by Roxy Todd
Audio story by Jessie Wright Mendoza, part one: (for part two, click here)
He would write on a green Oliver typewriter, seated on a child-sized armchair with rollers at the bottom. Each day he would write, hour after hour, facing the trains that rushed past him on their way to the Blackwater Canyon. He’d write a poem and if he didn’t like it he would crumple it up, start over again. Day after day. Often, he would drink. It didn’t take but a few beers to drown him because Karl Dewey Myers never weighed more than 60 pounds.
Dr. Walter Barnes, the former Dean of Fairmont State College wrote that Dewey was “absorbed in the basic, eternal problems of mortal existence, struggling to make beauty and truth and mercy prevail.” In his poems, Karl Dewey Myers wrote devotedly about Tucker County, with a sensitivity to its graceful, changing beauty. He wrote of the forests transformed by railroads and logging trains, with an awe for both the natural beauty and the momentum that carried the trains up the steep mountains towards the sky.
Sometimes, Dewey’s profound sense of wonder was mixed with bitterness, as he struggled to stay above the heavy burden of grief for the dead (all of his close family had died when he was still a teenager). With words, he fought to persevere over the harsh cruelty of being labeled a “cripple” by the human society he craved. With women, he wrote continuously, though he never experienced romance.
But just before the nation fell into its Great Depression, Karl Dewey Myers was offered a short stint of fame. On June 9, 1927, he was named the first poet laureate of West Virginia.
Cindy Karelis, graduate student of History at West Virginia University, first drew my attention to the story of Karl Dewey Myers. Like me, she had never heard of the poet when one day last fall she found countless writings by Dewey when she was researching the archived writing from the 1930s done by the Federal Writers’ Project. A Tucker County writer for the FWP, Gordon Shrader, knew the poet personally and included Dewey’s poetry in many of his reports. The FWP was a Depression era, federally funded program which employed out of work writers and teachers to complete local guides to their communities, similar to what the CCC boys were doing in the woods, or thousands of WPA workers were doing to tirelessly rebuild our roads and our bridges. Gordon Shrader was given a job by the FWP to chronicle the history and local lives of people from Tucker County, and without his careful documentation of the poet’s works, Cindy and I would never have even heard of the poet.
Cindy Karelis and I traveled to Tucker County to interview Dave Strahin, who is probably the only living person today who was good friends with Karl Dewey Myers. Dave pulled out a dusty hardbound book, Homer Fansler’s A History of Tucker County, and pointed to a chapter written about Dewey. It’s a book which Dave knows very well because he helped Homer do a lot of the historical research.“Homer and Dewey had been friends for an awful lot of years. I guess since the time they were kids. Stayed that way. When Homer was still in service, after WWII, he’d go and hunt Duke up and see him,” says Dave.
Homer and Dewey were the oddballs in town— people stayed away from Homer, as they did from Dewey. “Poor old Duke, and poor old Homer. They just pitied each other, as all good friends do. He pitied Homer, and Homer pitied Duke. Him and Duke used to sit down and laugh about the things they got into. It was fun to sit and listen to those two,” says Dave.
According to local accounts, Dewey was adored by animals and by children. But on days when he’d been drinking too much, the parents would put a call to each other as a warning. And all the parents would tell their children, “You can’t go see Dewey today.” Carol Sue Carr, who was a child in Hendrix where Dewey lived, told us that she never knew what happened when her mother came to tell her that Dewey was “unwell”. Was he violent, gruesome, belligerent, or sick?
To Carol Sue, this only added to the mystery and awe the children felt for Dewey. He radiated a sense of being that dies away in most people as they grow old. And he could speak! He could describe the water and the legends of the woods with such words and phrases, nothing like listening to a teacher or a parent. Yes, he could speak. And those stories stuck with the neighborhood children. They could sit and listen to him for hours. But not on the bad days, which there were more and more of, as the children got older. Then at some point, he just went away. The kids were older then and hadn’t been to see him much lately. And she doesn’t remember where he went, but it was just that he was gone, and nobody was ever like him again.
For part two of the story about Karl Dewey Myers, click here.