BUCKHANNON — Buckhannon is continuing to tell its story by honoring a famous author who is best known for the Newbery Medal-winning book “Carry on, Mr. Bowditch.”
A Jean Lee Latham sign was dedicated at her childhood home, 58 South Kanawha St., across from the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration.
Mayor David McCauley, who is also a professor and attorney for West Virginia Wesleyan College, admits to being an enthusiastic fan of Latham, who has greatly benefited her alma mater.
“I had been at the college for 12 going on 13 years when Jean Lee Latham died back in June 1995,” he said. “Very soon after her death, Brooks Jones, who used to be the director of planned giving at the college, gave me a heads up that she had left all the rights to her various works to the college.”
Latham published over 50 books in her lifetime with the most acclaimed being “Carry on, Mr. Bowditch.”
“She left all of her copyrights to the college, including the contract that was paying her royalties,” he said.
Since that time, the college has sold the audio book rights, theatrical rights and rights for the book to be printed in other countries. The cinematic rights to “Carry on, Mr. Bowditch” have belonged to Bill Nye for the last 20 years.
“All told over a half a million has been received in royalty rights just from ‘Carry on Mr. Bowditch,’” the mayor said. “She has been one of the biggest benefactors in the history of the college.”
McCauley said he also is a fan of Latham for her being a Buckhannon resident and being a career woman at a time when that was not the norm.
Latham graduated from Buckhannon High School and earned an English degree from West Virginia Wesleyan College. While in college, she operated a lithograph machine for the Buckhannon Delta. She taught for two years at Upshur County High School and WVWC before pursing a second bachelor’s degree at Ithaca Conservatory and then a master’s degree from Cornell University.
Latham worked in the publishing industry up until World War II, when she completed courses in radio maintenance and repair at the West Virginia Institute of Technology. She was then assigned to the U.S. Signal Corps Inspection Agency and was later awarded the Silver Wreath, one of the highest civilian decorations from the U.S. War Department.
Following the war, Latham resumed her freelance writing career and moved to books instead of plays. Her first children’s biography was “The Story of Eli Whitney” in 1953. “Carry on, Mr. Bowditch” would be her third work and most famous, telling about American astronomer and navigation expert Nathaniel Bowditch.
“It’s a tribute to women everywhere when you think about what she was accomplishing back in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s — long before it became fashionable for women to be on the same level as men in so many ways,” he said. “She did all that and then some. She is one of the greatest authors in the history of West Virginia.”
Earlier in the afternoon, the college hosted its traditional birthday celebration for Latham, who would have been 115 this year.
Beth Rogers, the reference, instruction and outreach librarian for the college’s Annie Merner Pfeiffer Library, said, “As an institution in Appalachia, one of the goals we have is to promote Appalachian literature, creativity and culture.
“We look at someone like Jean Lee Latham, who was not only writing really intelligent and creative books for children but was introducing non-fiction — people who were amazing like Sir Edmund Drake and Rachel Carson, whose legacy was important, and introducing them to age-appropriate levels of young readers. To be able to promote that legacy and bring her books to greater awareness is central to what we do as educators in Appalachia.”
The new marker that rests in the yard’s left corner tells Latham’s story from her birth on April 19, 1902 to her death in Florida on June 13, 1995 at age 93.
Councilman C.J. Rylands is an advocate of communities telling their stories.
“Even long ago, people knew the importance of having, teaching and remembering their story and overcoming diversity to survive,” he said. “It was important to them to tell the story. A town without a narrative to tell doesn’t survive as a community. What is the secret that holds us all together and what are the elements that make some places prosperous, strong and resilient?”
“Places that know a lot about their history tend to do better when they are faced with obstacles,” he said. “Learning the history of our town and its citizens, visiting the places where they lived and the cemeteries where they rest, connects us all,” Rylands added. “Some people have disappeared from history. Having a story to tell makes a difference.”
Rylands said a town like Buckhannon has many such stories, even if they aren’t always obvious.
“In every building in our town, in every gravestone in our cemetery there are untold stories — stories that connect the past and the present to the future,” he said. “The most important thing you can do for your community may be the simplest thing of all — develop a strong community narrative, research, document and tell your stories.
“I think these plaques help do that and I look forward to more plaques throughout our community that will allow a self-directed tour of our town. Keep them coming.”
Curtis and Kristi Wilkerson have restored the childhood home of Jean Lee Latham after it had previously served as office and business space. They agreed to the marker being placed to commemorate the home.
Curtis Wilkerson said, “We appreciate the city doing this and we see it as an opportunity to be caretakers of something that came before us and will be here after us.”
A few years ago, their daughter, Rebekah, received a copy of “Carry on Mr. Bowditch” from a family friend, which has helped cement Jean Lee Latham’s legacy for her.
“It’s been something we talk about on a regular basis with Rebekah and show her that there’s a number of people who have very successful careers who came from Buckhannon and that there are a lot of strong women in this community, and she can grow up to be one of them,” Wilkerson said.