The image of West Virginia improves year by year. In my childhood, the Saturday Evening Post magazine wrote a disparaging article about our poverty. Presidential Candidate Senator John F. Kennedy visited our state, gaining our trust and promising to help us. He won our primary election on his way to gaining the Presidency. He shaped the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), whose mission is “to innovate, partner, and invest to build community capacity and strengthen economic growth in Appalachia to help the Region achieve socioeconomic parity with the nation.” Unfortunately, the President was assassinated before he did all that he planned. A footnote to history is that current West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s wife heads the ARC now.
For me, the tipping point for the transformation of West Virginia was December 29, 1970, when John Denver and two friends completed the song “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” This became our fourth West Virginia State Song. Notably, John Denver opened the new West Virginia University Mountaineer Stadium in Morgantown in 1980. He performed to a tumultuous reception, realizing perhaps for the first time what a tremendous impact the song had on our collective psyche. We, as a state solely encompassed by the ancient Appalachian Mountains, began to believe in ourselves.
Let’s consider some of the lyrics of this iconic song.
We went from a muddy road to a “country road”; from a hellhole to “Almost Heaven”; from a place people leave without looking back to “home.”
There are comparisons to be made with how our Upshur County Schools students see their classroom experience. I ask my own children, Maria and Ronce, if their mother and I did the right thing to raise them in the middle of West Virginia. Our physician profession allowed us to live anywhere we chose. We stayed here. Both children said emphatically that they are blessed that we stayed in “the place I belong, West Virginia.” For they feel grounded here, in contrast to friends who have no sense of home. In fact, they long for opportunities to return home where they have fond memories of our farm and their grandparents and strawberry patches.
Without exaggerating, I owe my long and wonderful marriage to John Denver’s song. My beloved Araceli grew up on the other side of planet Earth. However, her home was a mountain top—that is, a Philippine Island which is a mountain mostly submerged in the Pacific Ocean. The Philippine trench reaches one of the greatest depths in the ocean. Its deepest point is known as Galathea Depth and reaches 10,540 meters (34,580 feet). That makes the island very much taller than our worn down Appalachian Mountains. Spruce Knob, our tallest peak, is 4,862 feet high.
Araceli and I fell in love while studying medicine at West Virginia University / Charleston Area Medical Center. When I proposed marriage on Labor Day 1974, Araceli dutifully contacted her mother and father. I wrote a letter from West Virginia explaining my good intentions to wed and for us to live here in the Mountain State. Fortunately, Maria and Nemesio Ganan knew the song “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” They said “YES!” Later when our children were born, they came here and lived with us. After all, their daughter was now a “Mountain Momma!”
I am so pleased that John Denver’s signature song, though not an instant success, has grown into a beloved family favorite and puts our humble state on the collective conscience of people worldwide. Araceli and I sang along with folks in Rwanda, Africa, to the Rock of Gibraltar, Mediterranean Sea, to remote New Zealand. Wherever I am, when the radio starts to play that song, I know the place I belong—West Virginia.