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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Jim Ferrell, Appalachian Hero

When I made the decision to write on this blog about Appalachian Heroes, I made a sizable list of men and women who had done admirable work in the area to write about.  I also began to think about several people I have known who deserved recognition for their lives but have generally had none.  One of the first to make that list was James G. "Jim" Ferrell of Chapmanville, West Virginia.  Jim was well known in the Logan County area for many years. Jim was born March 15, 1924, in Chapmanville, West Virginia, and died in Logan, West Virginia, on February 15, 2004.  He lived the great majority of his life in or around Chapmanville except for a few years when he moved to Cleveland Ohio to find work after going out of business in a store he had owned for many years.  Jim later returned to Logan County and worked for the state of West Virginia until he retired as a wage bond enforcement officer for the West Virginia Department of Labor.  A major portion of that job involved enforcing state laws regarding the posting of wage bonds by coal companies intended to prevent them from going out of business without miners being paid.  Jim took his job seriously and worked diligently to assure that the requirements were met so that miners and their families never had to face unemployment without being paid for their work.  It was common for "punch mines", small contractors operating in risky leases owned by large companies, to go out of business overnight and leave crews unpaid much like circumstances had been many years before union activity and public protests caused the laws to be changed.  Due to his diligence,   Jim often bore the brunt of the anger of shady coal operators and, I believe, of the political appointees in Charleston who ran the Department of Labor. 

Jim Ferrell was the best friend I ever had.  Rarely does a day go by that I don't think of something he said or something I learned from him.  My father, Ballard Hicks, who also ran a country store in Floyd and Knott Counties in Kentucky, died when I was 20 years old.  I met Jim many years later when I was about 33 and knew him until his death.  In many ways, Jim was a second father to me.  He was one of the kindest, most considerate, caring, and giving human beings I have ever known.  He was also one of the funniest and loved to tell stories.  Many of his stories were based on self deprecating humor and his history of heavy drinking before he achieved long term sobriety which continued nearly thirty years to the day of his death. I wish I could remember every story I have ever heard from him.  Hopefully, I can fit a few of his favorites into this piece.  Jim was an amazing man who loved and cared about many things.  The most important things in Jim's life were sobriety ( he was a recovered alcoholic) and his wife Phyllis.  After that came his family, friends, the Democratic party, Irish culture and history, community service, golf, bowling, bocce ball, and story telling. 

Jim was a member of a relatively large Irish Catholic family and always said his mother had believed "there are only two kinds of people: the Irish and those who wish they were Irish."  Jim's mother was a school teacher in the Logan County school system and nearly every one of her children graduated from college.  Many of her grandchildren are doctors, lawyers, engineers, or teachers.  Jim was born a twin along with his brother Pete.  At some time during childhood, Jim lost an eye to an injury and was one eyed most of his life.  This was generally not a problem except when World War II came along.  Both Jim and Pete were attending West Virginia University when Pearl Harbor was bombed.  Pete, who was in engineering school, immediately joined the military.  Jim, who was a pre-law student,  also volunteered and was rejected due to the eye.  He kept volunteering through different branches until he got to the Army. He said at the Army physical the eye exams were being performed in a hallway with the recruits standing in line in a perpendicular hall.  He always said that he managed to sneak and peek around the corner and memorize the first several lines of the eye chart.  He passed the test and was inducted.  He made it through basic training and was sent to advanced individual training as a head gunner in an artillery unit.  After finishing this training, he was sent to a pre-deployment physical and as he put it "the doctor was an old officer and he caught me about my bad eye."  Jim said the doctor reached for a form to sign to muster him out due to disability.  Jim began to beg and said, "Doc, I may be blind in that eye.  But I'm the best gunner in this unit and my twin brother is over there fighting and I want to go too."  Jim said the doctor hesitated a few moments and said "Son, if you want to go that bad, I'll let you", and tore up the form.  Jim was then sent to the island hopping campaign in the South Pacific where the US fought the Japanese over the ocean island by island until the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  He would rarely eat canned corn and always said that during that military campaign he had been under constant artillery fire for forty days.  During that time, hot meals weren't possible and he said he had bribed a company cook to give him an institutional size can of corn each day because he liked corn and would eat it cold. But after forty days, he said he didn't eat corn again for several years and only rarely ate it for the rest of his life. 

Another story about Jim Ferrell and food which I will never forget involves pizza. Jim loved pizza and we often went to Pizza Hut in Stollings, W. V., on Saturday nights.  Jim would order his pizza and then begin to complain about "all the money these people make off of a little bread dough and tomato sauce".  Nearly every time I eat pizza I remember that habit.  He also had a strange quirk in his face which he said was due to a botched facial surgery in the past.  He claimed that the surgeon had damaged some facial nerves and as a result, when he was eating something he enjoyed, he would sweat along one side of his face in the same way most people salivate.  He would eat with one hand and wipe sweat with the other.  It was always easy to know when he was enjoying his food. 

One of Jim's favorite stories to tell on himself involved food and drinking in the days long before he achieved sobriety. It was also during the time before Jim and Phyllis were married.  He owned a store in Chapmanville and lived in an apartment over the store.  He said that he was drunk in the store one day and decided that he wanted to have some canned chili.  Jim never knew how to boil water.  But he said he got a can of chili off the store shelf, closed the store, and staggered up the stairs to his apartment.  He said he had no idea how to cook the chili and placed the unopened can in a sauce pan full of water on the stove and proceeded to pass out on the couch.  Shortly thereafter, the can exploded when the pan boiled dry.  Jim said chili with beans was all over the kitchen walls and ceiling.  He said he just turned the burner off, put the remains of the can in the garbage, and went on about his business.   Jim said the next day he was sitting in the store and heard his regular cleaning woman going up the stairs to the apartment.  Just a minute or two later, he heard her slam the apartment door and come running down the stairs.  She came running into the store and said, "Jim, I have cleaned up everything in the world behind you, but there is no way I am going to clean crap off the ceiling. How in the world did you get crap on the ceiling? "  Somehow he managed to convince her that the ceiling only contained chili and she stayed on the job. 

Another of Jim's favorite stories to tell on himself involved both his drinking and the fact that he was one of the first people in West Virginia to own a Volkswagen.  Jim nearly always drove Volkswagens right up to the last car he owned which was a GM product he had bought for Phyllis because she refused to drive or ride in his Volkswagens.  Jim always said he had been on a major drunk once in Chapmanville  and went into what must have been a serious and extended blackout.  He said the last thing he remembered was drinking in Chapmanville and the next thing he remembered was coming out of a blackout and hearing Spanish all around him.  He was in Juarez Mexico and actually still had the Volkswagen within sight.  He said he immediately wondered what was going on at his store so he went to a pay phone and called collect to the store.  The highly dependable woman who worked for him took the call and naturally asked "Jim, where are you?"  Apparently, she could also hear the Spanish in the background.  Jim said he told her "Just decided to take a little trip.  You just take care of things and I'll be home in a few days."  He said that he had no idea how he got to Juarez but that the trip back to Chapmanville was the worst few days in his life driving across the desert Southwest in a Volkswagen with no heat or air conditioning. 

During the early years that I knew Jim, I was a door to door vacuum cleaner salesman for Electrolux in Logan.  I worked all over several counties and often met people who would know Jim.  Once I ran into one of his old friends who said, "I've got something I need to show you".  He went into the house and brought out an old campaign poster of Jim running for magistrate and the photo showed Jim riding a mule.  The friend said, "I always called my mule Mr. Democrat and when Jim started running I told him he ought to put out posters showing him riding my mule with the slogan "Vote for Jim Ferrell, Mr. Democrat's friend" and that's what he did."  The man said the photo was actually shot on Stratton street near the court house during a meet and greet for candidates.  He and Jim actually loaded the mule in a truck and hauled him from Chapmanville to Logan and Jim rode him around town meeting and greeting the voters. 

Jim lost that election by a wide margin because Logan County practiced what is known as "slate politics".  A local political power would put together a complete ticket for every race on the ballot and each candidate would generally be required to pay the head rat a lump sum in order to be on the slate.  Then paid voter haulers and vote buyers would haul people to the polls.  They would pay the voter before they went in and hand them a slate, much like a bookmark, with the names of the selected candidates.  Jim always said a distant relative of his was running the slate that year and asked him $40,000 to put him on the slate for a job that payed about $10,000 a year. Jim didn't have the money, wasn't put on the slate, and lost the race. I doubt if he would have paid the money if he had it.  Jim would always become angry any time that man's name was mentioned and said that his mother, when she was a teacher, "had walked way up to the head of a holler and talked him into going to school when he was about 12 years old and hadn't been to school a day in his life. If it hadn't been for my mother, he couldn't even read and write."  He never got over that slight.  But, at a time when I was looking for a job, Jim still took me to that man's house to try to get me a politically connected job.  It didn't work.  But, to Jim's satisfaction, the man was eventually convicted of voter fraud after years in power. 

Jim and I also knew another Logan County politician who was eventually convicted of a similar political corruption charge who also claimed to be a sober alcoholic.  He would often be seen in public under the influence of pills and, to my knowledge, died after serving time in Federal Prison without ever being sober.  This man's dishonesty about sobriety always made Jim very angry and he never cared for the man.  Jim never made any attempt to hide the fact that he had been an alcoholic and had no respect for anyone else who lied about their own substance abuse or sobriety. Another of our close friends, was convicted of a bribery charge but was always sober to our knowledge.  Jim never shunned that man because he was a sober alcoholic who made a mistake.  In fact, the three of us spent several days traveling back and forth to another part of the state when someone else close to Jim was on trial.  Jim Ferrell would always go out of his way to help family and friends.  I have also seen him, at times, helping total strangers who appeared to be honestly in need. I have seen him contribute money to charity at times when he needed it more than some of the people who benefitted from it.  He was a lifetime member of the Kiwanis Club and also showed up anywhere anyone asked him to go to help a good cause. 

Jim was a member of the Catholic church and regularly attended mass with Phyllis.  However, I believe he was really a lapsed Catholic and actually didn't like to attend church.  But because he loved Phyllis, he always went to mass with her.  He was also active in church activities and fund raising.  Jim also served several years as a member of the board of directors of the Chapmanville Library.  Due primarily to Jim's intercession on their behalf, the local AA group was allowed to meet in the library for many years.  Jim loved to do work which he felt could help alcoholics and addicts. 

During his younger years, Jim owned two stores in Chapmanville as well as holding a taxi franchise.  When Jim lost his business and left for Cleveland to work, he sold the store to a woman who had worked for him for many years and left the taxi business in the hands of a man who was apparently bootlegging with the taxi franchise in Jim's name.  A friend called him in Cleveland and told him he needed to get rid of the franchise before he took the blame for the bootlegging.  Jim cancelled the franchise.  The story he told about going out of business and going to Cleveland was always the same and Jim never varnished the truth.  He said that in the early days of the food stamp program he would allow customers who received food stamps to charge at the store and pay him in food stamps when they received them.  He also often sold unapproved items for food stamps.  This was a common practice for small store owners at that time and I have known several, including my own parents, besides Jim who were caught in the practice.  Jim said that on the first of the month he would leave the people who worked for him to run the front of the store.  He would take the credit accounts and go to a dry goods table in the back of the store where he sat and collected off the customers who came in with their food stamps.  One month on the first, Jim said he noticed a stranger in the store but kept doing business. He said, "I had my books and several thousand dollars in food stamps stacked on that dry goods table."  The man watched for a few minutes and came back to the table.  He flashed a badge and introduced himself as a USDA agent.  Jim said the man said, "I guess you know I've got you."  Jim always said that he told the man, "All I have in the world is on that table.  I promise you if you walk out of here you can come back next month and somebody else will own this store."  Jim said the man paused to think for a few moments and finally said "OK", and walked out of the store.  Jim sold the business and went to Cleveland.  In a genuine incident of irony, just a few weeks later Jim had a job as an eligibility worker at the food stamp office in Cleveland where he worked until he retired to come home to Chapmanville. 

During that time in Cleveland, Jim met and eventually married Phyllis.  He always said that she wouldn't marry him until he achieved some long term sobriety.  It is my belief that support from Phyllis made it possible for Jim to become and stay sober.  Although they were both middle aged by the time they married, they were genuinely in love until their deaths.  Neither of them had been married before and they had no children. Phyllis worked as a legal secretary and they had a loyal group of friends in Logan County who loved them both.  They were active in the church, local charities, the Kiwanis Club, the Chapmanville Country Club, and several other worthwhile activities.  When he wasn't working or performing charitable work, Jim loved to play golf, bocce ball, and bowling. He was never a good athlete and his blind eye made matters worse.  But not long before he became unable to golf, Jim managed to get his first hole in one on a short par three at Chapmanville. 

I never golfed in my life and had no real interest in it.  But once Jim asked me to join him on the practice tee at Chapmanville "and we'll hit a bucket of balls.  When you can hit one a little piece, we'll go out and play nine holes."  I agreed and we took the clubs and balls to the practice tee.  I hacked and beat and chopped for a while and never hit a ball 30 yards.  Jim finally just reached in his pocket and handed me his Volkswagen keys and said, "Come back in about 2 hours and go to the clubhouse.  Order anything you want and sign my name to the ticket."  That's what I did and Jim never asked me to go golfing again. 

But, for several years, Jim, myself, and three other friends had a bowling team in a Thursday night men's handicap league at Chapmanville.  We were never good.  Sometimes, we weren't even ordinary.  Most seasons, we finished at the top of the bottom half of the league.  But we had a lot of fun and provided some entertainment for the better bowlers.  Jim also began to play bocce ball at Chief Logan Park very late in his life with a group of elderly men, mostly Italian Americans.  He came to love the game.  In the last several years of his life, his vision became so bad he was nearly legally blind.  But, he never gave up any of the three sports.  He loved the games themselves, the physical activity, and, most of all, the socialization they provided. 

Jim Ferrell was a fallible, funny, generous, loving human being.  After he became sober, he worked every day of his life to be the best human being he could be and to make the world a better place.  He always tried to know about important causes in the world and to do what he could to improve any situation he encountered.  Jim spent his life giving away much of what he earned.  It made him happy and gave him a sense of self worth.  Jim Ferrell was one of the finest human beings I have ever known.  Jim Ferrell was an Appalachian Hero.

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