By September 27, 2017 Read More →

There’s no place like Appalachia: Q&A with Bob Henry Baber

By JORDAN NELSON

The Register-Herald

BECKLEY, W.Va. — Dr. Bob Henry Baber is the mayor of Richwood and supported the town during the June 23, 2016, 1,000-year flood and its fight with the Nicholas County School Board over school consolidation. He has long supported the Appalachian area, and believes there is no place quite like West Virginia.

R-H: You have said in the past you do a lot of what you do in life because of your father. Could you talk a little bit about the influence he has had on your life and the decisions you have made in his honor?

Baber: My father, Troy Nash Baber, was raised on a dairy farm in the high country of Greenbrier County, 5 miles from Richwood, which was founded some 50 years after the Babers settled the Cold Knob area. Of 10 children he was the smallest, most sensitive and artistic of the boys. At age 16 he painted a fawn goth barn painting. I still have it and it is exquisite.

Dr. Bob Henry Baber, the mayor of Richwood
(Register-Herald photo by Rick Barbero)

After the war and the demise of the dairy farm, my dad married my mother, whom he’d met at a church dance sponsored for Marines, in New York City. I am the cultural hybrid of this love affair: one-quarter New Yorker, three-quarters West Virginian, because I always took after his disposition in artistic appreciation, gardening (he dug up our entire back yard in Levittown and distributed a bumper crop of green beans, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc., to our highly skeptical but soon won over suburban neighbors.

We made two trips a year to West Virginia and it was the antithesis of pre-fabricated culture: wild, wonderful, and abounding with stories, the southern cooking of my grandmother. And a plethora of first cousins to romp with. I knew West Virginia was my home long before I could articulate it. I loved coming to it, and hated leaving.

So, as I child we occasionally visited nearby Cold Knob, which was ringed by strip-mining after World War II. My dad detested the totally unreclaimed outcome, and his words have been channeled in many of my poems. Also, my grandfather, Henry Baber, looking out over the ridges, forlornly said, “I’ve timbered ’er all, from Kennison to Cold Knob, but there were some places, we just shouldn’t have timbered.”

Those experiences stuck with me and compelled me to use the bully pulpit as mayor (although the City Council and Chamber of Commerce voted unanimously against more wilderness) for the growth of the Cranberry Wilderness by 18,000 acres. In 2006 I won the coveted National Hero Award of the National Wilderness Society along with John Manchester, Lewisburg’s mayor. It was a John Muir moment for me.

R-H: You often spent summers visiting your grandparents’ home, Baber Mountain in Greenbrier County. Was this something you did willingly or did your parents feel it important you spent time there growing up?

Baber: I’m sure both my parents encouraged embracing my mountain roots, but really, it took very little effort. I took to the mountains like trout to the Cherry River. The lush land, the massive garden, the endless stories of logging and blizzards and family were already in my DNA. It didn’t take any coaxing to bring it to the surface. I spent a number of summers with my grandparents, and every fall my father and I would make the then 12-hour trek from Long Island to Baber Mountain to “batten down the hatches” for the long hard winters to come.

One year, I believe it was 1960, we got up one Sunday morning at 5 a.m. for the return trip only to find 2 feet of fresh wet snow pounding down. It was mid-October and the normally gone leaves were still on the trees and they were bursting and cracking with echoes across the mountains. Ignoring my protestations to stay, my dad put chains on the Ford station wagon and we fought our way across Kennison Mountain and on into Marlinton where there was only a few inches of snow. That was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever witnessed — the leaves of the National Forest mixed with the deep flakes of an early mountain snowstorm.

R-H: Could you elaborate on your experiences at your grandparents’ home? How do you believe time spent there allowed your interest in Appalachian culture to grow?

Baber: There is no way I can do justice to my grandparents, particularly my grandmother Tessie Pearl, who truly was the most generous and entertaining person I’ve ever known. She was deeply Christian and had a way of judging people with a frown or a wink that made her thoughts known without denigrating them. There will never be another like her. She was beloved by all. Whenever we left the mountain to return, her blue eyes would tear up even as she presented a box of canned food that included wild strawberry preserves, canned blackberries, grape and elderberry jams, green beans, pickled corn and the like. Those canned goods gave me periodic tastes of West Virginia as I awaited my next trip to be reunited with my Appalachian family.

R-H: You previously held a position at Glenville State College; can you talk about your time there?

Baber: Truly, I pushed the town too hard for change and the resulting resistance contributed in my decision to go to Glenville State. In 2007, I resigned my job as mayor of Richwood after bringing $5 million in infrastructure improvements to the city. I had gotten divorced and had custody of three children. My new job in the Glenville College Foundation doubled my pay and opened up opportunities for my children to attend. I was part of the team that opened Goodwin Hall and the new Waco Center.

Then for two years, I was the director of the West Virginia Veterans Legacy Project, a half-million-dollar grant which we expanded to make a picture book, “Heroes Among Us,” an hour-long video that showed on WVPBS; an original multimedia presentation I wrote; “Morningstars,” a 36-piece traveling photography exhibit, and more. The grant called for one partner. We grew it to 21 and generated enormous publicity for GSC and for our wonderful vets.

R-H: What made you decide to finally leave Glenville?

Baber: For the next nine years I watched in dismay as subsequent mayors failed to lead the town. A year and a half ago I decided to have another run at turning Richwood into the “tip of the arrow of the new West Virginia to come.” It was a crazy race. Ten ran. I lost 102 to 100, but there were 12 provisional votes. It wasn’t likely I’d catch up, but the final City Council tally was 105 to 104. The results would be contested for two days.

On the morning of June 23, I posted on Facebook I was mayor. That afternoon, the 1,000-year flood hit. I immediately got on a plane in Salt Lake City where I was visiting my grandkids and flew home. My last two years at Glenville State College were spent as a speech teacher. I resigned when I became the defacto mayor just after the June 23 flood and five days before I was officially sworn in. It’s been a wild and challenging ride since, and the peril and opportunity are far from over.

R-H: So it wasn’t long after receiving the title of mayor for a second time the 1,000-year flood took over much of the town of Richwood. What all was going through your head while something so devastating was going on in your town?

Baber: What was going through my head was this: I must use every emotional, political, administrative and social skill I have to create a talented team to manage all aspects of recovery. Thankfully, Richwood residents, augmented by thousands of volunteers from across the country and globe, parachuted from the sky like angels to help us. It is an awesome thing to be an American and feel the love of your brothers and sisters as they show up to help.

R-H: Less than a year later, your town was involved in a very heated debate with the Nicholas County Board of Education. Can you explain what your town went through against its school board?

Baber: There wasn’t much time to process the flood. Sheer adrenaline kicked in for the first six months as we fed and clothed the entire city. All of our stores were lost, and as we began the monstrous task of documenting our losses for FEMA. Honestly, I’m having trouble maintaining now as we are over a year in, the adrenaline is gone, and exhaustion and PTSD have set in. Also, the Nicholas County Board of Education’s decision to loot our two schools by using the flood has impacted the town in a more destructive way than the flood itself.

Resisting this consolidation from hell led by the Unamerican FEMA 428 grant program has caused more suffering than anything else. If we lose the schools and our Lumberjack Express, it will cut the heart out of the town and be a FEMA failure akin to the New Orleans 9th Ward fiasco. I am truly shocked and ashamed of FEMA, whose job it is to replace and restore, not decimate and destroy. This is an obscene misuse of taxpayers’ money. But I believe justice will prevail in the end. We are going to have our schools rebuilt.

R-H: The school consolidation issue is just something else to pile onto the series of unfortunate events Richwood has seemed to go through within the last year. How have you not lost hope?

Baber: Richwood is poised to be the tip of the arrow of the new West Virginia to come. Despite death and the incredible hardships of destroyed homes and having to feed and clothe the entire town for four months since we lost our stores and pharmacy, the flood has had a cleansing effect. One hundred flooded and often substandard structures have been demolished. Five new homes for flood victims were recently dedicated by Jim Justice. Twenty destroyed roads will be rebuilt. We will get a new water intake, and virtually entirely destroyed wastewater system, hopefully including our antiquated and flood-damaged sewage treatment plant will be rebuilt. We could be looking at as much as 30-40 million federal dollars here, not including other recovery grants that are going to be made available to us.

But the greatest thing that has happened is that the town has come together like never before, like a family under siege, to fight off the flood and the Nicholas County Board of Education, which is using the flood as an excuse to steal two schools in Richwood and consolidate them 28 long wintry miles away in prosperous Summersville. This is a vile violation of FEMA’s mission to restore, rebuild, and replace. It’s a shocking violation of our civil rights and we are fighting the NCBOE and FEMA like the scrappy little town we are — the town that will not die.

There is a gargantuan struggle taking place in West Virginia. Are we going to keep going in the direction of always consolidating our schools, and putting all the eggs of our basket in coal, or, as Gov. Justice suggests, are we going to diversify our economy, support our small towns, and promote e-commerce, tourism/culture, and value-added timber products? That is precisely what we are doing in Richwood. But we need our award-winning high school, the heart of the town, the soul of our future, to do it.

R-H: As a leader, what do you think is the most influential thing a leader can do for its followers?

Baber: Smart leaders surround themselves with smart people who may have far greater knowledge in their areas of expertise, and then empower them to pursue positive change. Micro-management is the kiss of death to organizations. Find good people and let them soar. Specifically, in response to the flood I hired former Mayor Jeromy Rose to lead the Incident Command team of 25 people doing all aspects of recovery. We also hired consultants who hassle FEMA to do the maximum. Amazingly, FEMA pays 85 percent of the cost of these consultants. We are about the only entity in the state to do so. This will likely mean the difference between getting $3 million as opposed to $15 million.

The two lessons of the flood: Whose flood is it? Not FEMA’s, Richwood’s, and know what you do not know.

Email: jnelson@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @jnelsonRH

See more from The Register-Herald

Comments are closed.