Alice Bryant Byrd’s father returned from World War II a Navy hero; his ambitions included a career in West Virginia’s hottest industry—coal mining. After joining a promising new coal operation, he moved his young wife to Summersville where they would start a family and he would soon be recruited to run for public office.
Thus began a fifteen-year stint as mayor, where his blazing progress garnered him attention from the likes of Senator Robert Byrd and even a visit from President Lyndon Johnson. It looked as if nothing could hold him back, until some dark and foreboding forces combined to bring down not only his political career but his family and financial well-being.
In Summersville, Byrd shares her family’s story in this small town in West Virginia from the 1940s to the 1970s, that culture-rich era known widely for its large-scale wars and social upheaval. She narrates how, despite the umbrella of ordinariness, her family lived through some extraordinary events—a twisting, turning, and engaging tale ushering her family through the first sixteen years of her life.
Through narrative and excerpts from news articles, this memoir tells the story of the fabulous life of the Bryants, their contribution to Summersville’s development, the price the family paid for political and social ambition, and their relentless pluck and desire to recover and move on in the wake of ongoing challenges.
Starting at the Endpoint As my sister-in-law Linda wheeled us down I-77, I marveled at the turn of events that had churned up the decision to send me packing to finish my sophomore year in high school in East Tennessee. I remember being strangely euphoric, which was odd given I was leaving the only hometown I’d known for 16 years, but now I would chalk that up to the intoxicating mix of fear and excitement that was pumping through my veins. Fear, because I was leaving the old familiar people and places, and excitement pretty much for the same reason. Some teenagers are prone to latching on to any circumstances, even less than happy ones, that would make them stick out as more special, more mysterious than the average pimple face, and therefore more worthy of inspection by cool people. I was a member of that club. Here I was, not only moving away from my forever childhood home because my family was splintering like an old log, but also moving in with my sophisticated and adventurous twenty-something brother and his wife, who were just newlyweds themselves. Despite feeling bad for my family, I felt special, and I can promise that my excitement was beating my fear by more than a nose. I don’t mean to imply that my early life was been boring. In fact, it was anything but. During most of my 16 years in Summersville, West Virginia, my parents were deeply involved in the local government of that small town. Dad returned a hero from his World War II service as a Navy pilot and then became a brash young businessman who catapulted to local and regional political fame. Mom was beautiful, graceful, and smart, yet still so humble that to this day, few if any disliked her or would say a bad word about her. In their own way and with the help of dedicated friends and supporters, my parents reversed the dormancy of local political action and pushed Summersville to hyper levels of progress and growth from the late 1950s to the 1970s. The journey took its toll on them, as will become apparent, but the people of Summersville and the region have ultimately benefited from the pluck and drive of my parents. I sincerely believe that neither would change a thing that happened – each of them answered a public cry for progress and help. I like to think that after helping the people of Summersville and then moving on with their separate lives, they were able to respond to their own internal cries for transformation as well. On the surface, Summersville had treated our family very well, not just for my 16 years but for nearly the entire 30-plus years that Dad was working in the coal business and politicking and trying to help Mom keep three kids straight. But when the dam that held the Bryant clan together finally started to weaken and crumble in the 1970s, the tide was like a New River rapid, flushing us almost completely off the Summersville landscape by the time I graduated high school in 1979. What was it that so irretrievably broke that I, at the awkward age of 16, had to be uprooted and moved away from the town where the Bryants had been “first family” for practically my entire life? I was far from comprehending the full picture that sunny day in 1977 that I was headed to East Tennessee, and I’m sure I still do not grasp all the nuance today in 2014, but I’m hoping the whole saga will be easier to untangle and piece together if I start from the beginning and just tell the tale.
Alice Bryant Byrd is a native West Virginian now living in North Carolina with her husband, three dogs, and a cat. She enjoys writing memoirs and other narrative nonfiction stories. firstname.lastname@example.org
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