A WVU law grad looks back on a life helping clients get justice, helping lawyers get sober, and helping everyone else keep a song in their heart.
The “Earl of Elkview,” George Daugherty, perches atop a stool next to the Don Knotts statue on Morgantown’s High Street. He is playing an American flag guitar and looking the statue directly in its eyes as he sings a rousing chorus of “Hail West Virginia.” He tacks the phrase “beat the hell out of Pitt” to the end of the song, and laughs uproariously at the sentiment.
Daugherty has done this hundreds, maybe thousands, of times, but his laugh is as genuine now as it was when he first sang the song on the WVU campus 65 years ago. Two women who have stopped to listen cheer him on.
Beside Daugherty is a handsaw and a horsehair bow, two items often found next to one another in the mountains of Appalachia but not usually found—together or apart—on the streets of Morgantown. In 1950, Daugherty saw Don Knotts perform in Morgantown as a ventriloquist, along with a saw-playing musician named Jarvey Eldridge. Daugherty approached Eldridge after the show and was delighted when Eldridge offered to teach him how to play the unusual instrument. Since then, he has had a fondness for Knotts by association.
Daugherty is best known as a musician, but he first came to WVU to study medicine. “My uncle John gave me a $10 bill,” he says. “I went down to Charleston and I bought a pint of whiskey and a ukulele. I carried that ukulele up to Morgantown as a freshman and damn near flunked out of school before I realized I had no business in pre-med. To be a doctor, you have to understand chemistry and the sciences, and all that’s like Latin to me.”
He pauses for a moment. “Actually, I understand Latin. It’s like Greek to me.”
As Daugherty began to question his career choice, he often found himself drinking at a local bar called Tappa Kegga Bera on West Virginia Route 7. The bar was also frequented by quite a few lawyers blowing off steam after long workdays. “I would listen to them talk about their cases and become entranced,” he says. “That’s when I switched to law school.”
After discovering his calling, Daugherty’s life continued pretty much as planned. By the late ’60s, he had his own practice, a wife, and four children. Most of his attention was focused on his career. “For a number of years I intensely practiced law,” he says. “I was an obsessive-compulsive lawyer who did nothing but work. I just worked and worked and worked.”
Though he enjoyed being a lawyer, Daugherty knew he needed to build some time away from work into his life. He found an opportunity to do just that when he was offered a regular musical comedy role in a Charleston jamboree.
His mother was terrified. She had two primary concerns. First, she was afraid that even a part-time musician’s lifestyle would lead him to drink and party too much. Second, she was afraid that no one would take him seriously as a lawyer. One of these fears turned out to be well founded. The other, not so much.
Daugherty did indeed start drinking too much, but in the 1970s he got into a recovery program and hasn’t had a drink since. In 2013, the West Virginia Supreme Court established a program called the Judicial & Lawyer Assistance Program, which is dedicated to helping judges and lawyers with substance abuse issues get and stay sober. Daugherty was a perfect choice for the program’s first director, and he served two and a half years in that capacity.
Contrary to his mother’s other fear, Daugherty did not seem to lose clients because of his music. He had already chosen a path that was avoided by most legal professionals at the time: medical malpractice. Personal injury suits were the tried-and-true income generators, and lawyers were worried that doctors would not testify for them if their firms also sued doctors for medical malpractice.
Daugherty says that doctors turned out to be much more reasonable than the legal profession gave them credit for. “I never had a bad relationship with a doctor that I sued, except one,” he says. “Generally, if they blow it, they want to make it right, and they want to be sued by someone who at least treats them decently. I generally ended up being friends with the doctors I sued.” The one exception told him, “Mr. Daugherty, I can’t stand you!” and never spoke to him again.
His clients didn’t seem to take him less seriously either. He often performed for them, singing at births, funerals, and most any event that happens between the two. “I never knew a single soul that turned me down because of what I did. And I tried to leave them with a song in their heart and a message: how great it is to be an American and how great it is to be a West Virginian.”
Patriotism is a key component of Daugherty’s life and music. His father, a World War I veteran, instilled national pride in him early, in part by teaching him many of the patriotic songs he still performs. He holds up a black and white portrait of another hero he calls “Roscoe.” The man in the photo is smiling and clothed in military dress. As a child, Daugherty lived next to Elkview High School and would sometimes hang out beside the school’s field after classes let out, where the older kids would be playing football. Despite their difference in age, Roscoe offered to teach Daugherty how to play.
A few months after Roscoe trounced Elkview’s rival in a big game, he enlisted to fight in World War II. He was killed not long afterward, during a battle in France. “The sergeant said ‘Charge,’ and Roscoe charged,” Daugherty says, tears welling up after all these years. “That’s the kind of guy he was. So Roscoe never got to have a son and watch him play football.”
At the age of 85, almost all of the legal work Daugherty does is pro bono. He still dresses in full American flag attire and sings the patriotic songs he has enjoyed his entire life. He still sings and plays music with his children whenever he gets the chance. And the values he has tried hard to instill in them are still reflected in his favorite finale song:
From the mountain, to the prairies
To the oceans white with foam
God bless America, my home sweet home.