Growing up in Hot Springs, Virginia, I believe there were three things that were impossible to do. Ruffle Hugh Gwin’s feathers, anger Edna Helmintoller and stage a protest where more than … well, where anyone would show up.
Hot Springs is a small town in western Virginia. Situated in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Hot Springs is known for three things. The Homestead Hotel, the county’s largest employer, Sam Snead, one of the golf world’s legends and a spirit of let-it-pass.
Mr. Gwin was the local banker and he would work with folks who were a little behind in their mortgage. Often he would let this month’s house note slide until next month. Paperwork and late fees weren’t a part of the way Mr. Gwin did business. A handshake and a promise to catch up was all that was needed.
Mrs. Helmintoller ran the playground for the Homestead. A merry-go-round, jungle gym and the world’s greatest treehouse all fell into her domain. She was the baby-sitter for the spoiled brats of many of the adult spoiled brats who were guests of the Homestead. It wasn’t easy to maintain a calm, friendly demeanor when some kid would take the red paint in a baby-food jar and pour it all over the tools and nails in the pint-sized woodshop next door. But Mrs. Helmintoller managed.
Demonstrations were unheard of. Just about everyone followed the principle of “go along to get along.” The only disagreements most people ever heard of came out of the Moose Hall at the edge of town. If someone made eyes at someone else’s woman, the two men would step out into the graveled parking lot and settle it while a crowd of whiskey drinkers would try to put one foot in front of the other and head outside to watch. The next morning, the feud between the two mountainmen would be forgotten and you could see them sharing coffee and a laugh down at V&J restaurant, the one with the faded, blue and white checkered oilcloths used as table coverings.
The citizens of Bath County aren’t easily agitated or upset. There’s the world “out there,” and then there’s Bath County. Strikes, protests and demonstrations are events that happen on the news. As a rule, the citizens of Bath County fall in the category of “it happens someplace else, but not here.”
On November 18, 2014, the world will see something that it has ever seen. A crowd of folks will gather in downtown Hot Springs listening to speakers and waving signs.
The problem which created this historical moment? A bonehead move by the local hospital’s Board of Directors. Men and women whom the locals would describe as “having book sense, but no common sense.”
One of the board members tried to present himself as one of the locals by claiming to be Bath County through-and-through because he “wears flannel shirts.” Seriously, you can’t make this up. You won’t find a more out-of-touch board than this anywhere. Well, Mayberrys’ town fathers come mighty close.
Another board member, David Troast, has also made a claim of being a “local.” Then someone found out he had been appointed by New Jersey’s former Governor, Christine Whitman, to lead her anti-needle exchange program. Troast, a long-time Whitman friend, soon saw it more politically expedient to jump out of Whitman’s ship-of-state and start supporting the AIDS reducing needle exchange idea. Some in the hills and hollers of western Virginia think Troast must’ve bought stock in the company that makes the syringes and needles.
So, that bonehead move? the termination of a long-time and beloved physician, Dr. Redington.
According to many people in the county, Dr. Redington was the best doctor ever to be credentialed at the rural, 25 bed hospital. When the hospital’s Board of Directors tried to play the part of the Big Dog, they found out that the little dogs on the porch weren’t going to set still.
What started as a Facebook page in support of Redington went through some fits and starts — kind of like a car trying to make it up Virginia Hill on a snowy January morning.
Then an attempt to reason with the Board of Directors was held in the form of a town-hall meeting in the county’s only high school. The crowd, naively, showed up in strength, expecting to resolve the issue in a single meeting. Somewhere between 500 and 600 people grabbed a seat in the school’s auditorium and thought they would get answers. They got their answer alright. It was delivered in the form of dead silence by the members of the board who did show up.
Following a “last ditch” effort to settle the issue diplomatically — only in Hot Springs do people still believe that an email will resolve public and political issues — did the group organize the rally on the 18th.
This will be the largest gathering of county residents, in one place, for a political statement. The last time it hanppend was 44 years ago , in 1970, when another member of the community, Jake Cleek, was shown the door by a School Board isors who were stuck in the 30s.
Other than Friday night football, almost a religion in Charger Country, and the annual Fourth of July celebration, folks just don’t get together in crowds this size in Bath. In a county where the Sheriff and his deputies still help out stranded motorists and assist someone who has fallen, law enforcement is probably blowing the dust off the policy and procedure manual and trying to figure out the definition of crowd control and how to implement it.
The Sheriff doesn’t have much to worry about. Folks in Bath are still interested in doing things diplomatically and in order. There was even someone on the Facebook page that suggested they get a permit to rally. There’s nothing wrong in itself with getting a permit, but just the fact that the question was raised is a good indicator of the mindset of some of the residents.
For many in the county, this will be their first attempt at demonstrating formally and publicly about what many see as a social justice issue.
Let’s hope they have a good turnout.
Jerry Nelson is an internationally known freelance writer, photographer and photojournalist. A native of Hot Springs, Virginia, Nelson is busy on assignment but is always willing to discuss future work opportunities. Contact him today. Read more about Nelson’s travels, adventures and exploits here.