By Derek Tyson, The Welch News Editor
WELCH, WV – After speaking with HSTA Students at Mount View High School, West Virginia University President Gordon Gee visited the Jack Caffrey Arts and Cultural Center on Wednesday to speak about WVU’s efforts across the State.
Dr. Donald Reed, former WVU Extension Agent and close friend of Gee opened Wednesday’s luncheon, welcoming everyone.
“On behalf of the City of Welch, we’d like to welcome everyone here,” said City of Welch Mayor Harold McBride. “We think with our little town, we have a new beginning. We’ve very enthused and happy you all came out to join us.”
Two musical selections were by the Youth Orchestra of the Church of God at Harmon’s Branch near Iaeger and the young, but renowned violinist Leif Young.
WVU Mountaineer Legend Rev. Garnet Edwards Jr. was asked to lead everyone in prayer before lunch was served. Gee took the stage after everyone finished eating.
“So Dr. Gee, you’re my friend. I’ve always welcomed you to McDowell so now you can take the stage and do what you do best,” said Reed.
“Donald get up here. What do you think about this guy,” asked Gee to an applauding audience. “Donald has been my friend for 6 years, first as an extension agent until you all stole him. He loves his community, he’s proud of it and should be proud of it.”
Dr. Gee presented a special bowtie pin to Reed before beginning his speech.
“What this center means is that the people of McDowell believe in McDowell,” said Gee while looking around at the JCACC. “You don’t create a center like this without the belief in yourself or without resiliency. We know there are challenges but we know there are great opportunities.”
Gee called Mayor Harold McBride back up to the stage for recognition.
“We need good leadership here and I think we have one here,” said Gee. “Our cities and small communities need to have community builders and that’s exactly what you’re doing.”
Gee recalled the multiple visits he had made to McDowell County over the last 6 years.
“The first time I was here, we were in a much smaller group. I asked Donald, “What can I do for you?’ He said bring the marching band,” said Gee. “If you remember, the next year we brought the marching band. It was a challenge, 11 buses traveling along these small roads.”
“One of the best days of my life,” said Reed.
“I’m speaking, please be quiet,” said Gee, getting a laugh out of everyone.
“Yes sir,” said Reed.
“Whenever Donald gets the stage, he can’t get off it,” said Gee with a smile.
“What I loved about that is they wanted to come down. That stadium was full of good spirit and tears. That’s what I remember. The most important thing I remember is that McDowell County is a great place full of great people doing great things with enormous challenges.”
That same comment about McDowell County was something Gee felt summed up the mission of WVU.
“Our university is the largest employer in the State. It creates more economic activity than anything in the state. We now have a large health system, because we want to make sure the people of this state have great healthcare. You no longer need to go outside of the state. We just did two heart transplants this last week, kidney transplants, all the kind of things that require great healthcare because I don’t want anyone to leave the State. I want you all to stay here and never leave,” said Gee.
Gee explained the University’s focus on education extended far outside the reach of university education, from Pre-K through life.
“We had a conference in Charleston where we talked about the Education Collaborative, the university working with the public school system to create great public schools,” said Gee. “That is the center of our world. If we have great schools, we’ll have a great state.”
The other focus of WVU has shifted to healthcare.
“If you’re not healthy of mind, spirit and good feelings and deeds, then we’re not going to be able to survive,” said Gee. “We need to survive to thrive and we have so many challenges in which we have to make certain that we overcome hopelessness with hope and despair with opportunity. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re your partner. We’re the State university but we’re also everyone’s university.”
Gee commented on the recent victory of WVU over Kansas State, getting a roar out of the audience.
“We love our coach,” said Gee. “Our basketball teams are doing well too. Coach Huggins is a wonderful West Virginian. I always take him out to lunch before the basketball season starts and one time said Coach, you could lose every game and still be governor. This season, I told him he was trying to prove my theory last year, losing more games than we should have lost.”
To Gee, sports may not be the first thing you’d expect a university to be about, but it’s incredibly important because of the spirit it brings to the State.
“I can remember one time being in Welch when a young man said ‘I go to the top of one of these mountains in my truck so I can pick up the Mountaineer football game.’ What it means is the fact that the university is bigger than an individual. It’s about all of us. It’s about West Virginia. 1.8 million people. So many opportunities but we need to realize them.”
Gee said there were 4 missteps taken by the State of West Virginia in the past: the export of coal, oil, gas, and talent.
“The last thing is the thing we cannot have happen,” said Gee. “I’m glad to see the young people here today but also all of you. You made the decision to stay and be part of this state. I’m a twice born again West Virginian. I returned to the state because you always love the place that loved you first. Second of all, I returned is because I see the vistas of opportunities.”
Gee likened WVU to Noah’s Ark, saying they had two of everything.
“We have three wonderful campuses but we’re only one university. The campus in Beckley has a great engineering program and it’s smaller,” said Gee. “One of the things for students from smaller communities need to go to smaller places to get acclimated. We have that wonderful campus in beckley. Then we have one in Keyser. Then there’s the big monster in Morgantown. It’s a place of great spirit.”
Gee spoke about encountering the love for West Virginia from residents that found their way across the nation.
“We went to a ball game in Phoenix Arizona, stayed in this beautiful hotel. A woman came up saying she was a West Virginian. I asked how long she had been there, 17 years. I said ‘What are you doing?’ She said she ran this giant hotel. I said you must love it and she did, but she said find me a job in West Virginia. She wants to return home,” said Gee.
Gee said WVU has a return home policy, identifying West Virginians that have done wonderful things around the country and world and seeking to bring them back home.
“We have raced to the bottom in a number of things, but never in spirit and resiliency,” said Gee. “We’re going to rebuild this place. It’s going to start with everyone in this room here. We have to believe in each other and that our future is bright. We have to believe in community. That is the West Virginia way.”