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Appalachia's War: A tale of two successes

Second of a three part series

Monday, November 27, 2000

By Diana Nelson Jones, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Photos by Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette Staff Photographer

An introduction: Appalachia, a rugged swath of America hugging the mountains from Georgia to New York, has for generations been the symbol of aching poverty in a land of wealth and opportunity.
But 35 years after President Johnson launched the War on Poverty from a simple porch in Appalachia, the region that claims part of Western Pennsylvania is climbing out of desperation.
Bordering cities of unprecedented growth and dot-com millionaires, Appalachia is finally outgrowing its image of shacks and bare feet.
On good roads, past Wal-Marts and in cozy bungalows, staff writer Diana Nelson Jones and photographer Steve Mellon visited the new Appalachia and uncovered a story of re-birth.

INEZ, Ky. -- Inez is weary. For 36 years, it has worn the distinction of being the War on Poverty's center stage. People are apprehensive when journalists come to town, because it's always the same old story. It's always about failure. That, in spite of all the nice middle-class houses, and the high school graduates who go on to college.

After working her way out of welfare and into a job, Emma Fletcher, left, was proud to send her daughter Melanie, 18, to college this fall -- the first member of the family ever to attend. A resident of Martin County in Eastern Kentucky, Fletcher, 37, left an abusive first marriage and has since re-married. On this day, she helps her daughter pack for college. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette photos)

A town of 600 in a county that's slipping downward from 13,000, Inez isn't on your way somewhere. Signs welcoming you to town from the interstate boast of state high school basketball championships in 1941 and 1953.

Inez has two daylight restaurants in town and one that stays open later, just past the big pawnshop sign on the outskirts. A handsome stone courthouse anchors a main drag that includes a scented gift shop, a tea room, a store that cashes checks.

The BP station sits directly across the street from the weekly Mountain Citizen, where Gary Ball, a 47-year-old father of three, can be found most evenings editing for a Tuesday-night press run. Emma Fletcher is a two-minute walk away, at the Cabinet for Families and Children. Fletcher first walked through the agency's doors in need of help when her daughter was 6.

Ball's and Fletcher's stories reflect the past and present of their town. But theirs are not the same old stories.

'Got so tired of being afraid'

The night before she left for college this fall, Emma Fletcher's daughter Melanie Sue sat cross-legged on her bed with her 37-year-old mother beside her. They looked like girl confidantes, their heads together. But Emma showed the anxiety of imminent loss. Her beautiful 18-year-old fledgling was leaving home the next day for Morehead State University.

More in this report

Online graphic: Appalachia in 1960

Online graphic: Appalachia in 2000

Online graphic: Trends for the region, 1960-1990

Appalachia: definitions and measures of distress

Across Appalachia, the poorest of America's poor struggle back

Planning for a more prosperous future



What they achieved together is no more or less remarkable for having happened in Inez.

"I would not have made it this far without Melanie," says Fletcher. "She gave me courage. Me and this kid from Day One have gone through hell and back."

Married at 18 and pregnant three months later, Emma said she took regular beatings for six years from her first husband. She was on crutches several times. She wore cuts and bruises. She woke up in quiet panic many nights. One day in the car, when Melanie was 5, Emma wept as her child wiped blood from her mouth.

"I got so tired of being afraid," says Fletcher, whose mother took them in when Melanie started school.

"I was in my 20s, but I felt like a child, an insecure child with a child of my own. My mother was 91 pounds, but she was as big as the world to me."

Fletcher took a $2-an-hour job at a fitness center in nearby Lovely. She applied for public assistance, saying now, "I was the first person in my family to go on welfare."

She drew $186 a month and food stamps. She began cleaning houses and doing laundry to make a little more. "You can't pay your utility bills and buy clothes on that. I might have looked like a welfare mother, but Melanie was not going to look like a welfare child."

Ruby Muncy was Fletcher's case worker. Today, they work together.

"She concentrated everything on Melanie," says Muncy. "I said, 'Emmie, you can do something for you, too. Emmie, you're smart.' "

In 1992, with two other women from Martin County, Fletcher drove 25 miles each day for a month to Prestonsburg for job-readiness training. She had no idea what job she could possibly be readied for.

"I didn't think I had any skills. The only thing I could think of was that I had helped my sister and brother-in-law dry-wall their house."

The women were assigned to work for three days a week at a public or nonprofit agency. Fletcher requested the Cabinet for Families and Children, where she had originally sought help. The pay, in addition to welfare, was $182 a month, and it was the last step in job training. When a secretarial position opened at a home-health agency, she was referred and accepted.

Six months later, the Cabinet in Inez called. They had a seasonal position for 11 months, with the promise it might be extended. She jumped at the chance.

"I've been here ever since. I can relate to people on the other side of the wall. I tell them, 'I got my feet on the ground here.' "

She says she believes her daughter is stronger for the lows the two of them have suffered. "She's more determined. I tell her, 'You never want to go back, never. But if you have to, you can survive.' "

Fletcher has since remarried. Herman Fletcher, who has two grown sons, adopted Melanie last year. He's a veteran, so Melanie qualifies for tuition benefits through the Veterans Affairs office. They live in a nice ranch home off a pretty, winding road outside of town.

"My father and mother had no education, but they'd say, 'Is this the best you can do?' " Emma Fletcher remembers. "When I saw Melanie had the ability, I was going to cram it into her."

Emma and her sister, Linda Johnson, taught Melanie to write cursive before she started kindergarten. Every day after school, says Melanie, "we went over what I'd learned that day."

She graduated from Shelton-Clark High School with a 4.0 average. She had been a welfare kid, and it was clear to her that all the other children in school believed that made her different.

"When I wanted something, I knew we didn't have it to get," she says. "But ever since I was little I knew I was going to go to college. I dreamed about it."

The night before Melanie left for school, Fletcher's sister Linda and brother-in-law David Johnson and their 12-year-old son, Sean, gathered at the house in Inez. David Johnson's eyes were red.

"He did all the 'dad' things with me," says Melanie, embracing him.

Ruby Muncy, Fletcher's original caseworker, had bought Melanie a dress for the rush party at the Chi Omega sorority.

She was assigned to a dorm room with three other girls. "One's from Louisville, one's from Frankfort, one's from London, [Ky.] I think it'll be fun. I'm excited. But I'm kind of nervous, because I've never been away. I'm sad, too, because I have to leave."

Weeks later, Melanie visited Inez for a weekend.

"She got into the sorority she wanted," her mother says, pointing out that the Chi Os at Morehead volunteer in hospitals, reading to sick children. Melanie plans to get a nursing degree.

"She said she likes her classes but thinks chemistry will give her trouble." Fletcher chuckled. "I'm miserable. But Melanie said, 'Mom, it's hard to be homesick here. There are so many kids from Martin County.' "

"How in the world?" he asks the computer screen, then chuckles ruefully. "I can't imagine he could've done much more than fall on her."

Ball's voice comes out soft like stretch taffy, and he still won't smoke around his mother, but he sure can make the whole town mad. When recent studies placed Inez elementary pupil test scores eighth from the bottom among 179 school districts in the state, Ball chose the word "gloomy" for the headline.

Around town that week, people intoned the word "gloomy" as though he had overlooked all the positive points to be gleaned from the statistics.

"I hate the headline as much as anyone," says Ball. "I still have a kid in school."

He got home that night around 9 and rose early the next morning to deliver 800 of the 5,800 Mountain Citizens in circulation. His route takes all morning, from walking stops in town to a drive that links one gas station convenience store to another.

A lot has happened in Ball's life since the days in the 1970s when his fate seemed sealed and he was earning $50,000 a year underground. It's a more introspective life today, but Ball is an introspective guy. He has one of those Appalachian hearts that battles itself, vastly disappointed with the place he loves yet tender toward its failings.

A native of Logan, W.Va., about 30 minutes across the state line, Ball was 9 when his father was killed in the coal mines. His stepfather believed that at 18, you go out and make your way. That meant no college for Gary. It meant the mines.

Ball started working in the '70s, which were relatively good times in Appalachia's coal fields. He was joined by thousands of men returning home from Ohio and Michigan, where they had gone for factory jobs during the slump of the previous two decades.

Good times didn't last. The '80s brought a steady decline that continues today. Between now and 2020, Martin County is expected to lose 3,000 of its 13,000 people.

Since 1993, when Ball was laid off, he and his family have been in an economic transition much like many of his neighbors in Inez.

He has ended up as an editor, which has its rewards, but the local newspapers that once numbered 50 ad-rich pages now run 20 pages. At some stops on his route, Ball gathers up nearly as many back copies as he leaves fresh editions. His $18,000 salary is three times less than he made as a miner -- and now he has two kids in college.

Ball's wife, Gerri, works in a cigarette outlet. They rent. After all this time, Ball believes renting makes for an easier exit for his family -- "I want out of here, out of the coal fields."

Their youngest child, Daniel, is 13. Ball doesn't want him watching "Anaconda" in psychology class, or whatever movie the teacher decides to show, instead of telling students about Freud. He's tired of the political factions, frustrated that the economic boom of the '90s has not found Inez.

The Balls' combined income of $28,000 is a lot by local standards. Josh, 19, and Rachel, 18, are both attending Prestonsburg Community College, and Josh is working several jobs, including 911 dispatcher, high school referee and sports reporter for the Williamson (W.Va.) Daily News.

The family's two cars are old and frequently in the shop. Their home is slated for demolition because it sits in a flood plain. The Balls pay $200-a-month rent to a landlady who was kind enough to drop it to $100 when Ball was laid off. At that time, he says now, "It would have been so much easier to go on welfare. Seriously."

On unemployment, Ball began taking summer classes at Southern West Virginia Community College. Gerri cleaned houses and worked at Burger King to cover his tuition. He took a meager job at Appalachian Reach Out, a store that is run by the Christian Reformed Church out of Michigan. "I knew how bad things were when I saw kids getting excited about toys my own kids would have thought were junk."

As Ball maneuvers the winding roads, the subject turns to why he walked into a newspaper office back in 1997.

Ink had gotten into his veins when he was a miner writing a newsletter for the United Mine-workers local. "I discovered the power of the pen" writing about coal mine safety, he says. "Anyone who's worked in the mines will tell you that company self-regulation is the biggest joke. Competition for jobs is so stiff that if your boss tells you to turn off the dust pump, you turn it off. So if you come back later with a black lung claim, he can say, 'Why, Gary, those dust readings were clean.'

"Why, sure they were!"

Ball says central Appalachia will begin to move forward only after it ends its reliance on coal. You hear this sentiment from a lot of people in the region, even though coal appears to have no significant replacement and has been the largest source of jobs and taxes.

The taxes that are collected do not accomplish what Bell thinks they should. He harangues his readers regularly on the subjects of education and garbage.

Martin County pays $300,000 for garbage service, but people have to take their garbage to a distribution point. Some still dump their junk over hillsides instead. As editor, Ball has opined for a $10 a month charge for roadside pickup because it would cost less and make it easier for people to stop littering.

People have voted this proposal down three times. Most fear the $10 will grow to $20, then $30, he says.

Ball has criticized the state for failing to take over dismal schools, even though it passed a law in 1990 that requires it to do so.

Ball also has forced local school board members to disclose their travel expenses. Last year, Martin County board members outspent those in Pike County on travel -- $23,000 to $9,000 -- even though Pike is a much larger district. Other nearby counties didn't spend even half of what Pike did.

"If our kids were doing OK, I wouldn't care how much it was or where they went," Ball says. "But when I see kids with donation buckets dodging coal trucks at the end of Kermit Bridge and their mothers selling pies to buy playground equipment, I know that money is not being spent to help our kids."

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