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Taking a walk with Gaston Caperton: former Governor enjoys anonymous life in Charleston


The State Journal

CHARLESTON, W.Va.  — Gaston Caperton’s eight years in the governor’s mansion ended nearly 21 years ago. Lately, he has spent some mornings walking in downtown Charleston, grabbing coffee, eating at a restaurant or just greeting people who recognize him.

Former W.Va. Gov. Gaston Caperton often walks on Caption Street in downtown Charleston, where some people recognize him — and some don’t.
(State Journal photo by Jim Ross)

“Mr. Caperton’s a great guy, a great guy,” said Rodger Mills, a parking attendant at the Spyro’s lot on Capitol Street. Mills is one of several people Caperton greets regularly on his walks.

But don’t ask Caperton for insight on the issues or conditions of state politics today.

“I came from a family that loved West Virginia, and I’ve always loved West Virginia. We’ve never been people that were critics. I might (talk to) friends, very confidentially, tell them things that I don’t like are going on, and things that I like going on, but I don’t make it public. People voted for me for eight years and I gave it my all, and I don’t think they hired me as a critic,” he says over coffee at Taylor Books, one of his favorite places in downtown Charleston.

Caperton was West Virginia’s 31st governor. He was elected in 1988, coming from nowhere to win a crowded Democratic primary election field that included several experienced politicians. In the general election, he defeated then-Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr., denying him a fourth, four-year term. He won a second term in 1992.

As governor, Caperton persuaded the Legislature to solve a debt crisis in the state budget by raising taxes. He resolved a statewide teacher strike by increasing salaries, and his administration began a program to build new schools statewide. Tamarack, the arts and crafts showcase at Beckley, also was built during his administration.

In one respect, Caperton is similar to President Donald Trump, a person with a business background who had never run for public office, but won in his first try.

“Other than coming from a business background into politics, I think that’s the only thing that’s consistent with the current president,” Caperton chuckles.

After leaving office, Caperton followed the example of other governors and left the state. He spent time at Harvard and Columbia universities before taking the job of president of the College Board, which administers the SAT college entrance exam, in 1999.

“It’s interesting because I never did very well on the SAT because I’m dyslexic,” Caperton admitted.

After Caperton left that job in 2012, he returned to Charleston.

Caperton likes to talk about his father, who was a mining engineer at Slab Fork in Raleigh County and later went into the insurance business in Charleston, and his mother, who was born in Japan, the daughter of missionaries.

“My mother and father were really good people. My father was a successful businessman. He was the senior warden of his church. My mother came from a missionary family (and) was as nice a person as you would ever meet in your life. She was not fortunate about health,” he says.

“Both of them really loved Charleston and really loved West Virginia. I was really blessed by my family.”

His sister, the late Cary Owen, was five years older and lived in Asheville, N.C., Caperton says.

“She was a real community leader. Phi Beta Kappa. She was a brilliant woman, a wonderful personality. She was president of every community thing you could do,” he says.

Having left office more than 20 years ago, Caperton can walk around downtown Charleston and not be recognized by younger people.

Leah Rafferty, 28, a barrista at Taylor Books, was one of them at first.

“When I first saw him come in here, I didn’t know that he was a governor,” she says. “I had only ever seen the governors after him. He was just so … nice.”

While Caperton will talk about his family and ask about yours, don’t expect to get much comment from him about what’s happening at the Capitol nowadays.

“When I finished being governor, I made a very, very strong commitment not to anymore try to be the governor,” he says.

“I had had my opportunity for leadership, my opportunity to work in government. I loved those eight years, but nothing’s worse than somebody after they’ve done a job to try to go back and second-guess the next guy.”

When asked specifically about the current governor, Jim Justice, Caperton says, “He has enough critics. He doesn’t need me.”

Caperton said people don’t ask him for political advice, and he doesn’t offer it.

“Am I interested? Very interested. But it’s somebody else’s job to do that.”

Likewise, he doesn’t say whether he is optimistic or pessimistic about the future for young people who choose to live in West Virginia.

“Most of your future depends not on where you live. It depends on what you yourself can give,” he says.

“A community is no better than the leadership the community has. You don’t have to be a politician to be in public service. Good public servants make a community.”

If a person has good health, an education and a good job, most communities in the state are good places to live, Caperton says.

“I’ve lived out of state and come back here. I’m 77 years old. About three or four years ago, I came back home again. I love this place, and I’m very happy here.”

Staff Writer Jim Ross can be reached at 304-395-3483 or email at [email protected]

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