Greenbrier Valley Quarterly has always steered away from political stories, preferring to keep the focus on the cultural, culinary, and art scenes throughout the valley. But the recent retirement of Lewisburg Mayor John Manchester, who spent 16 years in that role, provided us the opportunity to sit down for a sort of “exit interview” with one of the more effective leaders in our community. From his early days of making maple syrup at his home in Renick to his guidance on what we collectively call “The Ordinance,” Manchester has proved himself to be one of the more accomplished leaders in the Greenbrier Valley. Presented here is his story, in his own words from a series of interviews with editor Josh Baldwin.
I was born July 29th, 1952 in Haleyville, Alabama, in the northwest corner of the state. My dad was in textiles, so we moved around a lot when I was a kid. We lived short stints in Alabama, Mississippi, Long Island and then in New York state about two years. And then by the time I got to be kindergarten age, I was in Massachusetts about 30 miles west of Boston, in a little town called Westborough with about 5,000 people. It was small town America. I could ride my bike the three miles into town and I had a bunch of buddies. We used to play all summer at the Sandlot Baseball team. It was idyllic, simple, carefree. Growing up we lived on eight acres. We had a few cattle and horses for my sisters. I shoveled a lot of manure and carried a lot of water.
We lived there for my whole kindergarten year through 12th grade in small town America.
As I was entering high school, my dad went to a pre-high school meeting with the school advisors and he met one or two of the teachers who were likely to be my teachers in ninth grade. He said, “I will be damned if those will be teachers for my son.”
I was the youngest of four kids. He said, “I know your brother and sister had some struggles coming out of that high school, and so I’d like to, with your permission, send you to a prep school.”
For the first two years, I was a day student and then I boarded for the last two years at Saint Marks School in Southborough, Massachusetts.
I played the normal sports of baseball, basketball, and football. I was a good student, and I had no sense of humor. I realized I was surrounded by people who had interesting, good senses of humor. I was quite the mimic, so I cobbled together what I thought would be a sense of humor, picking the best pieces of my friends.
My dad graduated from Brown University, my brother graduated from Brown, and so it was an easy transition for me. It was about an hour and a half away from where I grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. I was familiar with the campus; it was just a very easy thing. I applied for early admission and was accepted.
My first job was picking apples at a local orchard. I earned 30 cents a bushel if I picked them off the tree and 15 cents a bushel if I picked them off the ground. You could make probably $6 a day if you were hustling. That’s pretty good money; I thought that was pretty wild. That was my first work experience.
When I went to Brown, I played rugby for the first two years just to get some exercise. I was fascinated by the game. It was unusual and fun and, they always had good parties on the field.
I grew up in a golfing family and started playing when I was eight. I had a terrible temper. I expected to be perfect, but golf doesn’t work that way. I gave it up after graduating from Saint Mark’s and did not play again until my thirties when my temperament improved. Then I herniated a disc and gave it up entirely.
I took a semester off from Brown between my sophomore and junior years because I was feeling pretty ivory tower-ish. I was feeling like, oh my gosh, what am I really learning here? This is all a good exercise. But I had no direction, no idea of exactly what I was going to do when I grew up. I said, “Well, I’m going to do some practical things.”
I went to work at the restaurant at the top of the Prudential Building as a kitchen helper in Boston. My sister Joan worked there and got me a job. I wanted to live in a big city environment which I had never done before. I’d work the late shift then take the 2:40 “drunk bus” back to stay with her. Walking across the Boston Garden and the Commons at 1:30 at night, you had to hustle. The subways were down and I didn’t have any money for a cab fair, so I got in good shape. I could really cover some territory in the middle of the night.
After graduating from college, I had no clearer idea of what I wanted to do. I had debated whether I was going to go to divinity school. That was my other direction because I saw preachers at that point who had a lot of sway in the community. That was a bully pulpit to help influence policy and directive, where the universe would evolve. But I realized that though I liked religious studies courses, I really enjoyed the philosophy of it, but I didn’t see myself as a nurturing person working with families in crisis. A lot of the things that preachers who are good preachers do is take care of their congregations. I couldn’t see myself in that role, so I decided to go back to get certified to teach industrial arts with the idea of going into the Peace Corps.
In the process of doing that, I realized I wasn’t going to make it all the way through the program. It was good to learn the skills, but one of my courses was new developments in industrial arts education and everything kept pointing to a program in Morgantown, West Virginia.
I hitchhiked down in January for my interview in Morgantown, West Virginia from Keene, New Hampshire, which is where my industrial arts education program was. I hitchhiked to D.C., then back across route 40 and learned why Frostburg is called Frostburg. I was let off in Sabraton and walked the three miles into Morgantown from there. I stayed overnight with friends and went to the interview the next morning. They offered me a research assistantship with tuition and fees paid.
I said, “Oh, that sounds like a deal, they’re going to pay me to go to grad school. Thank you.” I accepted the research position, which was in grant writing.
I finished up my schooling at Keene State, drove the car to Morgantown, and found an apartment the next day. I still had five weeks left, all of June and the last week of May. I decided, well, let’s just go for a road trip.
I parked my car and started hitchhiking west in pursuit of a young woman whom I had known the previous summer when we worked together as counselors at Times Farm Camp in Connecticut. She lived in Fargo, North Dakota, so I decided, well, let’s just go to Fargo for a while and see what happens. I hitchhiked to Fargo and she told me that she was so happy to see me. In particular, she wanted me to stay through the weekend because she really wanted me to come to her wedding.
After the two beers I had just had sank in, I realized she wasn’t talking about me. It was someone else. I decided I would not stay around for that celebration. I would simply continue my hitchhiking adventures.
I hitchhiked from Fargo to Glacier National Park. I had a backpack and everything I needed, and I spent a week there. Then I went up to Banff in Canada and hitchhiked all the way back across Canada through Niagara Falls into Buffalo and down to Erie. I got a ride back to Morgantown, arriving at three in the morning to my apartment and started grad school at 8:30 a.m. that day.
I got my master’s the following year and enrolled in the Doctorate Program to carry on. They upped the ante on me and turned my research assistantship into a fellowship with the Benedum Foundation. I was making $400 a month with tuition and fees and I was rich. I enjoyed that part of the world, tooling around Morgantown and getting to know the area. I liked being outside and exploring. The people I found in West Virginia were amazingly adaptive, engaging and welcoming.
When I told people from up east, they asked, “Why are you going to West Virginia?”
I said, “Well, it’s a good training program.” But, I found the people much friendlier and welcoming than I did back east. People would give the shirt off their back to help you out, and I just found that really refreshing and a definition of community that I had not experienced growing up in another area.
My wife Connie and I met when I was teaching a course on how to design and build your own energy efficient passive solar house. I was the only unmarried instructor and she was a very pragmatic Buckeye. She wanted to guarantee herself a labor supply, is the way I felt it happened. We met in the class and she was a beautiful young woman with a 1950 Ford that she drove to and from class.
I figured: “Now someone who can keep an older vehicle like that on the road and running that nice, she’s something special. That’s unique. Let’s chase that one down a little bit more.”
I didn’t realize she had a mechanic next door that just really loved to putter on her car. She knew nothing about cars; she just liked to have one that could run.
We married in early August of 79 and I quit my program in early 1980. Our son, Nathan, was born in January of that year. It was a challenging time because I was newly married with a young kid and no job, trying to figure out, okay, how are we going to make this work?
Return to WV
We bought 50 acres of land in Renick’s Valley in 1979 with two other couples. Each family owned two acres themselves and owned 44 acres in common. One couple started building their house immediately. When I quit my graduate program, I took a job in the solar division of the Tennessee Valley Authority in Chattanooga, TN. Eighteen months later I took a job with a friend in Maine selling energy conservation products. When that business failed, we loaded up a U-Haul and drove sight unseen to Renick. We moved in and said, “Well, people are pretty adaptable and flexible in West Virginia. I bet we could be too.”
Nathan was a year and a half old. Connie was seven months pregnant with our daughter and we had no jobs. We drove the U-Haul from Maine to Renick and moved into a place that our friends had lined up under the hill. People were amazingly helpful and welcoming to this family who just sort of appeared out of nowhere on their doorstep.
The reason I believe I’ve truly become an advocate of West Virginia was my introduction to the place. Connie had an appointment with her new OBGYN that following day.The car that we had towed from Maine had a bad water pump. I had the part and unhooked the car from the U-Haul. It was pouring rain and it was a Sunday, probably one o’clock in the afternoon.
I’m there with the hood up, under an umbrella, and I’m just studying what I’ve got to do to get this dang water pump in the car. I had never put a water pump in this brand of foreign car before. I’m studying it and a fellow from two houses up the street comes down under an umbrella. We’re just sort of chatting and kicking the dirt, as you do. I introduced myself, and he asked me what I was trying to do. I said I was trying to figure out how to put this water pump in, because we had an appointment the next morning.
He said, “Would you mind if I helped?”
I said, “Oh, that would be wonderful.” We’d just met, but for the next hour and a half we put down our umbrellas and got totally soaked to the skin. We got the old pump out, put the new one in, and it worked. There was no reason for him to initiate a conversation and to help out a perfect stranger in a situation like that, other than he noticed that I needed help and he could help.
When people ask, “Why would you want to move to West Virginia?” some of the snootier friends of mine, say from up east.
I said, “Well, actually, why would you want to live anywhere else?”
There was a sense of kindness and caring and community that I hadn’t ever experienced. I’ve experienced it from that moment all the way through the time that I’ve been in West Virginia. That’s really valuable. That’s the place you want to live. That’s where you want to raise your family. That’s the type of values you’d like to be surrounded by.
FORAY INTO POLITICS
While in Renick, I was asked to fill a vacancy on town council, and about six months later the mayor resigned. They asked me if I would serve as mayor. So, I did. I was mayor of the corporation of Falling Spring. I was mayor for about two years with a budget of $6,500, trying to make everything work for a town of 220 registered voters. I got my feet wet in that, and got to know how to work with people to get things done—basically you’re asking for favors and volunteers and trying to organize a community, because you don’t have the resources to pay for a lot of those services.
Connie had been working on moving to town in Lewisburg so that she didn’t have to commute so much because she did home health as an occupational therapist.
She said, “Well, you know, I found a house and you’re welcome to come or not. Your call.”
I said, “Well, okay, I like it out here, but I guess I’ll go with you to the big city.”
I don’t think the car engine was cold in the driveway when she said, “Well, now that we’re here, you really ought to run for mayor.”
I paused. I said, “Connie, that’s silly. We just moved in. That seems a little bit presumptuous, don’t you think?”
She said, “Well, you know, I think you could do a good job.”
ELECTED as MAYOR in 2003
As I see it, a mayor’s role is to assess what assets you have in your community and operate as a person solving a puzzle. You identify all the different puzzle pieces and you try to make them fit together better so that you get improved results. I think we were able to do that on several fronts.
The first thing was, we had just gone through a comprehensive plan for the city. We needed to have an attractive place for the tourist industry to thrive; we needed to clean it up. We needed to have a better place for our police department. We needed to hire more police and have public safety better taken care of. We needed to enhance what we could do with the fire department to have more paid people. The volunteer base was being challenged by everybody.
We came up with a laundry list of things that there was no way we were going to be able to deal with given the current budget. We cut back; we eliminated a lot of holidays. We went through 19 public meetings—not that I’m counting, but 19 public meetings—from public works, public safety, finance, and council, over a period of about a year to identify what options we had to raise revenue to meet the needs that had been identified.
The state of West Virginia allows you 11 ways to raise money. In a public meeting I said, “Okay, here are the 11 ways.”
I put them on a flip chart and asked, “Who likes number one?”
“Who likes number two?”
“Who likes number three?”
By the end of the meeting, everyone had identified that they didn’t want any of the means of raising the revenue to be able to meet the needs here. So, I made it real clear.
I said, “Okay, now everybody agrees that we want to have these things for our city.” Everybody nodded their head, and I said, “But nobody wants use any of these means to raise the money to make these things happen. Is that correct as well?”
Yes, that’s correct.
“So, you want all these things, but you don’t what to pay for them. Is that right?” Okay. Yes.
I said, “Okay, well we’re going to try one, three and seven.”
To which the people responded, “Ooh, ooh, ooh, mayor, you’re going to kill us!”
We set a B&O tax on retail, which we had never had before, but we put a big threshold on it so that only gross sales on an annual basis that exceeded $15 million a year would be taxed. It put a big bubble over everybody downtown that we were trying to nurture. And it put paying for municipal services on the backs of the principal users of those services—basically big box stores who tend to be the number one users of police services for shoplifting investigations, etc.
It was an equitable way of making the people who were using the services pay more of the freight to accomplish the services. When we accomplished some of those things and implemented that piece of the puzzle, along with raising the bed tax by 3% and doubling the municipal fee, it provided the revenue to buy a building and pay for the full renovation for the police station that opened in 2010.
It paid cash for a new street sweeper. It paid for additional police, to have 24/7 coverage. We really were tap dancing around before that. It paid for more staff for the fire department to be able to put more people on staff, to have one paid staffer always at the station to be able to respond to a call and have the volunteer base join them there. It improved response times, and it saved a lot of property. It has lowered our ISO rating for the fire department, down from a six, then five, to a four, saving people money on their fire insurance and homeowners insurance policies.
COOLEST SMALL TOWN
Half my tenure was before the designation of Coolest Small Town in America (2011), and half was after. Winning Fodor’s Budget Travel Coolest Small Town designation contest was the result of building infrastructure and nurturing different groups, building festivals, building special events, building reasons that people would want to come here.
In and of itself, winning was just a really neat process and a fun thing. But that became the brand that we could milk for the last eight years. Once you get some signature recognition, whether it’s Coolest Small Town or an Academy Award, you milk that recognition for all it’s worth. When we were named Coolest Small Town, we leveraged that into so many other accolades. About every year since we have been recognized by various magazines and media outlets for something we do very well. Our convention and visitors bureau does a great job of marketing our town.
We’ve had a lot of people coming into town bringing new blood, new money, new resources—entrepreneurs, people who had had other careers, people who had retired somewhere else who found out about Lewisburg and wanted to try their hand at a new venture. We had the advantages of a small town, but many of the amenities of a much bigger town--—12 independently owned restaurants downtown, Carnegie, Greenbrier Valley Theatre, Trillium, lots of fairs and festivals. We play out a lot bigger than a than our 3,900 person town.
The most important and meaningful policy we worked on was the passing of the nondiscrimination ordinance. I think it showed that our city was committed to inclusion and committed to saying that everybody is welcome here. The process was part of my own personal evolution and grappling with nondiscrimination ordinances. A year before, the National Association of Mayors was considering serving as a filing an amicus brief for the Freedom to Marry Act, and I signed on.
I was the only mayor in West Virginia to sign onto that brief. I did it consciously because I’ had had conversations with individuals who would be affected by it. I wondered, how can it be that we have people who don’t have the same rights as other people within our community, and yet they are major contributors to a lot of the things that make our communities special? Why would I not want to, in some small way, support them being treated exactly the same when they’re contributing to make this community better?
When I was asked to sign onto that brief, I assumed that that would just create all sorts of havoc. I ducked it for awhile. I was uncomfortable being out in front of an issue of that magnitude. Then I realized I should just do this. I asked Connie, “Is there some reason why I shouldn’t do this?” She said, “If you think it’s right, you ought to sign it.”
What I was amazed at was when I tallied up all the emails, all the text messages, all the phone calls, all the feedback and all the variety of media that you get feedback from a public decision like that, it was probably 95% in favor of what I had done. I was astounded; I thought, well, maybe there’s hope. Maybe we’ve turned a corner. Maybe people are finally getting it that people should all be treated the same.
If we wait for the state to do the right thing, we may be waiting our whole lifetimes. So, I, we, the city council was approached by Andrew Schneider from Fairness West Virginia, who basically said, “I’ll walk you through the process, and it’s a hard road, but it is the right thing to do. We’ll support you, help you walk through the process.”
Several people from town said, “We ought to really pass this thing. There are six other towns in West Virginia who’ve done it, including Thurmond, and if a town of five people can do it, we can do it, too!”
We went in and put it on the agenda for the December meeting to have the first reading of the ordinance, which basically was to not allow discrimination within city limits in housing, employment or public accommodations. The city council chambers holds about 90 people by fire code, and there were about 230 people there. The line went out the door, all the way down to the green space and turned the corner. I was amazed at the turnout, and that was just for first reading, with no public comment, just to see if it was going to go toward a second reading.
People were observing and wanting to let their sentiments be known. It was pretty clear it was a divided house, that there were some people who just thought that this was a great thing and some people who thought that this was a terrible thing.
When that many people showed up at the first reading, we realized we’re going to have to have a different venue. We made arrangements to go to the Osteopathic School’s Alumni Center which could accommodate the size crowd we were anticipating. There were actually 480 people who crammed into that facility for the second reading. I’d met with a couple of attorneys and some clergy trying to put language into the ordinance that could be amended, that would clearly identify that it was not an intent to force preachers to marry gay people if they didn’t want to, that it didn’t force them to self-regulate their speech within the church, within the church congregations. The goal was to allow a day in court for people who felt that they had been discriminated against in either public accommodations or, more likely, employment and housing, so that they would have the opportunity to prove their issue.
We had had a bomb threat, so we brought in bomb sniffing dogs to have in the venue before we went in. The dogs were available when people entered the room. We allowed no weaponry in the facility and made people go through a metal detector coming into the building. It amazed me how much of a hot button issue this truly became. I guess in my naive way and maybe council’s naive way, we wondered, if it was a nondiscrimination issue, how could people get so heated? Some of the churches were particularly upset that we were dealing with this issue-—upset at what they had been told it was about as opposed to what we believed it was really about.
There were 90 people who showed up at the session who wanted to speak. There were two very long lines all the way out the door. It lasted five hours. We let all 90 people who signed up with an interest to speak do so. We gave them two minutes each. Ninety people times two minutes is 180. That’s three hours of testimony. We went “friends of the bride, friends of the groom, friends of the bride, friends of the groom,” two minutes each We had a timer and heard all the testimony. There was a lot of impassioned testimony by both sides and by people that we recognized from our own community and elsewhere.
Of all the policies that were considered by city council during my tenure as mayor, that was the activity that made me proudest to be working with such high-caliber individuals. Not only was it a five-hour meeting, it was impassioned. It required a lot of research and reading. I mean, it just astounded me that the seriousness with which counsel researched and engaged with this issue to try and come up with what they felt from their heart was a proper procedure, the proper result. It made me immensely proud to work with people who had done their work, taken it seriously, given it thought, and spoken well about why they came to the conclusion they did. It was a shining moment.
The city attorney, Jesse Guills was particularly helpful in the deliberations leading up to the passage, in terms of the legality of it. He grew in the process himself, as someone who had not ever really dealt with this type of issue. He did his due diligence and guided us through the legal framework of it. His summary speech, I thought was very heartfelt and very powerful as were all the concluding remarks by each council member.
Someone came up to me afterward and said, “I disagree with the decision that counsel has made, but I wanted you to know that I felt that it was fair and that everyone had a chance to speak who wanted to speak. It was done in a courteous, in a professional way to end up at a decision that I would disagree with. But I respect the process, and I thank you for it.”
Of all the comments I received in the process leading up, during and afterwards, that probably stuck with me the most. It was what we really tried to accomplish, to be a fair and open, and deliberative process of coming to a decision.
Frankly, I didn’t know how council was going to vote. I didn’t do any headcount ahead of the vote. I knew everybody had given it their best shot, and there’d been a lot of deliberation and discussion. I had no clue until the vote was actually taken. It passed 5-0.
THE MUNICIPAL LEAGUE
The Municipal League was very helpful for me in learning how to be a mayor. I got to engage with fellow mayors from around the state, some of whom had very similar problems and some of whom had seemingly insurmountable problems that I wouldn’t want to have to deal with—for example some of the challenges of the southern coalfield communities. With the League, you get to visit a lot of different communities and to engage with people to see best practice. You try to be a little sponge and say, “Maybe that would work here. Maybe that’s something that we ought to take on.”
In engaging with leaders in these other communities, it gave me several options for how to move the city forward. I learned about the impact that special events have in creating a sense of place. The right arrangement of city cooperation and volunteer organizations can really boost a special event and make it special, so that it brings more people in to take a look at what you have going on.
ON SOCIAL MEDIA
I had to spend a lot more time addressing city issues on social media than I anticipated. Social media is helpful if you have a derecho, a flood, water outages. It’s helpful to be able to get information out to a lot of people who then can spread that information from late breaking news, need-to-know information, and helpful advice.
Although, it’s more universal than some mechanisms for getting feedback, it also is open because there are no geographical boundaries to it. People can weigh in from Timbuktu on a conversation that doesn’t have any impact on them. They just want to have their two cents worth; that’s how they’re spending their day. Some feel entitled to share their opinion, whether it’s wise or unwise, at a moment’s notice—and to keep ramping it up just for sport a lot of times.
A good leader requires the ability to listen and the ability to listen attentively, such that you can find out what the real issue is, the ability to hone in on it. A lot of people blow off steam and share something that may or may not be related to the thing they are saying it’s related to.
Leadership also requires the ability to separate the message from the messenger. There are a lot of people who are irritating people who have good messages, and it behooves good decision making to hear the message regardless of the source.
One of the funny things is, sometimes it takes a person to get upset enough to take the step of sharing the information of a problem with a public official. There’s a level of, “That’ll never be fixed.” Or, “Someone’s probably talked to them about it already.” Or, “Things never change.”
It takes a person to get irritated enough to bring it to someone’s attention. What you often hear is the irritation and their fed up-ness. Whereas the core message, the thing that brought them to that point is—if you can extract that out—is the thing we can act on. Sometimes it solves the problem without a lot of effort. Those are sweet times in public life when you can solve those problems. Especially working with people who were never your supporters, people who have a preconceived notion about who you are and what you represent and what your interests are.
ADVICE FOR FUTURE LEADERSHIP
I’d say continue to stay involved in all the pieces of the puzzle that make Lewisburg special and respected and revered in large part among others within the state. We have a reputation that is very positive throughout the state and the region as well.
I am going to travel more. I’m President of the Board of America In Bloom right now and there are a lot of cities that I would like to see—what they’re doing and how they deal with their beautification and historic preservation.
There are many natural environments around the world still on my list of places that I’d love to see. Connie and I are going to Greenland in September for a week. We’ll spend more time with our grandkids. We have two granddaughters—Gemma (3) and Ari (1) who live with our daughter Johnna and son-in-law Chris in Richmond, Virginia. They’re a handful and a delight to watch grow.
And, I want to get back to writing. At some point, I’ll probably put together a memoir about my time as a small-town mayor and share anecdotes of the interesting and quirky people that I’ve run into in the process of doing my job.