Saving Dickenson Memorial High School shouldn’t be reduced to a punchline

On Monday March 26th, I spoke for the first time publicly in front of a governing body (the local board of supervisors in Dickenson County, VA) for the first time ever in my life, in reference to the board’s recent decision to demolish Dickenson Memorial High School.

I have to admit that although working in the media field for over 25 years and some of that work in radio, I was as nervous as a cat as I took the podium and opened my mouth to speak.

My heart beat grew louder and louder in my head as the county attorney read the criteria for speaking in public expression. It drowned out the mumbled reading of the criteria by the county attorney, so much that I couldn’t hear another thing.

Then I looked around and stepped to the podium. I was shaking so bad inside, it was like being on one of those machines that’s supposed to help you lose weight that you can get at the famous “As Seen on TV” stores.

I then opened my mouth and the trembling became greater. There was no microphone to hide behind. There, on the other side of the podium sat five county supervisors, the county administrator and the county attorney looking right at me.

I did not feel comfortable, or maybe I didn’t feel welcome is the best way to describe how I felt.

I will say that each one of the individuals seated in front of me, at least made eye contact with me, with at least one giving me the death stare during my presentation. Unlike previous occasions when I have attended these meetings, some board members weren’t playing Candy Crush or texting as I had seen one or two do before in previous presentations done by members of the Dickenson County Historical Society.

My prepared remarks to the board in regard to re-thinking the decision of demolishing DMHS was not very lengthy, although I did go over the three minute time limit (at least I think it was three minutes, the county attorney was mumbling thru the prepared statement so bad, I thought I was hearing a Klingon Language 45rpm record being played at less than a 33 1/3 rpm speed).

They allowed me to finish but I had to cut down some of the speech until I could get the point across. As I concluded my remarks, I thanked the group and took my seat.  Two more individuals got up and spoke in favor of saving DMHS rather than destroying the former school building and dedicated World War I memorial.

Nothing else was said or mentioned until close to the end of the meeting when the board entertained a resolution to name the new courthouse addition after a judge who was recently removed from the bench this past year in the Virginia General Assembly and all signs point to the removal as being politically motivated, not for the performance of the judge.

So, when the roll call was taken for the vote, one supervisor spoke and said he would reluctantly vote in favor of the resolution and naming of the judicial building but added that the board could be back in the same position in a hundred years, debating whether or not the new courtroom addition should be torn down.

A laugh ensued from some board members and the vote concluded. But that one comment, that punchline to the supervisors monologue hit me the wrong way.

This supervisor had in my opinion, just taken a jab, whether intentional or not, at the efforts of the some people who support saving Dickenson Memorial High School as a memorial.

It was at that moment, I couldn’t speak and I couldn’t find the effort to stand up and say in a respectful tone, “That was wrong,” or “You’re remarks were totally out of line”. No, I sat there, dumbstruck at what had just taken place. But one person did stand up and challenge the jab and its intent.

Susan Mullins of the county historical society, did say something and told the supervisor his comments were not appropriate, suggesting that it was a “jab” at the group for standing up and believing in a cause of saving DMHS.

The supervisor moved to apologize and to clarify his remark. But from my vantage point, it was a bad move and beyond too late to explain your way out of the corner, bringing to mind the hashtag in my mind, #thinkbeforeyouspeak.

But the comment made by that supervisor, whether in jest or not, the laughs and chuckles that followed, sent an even clearer message to some of those present that this entire “Save DMHS” movement is nothing more than a joke or one big punchline about the efforts at saving something or in this case preservation of a memorial.

The DMHS building has an important history and distinction,  The board’s predecessors established a levy to pay for the building and sought the approval of the Virginia General Assembly in the 1920’s, to honor sixteen county residents who left the mountains and fight in the War To End All Wars, only to die on the battlefield or after they came back stateside before the end of the war, and their memory reduced to being a punchline of an extremely bad political dialogue and an ill-timed comment.

Sadly, it’s the level our world has sunk to over time. Honor just doesn’t mean as much anymore, especially when your dead.

The recent decision to demolish DMHS by the Dickenson County Board of Supervisors is proof of how our world has gotten away from the importance of honor, in addition to also being a lesson in how we take care of things whether it be in honor or for the future and for future generations to benefit from. The DMHS situation will not be remembered for trying to preserve a memorial or history but rather be a sad commentary on our cultural narrative, a fading oral tradition and instead be reduced to a punchline.

At the call for dismissal from the meeting, I stood up and left the meeting room, angry, disappointed and also ashamed.

I did what Roscoe and Aggie (my father and mother) had taught me growing up; bite your tongue and don’t say something you will regret in anger. So in a form of therapy, here is the condensed version along with my thoughts and observations.

As I left the building, I felt shamed for standing up and saying something and even more, disgusted at the remark and the reaction of the supervisors. As I walked to my car, I became even more disgusted at the mental picture I saw in my head of these “little emperors” sitting on their throne, making decisions, laughing and essentially, making fun of a grassroots campaign by county residents and former county residents about DMHS.

The Great War or World War I, will always be documented in history books as a turbulent time in our nation’s history and the decision by the United States to stay out of the war and remain neutral but then realizing that if the forces of evil won, the battle could come to our doorstep.  The United States had not had a war fought on homeland soil since the War of 1812. When the call came out for men needed to enlist in the fight, these sixteen young men from Dickenson County went because it was their duty.

Two of those young men aren’t even buried in Dickenson County or the United States for that matter. One is buried in Belgium, the other in France. They never made it home to the hills of Dickenson County.

And sadly, as history or rather the writers of history often do, sacrifices are soon forgotten or are never accepted because we as a society, tend to allow history and the writers of history to squeeze things out of existence or importance for their own personal gain or to be politically correct.

Unfortunately, the punchline and jab fired that night at the meeting reminded me that not everyone is going to believe the same way that I do and and it was an even greater reminder that the feudal system of the Middle Ages never died and still exists in the hills, hollers and mountains of Appalachia and Dickenson County.

Whereas some locations in Appalachia are trying to hold on to and save mementos of the past, there are those that believe that today’s generation don’t need elements saved or preserved of our culture.

So I think you can see why I felt like a “peasant” being laughed at, made fun of and ridiculed for having a different mindset and or ideas or not worshiping the ruling body.

It left me asking why I even entertained the thought of speaking and trying to reason or suggest to this board that they re-think this decision and attempt to solve the issue in a civil manner or even showing support of saving DMHS and yes, having hope.

It also left me with the impression that the supervisors or county government are fearful that someone or some group will do a better job or make things happen with the DMHS building and they won’t receive the credit. It conveyed the message that the county government was telling the people, “We know better than you do what will work and what won’t work for this county and its future.”

But as former president Harry Truman stated, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

The tone was much more upbeat earlier in the meeting as county leaders lit up like a Christmas tree when they heard the news in regard to revenue brought to the Haysi area through the new Spearhead Trails system.  In the early stages of discussion and bringing four wheeler trails to Southwest Virginia, I balked at the idea years ago that it would even succeed.

I’ll admit it now; I was wrong for not believing in it.

And I may be wrong right now about saving DMHS for the wrong reasons.

But as the supervisors believed and persisted with this “pipe dream” of four wheeler trails making an economic impact, I believe DMHS could make a contribution to the county economy in other ways that the Chamber of Commerce and tourism can’t.

My thought process from the beginning when I first became acquainted with the DMHS situation was if DMHS could be utilized as a memorial, in addition to a living history tribute to other armed forces veterans, as well as a museum featuring cultural life in Appalachia.  In addition, DMHS could be a genealogical treasure chest for visitors looking to re-connect with their roots or finding out their beginnings. It could have been another source of tourism to boost the county in the form of “cultural tourism”.

Sadly, we probably will never get to see what the historical society could have done with DMHS. Instead, it seems that the movement or “pipe dream” to save DMHS as a monument will instead be immortalized as a punchline or folly.

I believe I have a good grasp now of how William Seward felt after he arranged for the purchase of the territory known as Alaska.

Seward was ridiculed politically and publicly for the purchase and Alaska was referred to as “Seward’s Folly”. Now, one hundred fifty one years later, we view Alaska in a different light and regard.

It was strategically and economically, a benefit to have Alaska, rather than a liability. As the world continues to change history, we can always hope that history will be re-written in Dickenson County for the efforts at saving DMHS as a memorial and museum as a benefit rather than a liability.

At present, the future looks mighty bleak that the grand old building, almost 100 years old, will not be standing for its centennial milestone in the county’s history but rather, meet a sad death by destruction of a wrecking crane.

It has been my vision, my dream, like others living in or outside the county that DMHS be returned to the community or in this case the historical society and let them have a crack at it.

It’s not as if the building isn’t paid for.  It already has paid dividends to the county in several ways. One of those dividends and paid for in full is the recognition to those young men and their descendants, for their sacrifice in providing us with the gift of freedom.

The second dividend provided by those young men was the preservation of our right and ability to express our thoughts whether orally or in writing in a civil manner.

The third benefit is that it served as a educational facility to its citizens until 2015. With the right amount attention, dedication, tender loving care, positive attitude, and yes, money and donations, DMHS could be brought back to life as a community center for learning as well as paying respect to all of the county’s veterans and the region’s cultural heritage.

So unless there is a change in mindset and attitudes soon, you need to start buying up film (yes, film) and those memory cards for your camera.  Go and take pictures of the grand old building now before its torn down.  Treasure those schoolhouse memories of yesteryear and say goodbye to a part of Dickenson County’s early history.

And while you visit the circle there in front of DMHS, think about the first reason DMHS was built. Think about the very circle you are standing in, facing the school that was a vital point in the war effort during World War II, the county collection point for scrap metal to be sent to the factories in the preparation of military hardware to fight against another global threat that could have come to our shores.

Those sixteen young men’s memory doesn’t deserve the treatment it has received since 2015, to just sit there, unoccupied and falling into a state of disrepair and chaos.

The purpose and legacy of that building doesn’t warrant disparaging remarks or jokes, directly or indirectly, leveled at its citizens for standing up and wanting to save DMHS.

The people who care about history, the honor of these young men and the purpose of this grand old building, don’t deserve to be treated rudely or be joked about in a flippant way.

I don’t want DMHS and the efforts of trying to preserve and save a historic memorial be reduced to a punchline before being ultimately reduced to rubble to make way for progress in another way; a fast food place or a mega grocery store.

2 thoughts on “Saving Dickenson Memorial High School shouldn’t be reduced to a punchline

  1. Roderick, I thought you did wonderful. I did not notice you were nervous. I hope the other board members will resend their vote. I will try again. Don’t ever be afraid to speak your opinion. Your talk may just be the turning point to save the building.

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  2. The short sightedness of the Dickenson County board only personifies the disregard it has for the cultural traditions of our county and the lack of support for historical preservation. Its a sad commentary on the status quo which should be changed before there is no one left there.

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