West Virginia lost a true statesman yesterday, when former Governor Cecil H. Underwood passed away in Charleston Area Medical Center at the age of 86. A rare Republican Governor in a state whose legislature has been dominated by Democrats for over 70 years, Underwood was a model for those who would be involved in public service.
Underwood served two terms as Governor of the Mountain State, separated by 40 years! He owns the distinction of being the youngest Governor of West Virginia (elected in 1956 at the age of 34) and the oldest Governor, re-elected in 1996 (at the age of 74). Unlike West Virginia's other recent Repbublican Governor, Arch Moore Jr., and a number of past Democratic chief executives, Underwood's terms in the Governor's Mansion were never marred by personal scandal or legal indictments. He and his late wife, Hovah, loved the state of West Virginia and they were models of dignity, decorum and public service.
Although I did not know him personally, there were brushes with our family over the years. As a young man, Governor Underwood served in the West Virginia House of Delegates, representing Tyler County at the same time my Grandfather, Jerry Stidham, represented Logan County in the State House. Although they were on opposite sides politically, my Grandfather always had high respect for Underwood. After his first term of office, Underwood went to work for Island Creek Coal Company and moved his family to Huntington. They bought a home about four blocks from where we lived. His children attended Gallaher Elementary School with us, and we often saw Governor and Mrs. Underwood at school functions.
He and Mrs. Underwood were deeply involved in community activities and were an asset to the City of Huntington during their time there. A committed Christian, the Governor was an active member and Sunday School Teacher at Johnson Memorial United Methodist Church, during his time in Huntington. Mrs. Underwood served on the boards of several organizations and charities as well, and she was deeply involved with the Huntington Museum of Art.
In a political culture where partisan bickering, ethics violations, and personal scandal are commonplace, Cecil Underwood stood out as someone different. His death is a loss for the State of West Virginia. This state is a better place because of the public service of Governor and Mrs. Underwood. May he be remembered fondly by West Virgininians of both parties, for the manner in which he served.