By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
The town that Tommy Hatcher left after graduating from Big Creek High School in 1958 wasn’t the same town that he returned to in 1991. Hatcher played three years in the Big Creek band, was a member of the National Honor Society as a junior and senior, according to a copy of the Big Creek High School 1958 annual provided by Edward J. McQuail III.
Hatcher really blossomed as a senior when he was in the Key Club, Owl staff, editor of the annual staff, in Hi-Y, student counsel vice president in the Thespians, future Teachers of America, and was co-valedictorian.
The War that he left in 1958 when he left home to attend college was a place where people didn’t lock their doors, families were lucky to get one television station so they spent time playing cards, chess or board games. It was a time when teen pregnancy was shocking and a trip to Welch was an experience to be savored. Just about anyone who wanted to work could get a job doing something and rooting for the Big Creek Owls football team was a yearlong obsession.
Like many of McDowell County’s best and brightest graduates, Tom Hatcher left the area to continue his education. After earning an undergraduate and master’s degree at West Virginia University in Morgantown, he went on to earn a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. He taught at WVU for a while, but in 1979 accepted a position as secretary general of the Council of International Programs based in Cleveland, Ohio. From that position, he toured the world. He didn’t enjoy it as much when his office was based in Washington, D.C., and he lived in Falls Church, Va., according to the testimony of his sister, Jerry Roncella.
In 1991, Hatcher returned to War — the home where he spent his adolescence. Hatcher was a son of one-time State Senator Glenn D., and Beatrice (Carter) Hatcher of Iaeger. The elder Hatcher was elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1956, and won election to the senate in 1960 and for a second term in 1964. The young Tom Hatcher grew up in a family where education was essential, political success followed, and community service was a way of life.
When Hatcher left War to attend college in 1958, the elements of dramatic change were already on the horizon. The mine mechanization effort that started in the 1930s had dramatically reduced the number of coal miners needed in the mines by 1950, and McDowell’s peak population of about 96,000 people in the 1950 census was already starting its long descent by the end of the 1950s. Mine mechanization combined with the railroad’s conversion from coal to diesel power accelerated the slide that, in some respects, continues in 2014.
The War of 1958 was isolated too, but that isolation tended to engender a shoulder-to-shoulder mentality where families tended to rub elbows as they worked together. Isolation in 1991, allowed a more clandestine attitude to emerge with the long-held family traditions. War, like almost every other city, town, state and county in the nation had a drug problem in 1991 that only grew in the years to come. At the time, prescription drugs like Tylox were in demand, but those drugs changed while the problem of addiction and the associated crime wave that was needed to feed the addiction grew.
“There isn’t a family that hasn’t been affected,” Hatcher told Vince Beiser, a freelance writer who wrote a two-page story that appeared in “Playboy Forum” a few months before Hatcher’s July 17, 2012 death. The article’s title was: “Overdose County, USA.” “We’re just overwhelmed by prescription drugs.”
From the time he became mayor in 1997 — a position he held until his death — Hatcher was the “go-to guy” for media inquiries of any kind. When residents complained of water problems, Hatcher addressed the local media with clarity, explaining the remedial steps the town was taking to solve problems. Hatcher addressed all of the communities’ challenges, but also encouraged the press to cover the positive things the community was doing.
As a Key Club member in high school, Hatcher naturally turned to the War Kiwanis Club as a vehicle for positive change, and worked diligently locally, regionally and statewide to make positive change in the state. He used the historical societies of McDowell County and Tazewell County, Va., to promote pride in heritage and helped stage festivals in War to bring excitement into the downtown. He attended a Tazewell County Historical Society meeting on July 16, 2012, just a few hours before his death.
The War that he left in 1958 to pursue a career as a professional educator was different from the War he returned to in 1991, but Mayor Hatcher’s commitment to serve his community appeared to be unchanging to those who knew him.
— Contact Bill Archer at firstname.lastname@example.org