WELLSBURG – Former state senator John Chernenko, a lifelong Wellsburg resident who survived a Nazi prison camp during World War II and played a pivotal role in delivering the Northern Panhandle to President John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election, died Monday – one day shy of his 91st birthday.
Chernenko participated in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944 as a member of the 29th Infantry Division. Despite being shot twice later that summer near Mortain, France, he fought at the Battle of the Bulge, where he was taken prisoner and spent several months at a German prison camp near the North Sea.
In 1961, Kennedy appointed him the youngest U.S. marshal in the nation at that time. In 2005, he received the unusual honor of having a bridge named after him while he was still alive when the Legislature christened the W.Va. 2 span over Buffalo Creek at the south end of Wellsburg the John G. Chernenko Bridge.
Visitation for Chernenko, a lifelong Wellsburg resident, will be from 2-8 p.m. today and again from 10 a.m. Friday until his funeral service at 11 a.m. at the Chambers Funeral Home in Wellsburg.
Former state Sen. Edwin Bowman, who succeeded Chernenko in the Legislature’s upper chamber in 1994, said Chernenko’s death – as well as that of many of his contemporaries – signals the end of an era.
“With the passing of Sen. Chernenko, we’ve lost another member of the ‘Greatest Generation,'” Bowman said. “I was around World War II veterans for most of my life growing up. There was a sense of pride they had in their country, and I think Sen. Chernenko espoused those values throughout his life.”
Former Ohio County Democrat Party Chairman John Saunders remembers Chernenko as a true friend of labor who always conducted himself with class and was respected by Republicans and fellow Democrats alike.
“John was what we all want to be in life – a true public servant,” Saunders said. “I’m proud to say that John was my friend.”
Whether fighting for his country or for steelworkers as president of the Independent Guard Union at Weirton Steel Corp., Chernenko was fueled by passion in all he did, according to Bowman.
“To say he was feisty would be an understatement,” Bowman said. “He fought for what he believed in.”
As chairman of the Brooke County Democrat Executive Committee, Chernenko urged then-Sen. Kennedy to visit Brooke County during the primary campaign – a visit which went a long way toward convincing West Virginia voters to support him over Sen. Hubert Humphrey for the Democrat nomination. During a 1963 speech, Kennedy remarked that “I would not be where I now am … if it had not been for the people of West Virginia.”
“Sen. Chernenko was a strong ally, and I think someone that former President Kennedy relied a lot on in the Northern Panhandle when he ran for president,” Bowman said.
Paul “Bud” Billiard – who refers to Chernenko as “Johnny,” a habit he picked up from his grandmother – said he was humble, yet when asked could captivate anyone he met with tales of his exploits in World War II and fighting organized crime as U.S. marshal. In his later years, Chernenko was extremely active in veterans organizations, including the Brooke County Veterans Memorial Foundation, and received that group’s first-ever Veteran of the Year award in 2009, according to Billiard.
“He was active right up until he was gone. I talked to him last Sunday on the phone, and he was talking about things that’s got to be done,” he said.
Not long before his death, Billiard said, Chernenko paid to have a cane made for each member of the Ohio Valley Barbed Wire – a group for local POWs of all wars that he helped found – engraved with their initials, rank and branch of the military in which they served.
“That’s the kind of guy Johnny was. … He was always thinking about somebody else,” Billiard said.
Chernenko leaves behind his wife of 65 years, Kathryn Chernenko; two sons, Gary and Marc Chernenko; a daughter, Janet Mears; and two grandchildren, John and Meredith Mears.