BUCKHANNON — Melvin “Mel” Hager was born on August 4, 1934 in Charleroi, Pennsylvania and lived there with his family until they moved to Buckhannon in 1944. Hager grew up with his younger sister, Sandra, and had a brother, Jess Hager, who was twelve years older in the military.
Hager’s father blew glass for the Corning Glass Company as a section foreman. Shortly after being diagnosed with a heart problem, Hager’s father passed away suddenly after suffering a massive heart attack. His mother moved his family to Buckhannon to be near her family, where she grew up and met her late husband. Hager remembered his mother working at the Liberty Lunch, next to Parson’s Hotel, where C.J. Maggie’s and Chase Bank is now. Hager’s mother also took in laundry and ironing to supplement income after she got off work. “I remember those days, they were tough,” Hager said.
Hager lived at 14 Franklin Street. He lived in an old house with a big barn and no electricity. Hager remembers the wood house had no insulation and used gas lamps on the wall for lighting. Hager’s mother used the money left over from Hager’s father’s life insurance to get electricity in the house. The house had two fireplaces and Hager remembered going to the train tracks to pick up coal that had fallen from the cars.
Hager went to East Main Street school for fifth and sixth grade. Hager went to high school in the old high school, where Buckhannon Academy Elementary is now, for seventh grade through senior year, where he graduated in 1953.
Growing up, Hager spent a lot of time with his cousin Louie, whether it be hanging around or causing trouble. One of their pastimes was to stand on the corner of Main Street and people watch. Hager explained that every Saturday night, they would watch and laugh at people in the Manhattan Restaurant across the street. Hager said trouble was caused by people from Adrian, who would come to “patronize” the place. Fights would start fights inside, which would move outside and into the street until the police would come.
Hager would find himself in his own trouble with cousin Louie, including taking nickels from parking meters that people left, in case they did not return before their first hour was up. Policeman Chief Dudley Marble caught them while they were taking nickels and threatened to send them to Pruntytown’s West Virginia Industrial Home for Boys. Hager told a story of a time later on where he and his cousin Louie decided to make money legally. Around Christmas time, they borrowed his uncle’s axe and cut down the top of a pinetree from St. Joseph’s Hospital without permission, took it to Main Street and sold it to Reed’s Radio Shop. Chief Marble found the boys, loaded them into the car, took them to the police station, took their fingerprints, and started to take them to Pruntytown. “We were scared to death. It’s over,” Hager said. Marble had a change of heart and took them back to Hager’s house. “I’m gonna give you one more chance. You guys better not get in trouble ever again,” Marble said. The sisters decided not to press charges.
Sports became a huge part of Hager’s life once he moved to Buckhannon. “I never had a basketball or a baseball in my hand until I came to Buckhannon,” Hager said. That changed when Coach Frank Feola personally invited him to play little league. He played basketball and baseball in grade school through high school. Hager even earned his first name from Melvin Ott, the baseball Hall of Fame player. Hager remembers going to the old gym on College Avenue with his cousin Louie to watch older kids play basketball. Hager was fortunate enough to be on the 1952 baseball and basketball team who went to the state tournaments. After high school, Hager became a booster and organized a committee to raise money for a turf football field for the high school. He is now in the B-U Hall of Fame.
Hager helped support his mother financially. He joined the National Guard his senior year of high school. He did not attend college but instead started work. Hager started his work career by cleaning trade in cars at the Fenton Automobile Company from 1953 to 1955. Perce Ross offered him a job as a salesman at his Perce Ross Store, an elite men’s store, where Trump’s Salon is now. Hager worked there from 1956 to 1960. Hager also served on City Council for a two-year term from 1959 to 1960. When Corhart Factories, the same company that his father worked at, came to Buckhannon, Hager worked there as “shipper and receiver” from 1960 for three months. On November 6, 1961, Dennis Jr. Crites recruited Hager to sell Equitable Life Insurance door-to-door and Hager worked there for 35 years.
“I went on to become a successful salesman. In November 1964, I led the entire company in sales and conservation of the businesses I sold. I was President as the President’s Council of Equitable Insurance Company,” Hager said. Hager went to the International World’s Fair in New York City, during the Equitable Convention, where he gave a speech to over 500 people about how he became successful in small town Buckhannon, competing with the bigger communities.
Hager enjoyed the people he got to know during his job. “I went to doors to sell, came back to collect payments, marked their receipt books and you went to the next house and I did that for 35 years. That was like my second family, you know? You got to know people so much. They’d invite you to sit down to eat at dinner time and things like that,” Hager reflected. “I had no idea I was gonna be an insurance salesman. I figured with my education, high school, my low-income status, and my having to take care of my mother until she died.. I figured I’d be a ditch digger.” He retired at age 62.
Hager reminisced on how Buckhannon has changed. Back in the 1950s during Halloween, the city roped off from Kanawha to Spring Street for kids to parade and show off their costumes. Kids then soaped the store windows on Main Street. Store owners would have to scrape off the soap the next day but did not mind. There used to be Pound Stone’s drug store & Rainbow Restaurant where the Courthouse Annex is now. The fire station and police department were on the top floor of the now Ralston Press building. Hager remembered watching the Grand Opera Movie Theater burn from across the street, where he used to attend minstrel shows. For fun, teenagers in the community went to Stardust, Dillon’s Parquette, and Maggie’s Restaurant.
Hager met his wife Vonnie Amstrong at Young’s Dairy Bar on Main Street where she worked as a waitress. They dated on June 1, 1957. His daughter Lisa was born on Christmas Day 1958. Hager remembered sitting on the porch of St. Joseph’s Hospital, looking at the string lights on Main Street the night before “one of the best Christmases we’ve ever had.”
Hager has survived a stroke, five-bypass surgery and esophageal cancer survivor in his 85 years of life. He volunteered as a clown for the Strawberry Festival for 20 years. Hager was awarded 2007 Citizen of the Year at the Chamber of Commerce Awards Awards Reception. Hager was honored to be grouped with a handful of great people. He explained, “All these people, and for me with no college education, to come from a poor very very poor family, and to have made this on my own, to what I have today and what I worked hard for, this is quite an honor.”