A year ago, a little idea sparked in my brain. There are so many interesting people living in the Eastern Panhandle, I thought. Wouldn’t it be great to pull a cross section of them together into a book of photos and brief interviews?
I have big ideas fairly regularly — and many I allow to drift away. Sometimes, it’s an idea for a novel or a column. Sometimes it’s a great concept for a restaurant or food truck. And sometimes, I conjure up a unique present…that will only require a couple hundred hours of my time. You can see why some of these are unrealistic. Despite my belief in the photo book idea, I let it go, convinced it would be too time consuming.
But the idea wouldn’t leave so I pursued it, gingerly, just to see how it might take flight. I made a list of strong candidates. My goal was to focus on the everyday person, not those who are already in the limelight, and find a unique quality to celebrate.
I put out a few requests and the response was overwhelmingly positive. I did one, then another, then a couple more of these portraits and mini-profiles, calling out specific characteristics and focusing on them.
Photography being another love of mine, I was thrilled to be shooting photos with a creative slant and blending it with words that did them justice. I felt the universe practically singing as I plugged away.
I knew I was onto something powerful, and putting it into the world — especially one so fraught with division and unrest — would be a positive benefit. Moreover, what a wonderful and honest portrayal this would become of West Virginians, who are plagued with negative stereotypes for no good reason.
When I researched the Eastern Panhandle, I discovered it’s really comprised of eight counties, not the three so many believe on our far eastern tip. Now I really had to broaden my scope and find people deeper into West Virginia. Living in Charles Town for the past 25 years, I knew plenty of worthy individuals in Jefferson and Berkeley counties. I had a couple of connections to Morgan and others in Hampshire, but Grant, Hardy, Mineral and Pendleton counties were places I mostly started from scratch.
I scoured online newspapers, asked subjects for recommendations, researched points of interest and thought hard about the industries in our eight counties, still remaining focused on mostly the layperson.
Over the course of the next several months, I traversed the panhandle, basking in its glory and beauty. I never tired of seeing the highlands, the farms or the rivers and streams.
I met a diverse set of folks and enjoyed hearing their stories. Some were heartfelt. One veteran and I shared a few tears as he dug into the military years he doesn’t much talk about. And my heart ached for one grieving woman finishing up her husband’s term on the county commission after he died suddenly.
Other stories were inspiring, including the gal who discovered she could quell her anxiety by running (and has become a formidable distance runner in the process) and another who illustrates how one person can make a difference if they speak up.
I learned about new topics, such as the trend to eat insects, and met members of the oldest continuous women’s group in West Virginia. I profiled some impressive kids, including a prodigy baseball player and two intrepid four-and-a-half year-old friends who have been through the ringer.
I sought out people who represent some common or popular businesses, pastimes and entertainment in the panhandle, including farming, horse racing, car racing, newspapers, rock climbing and river rafting. I also represented history, so prevalent in our neck of the West Virginia woods, in a myriad of ways.
In the end, I found athletes, historians, doctors, artists, craftsmen, entrepreneurs, adventurers, volunteers, farmers, pastors, mavericks, business owners, beloved community members, trailblazers, survivors, mentors and leaders and compiled them into a two-volume book set called Panhandle Portraits. There are a total of 77 portraits containing one person to several.
Some people are known in their counties and others less so, but it’s clear our eight counties are fairly disconnected. I doubt many in Berkeley County know people in Grant County and vice versa. And that’s the beauty of this project: it brings us together.
With so much negativity, hate and division among us, I’m thrilled to provide something tangibly positive to not just the residents of the Eastern Panhandle or West Virginia, but the world — and one that reminds us of our humanity and the good in it.
This column ran in The Journal on Sunday, November 13, 2016.
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