West Virginians have a knack for commemorating tragedy. Perhaps that’s because the state and its people have seen so much of it with a fair amount of regularity.
From the Battle of Blair Mountain to Hawks Nest to the Silver Bridge collapse and the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, tragic events have shaped communities that mark the passage of time in accordance with the anniversaries of those moments that changed everything.
Some, like the Marshall University plane crash, are tales of sorrow mixed with resilience and restoration. Others are simply tales of loss, their damage reflected in the communities and people affected, whose lives will never return to what they were.
It’s hard to categorize the tragedy of the First National Bank of Keystone, which occurred 20 years ago on Labor Day weekend. It wasn’t an ordeal of fire and death, but it certainly left a mark on the small community.
The bank was one of the most profitable in the country. It had investors from all across the United States. It paid good wages and, more importantly, those making good money invested back into the small town in McDowell County. For a town where, even in 1999, coal was declining and black lung was threatening the health of miners, the bank was a sign of stability and prosperity.
Did it seem strange that such a profitable venture was located in the small town of Keystone? Maybe, but the people of Keystone can certainly be forgiven for not scrutinizing a business that actually paid its taxes, providing the town with $90,000 in annual revenue.
“It didn’t always make sense, but we didn’t want to question a good thing,” former Keystone mayor Elwin Thomas told Gazette-Mail reporter Caity Coyne.
Of course, it turned out to be too good to be true. In 1999, the FDIC descended on Keystone to investigate fraud. The bank was shut down, and townspeople learned that everything they had managed to put away was gone. Savings, college funds for children, money put aside to deal with chronic health problems — all of it simply evaporated. In most cases, there was no getting it back, because bankers hadn’t properly insured the funds.
In a twist on the West Virginia tragedy, the 20th anniversary of this event wasn’t acknowledged by the people of Keystone but by three of the FDIC workers who spent nearly a month in the town. Lesylee Hodge, Diane Chatfield and Lynette Martin met with the people of Keystone over that span in 1999, informing depositors that their money was gone. The women say they shared the sadness of that time, and it has left an indelible mark on them, just as it did the residents they came to know.
So they returned to the community for the first time over the weekend. The sadness they felt 20 years ago returned as they passed sights both familiar and unfamiliar, and talked with residents they had known and made new acquaintances. The poverty they witnessed in 1999 remains, and they wondered why nothing has been done to help these people in the heartland of the United States.
The bank scandal is hardly the only hit small communities in McDowell County have taken over the past 20 years, but, in an area where any financial losses can be devastating and life-altering, it was a huge blow.
Hodge, Chatfield and Martin donated $500 to We Are The Teachers, a startup nonprofit hoping to help children in Keystone from ages 5-12. The nonprofit’s founder, Carlotta Young, wants to launch the program in the town’s former Head Start office, which shut down last year. The money is the first donation WATT has received.
The three visitors speculate that they migiht return next year. As Hodge put it, “This is a place, I think for all of us, that we’re never going to forget.”
If they are true to their word, they could help shape this tragic tale into one of resilience and, that rarest of commodities, hope.