There are currently over 7 billion humans living on this planet, with most of them living day-to-day with little regard to what is waiting for us around the next turn. That next bend in the road could be the curing of cancer, the invention of warp drive or the creation of a clean way to produce energy. There is a small number of people who do look to the future, who live comfortably in the future. We call these individuals visionaries. One came from right here in Hampshire County: Edward Buckbee. You can learn a great deal about Mr. Buckbee by simply Googling his name. This Hampshire County native helped create the NASA visitor center in Florida, as well as working with astronauts in the early space program.
Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with Mr. Buckbee for the first time about his life in West Virginia and how our county helped shape him to go on to do big things. When I told him the nature of the article I wanted to write, he said that no one had ever written a story about how he grew up. He went on to say that most everyone wants to know about his time with astronauts on their moon mission. I suggested that his growing up in Appalachia was an essential part of him that needed to be written about, and he agreed. Our county taught him that dreams are to be faithfully followed and not easily forgotten. He represents the necessity for young and old to know and understand that anything is possible.
So the story begins:
Ed’s boyhood home was on Route 28, about 4 miles north of Romney, WV. Born on Sept 15, 1936 at Cumberland Memorial Hospital in Maryland, he was the son of Odel ( Ed) and Jessie (Jake) Buckbee who were an important part of the fabric of Hampshire County. Ed senior worked at Pancake Chevy as a parts distributor as well as at the Romney Fruit Growers’ co-op store in town. Little Ed spent many hours hanging out at these establishments after school. Jessie stayed at home with the kids and managed the gas station next door until World War II came, at which time she drove a school bus because of a shortage of males in the area. Little Ed and his brother, Robert, managed the gas station after school while mom prepared dinner.
As I listened to Ed tell childhood stories, I felt a bit envious of him and of his time growing up in a small town, which was in stark contrast to my first 10 years of life in Los Angeles and my 15 years in the sprawling Washington, DC suburbs. Ed had lived the childhood I dreamed of.
One of the things that became apparent while listening to him was his love of the South Branch River, the mountains and the freedom that country life gave him. He loved to hunt, and brought down his first deer, a nine-point beauty, on Break Neck Mt. at the age of 15 with a 32 lever-action Winchester. He spent many hours with his Scout troop #32 camping, hiking and learning about the outdoors. He told me about one of his troop leaders who they referred to as ‘Kerosene’ because he would always sneak in some kerosene when trying to start a fire with a piece of flint. Everyone played along. John Ailes was also a troop leader who accompanied Ed and his troop on many adventures down the South Branch River. Frequently they camped at night along the river under the stars enjoying nature at its best. One scout trip that Ed seemed to relish the memories of was a trip to Washington, DC when they slept in sleeping bags at the base of the Washington monument for several days, and then during the day explored the many museums and sites that Washington offered. At one point in this trip, he entered the old Smithsonian, and low and behold, hanging from the ceiling was the X1, one of the early supersonic jets, once piloted by Chuck Yeager who was also a West Virginian. Ed feels that seeing that prototype spacecraft planted something in him that led him into the space program later on. It was a very special moment!
He attended Romney Grade School untill the 8th grade and then went on to Romney High School where he played baseball and was also a manager for the football team. During this time he came to love and admire Coach McElwee who in Ed’s words ‘coached almost everything.’ Coach had played football at West Virginia University and was a local hero for many people in the area. Some think that McElwee was the most successful football coach in Hampshire County history. He was also a very respected teacher who taught self-discipline and proper behavior to all his students and players. When the team traveled to other schools, they were expected to behave like gentlemen at all times; nothing less was acceptable. Another person in Ed’s life who made a huge difference was high school principal Gordon Slonaker who ran a very tight ship. Ed admitted to spending some time in the boiler room with Principal Slonaker as he was reminded of what proper behavior is; these were not fond memories! Slonaker later went on to become the President of Shepherd College.
After completing his high school education, Ed went on to get a degree in journalism from West Virginia University. Returning home, he worked at the Hampshire Review writing a column called Drug Store Quarterback. I suggested to him that that title would probably not be politically correct in today’s world; we laughed. Later Ed was asked by Mr. Ailes, the Editor of the Review, to cover the Hampshire Board of Education meetings. When he walked into the meeting, he was asked to leave because they wanted to protect the privacy of the meeting, but he somehow managed to convince them to let him stay to report on the meeting. Apparently when he wrote the article about the meeting in detail, many people ( including the Board of Ed) were extremely upset. Since that time the Review has been painstakingly reporting on everything the Board does, much to their chagrin. Somehow Ed was asked to be a stringer for the Washington Post. His assignment was to report on everything which involved “blood or floods.” He recalled one such story when he wrote about a severe flood of the South Branch. His article went something like this: A small town in WV was destroyed by a treacherous flood as God watched from the banks of the South Branch River. His boss called to say: “Forget the river; get an interview with God!” So, every time something bad happened in Hampshire County, Ed made $15!
I have to say that talking with Ed Buckbee was a real pleasure for me and I hope to meet him in person someday soon. As we were finishing up, I asked him this: What did Hampshire County do to allow him to make a substantial difference in the world? He said it was the feeling of belonging, knowing that there were people always there to help out and never having to face the day-to-day struggles alone. Having never known what it was like to live in a community that watched out for its own, I was forced to return to my childhood and the feelings of often being alone. Thank you, Ed, for sharing your life with our readers. By the way, Ed is still playing softball at the age of 79!
If you wish to learn more about Ed’s exploits after leaving Hampshire County, simply Google his name and read about all the neat things he did as a child and a young man. He also helped write a book, SPACE COWBOYS by Ed Buckbee and Wally Schirra. I know you will enjoy it!