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Diane Mufson: State's future cannot be based on the past

Jun. 18, 2013 @ 10:45 PM

As we recently flew home on US Airways over the Ohio River on our first leg of our trip from Chicago to Charlotte, I thought about my very first flight to Huntington.

That was in the mid 1970s when my husband first considered taking a job at the embryonic Marshall Medical School, which had not yet attained formal approval to begin. In one hour, a Piedmont Airlines jet flew non-stop from Chicago to Huntington. Our recent flights home were a clear reminder of changes in the past four decades and that West Virginia's future cannot and will not be as it was in the past.

June 20th is our state's 150th birthday. It's a special day to celebrate, but more than that it's a time to see where we've been and plan for our future.

According to various sources, our state was formed for many reasons, including that eastern Virginians and those in the western part of the state held disparate views, especially regarding property owners' voting rights and slavery.

Despite the fact that many people continue to have difficulty recognizing that we are not "western Virginia" and that we are not likely to know their cousin who lives in Richmond, we are a proud state with an important past. We must make sure that West Virginia is ready for the next 150 years.

It's impossible to predict what the future holds, even within a few decades. After all, 40 years ago who would have predicted today's popularity of smartphones, that our nation would have spent billions fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan or that 33 years of physicians would graduate from Marshall University's Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine? And who would have ever expected our state's decreasing employment and revenue from coal and our mushrooming natural gas industry?

An illuminating article regarding industrial change by Willie Davis was reprinted in the West Virginia State Journal. Originally appearing on the website Daily Yonder, it illustrated that what was true and good for an area at one time can and does change.

The article begins as follows: "Not long ago, there was a rural region that based its economy entirely on one industry. Though the region itself was poor, it used its surfeit of natural resources to benefit the nation as a whole. The workers took immense pride in the industry and most of the locals claimed it was a way of life."

You and I probably had the same thoughts; we believed the author was talking about coal and Appalachia. Wrong. He is talking about cod fishing in Newfoundland, Canada, which became "overfished" and was shut down. This forced those employed in cod fishing to find new forms of employment despite being totally content with their previous way of life.

There's a strong parallel between coal and cod. They are extractive industries that have a finite limit. West Virginia has come to a crossroads 150 years after a different crossroad led us to statehood.

We must rationally determine what future industries will benefit our state and how education, job training, health practices, recruitment of new population and travel to and within the state will help us.

No matter how much we desire it, Piedmont Airlines will never again fly non-stop between Huntington and Chicago, and coal is not going to provide the jobs, incomes and benefits that it once did.

Happy 150th birthday, West Virginia, where the future will be bright but must be different from the past.

Diane W. Mufson is a licensed psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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