W.Va. pays tribute to Underwood
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Cecil Underwood was a man of seeming paradoxes: both the youngest and oldest governor in West Virginia history, he was a shy and private man who was nonetheless in the public eye for over half a century.
Yet when hundreds gathered Monday for a memorial service in honor of Underwood, who died last week at 86, their reminiscences showed that the different sides of his personality were complementary rather than contradictory.
“He showed us with his life that success can come if you try, try, try and try again,” said Craig Underwood, the former governor’s son.
Cecil Underwood was the first Republican since the New Deal to win a gubernatorial election in West Virginia, a feat he accomplished in 1956 at the age of 34. After a string of electoral losses, he largely left politics, until a successful run in 1996, winning when he was 74.
“I remember thinking, geez, maybe my father peaked when he was 34, like a football team in October,” Craig Underwood said. “He proved me and everybody else wrong.”
Although Underwood was famous in the state for his two terms as governor, and though his memorial service at Christ Church United Methodist in Charleston was studded with mourners from the political sphere, it was mostly devoted to the rituals of his church, reflecting his deep and abiding faith as a Methodist.
The Rev. Emerson Wood, who was Underwood’s pastor for 18 years in Huntington, remembered the former governor as a Sunday school teacher, lay leader, chairman of church boards and campaigns and a delegate to the church’s annual conferences.
“He was the dream of every pastor,” Wood said. “He accepted and carried out every task and responsibility.”
But Wood also saw the political side of his friend, working on Underwood’s 1996 campaign, sometimes spending 16 hour days with the Republican candidate. Wood laughed as he remembered Underwood’s dryly witty summation of his former pastor’s presence on the campaign trail: “He has really been an asset, not a liability.”
Gov. Joe Manchin recalled Underwood’s humor, which served him well in politics. During the 1996 campaign, Underwood’s advisers were worried that his age would work against him in the race.
Underwood defused the issue by joking about it, as he would proclaim at every campaign stop after emerging from his bus, “I feel so refreshed and renewed after that nap.”
“It was pure him, classic Cecil,” Manchin said.
Manchin’s presence headed up a bipartisan contingent of politicians at the funeral, including U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, Secretary of State Betty Ireland and members of the state Legislature.
For all the politics, though, the service was a chance for Underwood’s friends and family to remember him, from telling funny stories to an interpretive dance performed by one of his daughters, Cecilia Baker.
“To us, he was just granddad,” said Chris Richardson, one of Underwood’s six grandchildren.
True to his original occupation as a biology teacher, Underwood requested that his body be donated to the medical school at Marshall University, which is also what his late wife, Hovah, requested.
Instead of a casket, a portrait of the governor stood in the church and he asked that two grave markers be erected for him and his wife, one each in Tyler and Calhoun counties, saying “They gave their lives to service and their bodies to science.”
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