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Historian touts ironies abundant in state's centennial

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Photos courtesy of W.Va. Division of Culture & History. President John F. Kennedy gives a speech as part of the Centennial celebration June 20, 1963. Photos courtesy of W.Va. Division of Culture & History. President John F. Kennedy gives a speech as part of the Centennial celebration June 20, 1963.
Photos courtesy of W.Va. Division of Culture & History Photos courtesy of W.Va. Division of Culture & History
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Historians enjoy irony, says John Alexander Williams. That's why he likes to write and lecture about his home state.

Williams, a retired history professor who grew up in White Sulphur Springs, will be the guest speaker for "Most Southern of the Northern" at 2 p.m. June 23 for West Virginia Humanities Council's Little Lecture at the MacFarland-Hubbard House in Charleston. 

He authored "West Virginia: A History" as part of a 1976 U.S. bicentennial series.

His lecture will be addressing some of the ironies of the state's Centennial and other anniversaries.

National media exposure created during the 1960 presidential primary was not seen as a positive by many West Virginians who were embarrassed by the focus on poverty, according to Williams. He referred to President John F. Kennedy's June 20, 1963 Centennial speech.

"The sun doesn't always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do," was Kennedy's often quoted comment on that rainy day in Charleston.

A Yale graduate student at the time, Williams recalls arriving at a Connecticut gas station where he was easily identified by the West Virginia license plate on his 1949 Plymouth.

"It was an old jalopy; the kind that you would expect a graduate student to have in those days," Williams said. "Some people at the station thought that I was a refugee from West Virginia poverty. 

"They came over, welcomed me to New England and told me they hoped that I would find a better life."

His cheap remedy was to purchase a Yale window decal to prove that his poverty was just temporary.

Williams, who has taught at West Virginia University and the University Notre Dame among other colleges, also found it ironic that officials chose the National Radio Astronomy Observatory as a Centennial symbol. With relatives living in the Green Bank area, he was familiar with the Pocahontas County community.

"It was emphasized that West Virginia is moving into the future," said Williams.

Yet many of the NRAO professionals opted to reside in Charlottesville, Va. due to perceptions of poverty and inadequate education for their children, he noted.

Admission to the Williams lecture is $10. Call the Humanities Council at 304-346-8500 for reservations.