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What is a typical West Virginian?

by Franny White

STAFF WRITER

Since the 19th century Hatfield family feud with the McCoys, West Virginia has been branded as a state of backwoods hillbillies armed with guns instead of intelligence. Still today, mean-spirited West Virginia jokes label the state's residents as uneducated, poor rednecks.

Yet locals challenge this stereotype. While some acknowledge the state faces challenges, many say they stand proud, puffing out their chests just a little, when they declare themselves West Virginians.

So forget the stereotypes -- what makes a real West Virginian tick? What is it that separates the state's 1.8 million residents from the rest of America?

West Virginia University's Regional Research Institute looks into social and economic aspects of America's different regions, including West Virginia. One of the institute's programs, the Community Design Team, spends an intensive 48 hours with individual communities, experiencing the community's needs and offering help in solving local problems.

As team founder and institute director, Scott Loveridge has experienced the heart of West Virginia up close.

"You can call it hick if you want," Loveridge said. "But we have a much better dedication to our community than other states."

Although outsiders poke fun at West Virginia's rural landscape, locals consider the state's close, small-town atmosphere key in defining life as a West Virginian.

Unlike the people of metropolitan cities, residents say they have a genuine concern for each other.

"You can walk down the street, actually make eye contact and say, 'Hello, how are you?'" Charleston resident Joe Geiger said. "I think it's something special."

Geiger and many others say there's something else that's essential to being a West Virginian: heritage. A part-time Marshall University professor of West Virginia history and the webmaster for the West Virginia Archives and History Library in Charleston, Geiger said people want to know as much as they can about their state.

From who settled where and when to the name of your great-grandfather's cousin, West Virginians are aware of their heritage. But West Virginians don't just want to know about their past, they want to preserve and promote that heritage in the present.

The Augusta Heritage Center of Davis and Elkins College does just that. With year-round instruction on traditional West Virginian folklore, crafts and music, Augusta helps keep native traditions alive. Students come from Japan and Switzerland to Elkins itself, to learn about the state's unique Appalachia culture. In a "homogenized" world, Director Margo Belvin said maintaining our own culture is pertinent.

"People have no idea that there are still people that play fiddles and banjos," Belvin said. "There's a culture here that's very well preserved and intact."

A large part of that culture is the state's strong background in crafts. In the frontier days, people had to make everything from wooden furniture and glass to quilts by hand. Although such handiwork is no longer necessary for the survival of daily life, these crafts play a vital role in the state's culture and economy. In 1996, Tamarack was built near Beckley to display "the best of West Virginia" -- the state's native art, cuisine, music, literature and theater.

Now organizations like the West Virginia Artists and Crafts Guild specifically cater to the state's educated, professional artists. According to guild President Sally Rowe, West Virginia's art community proves the state is far different from the backwoods view others have.

"Sometimes when you're growing up, you think West Virginia is so backward," Rowe said. "But we have so much here. We're so fortunate to have so much rich tradition."

But the state also faces some challenges. While many residents have a close tie to their communities and families, that same tie often holds people back from getting a job. Loveridge partly attributes the state's history of high unemployment rates to this.

"A lot of people solve unemployment problems by moving away," Loveridge said. "But people here don't want to leave their family."

The state unemployment office reports 5.8 percent of West Virginians were unemployed in April, compared to 3.7 percent of all Americans. Loveridge and others have pointed out the state's unemployment does not indicate the work ethic of its inhabitants.

"They work pretty darn hard in West Virginia," Loveridge said, citing residents who for years supported the coal mining industry with manual labor.

West Virginians are also hindered by a lack of higher education. While 76.4 percent of residents 25 years and older do have a high school diploma, only 16.3 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher, according to an estimate from the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

And with less education, residents have a lower income than the average American. The West Virginia Business and Economic Information System reports West Virginians have a per capita personal income of $19,362, almost $7,000 lower than the U.S.'s. West Virginia also has the nation's sixth-highest poverty rate, 19.9 percent below the poverty level.

A 1998 report by the state Bureau for Public Health stated West Virginians have unusually high incidences of tobacco use, obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Of the 10 leading causes of West Virginian's deaths, nine occur well above the United States' averages. Again, these lifestyles are rooted in West Virginia's heritage.

"A good bit of it is ingrained in to the culture of this portion of Appalachia," said Mark Ferrell of public health. Ferrell also points to the coal mining industry. After laboring 12 hours a day, miners relaxed when they came home. But even after the industry declined and miners didn't have as much physical activity, children continued to mimic their parent's after-work activities.

As far as these health concerns, Ferrell admits the state matches the negative views many have of West Virginians.

"There's no stereotype, that's a fact," Ferrell said.

But overall, those who talked to the Exponent-Telegram said there wasn't one set of criteria that could define or limit what it means to be a West Virginian.

"I would characterize the state as a patchwork, rather than everyone's the same," Loveridge said.

And regardless of all the problems, West Virginians are proud of their green, wooded corner of Appalachia.

"A lot of people have a special love and pride for the state," Geiger said. "You don't know why, but you do."

Staff writer Franny White can be reached at 626-1448.

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