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Spirit of the Valley honoree Heywood cites connection to area

KENNY KEMP | Gazette-Mail
Spirit of the Valley award winner Tom Heywood at the Bowles Rice law firm offices in Charleston.

When Tom Heywood and his soon-to-be wife, Melody Simpson, were looking for a place to settle down and raise a family, they could have gone anywhere in the country. He was a newly-minted 1982 Harvard Law School graduate, and she was in her final year at the law school.

“We wanted to raise a family, and we wanted a place that as two professionals, we could have a good quality of life,” Heywood recalled earlier this month.

They considered any number of locales in the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest, cities as big as Boston and Seattle, but Heywood kept being drawn back to his hometown of Charleston.

“Growing up here, I had the most wonderful childhood you could imagine,” said Heywood, a self-described “Carbide kid” growing up at a time when the chemical giant had 10,000 employees in the Kanawha Valley.

“There’s such a phenomenal sense of community in Charleston and the Kanawha Valley,” he said. “I’m just not sure there’s a lot of places you could live that would have the sense of community we have here.”

The rest, as the cliché goes, is history. They settled in Charleston, practiced law, and raised three children.

“It worked out,” Heywood said. “It felt right, and it’s felt right ever since.”

In addition to going on to become managing partner at Bowles Rice, Heywood became involved in numerous community and economic development organizations, and almost by happenstance, delved into state government and politics.

For his unique and varied contributions to the area, the YMCA of Kanawha Valley has named Heywood as the 33rd recipient of the Spirit of the Valley award, and will honor him at a luncheon on Thursday.

Heywood said receiving the recognition is humbling. “I can imagine no higher honor as someone who grew up in the Kanawha Valley and the state,” he said.

Heywood said he’s had the rare opportunity to work at the crossroads of the private and public sectors, but never really planned on his involvement in state politics.

McDonough Caperton Insurance Group was a major client, he said, and at one point, company president Gaston Caperton confided that he had the crazy idea of running for governor, and asked Heywood if he would serve as his general counsel if he won.

At the time, internal polling showed Caperton’s statewide name recognition was hovering at about 3 percent, so it wasn’t a big risk to agree, Heywood said.

When Caperton went on to win the Democratic primary, Heywood recalled, “I turned to Melody and said, “Put on your seatbelt, it looks like we may be going for a ride.”

Going from the private sector to public service was eye-opening, Heywood said — particularly so since Caperton inherited a state government that was essentially bankrupt.

“Every stone we turned over, something ugly fell out for the first 18 months,” said Heywood, who would go on to serve as Caperton’s chief of staff.

Working together, Caperton and state lawmakers managed to raise revenue to close the budget deficit, reorganized state government, and passed the state Ethics Act.

“He was very effective at bringing people together and working with the legislative leadership to create a path forward,” Heywood said of Caperton.

During those years, Heywood saw first-hand a state government that he said is very different from the stereotypes.

“The first thing you see is the number of very good, very talented, very selfless people who commit themselves to public service,” he said. “It’s very reassuring and inspiring.”

Heywood’s later resumed his involvement in the public sector, serving as campaign chairman and an unofficial advisor to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

Heywood said he has always preferred to be the advisor or counsel to leadership, rather than seeking elected office himself.

“I’ve never personally had the fire in my belly that you need to run for public office,” he said, adding, “I’ve never believed you have to hold public office to render public service.”

While the state has been going through another round of financial difficulties of late, Heywood is optimistic that the state’s best days are ahead – and for many of the same reasons that brought him back to the state some 35 years ago.

He said he is confident the state is on the cusp of an era of unprecedented growth, taking advantage of the state’s location, natural beauty, and opportunities in sectors ranging from energy to tourism to high technology to build momentum.

“I think the opportunities ahead are pretty tremendous,” he said. “Once the flywheel starts spinning, I think we can see prosperity and growth that will surprise even the most optimistic of us.

“I think it really is just around the corner. That thought excites me every day, and gives me a lot of energy.”

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong day for the Spirit of the Valley luncheon.

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