Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

July 25, 2012

Mayor Hatcher was the calm voice of reason in W.Va.’s Southernmost City


Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— — As a still-green correspondent working to earn a little extra cash while completing my college degree, finding the free time to drive to McDowell County in between my college courses in Athens was always a challenge. But I did make it to my home county at least once or twice a week, often on Fridays after my courses were finished for the week.

My career began more than two decade ago by interviewing the movers and shakers in McDowell County. People like Emily Yeager, and the late Welch Mayor Martha Moore and, of course, War Mayor Tom Hatcher. Emily was still operating the family dealership at the time, and was a great resource for all things McDowell County. And she is still a tireless advocate for McDowell County to this very day.

Martha Moore was not only the trusted face and voice of the city of Welch, but was also a leader for all of McDowell County. I spent many afternoons visiting her office at city hall in Welch in search of news for my short-lived “Welch News” column. While at times she would be a little reluctant to reveal projects that were still in the works, Mayor Moore tried hard to promote a positive and progressive image for her beloved city, and McDowell County as a whole. I, too, tried to share that positive image, and good news, to our readers.

Her passing in late 2010 came as a shock to many. But Reba Honaker is doing a fine job in continuing on with Moore’s tradition and her hard work for Welch. While she may not be willing to admit it just yet, Reba is becoming the new face, and steadfast voice of leadership, for the city of Welch.

Tom Hatcher was also one of the first mayors I had a chance to meet and interview during the early days of my career. Having grown up on the opposite end of the county in the small town of Anawalt, traveling from the old Adkins District to the Big Creek District of the county was quite an experience. Although I had attended school in Welch, I had never traveled to the city of War until I was hired on as a stringer for the Daily Telegraph. I had no idea the drive from Anawalt to War would be that long.

Tom Hatcher was always very cordial, polite and eager to share the good news about West Virginia’s Southernmost City. When I first met Hatcher at the mayor’s office in War, one of the biggest projects that was underway at the time was the city’s new wastewater treatment plant — and he was more than eager to get the word out about this large-scale infrastructure improvement project for the city of War.

I also remember talking with the mayor not to long after a large fire ripped through the downtown. The news wasn’t very good at the time, but he still found a way to point out the good — the hard work by the town’s firefighters, its citizens and those merchants who vowed to rebuild.

But things got a little controversial in the later years in the city of War, and that controversy was reflected in a number of headlines I had the responsibility of writing. Hatcher, and other city officials, were quick to protest when an Army Corps of Engineers flood proofing plan to relocate Iaeger High School was later expanded to include Big Creek High School. Suddenly, the future of the historic high school — home of the Rocket Boys — was threatened. Talk of consolidating the Big Creek Owls with the Iaeger Cubs didn’t go over well with a lot of folks in town, and Mayor Hatcher was caught in the middle of the controversy. He fought — for a period of time anyhow — to save the town’s historic high school. He had no choice. It was the right thing to do for his town, and its citizens. It took a couple of years, but most folks in the Big Creek District finally came around in support of the new River View High School, as well as the new War Elementary School that was later constructed adjacent to the old high school. A sense of peace and calm slowly returned to the city of War.

I stayed in contact with Mayor Hatcher over the years — normally via telephone. He never turned away a phone call, and always seemed genuinely happily to hear from me. I appreciated his willingness to work with the press and me in particular. He trusted me, and I trusted him. He seemed genuinely pleased to have publicity about the small city in the pages of the Daily Telegraph.

The last time I spoke to Mayor Hatcher, I was apprehensive about calling. That’s because the topic, or the question I had to ask him, was not only unusual but also could have been perceived as negative publicity for the city. But I had no choice but to make the phone call as we were receiving phone calls, e-mails and even faxes at the office about the topic. Playboy magazine was in town talking about drugs. The whole conversation seemed a little surreal, but Tom handled it with his normal calm and rationale style. He carefully explained why Playboy was in town, what they were doing, and why he felt the reporter who was making the rounds across War appeared sincere in his pledge to write a factual, fair and accurate story. The county had been burned just a few months earlier by a not so pretty, or accurate, ABC News team report from Australia of all places. But not once did the mayor complain, or question, why the local newspaper was interested in doing a story about the fact that Playboy magazine was in town.

I was able to breathe a lot easier after talking to Tom. He understood I was just doing my job, and was also eager to set the record straight on his end. He, too, was just doing his job as the proud mayor of West Virginia’s Southernmost City. He could have done one of two things — slam the door in the face of the Playboy magazine writer or warmly welcome the out-of-town reporter to the small, but proud, southern West Virginia city. He chose the latter option. It was the right decision.

Mayor Tom Hatcher died last week at the young age of 72. Police say he was murdered. Two people, including the mayor’s daughter-in-law, have been arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

Dr. Tom Hatcher’s passing represents another great loss to the Free State of McDowell County.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com.