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JFK’s vision of West Virginia

Ah, the Internet, a nearly limitless source of information, opinions, images and entertainment; and a development that has drastically changed the way humans interact with one another. Some of that change is for the good. Plenty of it is just bad. Among the challenges of wandering online is figuring out which sites we can trust — and sometimes a site isn’t actually out to mislead when it provides incorrect or incomplete information.

As of midday June 20 — West Virginia Day, a website that provides quotations for use by authors, speakers and the like attributed “The sun doesn’t always shine in West Virginia, but the people do,” to Richard Ojeda.

Ojeda, a Democrat and military veteran who was born seven years after President John F. Kennedy uttered those words, calls himself a “steadfast soldier and warrior academic.” He served as a state Senator representing what was then West Virginia’s 7th District; and ran for Congress, though he lost to Carol Miller in 2018.

It is possible he may have repeated Kennedy’s words at some point — many of us have.

But he is certainly not the person to whom the quote should be attributed. Doing so is a disservice to Kennedy and his relationship with the state where he was able to prove a Catholic could win over a predominantly Protestant population because West Virginians were able to look past such trivialities when it came to choosing a leader.

More than just help him win, the Mountain State helped form Kennedy’s leadership style, according to the JFK Library, as written in an examination of the famous speech by MetroNews’s Hoppy Kercheval, in 2018:

“He won their votes and they won his heart. The people of West Virginia — their kindness and fairness, their grit and determination and patriotism — made their mark on this young candidate and helped to shape the President he would become.”

In fact, the story behind the speech in which Kennedy spoke so highly of us is that it seemed to rain every time he was in the state. It was pouring rain when he spoke on that 100th West Virginia Day in 1963.

“It (West Virginia) has known sunshine and rain in 100 years, but I know of no state — and I know this state well — whose people feel more strongly, who have a greater sense of pride in themselves, their state and their country, than the people of West Virginia,” Kennedy said.

But Kennedy was unflinching in discussing the challenges West Virginia faced.

In addressing the poverty with which he knew Mountaineers struggled, Kennedy said “There are different sorts of people among those lingering in privation. Many are old. Many are members of minority groups. Many have been handicapped by inadequate education or by inadequate medical care. Many lack the skills to fill available jobs …”

That speech was given 59 years ago.

Yet Kennedy believed at the time he was speaking to a state with the will to change. To progress.

To attribute any part of that speech to a modern politician is to hide the reality that West Virginia had, at one time, very different societal and political ideals — and hopes for ourselves. It hides the reality that for decades — generations — we have failed to embrace that forward-looking moment, in which we had a chance to shine.

Don’t start with me about everything Kennedy did wrong. I know. As is always the case, this is not a matter of a person being 100 percent good or 100 percent bad. We’ve forgotten that, somehow, as the Internet age has made us distrustful and divided. Most people are a little of both.

This is a matter of remembering what and who inspired us, back then. And thinking about where we went from there.

Are we still shining?

***

By the way, watchers of Gov. Jim Justice might find it amusing to know that in 1963, Kennedy took a moment in his speech to say “Most miraculous of all, Governor (Wally) Barron’s administration has not only worked to bring these things to accomplishment — but, at the same time, has produced a $6 million surplus in the state budget.”

The more things change …

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com

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