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WVPBS airs documentary on Thursday of late, Governor, Bill Marland

Jan. 11, 2009 @ 01:22 PM

CHARLESTON — Once upon a time he was Governor of West Virginia, a decade later he was driving a cab in Chicago, Ill. The life of William C. Marland is told anew in a special one-hour Outlook called “Reconstructing Bill: The Story of Governor William C. Marland” on West Virginia PBS at 9 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 15 and at 6 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 18.

Three years in the making, the program features interviews with three of Marland’s four children (John Marland, Casey Marland and Susan Giambrone), two of his sisters (Grace Marland Beck and Sarah Marland) and two former governors (Gov. Hulett C. Smith and Gov. Cecil H. Underwood).

“So many people think what I thought when I first learned about Governor Marland,” says producer Russ Barbour. “Here we go again, a state leader run out of town for who knows what and now he’s on skid row. But as with any thinker ahead of the times, many of the rumors and assumptions that have swirled for more than 50 years simply aren’t true. It is true Marland lived a short and tragic life; but he also tried to make a positive difference in our state.”

Through archival news film, home movies and interviews, Barbour strives to present a more complete view of Marland as well as context of what it was like to be a West Virginian in the 1950s.

A native of Illinois, Marland’s family moved to the coal mining community of Glen Rogers, W.Va., in Wyoming County when he was seven years old. He worked in the mines, fought in the Navy during World War II, obtained a law degree from West Virginia University, and briefly served as the state’s attorney general.

Three days after becoming West Virginia’s 24th governor, Marland proposed a severance tax on extractive industries, most notably coal. True to the times, the legislature blocked this tax and other proposals by Marland including desegregation of schools, expansion of the state parks and recreational system, improved unemployment and workers' compensation laws, and an industrial development program – making him both visionary and controversial.

After an unsuccessful bid for the United States Senate in 1956, Marland established a law practice in Charleston. In 1958 he moved to Chicago to work for a coal company. Several years later, he was discovered by a reporter driving a taxi cab as part of his self-made rehabilitation program to overcome alcoholism. Months later he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died the day after Thanksgiving at the age of 47.

Barbour worked extensively with Marshall University Libraries Special Collections and West Virginia State Archives and History in gathering his material. He credits the idea for this documentary to a former college professor, Paul F. Lutz, who published a book about Marland called From Governor to Cabby: The Political Career and Tragic Death of West Virginia's William Casey Marland in 1996.

In addition to Marshall University’s 2008 documentary ”Ken Hechler: In Pursuit of Justice,” Barbour co-produced the WV Public Broadcasting documentary, “West Virginians Remember WWII” in 2007 and wrote, directed and co-produced 1995’s West Virginians in War. Barbour is a regular contributor to Outlook, West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s weekly television magazine about people, places and events in West Virginia.

Read more about the documentary in Tuesday’s Life section of The Herald-Dispatch.