Talk about big shoes to fill. Would you believe size 22? And size 20 before that?
In October, Eric Waggoner accepted the of title of executive director of the West Virginia Humanities Council, a position held for 22 years by predecessor Ken Sullivan and for two decades by the director who preceded him.
He embraces the challenge with a formidable mix of responsibility, trepidation and characteristic enthusiasm.
A 48-year-old Malden native with strong ties to the state he reveres, he hopes to channel his considerable energy into projects that promote West Virginia by sharing stories of the people who lived them.
Starry-eyed millennials eager to facilitate change provide a welcome and ready target.
A love for reading gave him a gateway for learning about a world beyond the boundaries of his beloved Kanawha Valley. That evolved into degrees in American literature and philosophy.
He resigned as chairman of the English department at West Virginia Wesleyan to take the post here.
“I grew up in Malden. We didn’t have a lot of money. My father worked at the West Virginia Library Commission and worked his way up to director. Mom was a stay-at-home mom and did clerical work for the archives and history department. We were below the poverty line for many years.
“But we had a strong supportive family that valued education and work, so I had that and a little bit of luck.
“Early on, I started reading. I liked reading and writing and music. I was curious about the world. I think a lot of kids who are readers are that way, especially ones who don’t have access to a lot of things. They read to get a sense of what’s out in the world. Reading becomes a stand-in for travel and having money to do things.
“Reading taught me a lot about West Virginia and America and America’s relationship to the world.
“I got a degree in American literature from West Virginia Wesleyan, where I ended up teaching.
“Midway through college I got the idea I would like to go into teaching. I thought I would like to talk to students who wanted to learn about the world through literature and history.
“I came there through a convoluted route. I was going to Arizona State, where I did my doctorate work in American literature. The department chair at Marshall got hold of my resume. They had a one-year position. I’d wanted to get closer to this part of the country, so I took that. College teachers go where the jobs are.
“I ran into a guy who had an American literature position open at Wesleyan and I went there in 2002 and stayed until I took this job.
“I loved teaching. A lot of teachers go into the profession to keep finding out what you don’t know, and there’s a whole lot I don’t know.
“I came here in October. Ken Sullivan was here 22 years and the guy before him [Chuck Daugherty] was here 20 years. It’s a job where people tend to stick around.
“My wife taught English at Alderson Broaddus and we have a son 18 months old, so it was a lot to consider, blowing everything up and making a move. But one of the things that attracted me was the fact that the former directors had been here so long and spoke so highly of the work.
“We had four retirements in the last year. We are divided now by half — people who have been here a while and have institutional memory and the new crew. That’s me. I’m the greenest.
“Everybody sees the Humanities Council name around, but when I ask them what we do, they can’t answer too well. We are an independent nonprofit, one of 54 state and territorial affiliates of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“I work with the board of directors. We use some dedicated funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The state provides some funding and the rest comes from private and institutional corporate donors.
“Our mission is to provide support to independent scholars, historians, museums and public institutions throughout the state who are trying to tell the story of West Virginia whether that’s history or literature or folklore, current politics or the history of politics or the economic history of West Virginia.
“If somebody is writing a book or creating a documentary or presenting a conference about West Virginia, wherever that story is told, we provide assistance. We help them get the story of West Virginia out in the world.
“We do that through grant funding. We also develop a lot of in-house programs that we take on the road, the History Alive program, for example, where we have professional actors portraying historical figures from Appalachia — say Harriet Tubman or John Brown — in libraries, grade schools and other public settings.
“We develop that stuff here and send it throughout the state. That’s how we are trying to support the humanities, helping out people doing independent work and sending out programs for the public good. And we also develop stuff here that makes this space a place where they have live programs for the humanities.
“I was intimidated when I got here and I still am. I told the staff that my first job here was to keep my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open. I had a lot to learn. There was a lot to be humble about.
“One thing that always frustrated me when I was out in the world was when a new person came in and said they were going to make sweeping changes without ever bothering to learn what the culture and people of the place was all about. That’s a lot of what’s happened in West Virginia throughout history.
“So that was my first job, to learn the workings of the council, meet with the board and staff to get a sense of what they spend their days doing.
“Ken stuck around for about a month so I would get a sense of the operation. In the afternoon, we would have what he called Humanities Council 101, where he talked me through finances and programs to give me a sense of what the director’s role was in all that.
“The role is really to develop a guide for the council and my job is to facilitate smoothness in the operation.
“There seems to be a widespread community of young professionals who want to stay and help shape the future of this state, its economy, the culture, the quality of life. They want to help make it a better place.
“In the upcoming year, we are going to focus hard on ages 20 to 45 so they know what we are all about and how we can help them contribute to the life of the place. They are very committed to helping to shape the future of the state. We are at a really interesting pivot point. It’s an interesting time to be a West Virginian.
“Like everyone who goes outside the state, eventually you bump up against that person who looks down and thinks they know what you are about because of where you are from. Everyone knows the stereotypes.
“The West Virginia I know is defined not by stereotypes or negativity but by a willingness to help out wherever needed, selflessness, a love of music, food and community and pride in the sense of an awareness of where you come from and knowing who you are and knowing on a deep level that you don’t have to prove your worth to anybody. It comes from the community and the things we all share.
“When you work with a nonprofit, if you have a mission like ours to advance the humanities throughout West Virginia, if you see yourself as having a cause, as opposed to being an office that does this, they have help in the public sector. People want to change things. They want to make their world a better place. That’s what we are working to do. We don’t help to build roads or distribute medicine, but we do something that is equally life giving. We help preserve stories. We help to tell the stories, help people to collect their own stories.
“We work to bring the outside world to West Virginia and to represent West Virginia to the world.
“There was a lot of trepidation. I think fear is important. It’s important to be worried. To be fearless is silly. You have to have respect for what you are walking into.
“It’s like being a PR person, getting the word out. There are aspects of this job that are like teaching. They may not have much of an interest in what you are trying to tell them about but your job is to tell them the story, to make it interesting to them. I sometimes do miss teaching but I get some of that with this job.
“We hope to move here in a couple of weeks from Buckhannon. My wife is still looking for work here.
“Changing careers at 48 is complicated. Not many people have an opportunity to do this. It was whether I was going to keep teaching or take this opportunity. We didn’t always want to look back and say what if. I feel very grateful.”