ARTIE — You won’t find many dots on the map smaller than the town of Artie in Raleigh County, but after the Artie Museum’s opening on Monday, the town packs enough historical relevance to reach even the furthest corners of West Virginia.
Longtime basketball coach Tex Williams, who grew up in the house adjacent to the former Artie Post Office, turned that post office in which his mother, Blanche, worked for 43 years into a shrine of photographs, placards and other memorabilia he had collected over the years, honoring athletes, coaches and even politicians and musicians with state ties.
He dedicated the museum to his late mother, who passed away around two months ago.
Williams said that somewhere between 40,000 and 45,000 pictures and names are featured somewhere in a sea of laminated poster boards that cover the walls of the one-room museum from floor to ceiling, with others on display along the outside fence on Monday and in large tubs around the property.
West Virginia basketball legends Willie Akers and Jerry West, former Marshall football coach Bob Pruett and former Charleston High School and Virginia Tech basketball player Chris Smith were just a few of the numerous guests on hand, with West holding a lengthy autograph session after a formal ceremony that concluded with Akers cutting a ribbon outside the front door.
Several hundred people descended on tiny Artie on Monday, with police and firefighters directing traffic into three church parking lots.
West and Akers along with the public gazed high and low at pictures of everyone from Archie Talley to Ryan Switzer, from William C. Campbell to J.R. House ... even from Robert C. Byrd to Elvis Presley.
“I don’t know what heaven is like, but this is heaven on earth for me,” Williams said. “Friendships over the journey of life and this attests to the fact that a lot of those people, the good people, show up. That’s the value of being genuine through life, you associate with people like this.”
The building had been vacant since it closed in 1997 and Williams began storing memories from his career there and going through them when he was in town.
He said he originally planned on throwing most of it away but couldn’t bring himself to do it once he began sorting through it.
Instead he hung a few pictures on the wall, which allowed a young boy in the area to discover a photograph of his grandfather in a high school football uniform.
That moment sparked an idea that Williams has been working on ever since.
But Williams held off the opening until his good friend Akers was ready.
Akers had to undergo intense rehabilitation after a fall at the Charleston Civic Center in February of 2013 left him with a broken vertebrae, a broken nose, a cervical fracture and temporary paralysis in both arms and legs.
The 77-year-old gave a call to his good friend and college teammate Jerry West and both were impressed by the scene on Monday.
“I’m going to come back and go over again when I can really, really look at it,” Akers said. “Tex is a different person, nobody will ever be like him again — the work it took him to get all of these pictures, I’d like to find out how he got all these pictures.
“He’s worthy of being a hall of famer in West Virginia.”
West was joined by his wife and his sister, and both he and Akers spoke as part of the opening ceremony.
“This is about Tex Williams and his desire to not let anyone forget the past,” West said. “I met this gentleman a long time ago and he’s been one of the most loyal people and supportive people I’ve ever had in my life.”
“[Tex], thanks for helping keep a lot of athletes’ names alive here. It’s an incredible thought you had here. For all of us that have been in this state for so long and love not only the mountains but the people, thanks again.”
There were invocations made by Keith Tyler, a former University of Charleston standout under Williams, and former high school football coach Leon McCoy. The ceremony was guided by WCHS’s Mark Martin.
There was a representative and a written statement from Sen. Joe Manchin’s office, in which he called the museum a “landmark for all ages to enjoy.”
There was also a representative from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s office, and Rep. Nick Joe Rahall appeared and spoke for a few minutes.
Tyler, who played under Williams at UC and was a star at Charleston High School before that, echoed what was pretty much the theme of the day — being overwhelmed by the amount of state history on display.
“The thing that I like about it is the authenticity of all the memorabilia,” Tyler said. “You can see [Williams] put a lot of work into it, it’s not professionally done, and it makes it even more special that he put so much time and effort and so many hours in putting this together.
“When you come and you see all of the pictures and all of the memorabilia you realize, ‘Man, I remember this guy, I know these people,’ there’s a lot of history involved.”
“It’s about West Virginia and the history of so many people who meant so much to the state of West Virginia. As I looked in there and saw all of the memorabilia from all of the people that when I was little I looked up to — I mean, he has a picture of Jim Brown in there and a lot of professional athletes from this area, so it’s a great opportunity.”
Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him at twitter.com/RPritt.