The Fayette Tribune, Oak Hill, W.Va.

Local News

February 11, 2013

Finding Dewey: The search for West Virginia’s first poet laureate

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, of its forests transformed by railroads and logging trains. Seated in his chair, each day he looked forward to feeling the pounding momentum of the passing trains as they climbed up the steep mountains towards the sky.

But just before the nation fell into its Great Depression, the small poet of Tucker County, 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 public 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 she found countless writings about Karl Dewey Myers and pages of his poetry in the archives at the West Virginia and Regional History Collections Library at WVU.

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. He turned to Cindy and he said, “Oh please tell his story. Somebody’s just got to tell his story.”

Then Dave pulled out a dusty hardbound book, Homer Fansler’s “A History of Tucker County,” and pointed to a chapter written about Dewey. “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. 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.

In 1951, Karl Dewey Myers made a pact with his best friend Homer Fansler that each would write the other’s biographies. At the time, Homer was stationed in Tacoma, Wash. Homer received his biography from Dewey in the mail on November 29th.

The next day, Homer read of Dewey’s death in the Parsons newspaper. Karl Dewey Myers, who died from complications due to alcoholism, was 52 years old. Very likely, Homer’s biography was Dewey’s final piece of writing. The former poet laureate died broke, with only his small green typewriter and his books of poetry, at the home of Mr. and Mrs. White just outside of Elkins. The White family had been one of many homes he had bounced between the last two decades. As Dave said, Dewey was “just from pillow to post.” From the time when his mother died and his childhood home in Moore had burned down, Dewey had slept in any bed he was offered.

Homer did not complete his history of Tucker County for years. He still had one last chapter that sat in his files incomplete. It was the biography of his beloved friend, Karl Dewey Myers. But one day Homer was diagnosed with a very severe case of leukemia. Doctors gave him just months to live. He had to finish the book now, or never.

All writers know the reason it took him his entire life to write this final chapter of his book, because friendship is never finished. Even when the person has passed away, there is the sense that you will still see them, that they are still alive someplace, that you will make time for them somewhere, somehow. Homer and Dewey were that type of friends.

In his biography, Homer writes that “the State of West Virginia should be interested enough in its gifted writer and first Poet Laureate to erect a simple plaque at his last resting place.” Dave Strahin, who knew both Homer and Karl Dewey for many years, even says that Homer left money for the cost for Dewey’s body to be exhumed, but the problem, apparently, was that Dewey’s body could not be found. It seems that nobody had kept records of the placement for the bodies at the cemetery, so there was no way to know just where he was buried. And so it’s rumored that someone scooped up a bucket of dirt as a symbol of Dewey and transferred that to the Myers Family Cemetery, located just off US 219 in Moore.

A monument stands to honor Dewey, just off the highway of US 219. A monument was also placed at the I.O.O.F. Cemetery in Elkins, though it is just an approximate resting place for West Virginia’s first poet Laureate, Karl Dewey Myers.

(Todd represents the Traveling 219 Project, funded by the West Virginia Humanities Council. For more stories from the Traveling 219 project, please visit www.Traveling219.com.)

 

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