CHARLESTON, W.Va. - If the Cleveland Browns had not traded halfback Bobby Mitchell to the Washington Redskins ahead of the 1962 season, Jay Rockefeller might not have become one of West Virginia's two U.S. senators.
Rockefeller shared season tickets with Charlie Peters, a Charleston native. The two had met in the Peace Corps. In 1964 Peters would convince Rockefeller to visit West Virginia, a trip that would write a half-century of state history.
The two men talked in recent telephone interviews about how Rockefeller, a New Yorker by birth, ended up in West Virginia. Rockefeller, a five-term senator and former governor, is preparing to leave office after the 2014 election.
"We came together because we were both football fans, not a highly intellectual common ground, but that's how we became friends, talking about sports," said Peters, the eventual founder and longtime editor of The Washington Monthly.
"But as I got to know him, I got to say, 'This guy has the potential to do some good in life.' "
With Mitchell, the team's first black star and a future hall of famer, Peters said the Redskins suddenly went from "awful" to "interesting."
He and Rockefeller started going to games together.
Peters remembers tickets were cheap back then - $36 for the season.
They were cheap all right, said his seatmate.
"Unfortunately, he bought the tickets," said Rockefeller, the great-grandson of one of the wealthiest men in history, "which meant we were seated somewhere around the 10-yard line."
A few occurrences in the early 1960s propelled Rockefeller to West Virginia.
John Kennedy campaigned heavily in the state in 1960 and drew national attention to the state and its problems.
Michael Herrington published "The Other America," a study of poverty. Peters said Herrington's book was a cultural event that challenged the assumption that poverty wasn't a problem in post-war America.
But, perhaps most importantly, Rockefeller met West Virginians. First Rockefeller knew Peters. Through Peters, Rockefeller met the longtime publisher of The Charleston Gazette, Ned Chilton.
Rockefeller, then in his mid-20s, was already looking for something beyond a chair behind a desk in Rockefeller Center, the New York City home of the family's empire. He already had been to the rice fields of Japan after restless years at Harvard. Now, Peters was going to send him to the coalfields of West Virginia.
There were perhaps signs he would be different.
A serious youth
While the Rockefellers sunned in the south of France, a 17-year-old Jay read "The Grapes of Wrath."
Rockefeller, now 75, remembers the classic about migrant farmers during the Great Depression. He saw John Steinbeck's characters as "people whose lives were completely discombobulated and ruined, etc. - because of something they couldn't help."
That hardly described Rockefeller.
He graduated from the prestigious Exeter prep school in New Hampshire and started at Harvard at 16.
At Harvard, he said he was a sought-after recruit for the university's social clubs, which were elite circles within the elite circle of Harvard.
"Social clubs did nothing. In fact, they had a policy they didn't even look at public school students, they only looked at preppies - which is pretty disgusting when you think about it - and 'diversity' was a word nobody seemed to be able to spell," Rockefeller said.
He became a club president. They gave him an office.
What was the office for? He said he wasn't sure.
There was a rope he could pull and order a drink. But Rockefeller isn't a drinker.
"It was all the worst things you could think about life at a prestigious American university in the middle of the last century," he said.
He needed out.
"I was somnolent," Rockefeller said. "I need to be triggered, I need to be engaged, I need to have a mission."
He told Harvard's famed Japan expert Edwin Reischauer that he was treading water and wanted to go to Japan.
So, in 1957 Rockefeller left Harvard - "and nobody did that in those days," he said - for International Christian University in Tokyo. He remembers being just about the only American in the island nation who wasn't in the military or the diplomatic corps. And at over 6 feet 6 inches tall, he would have stood out anyway.
He decided to learn Japanese and spent three years learning from a "brutally tough" Japanese instructor. He lived in a traditional house made of wood and paper and woke up at 4:30 a.m. on 20-degree winter mornings to study. He came back to America only twice: Once to say good-bye to his grandfather with cancer and then to attend the funeral.
Eventually, he returned to Harvard. This time, he avoided the dorms, took classes he should have taken the first time around and finished up.
From his apartment that senior year, Rockefeller watched the 1960 presidential primary on television and saw Kennedy campaigning in West Virginia. He saw a challenging topography but good people.
"It was intriguing without any deep thoughts on my part," he said. "I mean, I wasn't saying, 'Gee, I want to go to West Virginia.' "
Seed was planted
The images from the primary went into his memory bank, even if he didn't realize it.
He served stints in the Peace Corps and the State Department but found the federal agency "sclerotic," or insular, and wanted something else.
Then the idea of West Virginia popped up.
Peters told Rockefeller, a student of China and Japan, that he didn't know anything about his own country.
Rockefeller told Peters he had been a camp counselor.
"He said, 'Well that's worth minus 30 points,' " Rockefeller recalled.
Peters said Rockefeller already was eager to get involved in America's domestic problems, particularly poverty.
"We had become friends and I was from West Virginia, so what did I suggest?" Peters said. "'Boy, if you're concerned about poverty, the place to go is West Virginia.' "
Peters said Rockefeller met Ned and Betty Chilton, the newspaper publishers, at the christening of Peters' only child. The Chiltons invited Rockefeller to come to West Virginia and stay with them.
Around the same time, Rockefeller also went to visit President Kennedy's brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to ask about Action for Appalachian Youth, an anti-poverty program.
Rockefeller said he knew all the Kennedys well but liked Bobby best.
"Because he struck me," Rockefeller said. "He had a soul, and there are a lot of photographs of him in West Virginia later when he ran for president sitting on a slag heap, looking mournful, looking off into the distance, thinking, 'Why does this condition exist, what can I do?' "
Rockefeller decided to go for it and drove to West Virginia in 1964.
In Charleston, the Chiltons put him up for "a number of months," Rockefeller said. Sometimes he would eat breakfast at the home of Peters' mother, and the senator still raves about her oyster stew.
His anti-poverty work didn't go well at first.