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Jim Comstock impossible to forget

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - If Jim Comstock were alive today, he would no doubt write about state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey's campaign against trinkets and MTV's "Buckwild."

From 1957 to 1992, the editor of The West Virginia Hillbilly commented weekly on state affairs. He often made the news himself, like the time he promoted Richwood's ramp feast by adding the juice of the stinky plant to the ink used to print the Richwood News Leader, which he published with sidekick Bronson McClung. (The postmaster general was not amused).

After graduating from West Virginia University in 1970, I spent a golden summer working for Comstock.

Comstock and McClung always had something going on - a ramp feed, the Cherry River Navy Parade, a School of Hard Knocks event, reports of a mountain lion sighting. There was even a solar eclipse.

Two memories of that summer stand out. One occurred after Comstock talked the school board into renting a vacant school to him for $1 a year. He wanted to turn it into a museum with a gift shop. The museum would enhance Richwood's cultural scene, and the shop would get the West Virginia books he had for sale out of his cluttered office.

As a Cherry River Navy weekend celebration approached, it became clear that Comstock was going to solicit many of the out-of-town guests for donations to fund the schoolhouse restoration. A few of us conspired to spend evenings and weekends secretly fixing up one classroom to surprise him. Our idea: Guests would see the lack of maintenance as they entered the school and then behold the beauty made possible with elbow grease and money.

As the big weekend approached, we talked Comstock into visiting the school. He wandered in, eventually stumbled into the refurbished classroom, and was distraught. He said, "If they think we have so much money we can already do this, they won't give a dime."

We learned never to assume what someone - particularly Comstock - might think.

The other memory is Comstock's campaign to preserve Pearl Buck's birthplace in Hillsboro. He convinced the Nobel Prize-winning author to spend almost a week touring the state to raise money to restore the home. As Comstock's lowliest employee, I was assigned to be her chauffer.

During an appearance at Hillsboro, Buck read excerpts from "My Mother's House," a slim book she wrote to raise funds for the Birthplace Museum.

Every time there was a pause in the tour, Buck sat motionless so sculptor Sterling Spencer could use his talented hands to mold clay into a likeness of her face.

One soft, moonlit evening, she spoke to children outside a Marlinton schoolhouse about her West Virginia roots. When she finished, she and the children sang "The West Virginia Hills."

Traveling from one event to another, Buck always sat in the back seat, on the passenger's side. She seldom spoke. When she did, it was in perfect, polished sentences. It was as though she were reading from "The Good Earth."

The West Virginia Humanities Council notes that Comstock was born on this day in 1911. He died in 1996. His writings and efforts to improve West Virginia live on.

Buck's birthplace was listed on the National Register of Historic places in 1970. It is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays, Thursday through Saturday from May 1 through Nov. 1, and from noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays in June.



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