It isn’t easy to run for office, start a business, found a nonprofit, or dedicate your life to helping others. But the women in these pages aren’t worried about easy. They have committed their lives to doing whatever it takes to make our state a better place to live.  WV Living proudly presents the Wonder Women class of 2018.

written by ANNABEL BRAZAITIS, NIKKI BOWMAN, ZACK HAROLD, AND JESSICA WALKER


DR. PATRICE HARRIS – Paging Dr. Harris…

It all started with Marcus Welby, M.D. When Patrice Harris was a kid growing up in Bluefield, she loved watching the kindly California doctor both treat individual patients’ ailments and work to solve problems in his community. It made her want to pursue a career in medicine.

Harris attended West Virginia University, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology before enrolling in medical school. She graduated in 1992.

Since leaving WVU, Harris has served as director of health services for Atlanta and Fulton County, Georgia, as well as medical director for the Fulton County Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

In June, Harris was elected president of the American Medical Association’s Board of Trustees. She’s the first black woman to hold the office. Although she gained inspiration from Dr. Welby, Harris credits her success to her West Virginia upbringing. “My parents taught me that I could be anything I wanted to be,” she told The Atlanta Voice in June, “and never wavered in their support.” – ZH

JANET DOOLEY – Training the Truth-Tellers

Growing up, Janet Dooley wanted to be an artist. Then she discovered the world of advertising. “It’s a place where you can think differently.”

She studied advertising at Marshall University, got a master’s in communications from the University of Tennessee, and worked in newspapers, radio, and PR until an old professor called and said Marshall’s journalism school had an open teaching position. “At that point, I thought ‘That’d be fun for a few years.’”

Four decades later, Dooley is still thinking differently and teaching students to do the same. She wants students to have all the skills they’ll need to be successful in 21st century journalism—whether that’s making podcasts, shooting video with drones, or using virtual reality technology. But it’s more than that. “You’re not just teaching a skill to get a job, you’re teaching people to think independently, to be critical and analyze,” she says. “We are at a point where we need journalists as much as we have ever needed them.” – ZH

SUE OLCOTT – She Speaks for the Butterflies

Biologist Susan Olcott has long been the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources’ go-to “bug person.” But since she attended a conference about monarch butterflies in 2016, the iconic orange-and-black butterflies have “taken over her life,” she says.

Loss of habitat over the decades is causing many butterflies to perish during their migration from Mexico to Canada and back. Some worry the insects might become extinct—which, since they are important pollinators, would have disastrous effects on the ecosystems they inhabit.

West Virginia is on the front lines of the fight to save the monarchs, and Olcott is leading the charge to reduce mowing and grow new butterfly habitat on state-owned property and to encourage private landowners to do the same.

She is now writing the state’s conservation plan for monarchs, which will help inform the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision about whether to include the species on its endangered species list. – ZH

WEST VIRGINIA TEACHERS -55 Strong

On February 17, 2018, thousands of teachers and school service personnel gathered on the steps of the State Capitol in drizzling rain and temperatures that hovered just above freezing, waving signs with slogans like “Will Work For Insurance,” “Country Roads, Keep Me Home,” and “If You Can Read This, Thank a Teacher.” Many wore red bandanas around their throats. The vast majority of them were women.

This was the beginning of the 2018 West Virginia Teacher Strike, the historic work stoppage that shut down the state’s entire school system for nine days. The world’s attention would soon be trained on West Virginia’s teachers and school service personnel, who were packing the Capitol every day and walking picket lines around the state, but the movement began far from the public eye, in whispers in school hallways and messages on private Facebook groups

“It was organic,” says Christine Campbell, president of American Federation of Teachers’ West Virginia chapter. “People started talking about it among themselves and reaching out to their union representatives.” Tensions have been growing for years, but this year’s legislative session proved a “perfect storm” for union members, Campbell says, with lawmakers introducing legislation to undermine public education and weaken unions at the same time public employees were facing drastic increases to health insurance premiums. Not only that, West Virginia teacher pay consistently ranks among the lowest in the nation.

By the end of the strike, despite opposition from some of the Legislature’s top leaders, teachers got those bills defeated and their pay increased by 5 percent, and made lawmakers promise to shore up insurance funding. “It was something I will never forget,” says Jessica Salfia, an English teacher at Spring Mills High in Berkeley County and co-editor of the book 55 Strong: Inside The West Virginia Teachers’ Strike. “I have never in my life experienced anything like it. It was the power of the collective voice.”

Not that every lawmaker wanted to listen. “You’d hear a lot of comments about ‘The shrill voices in the hallway.’ Well, you don’t refer to a man’s voice as ‘shrill,’” Salfia says.
The success of the 2018 teacher strike will be measured not only by the gains teachers made in West Virginia. Teachers here inspired similar movements in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Oklahoma, where it wasn’t uncommon to see teachers carrying signs reading “Don’t Make Me Go West Virginia On You.”

And that’s why WV Living is pleased to include all female West Virginia teachers in this year’s list of Wonder Women. – ZH

LISSA LUCAS – Going Viral

If you Googled Lissa Lucas’s name a year ago, you would have found My Pet Chicken Handbook, a book she co-authored. Google it now and you’ll find a video of Lucas standing before the West Virginia House of Delegates’ Energy Committee, reading off how much money committee members received from the natural gas industry—until her mic gets cut off and guards lead her away.

The episode dominated social media for days and was featured on national news outlets, causing donations to pour into her previously cash-strapped campaign for the House of Delegates. But Lucas, of Cairo, makes clear it wasn’t a stunt. She just wanted people to know how money is influencing the decisions their elected leaders make. “I’m glad people paid attention,” she says. – ZH

KEELEY STEELE -Serving Up Change

Keeley Steele had no plans to remain in Charleston when she returned home in 1999. Within a year, though, she had married her husband, John, and both agreed they wanted to stay. But Steele faced a dilemma. “How do we stay in this town, make it better, and not be those people who complain all the time?”

She found the answer in her dad’s storage space, where she and John discovered the commercial stove they would use to open Bluegrass Kitchen in 2005. With Steele running the kitchen, the restaurant quickly became known for its “elevated comfort food” made with top-notch, as-local-as-possible ingredients.

She followed Bluegrass’s success in 2007 by opening Tricky Fish, a fast-casual joint just across the street. In 2010, the Steeles opened Starling’s, a bakery and coffee shop about a block away. “They were all things the neighborhood needed. I felt like, if I could get my neighbors there, we’d be OK.”

But Steele isn’t content with just feeding her neighbors. She also represents them on Charleston City Council, where she has served since 2015. “I think the city is ripe for change,” she says. – ZH

ERICA BENTLEY – She’s Got Your Back

Buckhannon native Erica Bentley came to WVU with dreams of becoming a public relations professional in the music industry. Then she started volunteering with the environment-focused nonprofit Global Impact, writing brochures and helping to apply for grants. “It clicked with me—I can use these writing skills and PR skills to make a difference,” she says.

After a short time in the private sector, Bentley returned to WVU in 2002, working at the foundation, the university’s National Environmental Services Center branch, the WVU Center for Aging, the Division of Student Affairs, and other offices before becoming director of research at the university’s School of Public Health in 2015.

She still enjoys writing and administering grants. “It’s kind of like solving a puzzle and telling a good story on top of it all.” But it’s more than that. With her team taking care of the financial stuff, researchers can do their important work without extra worry. “We give them a level of comfort that we have their backs.”

Bentley also served on WVU’s Council for Women’s Concerns from 2011 to 2015, working to create the Women’s Resource Center to connect female faculty and students with resources within the university and in the Morgantown community. – ZH

JUDGE PATRICIA KELLER – Saving Lives from the Bench

As a family court judge in Cabell County, Patricia Keller noticed drug issues were popping up more and more in her courtroom. So in 2009, she agreed to become part of the state’s expanded adult drug court program. She was nervous at first. “I’d never dealt with adult criminals. Little did I realize these are just big kids I was dealing with.”

A drug court judge leads a team of social workers, therapists, and probation officers to help drug offenders get clean, stay clean, and stay out of prison. It works. Drug court graduates have a 9.4 percent recidivism rate, compared to 80 percent of those sent to jail or prison.

As a result of her drug court work, Keller was one of the three women featured in the 2017 Oscar- and Emmy-nominated documentary Heroin(e), and she now serves on a task force to expand drug courts nationwide.

Although Keller no longer presides over the Cabell County drug court, it’s still part of her life. She recently saw a woman she kicked out of drug court and sent to prison. The woman eventually got out, got a job, and was putting her life together. She wanted to show Keller her car. “She said, ‘I couldn’t have done it without drug court.’” – ZH

D.L. HAMILTON – People Over Politics

D.L. Hamilton loves Facebook. So earlier this year, the Charleston attorney decided to turn that love into something useful. “I thought, I’m going to send a conversation to every woman that’s running for the Legislature.”

Now many of the women from that group chat are members of Hamilton’s Mountain Mamas political action committee. It’s small, as PACs go—it mostly exists to spread the word about its member candidates and serve as a support group for candidates, many of whom are running for office for the first time. “There are those times when you need someone there to remind you, ‘Chin up. Ever forward,’” Hamilton says. “It’s a safe place ot seek out advice, vent your frustrations, admit that you blew it in a particular meeting or speech.”

Mountain Mamas now includes 20 women from all over the state and many different walks of life. But one thing binds them all. “People over politics,” Hamilton says. “They just want to help West Virginia move forward. It’s just who they are individually. Together, it becomes something even bigger.” Now, if her candidates are elected, Hamilton says they will walk into the Legislature as members of a powerful women-focused caucus. “This is preparing them to hit the ground running. They know each other, they trust each other, they have discussed issues and what they want their message to be.” – ZH

DEBBIE JARRELL – For Future Generations

Debbie Jarrell’s granddaughter was experiencing splitting headaches, and Jarrell eventually discovered why. The little girl’s school, Marsh Fork Elementary, in Raleigh County, sat directly below a coal mine sludge impoundment pond that threatened to drown everyone in the school if it broke. Not only that, the pond was already leaching contaminants into the water supply.

Jarrell founded Pennies of Promise, a nonprofit dedicated to building a new Marsh Fork Elementary School, in 2003. The group raised $10,000 on its own but was turned down again and again by the state for further funding. Its fight gained the attention of the Annenberg Foundation, which contributed $2.5 million—which prompted Massey Energy, the mine’s owner, to give $1 million, too. The new school opened in 2013.

In 2010, Jarrell became co-director of Coal River Mountain Watch and started the Tadpole Project to clean and restore the Marsh Fork of the Big Coal River. Jarrell says she’s particularly proud to see young people participating in the project’s regular clean-up days and tire collections. “Not only are we picking up litter, we’re teaching pride in their area. My grandmother always said, if you take care of the earth, it’ll take care of you.” – ZH

KAREN FRIEL – Making a Difference Every Second

“One thing led to another, like it was meant to be.” That’s how Karen Friel describes the roundabout journey she took to become director of the U. S. Small Business Administration’s West Virginia office.

She began her career in sales, transitioned to marketing, then got into commercial lending, where she discovered a passion for helping small business owners make their dreams come true. That’s why she applied for a job with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) in 2007. She’s held several positions in the 11 years since then, including administrative officer, business development specialist, and deputy district director, before becoming district director in 2014.

During her time with the SBA, Friel is proud to have increased the number of West Virginia lenders offering SBA-backed loans, brought micro-lending to the state, and helped businesses qualify for federal grants to expand internationally. Friel also helped to launch the WVU Women’s Business Center. “West Virginia deserves to have good assistance,” she says. “Here, I feel like we can make a difference every single second—and we don’t have enough seconds in the day.” – ZH

CYNTHIA DRENNAN – Helping the Helpers

Cynthia Drennan grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, in a family of West Virginians who left the state in the early 20th century. But in 2011, Drennan followed the “hillbilly highway” in the opposite direction.

After years doing mission work and managing philanthropic organizations, she came to Parkersburg in 2012 to direct the Sisters of St. Joseph Charitable Fund, a group that serves eight West Virginia counties and three counties in Ohio. She oversaw the organization’s rebranding—it’s now known as the Sisters Health Foundation—and worked to make it easier for groups to apply for and manage grants.

During Drennan’s tenure, the foundation gave out more than 400 grants totalling nearly $5 million. Some were to small groups like local food pantries, but the foundation also partnered with bigger entities like the Benedum Foundation and Marshall University to secure large federal grants. “Philanthropy itself is a wonderful kind of work. You don’t have the boundaries of competition,” she says. “We can be that little leverage that’s needed to help others.”

Drennan left the foundation in 2017 and is now caring for her ailing mother. She’s not retired, though. “I say ‘sabbatical.’” Meaning, she’s not done yet. – ZH

MARGARET MARY LAYNE – Reshaping Her Hometown

In 1997 Huntington native Margaret Mary Layne went to work for the Huntington Museum of Art, first as development director and then as executive director. She expanded the museum’s collection of works by artists of color, increased its children’s programming, and sought to create deeper connections with the Huntington community. “I thought it was my forever job.”

Then, in 2014, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams offered her the job of city manager. She jumped at the chance. Soon after, Huntington began its bid to be named America’s Best Community (ABC), competing against 300 towns nationwide for a $3 million community revitalization grant. Layne was instrumental in crafting Huntington’s ambitious plan, which included fixing blighted neighborhoods, rehabilitating brownfields, and connecting the whole city with high-speed internet. In spring 2017, that bold plan brought home the grand prize.

Although she is still working on Huntington’s ABC plans, Layne quit her job with the city in late 2015 to start her own company, a consulting firm for nonprofit groups. It’s one more way she’s making her hometown a better place to live. “I believe any strong community has a strong network of nonprofit entities that serve the needs of that community.” – ZH

JENNIFER GARNER – Shining Star

Before she was adored by fans all over the world, Jennifer Garner was honing her acting skills with the Charleston Light Opera Guild. After studying theater in college, she moved to Hollywood, where she worked her way through bit parts in TV shows and movies—until she got her big break on the spy show Alias.

Garner is now one of Hollywood’s most recognizable faces, appearing in noted films like Juno, Dallas Buyer’s Club, and, most recently, Peppermint. But she’s more than just a pretty face. She uses her star power as an ambassador for Save the Children, working to boost children’s literacy, nutrition, and early childhood education all over the world. She’s also a constant ambassador for West Virginia—whether she’s singing “The West Virginia Hills” on Conan or raising money for families affected by devastating flooding in 2016.

And it isn’t just lip service. Garner can often be seen in her hometown, grabbing coffee at Taylor Books or attending a West Virginia Power baseball game. – ZH

EMILY LILLY – Lilly Leads the Way

Only 30 percent of soldiers who enter U.S. Army Ranger School make it to graduation. And only about a dozen women have completed Ranger School since the Army allowed female soldiers to enroll in 2006.

But back in April, First Lieutenant Emily Lilly, a Beckley native who joined the West Virginia National Guard in 2014, became the first female National Guard soldier to graduate from the Ranger School. “The accomplishments of 1st Lt. Emily Lilly are a direct reflection of her drive and determination to achieve every goal she has set for herself,” West Virginia National Guard Adjutant General James Hoyer said in a press release.

Before becoming a Ranger, Lilly was the first woman in the National Guard to earn a combat occupational specialty, serving as a platoon leader with the Charlie Troop, 1st Squadron, 150th Cavalry Regiment.

But Lilly’s achievements aren’t limited to the military—she has also earned three bachelor’s degrees from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in international studies, political science, and classical studies. – ZH

DR. ETHEL CAFFIE-AUSTIN – Gospel Truth

Ethel Caffie-Austin started playing piano when she was 6 years old, and started playing in church when she was 12. But her parents would not allow her to study music in college, so she enrolled at West Virginia University Institute of Technology as an English major. After graduation, she spent several years teaching high school in Fayette County before moving to Charleston.

She started playing concerts around town. Once, while performing at the Culture Center, she was approached by a talent agent who offered to send her on tour. After that, she spent each summer touring all over the United States and Europe. “I would go to remote villages, and the people would pack the churches out. Sometimes they would be standing outside because they couldn’t get in,” she says.

Caffie-Austin has received many awards for her music, including an honorary doctorate from Davis & Elkins College and the Vandalia Gathering’s Vandalia Award. And although she has retired from those whirlwind tours, she still occasionally plays concerts around the Kanawha Valley. – ZH

KAREN HARING – The Freedom Fighter

When Karen Haring screened a documentary about human trafficking at her church, she came to a shocking revelation. “I realized I was physically free—but I wasn’t emotionally free or intellectually free or relationally free.” And she realized other women were struggling with the same things.

That’s why Haring formed Libera, a nonprofit that aims to “create an environment where women and teens are empowered to live in freedom.” Central to this mission are the group’s two buses, which serve as mobile meeting spaces for Libera’s support groups. “On the bus, women feel like it’s a safe environment. I see a level of vulnerability and openness in these groups I’ve never seen before. In one group last year we had a woman who is a lawyer and a woman who has struggled with homelessness and financial insecurity. And they were both struggling with the same lies.”

Libera currently has support groups in eight counties but hopes to eventually have a group in each West Virginia county. “We have some big dreams,” Haring says. – ZH

KELLIE THOMAS – Coach Kellie

When the football coach at Hannan High in Mason County quit earlier this year, players went to P.E. and health teacher Kellie Thomas with a request. “They were like, ‘Kellie, you’ve got to apply. Please,’” Thomas says.

She agreed, not realizing that, if hired, she would be the first female head football coach in West Virginia history. “Lo and behold, I got it.”

She has her work cut out for her. It’s a young team with a roster of only 19 players, meaning most players will be on the field for the entire game. “My words to them were, ‘I will never quit coaching you, during a game or during a season.’ I expect the same from them—not to quit on the field.”

Thomas is no stranger to the game. In addition to playing pickup games as a kid, she served as an athletic trainer for Marshall University’s 1992 national championship team. “To me, football is football whether it’s a man or woman coaching. If you know the game, you know the game.” – ZH

JUDY MARGOLIN – She’s Got Your Back

After years in state politics—including time with the administrations of governors Rockefeller and Caperton and a stint as executive director of the state Democratic Party—Judy Margolin joined the Charleston law firm Bowles Rice in 1997.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court made it legal for lawyers to advertise in 1977, many firms remained hesitant to embrace advertising. Bowles Rice hired Margolin to expand its fledgling marketing department and, under her direction, the firm got its first logo, launched its Views and Visions magazine, and set up the first law firm website in the state.

As the firm expanded, Margolin was promoted in 2006 to executive director. She’s still in the position today, overseeing Bowles Rice’s marketing, IT, and human resources operations, allowing the firm’s partners to focus on the practice of law. “I love being part of a team. I really enjoy being behind the scenes in a more supportive role. I take my pride in seeing the candidate elected—I don’t want to be the candidate.” – ZH

DANIELLE WALKER – Pulling People Up

Danielle Walker already had her hands full as a single working mother taking care of a son with autism, another son with rheumatoid arthritis and other medical problems, and her mother, who has heart problems and was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Then, in August 2017, violence at a white nationalist rally in Virginia left one counter-protestor dead and dozens more injured. Walker went to West Virginia University’s campus that night for a vigil and ended up speaking. “I realized I needed to be the change. From that day forward I have not shut my mouth.”

Local Democratic Party officials asked Walker to run for the House of Delegates. Since then, she has spent nearly every day attending family reunions, church gatherings, rallies, and marches, “anywhere I can shake someone’s hand and ask, ‘If you had one wish, what would you do for our state government?”

Walker’s wish is to find a way to “pull our people up.” “I will represent the people, all the ones that voted for me and those that didn’t.” – ZH

HAZEL RUBY MCQUAIN – The Benefactor

Hazel Ruby McQuain passed away in 2002, at age 93. But her spirit of giving continues to live on, benefitting the lives of West Virginians every day.

After her husband, J.W. Ruby, died in 1972, McQuain became president of Ruby Enterprises, Inc. In 1984, she gave $8 million to kick-start construction of West Virginia University’s new hospital, which would be named J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital. It was the largest cash gift in WVU history. But McQuain was not finished.

In addition to her work with the WVU Foundation Board of Directors and many other Morgantown-area civic groups, McQuain continued to give money to WVU for the rest of her life and then set up the Hazel Ruby McQuain Charitable Trust to continue that giving after her death. The value of those gifts, combined with matching dollars WVU collected as a result of that money, now totals more than $40 million. – ZH

KELLY DOYLE – The Wikipedia Wizard

photo by Raymond Thompson Jr.

WVU Libraries decided to make Wikipedia, the world’s fifth-most-visited website, a better place to learn. So the university enlisted the help of Kelly Doyle.

In 2015, Doyle became WVU’s first-ever Wikipedian in Residence for Gender Equity. See, about 90 percent of the site’s volunteer editors are men, which leads to a natural bias about the people and subjects covered on Wikipedia. Of the 1.6 million biographies on the website, fewer than 280,000 are about women. Doyle’s job was to begin shifting that bias by helping professors overcome their attitudes against Wikipedia and teaching students to research, write, and edit articles. Her efforts have led to dozens of brand-new entries on Wikipedia and improvements to existing articles.

Her residency ended in July and Doyle is now working with the nonprofit resource company mySociety, using her Wikipedia skills to increase information availability around the world. “When it’s on Wiki, it belongs to everyone,” she says. – ZH

NINA PASINETTI – Taking the Stage

Nina Denton Pasinetti danced in her first and only Charleston Light Opera Guild production, Annie Get Your Gun, as a student at Morris Harvey College, now the University of Charleston. She left West Virginia for grad school at Ohio University, where she studied mathematics, then came home to teach math at George Washington High. She also started teaching dance and working in the local theater scene, becoming the guild’s choreographer in 1971. She became its artistic director in 1983 and still holds the position 35 years later.

She has worked with hundreds of actors during her long tenure. Some have gone on to successful careers in entertainment. A few—like Jennifer Garner (page 101) and Kathy Mattea—have become household names.

Pasinetti remains committed to staging professional-quality productions for her community. “When it clicks, it’s magical,” she says. “Nothing talks to my soul more than dance and musical theater. It erases the worry of the day and takes you out of problems. And it inspires you.” The guild’s production of Ragtime opens in November. – ZH

JACKIE RIGGLEMAN – A League of Her Own

In 2016, at the age of 25, Jackie Riggleman became the assistant general manager of the West Virginia Black Bears—one of only two women in the country to hold the position in minor league baseball. In October 2017, she was named the New York-Penn League Joann Weber Female Executive of the Year. A native of Moorefield, she lives in Morgantown, where she oversees the Black Bears’ ticketing, merchandising, media, accounting, community relations, and internship program. She also orchestrates her team’s community service program, which has players participating in more than 400 hours of community service per season. When not at the ballpark, she volunteers in the community and currently serves on the judges’ committee for the Miss West Virginia Organization and the advisory board for the Miss West Virginia’s Outstanding Teen Program. – NB

MISTI SIMS – Run, Don’t Walk

Misti Sims will not be stopped. In 2010, she started Little Black Dress Events, a wedding and event planning business in Parkersburg, which quickly became one of the state’s leading event planners for everything from weddings to nonprofit fundraisers to corporate conferences. Then, just a year later, she was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. But Sims refused to let the diagnosis slow her down. In 2012, she adopted her son, Maxim, and has since become a spokesperson for adoption, educating others about the process and sponsoring Children’s Home Society’s fundraisers.

She also became a marathoner. Sims was one of 30 people in the United States chosen to be on the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Marathon team and in 2015 ran the New York Marathon, raising awareness for MS. This year, she ran the Boston Marathon, competing in a torrential downpour. “If someone says I can’t do something, I’m going to prove them wrong,” she says. “I want people to understand multiple sclerosis. I’m not going to let it get the best of me.” – NB

IVIN B. LEE – A Lifetime of Firsts

Ivin B. Lee studied criminal justice at West Virginia State University but assumed she would never be a police officer. “During that time, it was unheard of. They didn’t want women there.” But while working as a dispatcher for the Charleston Police Department, she became the first woman to take the police academy’s admission test. “And the first one to flunk it,” she quips.

Lee persisted and eventually passed that test, only to have the Fraternal Order of Police challenge her admission. She took it all the way to the state Supreme Court of Appeals and won, graduated, and became Charleston’s first black female officer in 1975. She worked her way through nearly every branch of the department, becoming Charleston’s first-ever female detective and eventually its public information officer.

She retired from the CPD in 1995 with plans to slow down. Then she got a call from the mayor of Dunbar. “We had a long conversation, and finally I said, ‘What is it you want from me?’ He said, ‘I want you to be my chief.’”

It would be yet another first. “There had never been a female chief at all in the state of West Virginia,” Lee says.

She made significant changes during her two years as head of the all-male, all-white department. She modernized administrative procedures, updated officers’ equipment, and started a bike patrol division. “That female touch,” she laughs. It wasn’t uncommon to see Lee check in on the 2 a.m. shift. “I wasn’t just going to be an 8-to-5 police chief.”

Lee left Dunbar in 1998 but once again did not stay retired for long. She became deputy director of corrections at the state Division of Juvenile Services, overseeing the Salem Correctional Center and the Kenneth “Honey” Rubenstein Juvenile Center. Then, in 1999, Governor Cecil Underwood appointed Lee executive director of the state Human Rights Commission. She was reappointed by governors Wise and Manchin before stepping down in 2011.

Now, at 80, Lee still isn’t slowing down. She serves on the board at Teays Valley Nazarene and stays busy with church’s outreach activities.

She traces her lifetime commitment to community service to her mother, a house cleaner with an eighth-grade education who successfully lobbied to get streetlights, a bus route, and eventually a housing development for her family’s impoverished neighborhood. “She got things done.”
Like mother, like daughter. – ZH

KAYLA KESSINGER – A Women’s Place is in the House (of Delegates)

When Kayla Kessinger was growing up in Mount Hope, her parents taught her community service was essential to citizenship. So when local Republican officials asked her to run for the House of Delegates in 2014, she agreed. Reluctantly. “I never in a million years thought I was going to win.” But Kessinger won, beating out two longtime incumbents, and has spent the past four years representing the 32nd District under the big gold dome.

Kessinger says she’s most proud of support for a 2015 bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, as well as 2016’s Second Chances Act, which allows non-violent felons to apply to have their charges downgraded to misdemeanors in an effort to help their job prospects. When members of Kessinger’s own party introduced an amendment to weaken the bill, she took to the floor and argued—successfully—to get the amendment rejected.

She is now seeking a third term. “West Virginia is my home. I’m taking total ownership of it, and because of that I want to make sure my community has everything it needs.” – ZH

LIZ MCILVAIN – Keeping the Plates Spinning

To Elizabeth McIlvain, the Hancock County-based Homer Laughlin China Company—best known for its vibrant Fiestaware line—is more than a pottery business. It’s part of the family.

McIlvain represents a fourth generation at Homer Laughlin, and its first female president. As a child, McIlvain felt slightly embarrassed that her family owned the business where her friends’ parents worked. Now, preserving those deep-rooted local ties is her mission. While china factories nationwide have yielded to foreign manufacturing, Homer Laughlin is the largest remaining manufacturer of dishware in the United States. “My ultimate goal is to keep the people of this community working and making an American-made product,” she says.

Through the years, McIlvain has worked in the company office, supervised the warehouse, and served as superintendent of the plant that manufactures hotel dinnerware. Experiencing different facets of the business gave McIlvain an appreciation for the employees and products.

There’s no need to worry about the future of Homer Laughlin and its commitment to West Virginia. McIlvain is already passing that legacy onto the next generation—two of her daughters also work for the company. – JW

ERIKA SMITH – Memory Maker

Erika Smith has built her life around memories. The Tucker County native’s Ella & Company sells carefully curated antiques from a storefront in downtown Thomas where her father once shoveled coal for quarters. She also uses those antiques as part of her wedding planning service—Smith’s way of helping others make their own memories.

For the past few years she has served on the boards of both the Tucker Community Foundation and New Historic Thomas, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the town’s history and culture. Smith, who studied interior design at WVU and also holds a graduate certificate in historic preservation, says working with the groups is a “no-brainer.” “I can use my background and the things I’m passionate about to help my community.” It’s her way of ensuring future generations of Tucker Countians can grow up with memories of home, just like she did. – ZH

JOELLEN BURSINGER ZACKS – The Education Advocate 

When JoEllen Zacks first walked into Mountaineer Montessori School in Charleston, she was a mother seeking quality daycare for her daughter. Years later, she’s now an advocate for Montessori education and a member of the school’s board of directors. “Enrolling my daughter was like taking the genie out of the bottle,” says Zacks. “Children explode into learning when they’re given the right environment.”

When she joined the board, Zacks—whose background includes strategic planning and law—revamped its communication efforts, identifying the school’s key values and spreading the word about Montessori education to families, policy makers, and other organizations. In the six years since she began, enrollment at the school has nearly doubled to about 150 students.

Zacks previously spent seven years working with economic development and the Charleston Area Alliance. For her, education is tied to economic survival and a robust workforce. “West Virginia is not going to reach its fullest potential if our people don’t reach their potential. We have to make sure each child has a strong start in life.” – JW

BETTY PUSKAR – Fighting for West Virginia Women

photo by Rebecca Devono

When Betty Puskar was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer in the mid-1980s—doctors gave her three months to live—West Virginia didn’t have any cancer centers. So she flew from Morgantown to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas for treatment. While there, watching other young women suffer with the same illness, Puskar resolved to act. ”I made up my mind that I would put all my energy toward helping West Virginia women,” she says.

It has now been more than three decades, and Puskar is a thriving philanthropist. During her recovery, she served on a board to build the WVU Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center, which opened in 1990. Two years later, the Betty Puskar Breast Care Center also became a reality. “I just can’t say enough of how nice people were to help,” she says. “We’re lucky to live here and have the nice people we do in West Virginia to support us.” – JW

SHARON STRATTON – Minding Your Business

It’s Sharon Stratton’s business to help you run yours. For 26 years, she’s worked at Morgantown’s West Virginia Small Business Development Center (WVSBDC), where she assists entrepreneurs in in acquiring, expanding, and marketing their businesses. “I really find it’s rewarding to help people,” says Stratton, now the center’s manager. “Every time somebody gets financing for their business, all all of us end up celebrating.”

A West Virginia native, Stratton was earning her Master of Business Administration in Maryland when she got an internship with the Maryland SBDC. Since joining the WVSBDC in 1992, she has helped all kinds of clients: dental offices, food trucks, medical clinics, shooting ranges, landscaping business, and coffee shops, just to name a few.

For Stratton, helping entrepreneurs is exciting because they’re choosing to make their passions into reality. One of the greatest compliments she receives is when a business owner tells her that he’s able to take his family on vacation that year, like he’s always hoped to. Translation? Business is going well. – JW

JULIA SPELSBERG – Madam Mayor

In 2007, voters made Julia Spelsberg the first female mayor of Weston. Soon after, she and other local officials discovered the city was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt from previous administrations. “Since that time, we’ve really improved financially,” she says.

Indeed, Spelsberg—and the city—haven’t slowed over the past 11 years. The planning commission collaborated with WVU to update its comprehensive plan and citywide zoning. The fairs and festivals committee commemorated Weston’s bicentennial this year, while the arts council continues to ensure cultural events abound. Spelsberg also used her connection with Stonewall Memorial Hospital, where she serves as marketing director, to help secure grants for the parks and recreation committee to create outdoor spaces.

Spelsberg says she ran for mayor because she wanted to help Weston, where she’s lived with her husband since 1976. She hopes others follow that example. “I hope there are people who follow us and get involved,” she says. “That can really make Weston a beautiful city.” – JW

LOIS CRICHTON – Devoted to Equality

Two decades ago, Lois Crichton’s husband stopped his car on the shoulder of a highway, stepped outside, and carried Crichton across the state border. This was the Richmond, Virginia, native’s introduction to West Virginia. In the years that have followed, Crichton has embraced her new home state and is committed to making it a better, more equal place. “Equality and the empowerment of women and girls have been central to what I have focused on outside of my practice,” she says. Crichton has served as the president of the YWCA Board of Directors and the chair of the YWCA Women of Achievement Committee, and is now a member of a steering committee to bring a Women for Economic and Leadership Development chapter to Charleston. As a Charleston-based Wells Fargo financial advisor, Crichton uses financial planning as a tool of empowerment. She is tireless in telling her clients, “You can do this. You can afford this. You’re going to be fine.” And, with Crichton’s guidance, they are. – AB

TARA MARTINEZ – Food for Thought

Tara Martinez cares deeply about who is invited to the table. She’s the director of Manna Meal, a Charleston-based soup kitchen that serves hundreds of meals each day to community members suffering from food insecurity. An advocate for women and minorities, Martinez is also transforming West Virginia’s political discourse. Last year, she delivered a rousing speech at the Women’s March in Charleston, arguing for the importance of women running for office. “I wanted to plant some seeds about women taking that leap of faith to be leaders in our community. The motivation of women of all ages, races, and political ideologies who are starting to take their place at the table in politics is amazing.”

During the past decade, Martinez has served on a Race to End Racism committee and has provided cultural awareness training to Charleston’s police force. She demonstrates that issues of race and gender and economic equality matter—to all of us. – AB

KERISSA KUIS – Teaching Wellness

Years ago, Kerissa Kuis noticed something lacking in health certification programs in West Virginia. When she signed up to earn her own wellness certification, the program lasted only a few days, and she completed it without gaining the knowledge she wanted.

Now, as the creator of Straight Up Fearless and the president and founder of The University of Wellness, Kuis develops and administers robust wellness education programs that cover a wide array of wellness areas, including physical wellness and financial wellness, among many others. In the fall, she will launch Brave Inc., a business and leadership school. Her writings about healing and well-being have also been published on the websites of HuffPost and Forbes.

Kuis, who is also a business consultant, was recently selected to head the U.S. Small Business Administration Emerging Leaders Program in West Virginia. She says, “My dream was always to bring something to the state that hadn’t been here previously.” But Kuis is reaching far beyond West Virginia’s borders. With students living as far away as India, she is bettering the world. – AB

DIANE HINKLE – Run On

Diane Hinkle has run miles for her community. While serving as the development director of the Tucker Community Foundation, she helped establish Run For It, an annual 2k walk and 5k run in Davis that raises money for the projects, activities, and charities the foundation supports. “It brings families, communities, and counties together for a greater good,” says Hinkle, who also played a pivotal role in securing the funds needed to found the Potomac Highland Food and Farm Initiative, a nonprofit organization that seeks to make healthy and local foods more accessible by supporting small farms.

In recognition of her lasting contributions to Tucker County, Philanthropy West Virginia awarded Hinkle the 2016 Staff Leadership Award, and Governor Jim Justice presented her with the Distinguished Mountaineer award in 2017. Since retiring from the foundation in December, Hinkle has put more focus on a different kind of running: running for re-election to the Tucker County Commission, where she was the first woman elected to the body. “I enjoy doing anything that strengthens my community,” she says. – AB

RENATE PORE – For the Kids

When she arrived in West Virginia in the fall of 1968, Renate Pore was unsure if she would stay. Then, in April, redbuds unfolded in waves of pink and the boughs of dogwood trees were adorned with tightly clustered blooms. “I had never lived anywhere where spring was so beautiful,” Pore says.

But it was more than the scenery that has kept her here. During her tenure in public health, Pore has worked to make healthcare more accessible to West Virginians. She founded the Healthy Kids Coalition, for which she was awarded the 2014 National Advocate of the Year award from Families USA, a national nonprofit group dedicated to high-quality, affordable healthcare.

Now, fearing the collapse of programs that are integral to the lives of West Virginians, Pore is a candidate for the state House of Delegates in the 35th District. With this, she hopes to bring her zeal for children’s health to the forefront of state politics. “By 2010, we had universal health coverage for children in West Virginia—and it is excellent coverage.” -AB

TALLEY SERGENT – Talley it Up

When Huntington native Talley Sergent couldn’t find a job in journalism, she took a job at U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller’s press office in Washington, D.C. It was a life-changing experience. She saw how Rockefeller’s work wasn’t limited to the Senate floor, but he also used his name and influence to get things done for West Virginia citizens through his office’s Constituent Services division. “He always said, ‘Never forget who you work for.’”

It’s a philosophy Sergent has carried throughout her career. That has included stops at the U.S. State Department, where she worked on programs to empower women and girls as well as on public awareness campaigns to combat human trafficking, and at Coca Cola, where she was senior manager of global public affairs and worked to create a more health-conscious company culture.

Sergent also has plenty of political experience, working on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and both of Hillary Clinton’s White House bids. But 2018 marks the first time Sergent’s own name will appear on the ballot. She’s running for West Virginia’s second congressional district and, if elected, she plans to fight for the educational system and affordable healthcare.

“You’re asking people to put their faith in you. That’s an awesome responsibility and one I take very seriously,” she says. “I hope when voters see my sign, they say, ‘She’s got our back.’” – ZH

BETTY SCHOENBAUM – A Century of Giving

Betty Schoenbaum used her nearly 101 years to do a lot of good. How much good? Just take a drive around Charleston, where you’ll find the Schoenbaum Tennis Courts, the University of Charleston’s Schoenbaum Library, the Schoenbaum Stage at Haddad Riverfront Park, the Schoenbaum Soccer Complex at Coonskin Park, and the Schoenbaum Family Enrichment Center on the city’s West Side.

Schoenbaum, the widow of Shoney’s founder Alex, used her wealth to support the community in less conspicuous ways, too, with donations to the Charleston Light Opera Guild, the Children’s Home Society of West Virginia, Manna Meal, the Nature Conservancy of West Virginia, the United Way of Kanawha Valley, the YWCA of Charleston, and a host of other groups. She also made significant contributions to Columbus, Ohio—home of her alma mater Ohio State University—and Sarasota, Florida, where she kept a winter home.

In addition to her own giving, Schoenbaum, who died in July, encouraged others to give back to their communities. “What you put in, you get so much more out of it,” she told the Charleston Gazette-Mail before her 100th birthday last year. “When you share and you give, you get such joy out of it. It’s unbelievable.” – ZH

BERI FOX – Playing for Keeps

Beri Fox and her marbles are famous. As president and CEO of Paden City–based Marble King and an advocate for American manufacturing, Fox has appeared on The Colbert Report and The Martha Stewart Show. And the marbles themselves have appeared in such classic films as The Goonies, Hook, and Home Alone.

Marble King’s products are not, however, limited to the silver screen. They have been fastened to the back walls of Altar’d State stores nationwide. They have been used by NASA—for confidential reasons Fox wouldn’t discuss. They are components of filtration systems and spray paint cans. And they are, of course, toys. “Marbles is the game anyone can play,” Fox says. “You don’t have to be big. You don’t have to be strong. You can just be a kid with a thumb.” – AB

JESSICA LYNCH – Private, First Class

In 2003, Palestine native Jessica Lynch was injured and held captive in Iraq until she was rescued by American special forces a week later. In the years following that harrowing episode, Lynch has been featured in People, Glamour, and TIME, among others publications. Her experience is also documented in her biography, I Am a Soldier, Too, and Lynch has traveled across the nation to speak about perseverance and leadership.

She has also used the spotlight to help her state. Years ago, she partnered with the WVU Children’s Hospital to found Jessi’s Pals. “We were giving out new stuffed animals and blankets to kids so that they would have something comforting while they were going through surgery, because I knew how that felt.” Lynch, who still lives in West Virginia, also works as a substitute teacher and remains an in-demand public speaker. – AB

MORGAN ROBINSON – Promoting Discovery

Each day, Morgan Robinson observes the wonder that occurs during moments of discovery. This is a common phenomenon at the Clay Center, an arts stronghold in Charleston that houses a performing arts hall, an art gallery, and a science museum. Robinson serves as the center’s director of communications. “It’s so impactful to see children try to work on an exhibit,” she says. “And the spark when they get it, when it just snaps into place—that is amazing.” Robinson’s commitment to creating profound and lasting connections within her community extends to her involvement on the board of the Kanawha–Charleston Humane Association. She has also spearheaded donation drives that supply homeless women, many of whom are victims of domestic abuse, with personal care items. – AB

LINDA ARNOLD – Talking Cure

Linda Arnold believes in the power of dialogue. Once the communications director and press secretary for U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller and a highly successful businesswoman with accolades that include the 2002 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award and the Who’s Who in West Virginia Business award, Arnold is now a syndicated columnist for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the author of two books, and an in-demand motivational speaker.

“My intention is to write about things we all go through, and I believe we all learn from each other,” she says. “So many meaningful encounters have occurred, including responses from readers who felt I wrote a particular column just for them or that an insight I relayed made a difference in their lives.” For the many West Virginians who struggle with overcoming adversity, Arnold offers a way up, over, and onward. – AB

KENDRA FERSHEE – Advocating Destiny

“We need to change how we’re doing things,” says Kendra Fershee, the 2018 Democratic candidate for West Virginia’s first congressional district. “We need people to run for office who are different than who we have now. I think we need more working parents. I think we need more women. I think we need people who aren’t independently wealthy.”

Fershee, a law professor at West Virginia University, fits that description and has built a campaign around her vision for a more buoyant, vibrant state. She is seeking to combat West Virginia’s most pressing problems—from the youth exodus to the opioid crisis. “We, as West Virginians, need to be better advocates for ourselves,” she says. In doing so, Fershee is reminding us that we are not merely witnesses to our political destiny but are, instead, our destiny’s engineers. – AB

DR. PATRICIA JARVIS SULGIT – “We Do Grow Together”

Like wildflowers dotting a grassy field, Dr. Patricia Jarvis Sulgit’s compassion is sprinkled across West Virginia. While pastoring churches around the state, she has helped to establish programs that provide low-income mothers with maternity necessities in Bluefield, after-school spaces for children in Lewisburg, and childcare for recovering addicts attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings in Dunbar. Got Lunch and Got Stuff, projects that were developed by Sulgit and her congregation, offer meals and gently used items to those in the Dunbar community. “We don’t ask questions,” she says. “Whatever people say they need, we provide for them.” Sulgit takes stuffed animals to hospital patients and nursing home residents. She packages plates of food for those who have to work on Christmas Eve in hospitals, gas stations, and police and fire departments. Through her community outreach, Sulgit seeks to offer West Virginia the resources it needs to blossom. “Indeed,” she says, “we do grow together.” – AB

AMANDA ESTEP-BURTON – “That West Virginia Spirit”

Amanda Estep Burton was tired of complaining about state government, so she signed up to run for the House of Delegates. But four days before the primary, her house burned down, destroying all her family’s personal belongings—as well as Burton’s campaign materials.

Friends sprang into action. One found the family a rental inside the 36th District, so Burton would still be eligible for office, and other friends showed up to get the place ready, so she could keep campaigning. “That’s the West Virginia spirit that I’ve known about my whole life,” she says. She won the primary and is now headed to the general election in November.

Burton was once a single mom, working in the restaurant industry and relying on SNAP benefits to keep food on the table. She got a job as a teller and worked her way through the industry—she’s now an assistant vice president at BB&T.

As a delegate, she wants to boost the state’s tourism industry and education system and fight for working families. “When these legislators vote on SNAP benefits, I wonder if they have ever sat in a room with someone who’s wondered where their next meal is coming from,” Burton says. “Ten years ago, I did.” – ZH

EMILY CALANDRELLI –  Rising Star

Years ago, while traveling along West Virginia’s seemingly endless back roads, Emily Calandrelli rested her head on the car window and stargazed. “I was lucky enough to live in a place like West Virginia, where I had a beautiful, clear view of our universe,” she says. Since graduating from West Virginia University in 2010, Calandrelli has been dedicated to sharing that love of the universe.

She is a correspondent on Bill Nye Saves the World and the host and producer of FOX’s Xploration Outer Space, for which she received an Emmy nomination in 2017.

As the author of the Ada Lace Adventures—a children’s book series about a young girl who solves mysteries using science and technology—Calandrelli has spoken to hundreds of West Virginia school children about pursuing their interests in STEM fields. During one such talk, a young girl exclaimed, “Ada Lace is from West Virginia. She’s just like me.” – AB

DR. R. JENEE WALKER – Helping People Heal

As a child, R. Jenee Walker approached her mother each night carrying a message. “Goodnight, beautiful mother,” she would say, and her mother would echo, “Goodnight, beautiful daughter. I’ll see you in the morning.”

After her mother’s death, Walker, a psychiatrist who directs the Family Resource Center at CAMC Women and Children’s Hospital in Charleston, wrote Good Night Beautiful Mother, a picture book about the process of healing. Her daughter Chloe illustrated the book.

Walker has received many accolades for her work as a psychiatrist and activist, including the 2013 Governor’s Award for Civil Rights Advocacy and a 2018 YWCA Women of Achievement Award. And she continues to offer aid to those in distress through her practice. Fifteen years ago, after saving the life of an actively suicidal patient, Walker realized why she was a medical professional in West Virginia—to help people heal. “My patients have been a blessing to me,” she says. – AB

NIKKI TENNIS – Celebrating Small Victories

Nikki Tennis has dedicated her life to the protection of West Virginia’s most vulnerable children. As the director of Children’s Behavioral Health Services at the West Virginia Bureau for Behavioral Health and Health Facilities, and as the vice chair of the Children, Youth, and Families Division of the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, Tennis works to ensure that our state’s youngest residents and their families have access to the behavioral and mental health programs that will enable them to overcome the effects of substance abuse.

“Everything that I have chosen to do in my career has the ability to do some good,” says Tennis, a Clarksburg native.

But Tennis does not focus solely on the challenges that impede addiction recovery. She celebrates the smallest steps of those who seek to become clean. These steps are, Tennis says, victories that help to heal West Virginia.

 

Share:
Jennifer Gardner
Written by Jennifer Gardner
Shortly after flunking out of nursing school, Jennifer Gardner realized her love for storytelling. She is a recent graduate of West Virginia University and current features writer at the Charleston Gazette-Mail. She thinks of herself as an adopted West Virginian and will soon celebrate a decade in the Mountain State.