(Editor’s note: Following are the biographies of some of the individuals included on the Fayette County Wall of Honor, unveiled last week at the Courthouse in Fayetteville. The honorees were chosen by the Fayette County Sesquicentennial Committee, chaired by Danny Wright, the county historian, from those who have significantly impacted the state, nation and world. Biographies of the remaining honorees will appear in a future issue.)
Mount Hope native Ethel Caffie-Austin is known as West Virginia’s First Lady of Gospel Music. She earned this title after years of teaching, playing and performing gospel music in settings that range from prisons to the Smithsonian. Immersed in music as her father worked as pastor of the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ, she began playing piano at age 6 and directed her first choir at age 11. She has performed at numerous festivals in the United States and Europe. She founded the Black Sacred Music Festival at West Virginia State University, and she was appointed the Minister of Music for the State of West Virginia. She has recorded at least three CDs of her music, as well as being the subject of two documentary films and numerous magazines and newspaper articles. She recorded music for a Smithsonian Folkways project that was also featured on television. She regularly performs at the Augusta Festival in West Virginia and the Black Cultural Heritage Festival in Georgia.
Drivers along the West Virginia Turnpike might remember seeing the Bender Bridge, but they may not know what this Fayetteville resident did to earn this recognition. He earned a Medal of Honor for his bravery during World War II. In France in 1944, Bender risked his life as he sought out the source point for German machine gun fire. For his Medal of Honor, officials wrote that Bender managed to stand in full view of the enemy while bullets ricocheted around him for more than two minutes until he located the machine guns about 200 yards away. He ordered two squads to cover him and led his men as machine gun fire blazed away, wounding four of his men. German soldiers also hurled hand grenades at them, but he stood his ground until the squad caught up. Alone, he advanced and “walked deliberately a distance of 40 yards without cover in the full view of the Germans, and under a hail of both enemy and friendly fire.” He knocked out the first machine gun and continued to the second one, despite bursting hand grenades. The machine gunners fired directly at him, “but he walked calmly through the fire….His audacity so inspired the remainder of the assault company that the men charged out of their positions, shouting and yelling, to overpower the enemy roadblock and sweep into town, knocking out two anti-tank guns, killing 37 Germans, and capturing 26 others. He had sparked and led the assault company in an attack the overwhelmed the enemy, destroying a roadblock, taking a town, seizing intact three bridges over the Maravenna River and capturing commanding terrain which dominated the area.”
Born in the tiny community of Whipple, George Cafego grew up to earn the nickname “Bad News” on the University of Tennessee’s football team. He also earned two All-American team selections and racked up 2,139 total yards. He was a finalist for the Heisman Memorial Trophy. He was drafted by the Chicago Cardinals and played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He also played for the Washington Redskins and Boston Yanks. As a coach, he worked for teams at three universities: Wyoming, Arkansas and Tennessee. He also worked as an assistant coach for the Denver Broncos and the Minnesota Vikings.
Joseph Dangerfield composes, conducts and plays music in the United States and around the world. The Fayetteville native has won numerous awards for his music, including the Aaron Copland Award. He has served as a Fullbright Scholar to the Russian Federation and The Netherlands, and he served as composer-in-residence with the Ensemble Studio New Music at the famed Moscow Conservatory. He has conducted many concerts including ones at New York’s Carnegie Hall, the Vienna Konzerthaus and the Haydnsaal in Esterhazy Palace.
Ollie Watts-Davis was born in Oak Hill, raised in Mount Hope and graduated from the former West Virginia Institute of Technology in Montgomery. She is currently a professor of voice at the University of Illinois School of Music, and in the summer, she is on the faculty of SongFest in Malibu, Calif. She has earned many teaching awards. In 2008, she was named “a University Scholar, one of the highest honors the University bestows on faculty.” A soprano, she has also sung at Carnegie Hall. She has performed with leading symphonies in the United States and around the world. She is the founder of the Black Sacred Music Symposium. She has written two books and produced two recordings.
Born in Fayette County, Pa., Jon Dragan raised his family and his business in Fayette County, W.Va. Dragan began his whitewater rafting career on the Youghiogheny River. When he, his brothers and his future wife Melanie first visited West Virginia, he saw its potential for premier whitewater rafting. With his family, he started Wildwater Expeditions Unlimited in West Virginia in 1968. He is considered a pioneer of the whitewater industry and the first outfitter to offer trips on the New and Gauley rivers. He was also part of a team of rafters who were the first to descend from Tibet to China by river; this adventure was documented by National Geographic. Before he died unexpectedly from a stroke, Dragan was also branching into railroad projects.
John G. Fox
After John G. Fox was elected Attorney General of West Virginia in 1952, he took actions that expanded the roles of women and minorities in society. Fox appointed Virginia Mae Brown as the state’s first woman assistant Attorney General. During his term, West Virginia schools were integrated, and he believed the federal mandate applied to higher education, as well as secondary schools. After he interpreted the law this way, the State Board of Education adopted a policy of non-segregation and any qualified student could be admitted to any college or university in West Virginia. Born in Ansted in 1923, Fox also served in the West Virginia Legislature.
Homer Adams Holt
Homer Adams Holt studied law at Washington and Lee University, and he remained supportive of his former school all of his life. Holt also excelled at math and supported himself as a math instructor while he studied law. After he graduated from Washington and Lee, he started practicing law in Fayetteville until he was elected as Attorney General in 1932. He was elected West Virginia’s 20th Governor; he served from 1937 to 1941.
The Rev. Thomas Dexter Jakes Sr.
Rev. T.D. Jakes is now bishop and chief pastor of The Potter’s House, a non-denominational mega-church based in Dallas, Texas, whose membership reaches into the thousands. His ministry reaches around the world, and he has founded a record label, as well as theater and movie production companies that also radiate his message around the planet. But in 1979, Jakes started his ministry in a storefront church in Montgomery with only 10 members. He has now written 30 books, some have reached the New York Times best-seller list. He is also a songwriter and playwright. He has been invited into the inner circle of at least two United States presidents.
William S. Johnson
As educator and legislator, William S. Johnson earned the nickname “Pistol Bill” after a young student died in his arms, shot by another student. Johnson was teaching at Hilltop when a young boy brought a gun to school and shot a classmate. The child died in Johnson’s arms, a horror he never forgot. When Johnson became a State Senator, he began pushing for legislation that would require West Virginians to have a license to carry a firearm. His legislation became law in 1908. He was also a Fayette County Superintendent of Schools from 1902 to 1906, and he was State Treasurer from 1917 to 1933.
William R. Laird III
William R. Laird III was a banker and lawyer before he was appointed to the United States Senate in 1956. Prior to that appointment, he was the State Tax Commissioner. He also served on the State Board of Education. He was a member of the board of directors of the Merchants National Bank in Montgomery and a member of the board of trustees for the Laird Foundation. The Laird Foundation still has ties today to Montgomery General Hospital.
Admiral Joseph Lopez
Joseph Lopez was born in the small Fayette County community of Powellton and in time enlisted into the Navy. But he rose to be one of only two flag officers in the history of the Navy to achieve four-star rank after direct commission from the enlisted service. Over his distinguished career, he served a Commander in Chief of the U.S. Naval Forces and in 1996 commanded all U.S. and Allied Bosnia Peace Forces. He served as senior military assistant to the Secretary of Defense, starting in 1990. Drivers who cross the Kanawha River at Chelyan will recognize that the bridge there is named for him.
Mount Hope’s mayor has a long history of acting, both on stage and in films. He was a member of John Sayles’ cast when Sayles filmed his movie “Matewan” in Thurmond. He was also in an early film “BDP-125” made by another West Virginian, Morgan Spurlock, who has won numerous awards for his work. Martin also starred in Kim Spurlock’s film “Down in Number Five.” This film won the Student Academy Award for narrative in 2010. In this film, Martin plays a coal miner who is worried about the care of his disabled son as the miner faces his own impending death.