BUCKHANNON – Midnight runs to the Donut Shop and Dairy Queen on Main Street.
Spring Sing and Greek Week. The West Virginia Strawberry Festival’s annual arts and crafts fair.
The smell of benzene in the old Haymond Science Hall.
Playing bridge between classes in the Student Center of Wesleyan – and who could forget dances in the SCOW?
Certainly not Nancy Jo Pepper, a 1959 graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College, whose grandfather, Claude O. Law, was the first president of the college’s Board of Trustees.
“It was the place to be on campus,” she remembers. “If you wanted to meet somebody, you’d meet them at the SCOW.”
Pepper and many other alumni have made a point of taking their spouses, children and grandchildren to tour Wesleyan, their “Home Among the Hills.”
They’ve wanted the people they love to see Wesleyan through their eyes – its majestic brick buildings tucked into a wooded landscape filled with tall trees and flowering gardens, dotted with historic benches and decorated by flowing fountains.
Pepper and many others journey back during Homecoming. But any time of year is a great one to take a trip back in time to revisit Wesleyan’s historic campus and soak in the charm of the welcoming Appalachian community of Buckhannon, nestled snugly in the scenic mountains of north-central West Virginia.
Relationships reigned in the small college town
Thomas Bickerton, originally from Moundsville, attended Wesleyan from 1976-1980, when he graduated with the Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology. He now serves as a United Methodist bishop in New York City.
Bickerton, who had visited Wesleyan’s campus year after year as a youth member of the United Methodist Church’s Congress events in the 1960s and 1970s, said for him, WVWC felt like a natural choice.
“With Buckhannon being a smaller town and Wesleyan being a smaller campus, it really seemed like a place you could build relationships and enter into the lives of people in the community,” Bickerton recalls.
Given the student-to-professor ratio, Bickerton knew he’d never be just another face or chair to fill.
“You were never in a huge class, so you had extra time with the professor, and it was a much more intimate setting,” he said.
Pepper, originally from Lake Floyd, West Virginia, attended Wesleyan from 1955-1959, earning her bachelor’s degree in library science. Her grandchildren are now fifth-generation Wesleyan attendees, and she lives on Fenwick Island near Ocean City, Maryland.
Pepper, who’d traveled to Homecoming events with her parents, said choosing Wesleyan “wasn’t like going to college … it was like going home again.”
After all, she, her mother and grandmother each lived in the same corner dormitory room on the second floor of Agnes Howard Hall, the dorm students affectionately refer to as ‘Aggie.’
But it wasn’t just the actual familial connections that made Pepper feel at home.
“I really liked the size of the campus,” she says. “Everybody always spoke to you, and now, even when we go back for Homecoming in October, the students still speak to you. They always say hello to you, which you don’t get on very many campuses anymore.”
Bickerton fondly remembers the fun-filled “antics” he and his former classmates engaged in.
“My room my freshman year was positioned in a corner, and so that year I was a field general for the big snowball battles between Jenkins Hall and Agnes Howard Hall,” he said. “Two students in my class were South African and had never seen snow before, so just getting to see them experience snow for the first time was something else.”
The year was 1976, and snow was so abundant the City of Buckhannon didn’t even attempt to clear the streets.
“There was such snow back then that they didn’t clear the streets, and the cars would create ruts, and I remember losing my mufflers in one of those ruts,” Bickerton said.
And then, there are those flashbulb moments when something so monumental happens that they seem especially bright and frozen in time.
For Buckhannon born-and-raised Wesleyan alum Sam Feola, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business, one of those moments occurred during his freshman year in November 1963.
On the 22nd day of November in 1963, the 35th President of the United States of America, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
Feola was in history class on the top floor of Wesleyan’s administration building.
“We all went outside and stood under that big oak tree at the corner of the building,” he recalls. “The outside world had come to Buckhannon – if only fleetingly.”
Feola said at Wesleyan, he’d always felt, safe, insulated, at home. In fact, one of the avenues through which he found lifelong friends was his membership in the Theta Chi Fraternity.
“One thing I learned from the fraternity experience was the power of relationships,” he said. “My fraternity wasn’t just a bunch of jocks – sure, we had our fair share of athletes, but also singers, musicians, artists, smart guys and not-so-smart guys. I’ve often thought of the amazing diversity of our brothers – how a ‘nerd’ had the same veto power as the star athlete. How one of the not-so-smart guys ended up becoming a lawyer.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I really misjudged this guy’ and missed an opportunity to know his strengths.”
That lesson stayed with Feola for the rest of his life.
“As I gained management experience in later years, I made it a point to get to know my employees and to find those quiet people who had great capabilities and give them a chance to show it,” he said.
Bobcat buffs: Cheering on the orange-and-black
Although he preferred to dabble in intramural sports like flag football and volleyball rather than go out for the Bobcats basketball team, Bickerton didn’t miss a chance to take his place in the stands and cheer on the Bobcats.
He loved watching the team all four years he was there – and recalls their heated rivalry with Fairmont State.
Pepper also reminisced about her experience in the stands watching men’s basketball nearly 20 years prior. The packed balcony bleachers pop out in her mind.
“It was always packed,” she recalls. “Of course, we were in the old gym, but even in the balcony of the old gym, it was packed.”
Meanwhile, in the mid-1960s, Feola had different vantage point from the court. Feola played for legendary coach Hank Ellis.
“I have so many incredible memories playing basketball in the old gym,” he said. “All those practices with Coach Ellis running our butts up and down the floor. The luxury of a shower every day – because we didn’t have a shower in my house on Florida Street!”
However, his most poignant memory involving the old gym is etched vividly in Feola’s mind: the sound of sliding on the floor chasing a ball and the sensation of “coming up with bloody hands and knees from all the nail heads sticking up from the floorboards.”
“I remember winning the 1966 Conference Basketball Championship Tournament in Charleston,” Feola said. “We beat the regular season champion, Morris Harvey. We had a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream of mine – to go to Kansas City and play in the national tournament.”
Unluckily, the ‘Cats failed to punch their ticket to Kansas City when they fell in a subsequent playoff game against Morris Harvey.
But Feola gained an important lesson from Ellis’s presence in his life after realizing he wasn’t cut out for chemistry and switching his major to business. He had to go to summer school to improve his grade point average, which would, in turn, allow him to maintain his basketball eligibility.
“It meant something to him, too, because I was on one of his scholarships,” Feola says of Ellis. “I took golf from him that summer… Ah, you are thinking I got an ‘easy A’ from him – well, you didn’t know Hank Ellis: He wasn’t about to ‘give’ me a high grade just so I could play basketball for him. It would have sent the wrong life message. He gave me a ‘C,’ and I barely stayed eligible.”
Hot spots in Sunny Buck
By his senior year, Bickerton, who, like Feola, opted to switch from a double major in biology and chemistry to one in sociology so he could pursue a degree in divinity, got acquainted with the southern end of the county while serving as a student pastor at United Methodist churches in the Adrian and French Creek communities.
“In total, I served in six churches in Upshur County, and I loved learning about rural America and Adrian, which was at one point larger than Buckhannon,” he said. “It was so enjoyable to get to know the history and folklore of Upshur County.”
It was also enjoyable to get to know the janitor in Jenkins Hall, Mr. Lemon, a little better when serving as a pastor in rural Upshur County.
Bickerton had always admired Lemon for his work ethic, level-headedness and steadfast counsel, and when he began his rotation as a student pastor, he discovered the janitor was also a pianist at the United Methodist Church in Big Bend.
Feola remembers the Stardust drive-in and the delicious fare served up by friendly faces.
“Remember the Stardust? Rolling up your car window so the tray would fit? Or going inside to sit in a booth and play the jukebox?” he asks. “And who could forget spaghetti at Mama Feola’s? It was a real treat for guys living in the dorm or on fraternity house food, and we had a pool table, too. She really loved guys and gals inviting people over and taught me the pleasure of giving.”
Lessons learned and life development outside the classroom
“You do a lot of growing up in the college years,” Bickerton said. “In high school, I had been in the top 10 in my class, so I came to campus kind of cocky, but I had big crash the first year, and that’s when you learn about discipline and study.”
That’s also when Bickerton learned the value of cultivating relationships with key mentors. He can still rattle off the names of his Bible studies professor, Dr. Peter Bercovitz, and his sociology professor, Dr. John Warner. Both Warner and Dr. Marvin Carr were integral in helping Bickerton integrate his academic studies into his vocation.
“They really taught us a lot about how to integrate your studies into your life,” Bickerton says. “Dr. Marvin Carr was really involved in the community, and those were powerful lessons.”
Pepper, too, said her Wesleyan years were formative ones.
“Before I went to Wesleyan, I was not very outgoing,” she said. “I really consider my years at Wesleyan kind of the best years I’ve ever had. I came out of my shell.”
Pepper had attended a large high school where she never quite felt she fit in.
“At Wesleyan, though, I found my niche,” she reflected.
‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’
Bickerton encourages alumni to come back to campus when they can.
“I wouldn’t have traded my years at Wesleyan for anything,” Bickerton said. “There are a lot of struggles with small liberal arts colleges now, and it’s really important that alumni rally around and support places like Wesleyan: That institution really plays a key role in the development of young students.”
While some things have changed – be sure to check out the impressive new theater facility, the Virginia Thomas Law Center for the Performing Arts, and the O’Roark Nordstrom Welcome Center – some of Wesleyan’s gems like the iconic Wesley Chapel haven’t changed a bit.
“It’s really the best of both worlds,” alum Linda Xander, Class of 1975, says. “There’s some changes, but the Chapel is still in the same place and is just as gorgeous as ever – you look at those buildings, and they still look brand new.”
Xander, who earned a degree in nursing, said Buckhannon and Upshur County now has so much more to offer than it did when she was a student, including hotels, quaint bed-and-breakfasts and several venues where live music and appetizing cuisine can be enjoyed simultaneously.
Xander likes Buckhannon so much, in fact, that she and her husband, Dennis, decided to make it their home.
“It’s wonderful to see how the college has progressed and all the great things Wesleyan has done,” Pepper adds, highlighting the reinstatement of the nursing program. “We usually bring a grandchild with us to try to get them interested in the school. If you don’t bring them, they don’t know what you’re talking about.”
When Pepper encounters other Wesleyan alumni, she asks them if they’ve been back to see the campus.
“You ought to,” she tells them. “You will be impressed, and it will bring back a lot of memories.”
This story was produced in partnership with the Upshur County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Visit their website to learn more about what Buckhannon has to offer those planning a trip back to campus.