Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

July 14, 2014

Service in the spotlight: It’s hard being a public servant in this day and age

— For a week or 10 days after my hip replacement surgery, I followed Dr. Walid Azzo’s orders religiously and tried to keep moving. It probably would have been easier for me to sit in my mother-in-law’s recliner and watch Pirates’ games all summer long, but I really wanted to learn how to walk again. I had been walking with pain for as many years as I can remember. I never fully recovered from the knee surgery I had in the spring of 1967, but back then, the art of medicine hadn’t evolved far enough to repair the level of abuse I subjected my body to. Now, walking three miles every morning brings me the kind of joy I had been missing for a long time.

In some ways, it was a good time to miss the news. Stuff happens all the time, but I wonder how I would have approached the story about former State Senator Phil Puckett. I hope I would have been fair, and I think I would have been. However, when people in high places make broad-sweeping accusations, it can give anyone a moment of pause. Of course, I’ve known Senator Puckett since he threw his hat in the ring to run for Jack Reasor’s 38th District Senate seat back in 1997, and I have enjoyed a good working relationship with him.

Jack left to take a private sector job in a field that he had prior legislative oversight of. I can’t remember federal authorities investigating Jack’s decision. As I recall, most people wished him well and said they would miss him. I remember that the late Tom Colley was surprised when Puckett defeated Dr. Charles King, (then) president of Southwest Virginia Community College for the party’s nomination. Puckett then defeated Roger Riffe for the seat. Former State Senator William C. Wampler Jr. attended his swearing-in ceremony at Lebanon. I sat in the gallery with Linda Stump, and told her my brother used to sing “Union Maid.” With that, she and I broke into song and sang a duet on the chorus of “Union Maid.”

I remember thinking what a classy gesture it was for Senator Wampler to sit in the audience that morning in the Russell County Courthouse. I knew very little about the Virginia General Assembly back then, but I knew class when I saw it, and I thought that William Wampler must have known something about Puckett that I didn’t know. I decided to find out what that was.

Democrats were in the minority through most of Puckett’s tenure and as a result, he had to learn how to work in the context of bipartisan coalitions to achieve anything at all for his district. I remember those days when Puckett’s accomplishments were modest and meaningful. It reminded me of the way that the late State Delegate C. Jefferson Stafford worked his legislative magic when there were something like seven Republicans in the entire House of Delegates. Jeff worked hard to find issues that both parties could agree upon.

When you’re a newsman, it’s difficult to know much about the personal life of a politician. Of course I knew the important stuff like the fact that Puckett taught elementary school at Honaker, Va., before getting into the insurance business. And while he was selling insurance, he served 26 or 27 years as a firefighter with the Lebanon Volunteer Fire Department. I wonder how many other members of the General Assembly have given that kind of service to their communities.

I know Puckett showed up for about every public event in Bluefield, Tazewell, Bland, Grundy and Pocahontas, Va., during his tenure, but I also know that he stood at the Battlefield Overlook at Saltville, Va., and prayed for racial harmony as part of a mostly black group of people — young and old — who prayed for the souls of black Yankee soldiers who died in a battle on that hillside 150 years earlier. Puckett didn’t gain a single vote from doing that, and may have lost a few, but he did it because he believed in the cause of equality for all people. The people who stood there on those Oct. 2 nights from 1998 to 2009 probably know it too.

Puckett ran for Virginia lieutenant governor during that period of time. He was disappointed when he didn’t win, but he told me that he had his family and his prayer warriors to support him through the hard times. Even after that personal disappointment, Puckett and his wife, Jeanette, still made the long trip from Russell County to Richmond through snow, sleet, rain, ice and, sometimes, dry roads on more times than most people would care to count.

When I read Charles Owens’ story that Puckett had dropped out to help his daughter, Martha, with her career, that made perfect sense to me. What father wouldn’t help his child fulfill her dreams if it was within his power to do so? All the stuff that followed in the press since then didn’t add up to me.

Phil is two years and two days older than me, and I’ve been teasing him about retiring since he turned 62. Had I known there was a potential sinister implication that might have been drawn from that, I might not have even suggested it.

I know Tom Bondurant too. Tom is Puckett’s lawyer in a possible federal case involving his resignation. Mr. Bondurant and Tony Giorno prosecuted the federal case that stemmed from the 1989 slayings of the Davis family in Pocahontas back in 2002 and ’03. However all of this works out, in my opinion, Puckett ought not to be vilified for helping his family. Instead, he ought to be thanked for serving his district to the best of his ability.

Bill Archer is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at barcher@bdtonline.com.

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