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'It's the people who make it Hoover': Seniors reflect on unconventional high school career

Members of the Herbert Hoover High School Class of 2020 gathered Tuesday morning at Laidley Field to celebrate a final rite of passage of their high school life — graduation.

After crossing a stage, they took their seats, spaced apart on the field on either side of the 50-yard-line. The senior slideshow was on the scoreboard, and some family in the bleachers wore masks.

“You have had a nontraditional high school experience, to say the least,” Principal Mike Kelley said, above the sound of vehicles whizzing by on the interstate behind University of Charleston Stadium. “Yet, you have excelled.”

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail  

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2020 Herbert Hoover graduates walk along the track at Laidley Field as they exit following their graduation ceremony Tuesday morning.

Amid an ongoing global pandemic, with hugs and handshakes forbidden, it was a ceremony that likely none of the teens could have imagined when they entered high school four years ago. But several Herbert Hoover seniors said they have kind of grown accustomed to weird.

“We haven’t done anything normal at Hoover in my four years,” said Delani Buckner, 17.

“It kind of feels normal now for it to be not normal,” Hannah Collins, 18, added.

“You don’t really hear a lot of stories of half-days your freshman year, and then going into portables for three years, and then having a graduation that turns into a parade,” Isaak Rogers, 17, noted, referencing last month’s drive-by celebration honoring seniors.

Well, here’s that story.

Before their freshman year, the June 2016 flood — which struck exactly four years ago Tuesday — put more than 6 feet of water into the building that was to have been their high school. The Kanawha County school system closed the school and eventually tore it down.

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Furniture, paper files and other items covered in flood mud sit outside on the sidewalk at Herbert Hoover High School in Clendenin July 4, 2016.

Leah Westfall, 18, said she toured the original school on “step-up day,” before her freshman year.

“I got to see the gym and everything, and then I got really excited,” she said, with a laugh. “And I think it was June 23 when the flood happened and I was like, ‘Oh no, my new school!’ ”

During their freshman year, they only attended school in the afternoons at Elkview Middle — where many had just left eighth grade.

KENNY KEMP | Gazette-Mail file photo 

Residents and classmates watch the demolition of Herbert Hoover High School in 2018. The school suffered severe damage in the June 2016 flood.

“Then, you’re a ninth-grader still feeling kind of like an eighth-grader because you’re still in the middle school,” Westfall said.

For their sophomore, junior and half of their senior years, they attended trailer classrooms on stilts the school system installed on the middle school parking lot. The buildings were fused together with boardwalks and dubbed a temporary high school.

“My first year there, it was so odd to me,” said Kiah Smith, 17. “I couldn’t wrap my head around it that I was going to a school that was basically outside.”

“We never left middle school,” Collins said. “We just moved to the parking lot.”

Still, they ate lunch in the middle school cafeteria.

Finally, for most of their last semester, the state kicked them out of their parking-lot trailer school as the coronavirus pandemic prompted schools to switch to distance learning.

In the midst of all this, Rogers noted, were the first two statewide school worker strikes in West Virginia history, which closed all public schools for days.

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One of the entrances to Herbert Hoover High’s portable complex is seen adjacent to Elkview Middle School, in Elkview, in August 2017.

“I wasn’t necessarily sad, at first,” Collins said of the pandemic school shutdown, “because it just kind of felt typical for our class to have something like that happen to us.”


All things considered, the students said they liked going to the Hoover on stilts.

“It looks a lot worse from the outside than it actually is,” Rogers said.

To get from one class to another at the current Hoover, students walk outside along the boardwalks. This allows them to experience underrated things, like sunlight and the sound of birds.

“It was really nice in the fall and the late spring, toward the end of the school year,” Buckner said.

She said she would have liked to not get rained on, though. The boardwalks have tin roofs, but precipitation can get under that.

For Collins, “one of my favorite moments was when it rained, like, really hard. Everyone just had so much fun. The wind just throws the rain on the boardwalk and you get wet, but it’s kind of fun and you just carry on with all your friends and you run back and forth in it.”

During the winter, the cold and ice were issues. But Rogers said people would write in the snow.

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Herbert Hoover High School students board buses Thursday, May 31, 2018, two days before summer break at their temporary classrooms on the Elkview Middle School campus in Elkview.

“I think that was something different,” he said, “to be able to walk outside and take a minute before you walk back into a classroom.”

Westfall said, “It was honestly not disappointing at all, because you were out of the middle school [after freshman year] and you had full days and it was our new home, our new school, and you were just kind of like happy to have it.”

Some students even said they felt attending school in trailers prepared them for college, where there generally aren’t locker rooms and you walk outside between classes.

“As weird as it was to be in portables, and as weird as it was for this last half of a year to do online learning, I think it really does show what college is going to be,” Rogers said. “A lot of that work that you do is on your own.”

Smith, who took two college-level classes, said she worked about five days a week part-time at a Donut Connection when in-person classes shut down. Her mother also works there.

The county provides iPad tablet computers to all high school students, but Smith said she doesn’t have internet at home. She said she completed a lot of the work, including an Advanced Placement test, on her phone.

She said she was trying to save up money for college, for herself and for her family, in case her dad lost his job in the coal industry.


The students might have lost their school in the June 2016 flood, but buildings can be rebuilt. The county broke ground on the new Hoover in January.

But you can’t replace missed senior-year experiences.

KENNY KEMP | Gazette-Mail file photo 

Herbert Hoover students and officials, including Gov. Jim Justice, turn over a shovel full of dirt during the groundbreaking ceremonies Wednesday, Jan. 22. The new school will be built in the Givens Fork area off Frame Road, which is just off the Elkview Interstate 79 exit.

It wasn’t just prom or a traditional graduation they lost out on — four of the five interviewed for this report lost the end of their show choir competition season. Much of the music and theater equipment and supplies were destroyed during the flood.

“Slowly, over freshman and sophomore year, we started to gather more supplies and stuff like that and we did a lot of fundraising and, junior year, we finally got to put something on,” Rogers said.

After that, “Clue” was to be the seniors’ swan song. Collins said their task over spring break was to memorize their scripts, but the school never reopened.

Smith was in show choir for three years, while Westfall, Rogers and Collins were in it all four years of high school.

“When I started show choir, I was a completely different person,” Collins said. “Very shy and soft-spoken.

“Whereas, now, I’d say I’m pretty confident in myself and enjoy being around people. I’ve gotten so close to all of the people involved in show choir, it’s like an entire family thing to me. So that seems like a lot more to lose than a prom does — even though I’m sitting here looking at my prom dress right now.”

“I had my last show choir competition and I didn’t even know,” Westfall said. “I saw all my underclassmen peers and my teachers for the last time and I didn’t even know it. Not being able to say goodbye really sucks.

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail  

Herbert Hoover High School graduates (from left) Leah Westfall, Hannah Collins, Delani Buckner, Isaak Rogers and Kiah Smith.

“I don’t even feel done,” she said before Tuesday’s graduation. “I kind of feel like I’m still in high school, just because I didn’t get that closure.”

When Smith went to the school to pick up her diploma earlier this month, she said she “about started crying when I saw my music teacher, because I miss going to her room in the morning.”

Herbert Hoover, in all its post-flood permutations, was still their home.

A couple of students said they worried after the flood that Hoover would simply disappear. They were happy to get to stay together, rather than being divided among other high schools.

“None of it’s been conventional, if that makes sense,” Buckner said. “We haven’t gone to the standard building where you have a locker, you have a cafeteria. I didn’t get to experience that, but I don’t think that’s what makes a school. A school — a home — is a home because of the people in it. Whatever Hoover may be, it’s the people who make it Hoover.”

Organizers cancel 2020 Charleston Distance Run

The Charleston Distance Run, known as America’s 15-Miler and a staple in the capital city since 1973, was canceled Tuesday by the event’s organizing committee due to COVID-19.

The race, traditionally held on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, was scheduled for Sept. 5 this year. A total of 151 runners had already registered for the event, which would have been in its 48th year. Of that number, 121 had signed up for the 15-mile event and 30 for the adjoining 5-kilometer walk and run.

“It’s very unfortunate,’’ race director John Palmer said, “but so many other races had to cancel going into the fall. We were holding out hope that the coronavirus pandemic would calm down, and maybe dissipate, but that’s not looking like it’s happening. We have to make sure we protect the health and safety of all our participants and all our volunteers who work with us, so we made the decision to cancel.’’

Palmer didn’t think the cancellation of this year’s race would affect future plans to hold the event. The 2021 CDR is scheduled for Sept. 4.

“I don’t think so,’’ he said. “We’ve managed to have 47 Distance Runs so far, and the 48th will just have to wait an extra year before we can have it. We look forward to it, and I’m sure it will be a great event. Hopefully, the coronavirus will be just a distant memory next September.’’

The Distance Run was the brainchild of Don Cohen, a Charleston eye doctor who started the event in 1973 to capitalize on the running craze that was starting to sweep the country.

Cohen wanted to create a race that coincided with the city’s annual Sternwheel Regatta, so he teamed up with city leaders and police to find a route. The race ended up getting its trademark 15-mile distance quite by accident, as Cohen’s main focus was to move the race around some of Charleston’s most famous landmarks, such as the state Capitol, the banks of the Kanawha River, the East End, West Side and South Hills. It is considered America’s only 15-mile distance run.

There were very few road races held in West Virginia at that time, so Cohen and other race organizers didn’t know how many runners to expect. They invited some well-known runners to Charleston to speak or run at the inaugural event.

Four-time Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens, Olympic gold medalist Dave Wottle and other nationally known runners, such as Steve Prefontaine, Jeff Galloway and Franci Larrieu, all came to Charleston in 1973. The following year, Olympians Jim Ryun and Rafer Johnson spoke at the awards banquet.

The first race, with 213 competitors in the field, started and ended at what was then the Charleston Civic Center, but for many years it began on Virginia Street, near Interstate 64, and finished at University of Charleston Stadium at Laidley Field.

In recent years, the race has begun in front of the West Virginia Capitol on Kanawha Boulevard. The course of the race has varied through the years, but one of its calling cards has been the “Capital Hill Punishment,’’ a nearly 2-mile uphill stretch along Corridor G.

Jeff Galloway, of the Florida Track Club, won the inaugural event in a time of 1 hour, 16 minutes, 29 seconds. Several of the world’s top runners have competed in the event, including Olympian and four-time Boston Marathon champion Bill Rodgers. Rodgers placed third in the 1974 CDR, second in 1986 and third in 1988.

The course record of 1:12:24 was established in 1996 by Gideon Mutisya, a Kenyan and longtime resident of Hartford, Connecticut. Mutisya, a local fan favorite, wound up as a six-time CDR champion, with his last victory coming in 2008.

Last year’s race champions were Daniel Jaskowak of Blacksburg, Virginia (male) and Marian Pyles of Elkins.

In close attorney general race, Sponaugle says he will not contest Petsonk win

Although his margin of defeat was 0.08% — the equivalent of one vote in a single-member delegate district — Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, said Tuesday he will not ask to proceed with a recount in the Democratic primary for state attorney general.

Sponaugle said he could not justify bearing the potential $100,000 cost of a statewide recount, which he would be liable for if the recount did not change the outcome in his favor, or the possibility that the challenge could drag out for months, costing the Democratic Party’s nominee valuable campaigning time.

“It probably was the closest statewide race in state history, and it probably deserves a recount, but I just couldn’t justify the expense,” he said.

Sponaugle led Beckley employment/labor lawyer Sam Brown Petsonk on election night, but after the election canvass, Petsonk edged ahead of Sponaugle by 145 votes, with an 86,849 to 86,704 vote margin.

Sponaugle said that, assuming an error rate of one-fourth of 1% of all ballots, there are likely 345 ballots that were miscounted, or more than double the margin of victory.

“I know the errors are out there. I just don’t know where they are,” he said.

Sponaugle said he had considered requesting recounts in 15 to 20 counties, but concluded that a limited recount might not uncover enough incorrectly recorded votes to change the outcome. He said he also took into consideration that the process could harm the party’s nominee.

“It wouldn’t give the Democratic nominee the time he needs to beat Morrisey,” Sponaugle said of Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, the Republican incumbent seeking a third term.

While many states provide for automatic recounts in elections with margins of victory of 1% or less, West Virginia election law does not have such a provision — something Sponaugle said the Legislature should revisit.

“If you believe in good public policy, if you want accurate elections, I believe we should,” he said.

Under state law, a candidate may request a recount but must pay the costs of the recount if it does not change the outcome of the election. Those costs can range from the $300 initial bond in small counties, to several thousand dollars in larger counties.

Both candidates had a Tuesday evening deadline to request a recount.

State Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore issued a statement Tuesday on Sponaugle’s decision.

“The bottom line is we had two great candidates in the race and now we will unify together to beat Patrick Morrisey in the fall,” she wrote. “I am beyond proud of both Delegate Isaac Sponaugle and Sam Petsonk for running respectful races that both focused on one thing and that’s giving the people of West Virginia an Attorney General with integrity that will serve the people, not themselves.

“I congratulate Sam Petsonk on the nomination and we are ready to work together and win in November because that is what the people of West Virginia deserve.”

With the decision, Sponaugle, a four-term delegate, will be out of public office for the first time in eight years.

“I’m looking forward to enjoying marriage, practicing law and doing all that good stuff,” he said.

Sponaugle has a lawsuit pending to compel Gov. Jim Justice to comply with constitutional requirements that the governor must reside in the state capital, a lawsuit that has been pending before the West Virginia Supreme Court for about seven months.