CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (WBOY) – 34 governors have served West Virginia since its admittance to the Union, but only one can say that they were both the youngest and oldest to ever serve the governorship.
Cecil Harland Underwood was West Virginia’s 25th and 32nd governor, serving both terms as a Republican. He began his first term at the young age of 34, and after a 40-year gap, ended his later term at the ripe old age of 78.
Underwood was born the youngest of five children to Silas H. and Della Forrester Underwood on November 5, 1922, in Josephs Mills in Tyler County. He earned a degree in political science from Salem College (now Salem International University) in 1943 and later served in the Army Reserve, and he taught high school biology in St. Marys.
His political career didn’t begin until 1944 when he was elected to the House of Delegates from Tyler County at the age of 22, later advancing to the role of House minority leader in 1949.
He got married in 1948, and in 1952, he received a master’s degree in political science from West Virginia University.
On January 4, 1956, Underwood announced his run for governor, later defeating Robert H. Mollohan in the general election and securing his first term in the position. He was inaugurated on January 14, 1957, making him the youngest West Virginia governor ever at just 34 years old.
“Among the other measures passed during his term were emergency benefits to help miners made jobless by the mechanization of the coal industry, a statewide property reappraisal, and creation of a new economic development agency,” according to wvencyclopedia.org.
The state constitution prevented Underwood from running for a second consecutive term, so in 1960, he ran for the U.S. Senate, losing to Jennings Randolph.
Underwood stayed out of politics until January 1964, when he announced a new run for the governorship. However, he lost the general election to Hulett Smith.
Ever persistent, he once again ran for governor in 1967, but this time lost the Republican primary to Congressman Arch Moore on May 14, 1968.
“In 1976, after the state Supreme Court ruled that the gubernatorial succession amendment to the state constitution barred Governor Moore from seeking a third consecutive term, Underwood won the Republican nomination for governor,” according to wvencyclopedia.org.
Despite this nomination, Underwood once again lost the general election, this time to Jay Rockefeller.
Between each attempt at the office, Underwood would explore the world of business, holding positions, among other things, in the Island Creek Coal Company, Monsanto Chemical Company and even holding the presidency of Princess Coal, Bethany College and National Association of State Councils on Vocational Education at one point or another.
However, the governorship once again called to him, and in 1996, Underwood ran and won the seat against Charlotte Pritt, taking office on January 13, 1997, officially becoming the state’s oldest ever governor at the age of 74.
During this term, Underwood’s accomplishments included “a $565 million reduction in the workers compensation fund deficit, an aggressive road construction program, development of a high-tech partnership with Verizon telephone company, more than $1 billion in new sewer and water projects, expansion of children’s programs, and assistance to help senior citizens afford prescription drugs,” according to wvencyclopedia.org.
He also accepted leadership positions in several regional and national organizations, “including the Southern Technology Council, Southern Growth Policies Board, Southern States Energy Board, National Education Goals Panel, Southern Regional Education Board, and the Jobs for America’s Graduates Program,” according to nga.org.
Underwood attempted to run for reelection in 2000 but lost the general election to Bob Wise. He returned to private life in Charleston and passed away on November 24, 2008, at the age of 86.
For more information about Cecil H. Underwood, you can visit wvlegislature.gov.