Mayor Bobby Nelson

The Herald-Dispatch file photo Bobby Nelson became Huntington's first strong mayor under a new city charter in 1986.

Editor's note: This story originally appeared Nov. 21, 1999.


Stan Parrish was not an economist or a high political official. He was a football coach.

But, Parrish was a symbolic figure of the 1980s in the Tri-State. As Marshall University football coach in 1984, he ushered in a new brand of passing attack that helped the Thundering Herd pull out its first winning season in 21 years.

Some say Parrish's accomplishment, which was duplicated in 1985, gave them hope during a trying decade that saw West Virginia bottom out economically as industry began paring down to become competitive in the world's marketplace. If Marshall could win in football, then almost anything was possible.

Who could have predicted that Marshall would not have another losing football team in the 20th century, or that the university's fledgling medical school would lead Huntington out of its economic funk?

"If Marshall had not had that winning season, we would have had a difficult time convincing Arch Moore that the school needed a new football stadium," says Bobby Nelson, who became Huntington's first strong mayor under a new city charter in 1986.

"You can't underestimate what that stadium has done for the entire region."

Nor can you downplay the importance of Marshall's School of Medicine on the local economy, says C.T. Mitchell, the university's semi-retired director of public information.

"The med school was Moore's first gift to Marshall," Mitchell says. "The second one was the stadium. I'd hate to think where we would be without the med school."

Alan Gould, a historian who is director of Marshall's Drinko Academy, credits former university president Bob Hayes with having the vision to seek out the medical school and to bring the community college on campus.

"Dr. Hayes laid the foundation for so many positive things that have happened to Marshall," Gould says. "He deserves a lot of credit for what the university is today."

Hayes worked his way up through the ranks at Marshall to serve as president from 1974 to 1983. Forced from his position by the former Board of Regents, he says he has no hard feelings.

"I had 10 good years," Hayes says. "Looking in the rear view mirror, something had to happen. Things have worked out well for Marshall. The 1980s were hard times with a lot of budget cuts.

"We were just lucky that the med school was already in place."

While Hayes laid the groundwork at Marshall, Gould and Mitchell say providence brought Dale F. Nitzschke to the president's office in 1984.

A dynamic people-person, Nitzschke began selling the university around the state in the 1980s. He was so effective that he was named the Charleston Gazette's Man of the Year in 1987.

"Nitzschke made a lot of friends for Marshall," Mitchell says. "People around the state knew who the president of Marshall was, but didn't know who was president of West Virginia University.

"That was something new."

While Marshall was growing during tough times, the state and Huntington had more difficult tasks. Three governors-Jay Rockefeller, Moore and Gaston Caperton - tried with varying degrees of success to get West Virginia back on its feet while more than 150,000 residents fled the state in search of jobs.

The governors' jobs of jump-starting the state's economic engine was made more difficult by corruption and graft in the ranks. Dan Tonkovich and Larry Tucker, both former state Senate presidents, both went to jail for extortion in 1989 as part of a federal investigation into political corruption.

State Treasurer A. James Manchin, who had been the state's most boisterous defender as secretary of state in the early 1980s, resigned from office in 1989 after the state House of Delegates voted to impeach him. His office was blamed for losing $279 million in bad investments.

Cabell County was hard hit in the early 1980s when Houdailles Industries closed and CSX Transportation closed its engineering department office here and sent about 400 high-paying jobs to new offices in Jacksonville, Fla. CSX replaced some of the jobs when it closed an engine shop in Louisville, Ky., and brought part of the employees to the Huntington operation in 1987.

Huntington's commercial business began floundering after the Huntington Mall opened in 1981 and continued to prosper throughout the decade. It turned Barboursville from a struggling village into one of the most prosperous towns in the state within 10 years.

Downtown Huntington was a different story. Amsbary-Johnson, The Huntington Store and J.C. Penney all closed their downtown stores in the 1980s. The Downtown Holiday Inn closed its doors, too, in 1985.

The Huntington Civic Arena was in dire straits, too, by the mid-1980s. The Herald-Dispatch tried to help the city pull out of its nose dive with a special issue entitled "Huntington, How Are You?" Through hundreds of interviews with people, the newspaper concluded that one of the ways to improve the city's fortunes would be to change its form of government from city manager to strong mayor.

That was accomplished through a new charter. Nelson, a longtime politician in state government, defeated Republican Ted T. Barr in 1986 to become the first elected mayor in nearly 30 years. His immediate goals were to get the hotel reopened and the Arena up and running again.

Both were done within two years. A group of local businessmen headed by Marshall Reynolds bought the hotel and reopened it as the Radisson Hotel Huntington. The Civic Arena, managed by Sue Thomas, began to attract a wide variety of acts.

"We had a smoother transition than I thought we would," Nelson says. "I have to give a lot of the credit to the people we had on City Council, especially Garry Black and David Pancake.

"We had some immediate problems because President (Ronald) Reagan abolished revenue sharing and we had to cut $1.5 million out of our budget. But, there was a lot of gloom and doom in Huntington. People yearned for something to happen. I'm very proud of what was accomplished in the first term."

Nelson established the Huntington Foundation as a nonprofit organization in order to raise money for several projects. They remodeled City Hall and started the Wall of Fame.

Riverfront Park became a center of activities and became a stopping place for a new luxury riverboat called The West Virginia Belle that entertained tourists on trips between Huntington and Charleston.

During the period, the Cabell County Commission and the city also allowed Cabell Huntington Hospital to change from public to a private, not-for-profit hospital. The hospital gave Marshall's School of Medicine $3 million to establish an outpatient health center. That money was put into an interest-bearing account and was used to help build the medical school's new facility at the hospital.

"A lot of good decisions were made in the 1980s that allowed us to grow in the 1990s," School of Medicine Dean Dr. Charles McKown says. "If that money had been spent right away, it would have been wasted.

"We were able to grow that money into a $32 million medical school, which is now a 950-person operation with a $65 million annual budget. It helped establish the school as the best new industry to come to the Huntington area in the last 25 years."

There were other positive signs of life in the Tri-State during the 1980s. It was a decade of bridge-building. The East Huntington Bridge, Simeon Willis Bridge in Ashland and the Jesse Stuart Bridge on the Greenup Locks and Dam all opened in the mid-1980s.

New high schools were build at Chesapeake and South Point, Ohio,and the first part of the Chesapeake bypass was completed.

Ashland residents ended more than three decades of a liquor sales ban in 1981 by voting to make four precincts wet.

A group of area businessmen formed a new corporation called Steel of West Virginia that bought out H.K. Porter Steel Co. in Huntington. In Ironton, Amcast Industrial Corp. closed its foundry in 1984, but workers formed Ironton Iron Inc. and reopened the plant in 1986. The company was sold again to Intermet in 1988.

Construction started on the $300 million Gallipolis Locks and Dam at the end of the decade, about the same time the two-block area bounded by 3rd Avenue and 20th Street was used to build a new on-campus Marshall Stadium.

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