Welcome to the third edition of my new blog series, “Artists & Innovators,” a series of interviews with campaigners, entrepreneurs, artists, and advocates who are solving problems with passion and innovation.
My next interview subject, Dan McDermott, is Executive Director of the Upper Shore Workforce Investment Board, which serves Caroline, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne’s and Talbot Counties on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He has 26 years of experience in the employment and training industry. This is his 19th year as Executive Director, overseeing an annual budget of $ 1.7 million and a staff of 10. McDermott holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Quantitative Economics from West Virginia University and a Master of Arts Degree in Monetary Economics from West Virginia University.
Dan McDermott‘s work at the Upper Shore Workforce Investment Board is a singularly challenging blend of economics, social work, and emergency management. He understands that a job is an economic good and a pathway to human dignity. Workforce development specialists are unsung, precious assets to our communities. It’s my delight to share Part I of a two-part interview with Dan. Part I looks at his upbringing and some of his early insights into politics, economics, and culture.
Our Interview, Part I:
John Dos Passos Coggin: During your childhood in Charleston, West Virginia, were there particular local economic milestones that you recall vividly?
Dan McDermott: South Charleston called itself the “Chemical Center of the World.” Every major chemical company had a plant in the Kanawha River Valley–DuPont, Monsanto, Diamond Shamrock, FMC, Union Carbide. I remember a large layoff at Union Carbide–that was called “Black Friday.” The layoff numbered in the hundreds and came within one job of my dad. I also remember the attitude of the industry as young people became aware of the environmental impact of the chemical industry. That attitude was, “if you don’t like it, we’ll leave and take our jobs elsewhere.”At the same time, many friends and neighbors were being transferred to places like Louisiana, Brazil, India, and Taiwan as the industry began to move production to friendlier economies. When I was a boy there were 15,000 chemical jobs in the Valley; now I would put that number closer to 500. As Bob Dylan says, “money doesn’t talk, it swears.”
JDPC: Can you recall factory closures, economic development initiatives, or similar events that gave you early impression of the power of economics?
DM: Most of the industries in the Kanawha River Valley were unionized and the unions were powerful. Even though my dad was a scientist and therefore in management, I always felt empathy for strikers when I saw them walking a picket line. The chemical workers, glass workers, and metal workers were unionized. The strongest, most violent strikes were organized by the United Mine Workers of America. The Kanawha Valley was at the northern tip of the southern WV coal fields and one area of Kanawha County, Cabin Creek, had a long history of conflict centered around miners and unionization. The Battle of Blair Mountain took place just south of Cabin Creek and I believe that the mine guards and eventually the U.S. Army went through Cabin Creek on the railroad on their journey to Blair Mountain in Logan County. Vandalism, beatings, and gunplay were all characteristics of the strife accompanying United Mine Workers of America strikes. Arnold Miller, the President of the UMWA, spoke to my social studies class when I was in 10th grade. But, just like the chemical industry, the coal industry was beginning to strip mine and that process involves far fewer people. I would say that the coal industry has scored points in the PR war by deeming “strip mining” as “mountaintop removal.” “Mountaintop removal” sounds so much better than “strip mining.”
I would be remiss in any discussion of my early years in West Virginia to not mention other tragedies which befell the Mountain State. The Marshall University plane crash that became the subject of the movie We Are Marshall, the collapse of the Silver Bridge, the Farmington Number 9 Mine Disaster, and the Buffalo Creek Flood all took place within a 5-year period and left over 300 people dead. These disasters took place between my 9th and 14th year—they were definitely formative experiences. West Virginia is a hardscrabble place; it is tough to make a living there and sometimes life is cheap.
JDCP: You went to college in the 1970s. A lot of millennials have difficulty understanding the rebellious political and social attitudes of the 70s. What made it a unique time to be in college? How were institutions challenged?
DM: By the time I started college at West Virginia University in January of 1976, the Vietnam War was over, there was no draft, and hippies were anachronistic. I remember some older friends who had gone to Vietnam, been hippies, war protesters etc. One such friend tried to give me a book called, How to Do a University. His point was that it was “Your University.” We had enough influence from hippies to want to live in a log cabin in the woods or in a hut on a beach while at the same time making a comfortable living working for a large corporation. It was the bicentennial, so it was party time and the seriousness of the 60s–the Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement, assassinations— seemed like a bad dream from childhood. We didn’t want to “Do the University”; we wanted to play the game in the classroom and have fun.
The institutions were challenged in two ways. First, the 60s had been replaced by the “Me Generation” and the explosive growth of higher education challenged the University’s ability to house, feed, and educate the student body. When I started at WVU, tuition was $210/semester. A young person could easily earn enough money for a college education by working in one of the big industries: coal, chemical, steel. This manifested in a group of “students” whose objective was to go to WVU and party. So, in terms of rebellion, WVU became a party school and is proud of the annual ranking by The Princeton Review that puts WVU in the top 10 party schools each year to this day. By the way, the 2015-2016 ranking is #7.
JDPC: One aspect of the 70s college experience was the communal enjoyment of new music in a pre-iPod, pre-digital era. What were some of the landmark albums you recall from your youth?
DM: Music was rebellion. The music of our parents was not our music. I remember seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. We were raised on transistor radios held against our ears and placed under our pillows at night. The British Invasion, Bubblegum music, top 40 AM radio, and then FM radio was the sequence.
I remember people who had an album first could be the cool kid for a while until everyone else bought the album. We used to spend time at each other’s houses, dorm rooms, and apartments listening to albums.
If I had to make a list of memorable albums:
Jethro Tull Thick as a Brick, Aqualung
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young Déjà Vu
Pink Floyd The Dark Side of the Moon
Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin IV
The Who Quadrophenia
Elton John Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
The Beatles Abbey Road
Neil Young Time Fades Away, On the Beach, Tonight’s the Night
Emerson, Lake & Palmer Brain Salad Surgery
Grateful Dead Europe ’72
We were lucky to grow up in a town that was big enough to have a venue that had rock shows, but was small enough that it was easy and safe for us to go to the shows. The Charleston Civic Center hosted everything: Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Jethro Tull, Billy Joel, The Allman Brothers, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, David Bowie, Rush, Kiss, Mott the Hoople, Yes, etc.
So, a lot of the music that we listened to was influenced by the bands we saw in concert. There was a fusion of the communal experience. A song would be in rotation on AM radio, the album would be in rotation on FM radio, and the album would be at the local record store/head shop (Budget Tapes and Records). The concert would be advertised on AM, FM, and at the record store. One of the local DJs introduced the band at the show and the radio station played the artist after the show for the ride home. I remember concerts where the DJ who introduced the band would be back in the studio and would play the setlist from the concert for the ride home.
Music was communal but not portable. We listened to the same music and the personalized play list that started with the Walkman and mix tapes didn’t exist. Stereos were huge, albums were fragile, and power was in wall outlets.
I remember good times with good friends from the early days of listening to the Monkees and reading Archie comics in my neighbor’s basement to being in grad school and listening to Frank Zappa and discussing monetary theory with my colleagues.
JDPC: You’ve mentioned before the memory of Charleston city councilman, treasurer, and mayor Joe F. Smith (mayor 1980-1983, b. 1918, d. 2013). How did you know his family? What made his campaign and governance style unique?
DM: We grew up in the Spring Hill section of South Charleston, West Virginia. South Charleston was very industrial and most everyone worked in the chemical plants or at the research center. The Carbide Technical Center was a campus that housed chemists, engineers, and upper management. The factories lined the Kanawha River so that raw materials could be brought in via railroad or river barge. As employees climbed the career ladder, it was desirable to move away from the river to the mountains that faced the river and framed the valley. We grew up on Spring Hill Mountain. Our house was the last house in the South Charleston city limits and the summit of Spring Hill Mountain was our playground.
The top executives and affluent residents of the Valley lived in an area of Charleston known as South Hills. Because we went to Catholic schools–Charleston Catholic High School–we went to school with kids from all over the Valley including South Hills. Joe Smith’s son Tom was in my brother’s class at CCHS and they became friends in 9th grade and lived together for a year at WVU. Tom Smith is a friend to this day. Joe Smith’s day job was with the Chesapeake and Potomac Phone Company and he must have been successful because he lived in South Hills.
The last time that I talked to Mr. Smith (Joe Smith), I had just signed on to help Martin O’Malley in Talbot County, MD. I remember Mr. Smith was quite impressed with my enthusiasm for O’Malley.
Mr. Smith was from the South and we would describe him as a “Southern Gentleman.” He had a nice accent and he would knock on doors and say, “Howdy neighbor, I’m Joe Smith and I’m running for…” He was a lifelong Democrat and was active in party politics until his death.
As a kid, I remember two of Joe Smith’s projects in Charleston. First, the interstates were built throughout the Valley and Charleston is at the intersection of three Interstates: I-79, I-77, and I-64. I can’t imagine an effort like that in this day and age. Eminent domain took houses, business, cemeteries, schools etc. If it was in the way, it was gone! At the same time, an effort called “Urban Renewal” was going on and that allowed the City of Charleston to knock down several blocks of buildings. The Urban Renewal effort cleared the land that eventually became the Charleston Town Center Mall. Mr. Smith helped bring about the Mall when he was treasurer, I believe. Maybe Mr. Smith’s Southern Gentleman persona allowed him to convince the electorate to vote for him and then agree with his plan for renewal in Charleston. I had moved from Charleston during Mr. Smith’s heyday but kept up with his career through his son Tom.
JDPC: The Charleston Gazette-Mail mentions the Charleston Town Center as major economic development legacy of Smith’s. Do you recall the impact of this development on Charleston?
DM: I think the most important aspect of the Town Center Mall was that it was built in the downtown area of Charleston. The Mall connects the entertainment venues on the banks of the Elk River to the old downtown. Even though the old downtown has suffered the same fate as many downtowns with the demise of the locally owned stores and businesses, the proximity of the Town Center Mall to the old downtown has kept Charleston from becoming a ghost town. I think that the Urban Renewal area cleared the way (literally) for the space that the City needed for the Mall project. So, unlike many communities where malls spring up on the perimeter or in the suburbs, the Charleston Town Center Mall is downtown.
JDPC: Besides Smith, do you recall any other West Virginia politicians vividly from your youth?
DM: The reason that I went into some detail above about South Charleston, Charleston, and South Hills is because of politics. I delivered my precinct for a lady named Eloise Jack when I was 12 years old. Mrs. Jack was a friend of my mom’s from Girl Scouts and she was running for the Democratic Committee. I didn’t know any better, so I took her flyers and knocked on every door in the precinct and handed out her literature. She didn’t win the election that time but did later. Sadly, I saw that she passed away last week at the age of 90 and was a state senator at the time of her death.
Because of what I did for Mrs. Jack, the committee woman, Mrs. Jean Collins showed up at our house with a couple of candidates when I was 14. One was running for sheriff and one was running for judge. They stood in our living room in their suits and ties and asked if I would “deliver my precinct” for them. I did the same door-to-door thing for them that I did for Mrs. Jack and they both won the precinct and the election. I don’t remember the judge, but I remember the sheriff, G. Kemp Melton. He went on to become mayor of Charleston and instituted 911 in the city.
In 1972, Mr. Smith recruited my brother and sister to go to South Hills and do some work for Jay Rockefeller on election day. They were quite excited because they were at the polls when Rockefeller showed up to vote and they were on TV shaking Jay’s hand. Jay lost to Arch Moore that day in the Governor’s race. I stayed at the polling place in Spring Hill all day. I didn’t get on TV but my guys won and I got an envelope at the end of the day with $50. That was a lot of money to me at the time. I never really thought much of the South Hills and Charleston political scene. I was a bare-knuckled Spring Hill Democrat. I delivered for my candidates and got paid for it.
Part II coming soon…