A figure whose legacy is a concrete part of West Virginia’s history will be laid to rest Tuesday.
Gov. Jim Justice on Monday ordered flags at state offices be lowered to half staff Tuesday to commemorate the passing of former House of Delegates Speaker Bob Kiss, who died Friday.
Kiss “embodied the West Virginia spirit of devotion to serving others,” Justice said in issuing the order. On Saturday, Justice said he considered Kiss a friend who would be “deeply missed by many.”
“Speaker Kiss ensured first and foremost that West Virginia’s finances were on solid ground, and worked tirelessly to make sure West Virginia was in a better position than when he started,” Justice said in a statement released during the weekend. “His legacy will not soon be forgotten.”
Kiss, 63, died after being treated for cancer. He is survived by his wife, Melinda, and their sons, Cameron and Carter.
Kiss shared the title of being the longest-serving House Speaker in state history with U.S. District Judge Robert "Chuck" Chambers, who left the House for the federal judicial bench in 1997.
Both men served in the position for 10 years — Chambers from 1987 to 1997 and Kiss from 1997 to 2007.
Chambers on Monday noted Kiss for his “intelligence and thoughtfulness when it came to making public policy.”
“Some people get elected, and they like to read their names in the headlines,” Chambers said. “Bob was not like that. For Bob, serving in the Legislature, making policy meant the hard, thoughtful work of gathering information, analyzing problems and then starting to consider and choose what the best options were.”
Chambers appointed Kiss as vice chair of the House Finance Committee during Kiss’s first year in the Legislature in 1989. He said he’d met Kiss briefly in Beckley, and that Kiss’s legal and business reputation preceded him.
“He immediately was a star,” Chambers said. “It’s unusual to have a lawyer who was so well versed in finance and economic matters as well as being a practicing lawyer, so we jumped at the chance to put him on the Finance Committee.”
Born in New Jersey, Kiss grew up throughout the United States because of his father’s job in the U.S. Air Force.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Ohio State University in 1979 and his law degree from OSU in 1982. He worked as an attorney for Gorman Sheatsley & Co. in Beckley after graduating from law school, and that is where he made his home and political career in West Virginia.
He was elected to the House nine times between 1988 and 2004. He left the Legislature in 2006 and began working at Bowles Rice in Charleston before returning to public service as former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s Revenue Secretary from 2013 to 2017, when he returned to Bowles Rice.
Kiss’s tenure as speaker corresponded with former Tomblin’s tenure as Senate President from 1995 to 2011. Tomblin is the longest-serving Senate president in state history.
Tomblin on Monday said he and Kiss had a great working relationship serving as the chairs of their respective finance committees before becoming the presiding officers in their respective chambers.
“I always fully trusted Bob, that if he told you he was going to do something, that’s what he would do,” Tomblin said Monday. “Bob will always be remembered by the people who worked with him, who worked around him, for being a gentleman. He was sincere about his job, and you could take his word.”
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Saturday he and his wife, Gayle Manchin, were “incredibly saddened” by Kiss’s death.
Manchin and Kiss were in the Legislature in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Kiss was House Speaker the first two years of Manchin’s term as governor.
“Bob exemplified the best of West Virginia and was dedicated to making the state the best it could be,” Joe Manchin said Saturday. “After nearly two decades serving the people of West Virginia, he leaves behind a lasting legacy. Gayle and I encourage all West Virginians to join us in praying for Bob’s wife Melinda, their children Carter and Cameron, friends and loved ones during this difficult time.”
Justice, Chambers and Tomblin each credited Kiss for his work on restoring the financing and quality of coverage of the West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency, as well as his part in establishing the state’s Rainy Day Fund, which recently surpassed $1 billion.
Chambers went on to note Kiss’s support for the arts and sciences that led to construction of buildings including the Clay Center in Charleston and Drinko Library on Marshall University’s campus during the 1990s.
Being in the same House leadership team led to good work, but it also led to arguments from time to time, but it was that steadfastness and passion that made Kiss’s care for West Virginia obvious to Chambers, he said.
“Through all of that, what was so evident was his love for the state,” Chambers said. “That revealed by his love of making good judgments on behalf of the people that he served. That sort of intangible legacy, to me, is what I’ll always remember and have thought about many times over the years.”