my uniform at a friend's house. To my amazement he permitted me to continue. And even more sad, I can recall Dad commanding that we kids (me and my siblings) "come sit on the porch" at times when other neighborhood kids were congregating for play in the summer evenings.
Dad earned $115 monthly at the Standard Furniture Company in Spencer from 1945-51– driving truck and delivering furniture to area homes. In '51, he got a "good job" with the gas company. His gross monthly income then went to $173.00 per month, from which it was gradually raised to the grand sum of $270.00 gross wages per month when I started to college in 1960. At that time my parents had five children.
No food stamps in those days, but my parents would have never accepted charity; they were self-sufficient. We always had plenty of food because of large gardens, home canning, and wild game – annually canning over 1,000 quarts of food for family consumption.
When Dad died at the too-young age of 59 in 1978, his salary had barely passed the $10,000/year mark. Mom was a homemaker who could stretch the food dollar, while still setting a good table for the family. She was not just frugal; she was so tight that I have always said she would "skin a gnat to save the tallow."
My early teens were particularly difficult years between my parents and me. They struggled to cope with what was obviously a difficult child. I remember that more than once they suggested that I be "sent away" (to the State's reformatory for boys) as a result of bad public behavior or incorrigibility at home. But several of my school teachers took my part in the behavior discussions and always maintained that "sending away" was not an acceptable option for Larry, for he was a very good student – "with promise." Home, community, and school behavior continued as a somewhat problem during this period – basically from grades six to nine. Still I maintained excellent grades.
In reflecting on my life, I now realize that it was during my high school years that empathy, compassion, and concern for others began to emerge as a dominant part of my being. As president of my 4-H club, I learned the value of sharing knowledge. As the editor of our high school yearbook and president of my senior class, I learned how to lead and build bridges of friendship. And as president of our Baptist Youth Fellowship, I added the Christian perspective to my persona.
In the spring of 1960 I became the first member of my family – including my older brother and sister (both had quit school) – to ever graduate from high school. Both later earned their high school diplomas – Ron in the service, and Carol – at age 35 – graduated with one of her children.
The summer of 1960 was a pivotal era in my life. I was resisting the "fatalism sermons" that were regularly preached to me by my parents, and I was preparing to do the ultimate – defy my parents and set out "on my own."
Two events from that summer remain perfectly clear in my mind. The first occurred one evening on our front porch. I had come home from some workplace; it had just darkened to the point that one could no longer see to work. Dad came in from the garden, where he worked most evenings. I was sitting on the porch leaning against a post, exhausted; Dad sat on the glider. After another lecture on how I was "running myself down," and that I could probably go to work for the gas company, he finally said, "Larry, I wish you would get this college stuff out of your head. You don't understand; that is not meant for people like us." I shall never forget his comment. My father had accepted his position in life – and accepted it for his family.
The second incident relates to finding a place to live in Morgantown. I was going to WVU against my parents' will, and I did not even have a place to live. So, one evening in late August I told my dad that I was having trouble with my car (an old '47 Plymouth coupe), and that I needed to go to work at the McCutcheon farm early the next day, about 10 miles north of Spencer. I asked Dad if I could borrow his car (he had a gas company truck). He favored work; he said "yes."
I asked Dad for the keys to his car the night before the day planned for my Morgantown trip. At first he said he would give them to me in the next morning, but somehow, I finagled the keys from him that night. I waited until I was sure he was asleep (determined by sound!). Then I quietly crept out of the house from my basement room to the car that was parked near my parents' open bedroom window. I carefully placed "street clothes" in the car trunk and returned to bed. The next morning I ate breakfast with Dad – dressed in farm work clothes, and then followed him "off the hill" on which we lived.
About five miles out of town I stopped the car, removed my "street clothes" from the trunk, transformed myself from a farm worker to a college preppie, disconnected the speed and odometer cable and proceeded to Morgantown. There I found and arranged to rent a room on Forest Avenue behind the Presbyterian Church. On the return trip I reversed the procedure. It was at least 4 years later that my father and mother first learned that I did not work on the McCutcheon farm that day.
In early September 1960 I headed to Morgantown to become a college student. While my parents had not conceded to my actions, they did give a little. Realizing that I was not to be deterred, my mother gave me my September 25 birthday present early – new, inexpensive, but proud luggage.
Well, that's where I'll leave my personal story.
Now, let's look at a couple aspects of my story and see how they fit into the idea of Appalachian heritage.
The first thing that stands out is self-sufficiency. The Appalachian heritage crafts like basketry, food preservation, home-made folk music, and quilting, that are now seen mostly in the tourism world, have their roots in the self-sufficient rural lifestyle that prevailed in Appalachia – a lifestyle that I experienced in my own life. I want to distinguish here the idea of material poverty, or even misery from just not having much cash exchanging hands. People can be materially fairly well-off, and still live in a society that doesn't rely primarily on money exchange. Doing favors for one another, helping out in the fields, bartering – all these were very important to my family – and to Appalachians in general.
The geographical basis of this distinctive Appalachian economy, of course, are the Appalachian Mountains, that very early served as a barrier to the expansion of European settlement to the West during the colonial period. Still, after the Revolutionary War, hearty souls began moving into the area and a back-country economy and society developed and survived. And it continued, especially in the more remote parts of the region, long after the passing of the frontier elsewhere in America.
And as our larger national culture began to move into modernity after the Civil War, Appalachia became a symbol of a "land where time stood still." Additionally, for much of the region, the industrial revolution was only about resource extraction, and not full integration into the American economy. Appalachia was pretty much treated as a colony within the boundaries of our American nation.
A second aspect of our Appalachian culture that I want to note is the more controversial part of the Appalachian heritage stereotype – fatalism. By this, I mean the idea that too much aspiration or ambition can be dangerous. I've told you how that worked out in my relationship with my parents. But why would such an attitude be seen by many as a quite common feature in Appalachia?
Some historians relate a lack of individual initiative in Appalachian culture to the sort of reciprocity, bartering, cash-poor economy and consequent social structure that characterized Appalachia. In such a society, individual achievement in comparison to others is not necessarily a good survival strategy. One's fortunes are more dependent on the virtues of cooperation and getting along, rather than on the virtues of competition and standing out.
I think this is an interesting idea, because it arises from the principle that "nothing comes from nothing" – if people display certain kinds of cultural behavior, there is often a reason for that behavior that is rooted in their economy. Perhaps the "don't get above your raising" mindset was really to protect children from being hurt by "banging their heads against the system" in a colonial economy. And, a parent might have mixed feelings about wanting their child to achieve at a high level, when that probably meant leaving one's home place – because of a limited local economy.
Let me wrap up by taking a turn to the future. We need to ask the question: Is there more to our Appalachian heritage than a bunch of quilts to be sold at Tamarack, some fiddle tunes to play behind the latest TV show, and antiques to be copied by Ethan Allen?
I think so. I believe that the deepest and richest parts of the human experience can never be touched by digital images and purchased products. I believe that generally, it is only what is close and personal, and rooted in face-to-face human friendship, that can make our lives meaningful. The core of our Appalachian heritage is the face-to-face, day-to-day relations of humans in community, helping one another through life and with joy and loss – with friendship.
Those kind of relations are hard to come by in a monetized, highly-bureaucratic modern world. Our challenge is to try to consciously and continuously revitalize those simpler and more vital necessities of our lives.
So here in the 21st century, we play banjos and dulcimers for each other, and make pottery and sew quilts and can food, and shuck corn and square dance – not for TV cameras, and not for sentimentality – but to feed our souls.
Who knows, but before the lives of many of the people in this room are over, we may well again need the kind of self-sufficiency and simple living that are at the core of our Appalachian heritage, not just for spiritual reasons, but for survival itself.