Happy Birthday, West Virginia

Our great state turns 152 tomorrow. If West Virginia were a person getting up in years, she might say, “I can’t believe I made it this long!”

It’s never been easy here. Our state was born amid conflict and we’ve been fussing and feuding ever since; North against South, the panhandles versus the rest of the state, industrialists and environmentalists, authority against the free Mountaineer spirit, WVU versus Marshall, neighbor arguing with neighbor.

Today our state and its people face serious challenges, from the near-epidemic levels of illegal drug abuse to the decline of coal, the state’s most important industry. A report this week by the Trust for America’s Health says West Virginia leads the nation in accident-related deaths, including drug overdoses. So now it’s dangerous just living here.

It’s an oversimplification to call us our own worst enemy, but suffice it to say we don’t always make it easy on ourselves. Romans 5:3 says there is “glory in our sufferings,” so West Virginians should be a virtuous clan.

Our Scotch-Irish heritage combined with the mountainous isolation and history of dangerous and dirty work in the coal mines and on farms and in forests all contributed to what is often described as our Appalachian fatalism. But fatalists give up, and I’ve never thought that about us.

The late WVU football coach Bill Stewart, a deep-rooted West Virginian, embodied the Mountaineer Spirit when he said, “All my life I have been in tough situations. You jut your jaw, you bow your back, you shut your mouth and you go play as hard as you can. And if you do that in life, be it in your daily walk, in your job, in your marriage or whatever phase of your life, you will be OK.”

That’s a simple and reasonable definition of success in our state. It doesn’t speak of fame, fortune or even necessarily happiness; it’s about having the iron will to always do your best and the courage to accept the outcome.

Following Stewart’s credo does not leave room or time for abstract thinking. We’re not fatalists, we’re realists.

More than anything, however, West Virginia is home and it never leaves you even if you leave it. In an increasingly disposable and transient culture, our home state is an authentic place, validated by previous generations, many of whom carved out meaningful lives without ever straying too far beyond the next hill or hollow.

Author and West Virginia native Homer Hickam, speaking at WVU’s commencement in 1999, said, “You are from a place that has put its stamp on you for the rest of your life, whether your know it or not.”

“You are from the toughest, most exasperating, demanding, stoic, stolid, warm and gentle (as long as you don’t cross them) people in the world. You will carry with you all the days of your life this place, this grand, infuriating, rich, poor, magnificent, beautiful, ugly, challenging and comforting place.”

Happy Birthday, West Virginia. Will your next year be better? We can’t say for sure, but we know you will still be here with us and we with you, joined in intractable ways, regardless of where your country roads lead us.

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