By GARY ABERNATHY
CHARLESTON -- West Virginia lost one of its most important and beloved citizens when former Gov. Cecil H. Underwood passed away Monday.
Whenever a story or profile has been written about Gov. Underwood, it has inevitably noted that he was both the youngest and oldest governor in West Virginia history. The remarkable aspect of that accomplishment often gets lost by its very repetition.
In reality, it represents an astonishing level of perseverance. Few politicians would suffer electoral setbacks as Underwood did in 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1976, only to keep his eye so firmly on the prize and celebrate victory a full four decades after his first victory.
But beyond this rather unique footnote to history, Gov. Underwood was an important figure in both state and national politics. When school desegregation became federal law in the late 1950s, many southern states aggressively resisted the effort. But Underwood oversaw desegregation in West Virginia schools, famously declaring in his own low-key style, "West Virginia will obey the law." He also helped bring about a civil service and retirement pension system in the state.
Even after completing his second term and suffering defeat in 2000, Gov. Underwood had not yet completely given up the notion of yet another comeback. I attended a meeting with him in late 2003 during which he produced a piece of notebook paper on which he had devised a strategy for another run for governor, convinced that he could win the 2004 GOP primary and provide a reasonable challenge to either Lloyd Jackson or Joe Manchin in the fall. He said his doctors had assured him he was healthy enough to campaign and to serve.
But in the end, his family, and particularly his wife, Hovah, dissuaded him, and when he appeared at a press conference in 2006 to endorse John Raese's campaign for the U.S. Senate against Robert C. Byrd, he explained that even though his health was good two years earlier, in retrospect sitting out the 2004 campaign was the right decision, because health problems that sprang up in 2006 would have prevented him from serving out his term.
When asked by WSAZ-TV's Scott Saxton if he believed Senator Byrd could serve another six years, Underwood replied, "I'm not a doctor and I haven't examined him. But the odds are against it." Knowing when it's time to fold your own political tent is an exercise in reality difficult for most politicians to recognize, but Cecil Underwood exhibited more self-realization than most.
From a Republican Party perspective, Gov. Underwood became a great friend of the party in retirement. Unless his health prohibited it, he never refused a request to serve as a guest of honor or special speaker at a GOP fundraiser, either for the party or a candidate. He enjoyed being in the public eye, and appreciated the well-wishers who would gather around him at his table for a photo, handshake or encouraging word.
After his wife passed away in 2004, I dropped in to visit the governor many times at his Charleston apartment just to chat with him and hear his stories. He remained keenly interested in what was going on within the GOP, and was a wealth of history and information about political players and events, past and present. His bookshelves were lined with volumes covering a wide variety of subjects and interests, and the current newspaper was never far from his reach.
I was always struck by the governor's humility and quiet nature. He was unfailingly classy, kind and generous. He has been a part of West Virginia's fabric for generations, and his passing leaves a void which will not be easily filled. He loved his state, and he was proud to have served it. And West Virginia, in turn, should be proud that he chose to do so.
Abernathy is a political consultant and former executive director of the West Virginia Republican Party.