WYTHEVILLE, Va. — In 1950, the town of Wytheville became the epicenter for a polio epidemic in the Commonwealth that grew to an estimated 1,200 cases, statewide with 189 known cases in Wytheville alone.
“That was just the known cases,” former Virginia State Delegate Anne B. Crockett-Stark said. “There were families in the surrounding area that didn’t go to the doctors and buried their children at home after they died.” In 1950, more than 33,000 Americans fell victim to polio, with half of the victims under 10 years old.
Crockett-Stark’s brother — the late Dr. James E. “Sonny” Crockett — was among the early victims of the epidemic.
“I was eight and Sonny was nine,” Crockett-Stark said. “The story of the polio epidemic in Wytheville is a story of individuals. This is a story of the unsung heroes of that summer.”
Statewide, an estimated five percent of polio victims died, but Crockett-Stark said that in Wytheville, the death rate was 10 percent. She said that when her brother contracted the disease, her parents brought all of his clothes, his bed, furniture and his comic book collection out of the house, put it all in the garden and burned it.
“My sister and I went down to watch the Seccafico baby the day before he got sick,” Crockett-Stark said of 20-month-old son of Jim Seccafico who played second base for the Wytheville Statesmen baseball team, a Class D minor league team in the Appalachian League. Johnny Seccafico was the first child diagnosed with polio in Wytheville during the summer of 1950.
“Neither of us got sick, but Sonny got it,” Crockett-Stark said of her brother. “They rushed him to Roanoke, but when he got back, my daddy was determined that Sonny wasn’t going to spend the rest of his life living in an iron lung.”
Crockett-Stark said that her father, who was also manager of the Wytheville Statesmen, worked with Sonny Crockett’s arms and legs every day. “I can remember daddy loved Sonny so much. Before that summer, Sonny had a snake bite. Daddy cut Sonny on the bite and got the poison out.
“Daddy would work his legs and work his arms, all the while telling him that he was going to get better,” Crockett-Stark said. “He worked with him so much that he kept his little lungs working. I believe that it was my daddy’s pure love and determination that brought him back.”
Crockett-Stark, who retired from the Virginia General Assembly in January, said that her brother lived until he was 45 years old. “I’m not an expert, but I believe that the diabetes he had came from the polio.” Sonny Crockett was a highly-respected dentist in Wytheville until his death.
Rotary International has declared today “World Polio Day,” as part of the civic club’s on-going effort to eradicate polio worldwide. Dr. Jonas Salk developed the Salk vaccine that was approved for use in 1955, and was responsible for eradicating polio from the U.S., by the late 1990s. Salk’s birthday is Oct. 28, 1914.
Crockett-Stark will be the guest speaker at the Bluefield Rotary Club meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 28, as part of the club’s observance of World Polio Day, according to Jim Ferguson, chair of Rotary District 7550’s polio eradication effort.
— Contact Bill Archer at email@example.com