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Underwood on Marland

Cecil Underwood, 1957
Governor Cecil H. Underwood at the beginning of his first term. 1957 photo courtesy of the Charleston Gazette.

During the early 1950's Cecil Underwood and Bill Marland were two of the most active and influential young politicians in state government. Though they fought on opposing sides of many issues, they also shared many concerns and experiences during a pivotal time for West Virginia. At 34 years of age, Underwood succeeded Marland as the state's youngest governor in 1957. On July 20 of this year, midway through his current term as West Virginia's oldest head of state, Governor Underwood shared his thoughts about the Marland years with writer Rod Hoylman.

Rod Hoylman. How would you characterize Marland as a person?
Governor Cecil Underwood. We did get to know each other pretty well. As a matter of fact, during the last half of this term, I think that I gave him more support as the minority leader than he got from the Democratic majority leader. He used to invite me down in the mornings to talk about legislative programs, but we weren't social friends or anything like that.

RH. Was the proposed severance tax a surprise to you?
CU. It was his major proposal, and he made an all-out effort to get it passed. I opposed it because, at that time, the coal industry had the highest rate of taxes for any industry in the gross sales tax. They accepted those high rates in the earlier years in lieu of a severance tax, and I felt that the government was going back on its commitment to the coal industry.

RH. Did Marland's proposed severance tax result in the falling out that Marland had with former governor Okey Patteson?
CU. That may have had some bearing. But I think that Governor Marland's wholesale, ruthless firing of people who had been there a long time — many of them were Governor Patteson's friends — probably ruptured their relationship.

RH. The failed severance tax proposal seemed to set the tone for his administration. He received little cooperation from the legislature.
CU. Governor Marland was a brilliant lawyer and he loved confrontation. I don't think it was particularly partisan; he just liked to confront issues. And I think that kind of combativeness is what caused his problems with the legislature.

RH. What were some of the successes of Marland's term?
CU. In my opinion, his major contribution to history was the way he handled the school integration issue. The day after the Supreme Court decision, he held a news conference and said that it was the law of the land and that West Virginia would proceed immediately to implement the decision. We had a few minor incidents here and there, but there were no major racial confrontations. I came into office shortly after the decision, and my first Southern Governor's conference was during the weekend that Eisenhower had to send the troops into Little Rock.

RH. As you know, Marland ran into some difficulties with alcoholism and eventually ended up in Chicago driving a cab. Had you kept in contact with him during this period?
CU. No, not after he left the state. But I could tell you that during those morning conferences, at 9 o'clock in the morning in this office, that he was lacing his coffee with bourbon. And I think that was his downfall, but you have to admire the way he got hold of himself and pulled back together.

RH. What was the overall reaction when the news of Marland's plight first broke?
CU. There was pretty widespread awareness of his alcohol problem. During the 1956 campaign when he was running for the senate, he and Senator Revercomb had a televised debate. I don't know if he had a drink before that debate or not, but it certainly appeared that way. So, I think the perception was pretty broad that he had a drinking problem. And the general opinion was that a lot of Marland's dismissals were made late at night and perhaps influenced by alcohol.

RH. The experience seemed to change him. He seemed like he was more gracious and humble afterwards.
CU. That was definitely noticeable in the few times that I saw him after he returned to the state. He seemed to be perfectly adjusted and he looked well physically, but, as you know, he succumbed to cancer not long after that.

RH. Does anything stand out about the transition from the Marland administration to your administration?
CU. I've said both publicly and privately that the recent transition from the Caperton administration to the current administration was probably the smoothest one ever. Shortly after the election, he invited me to the mansion to review briefing books that he had prepared for each agency of state government. That was a tremendous help. In 1956, there was no offer of any office space or any help with the transition. I got one phone call from Governor Marland, and he said 'If you want furniture in this office, then you better order it because I'm taking every damn stick of it.' And the only thing he left was one worn-out pink couch that was over there where you are sitting.

RH. How do you compare your second go-around as governor compared to the first term?
CU. It's so much different now. In my first term, the coal industry was moving toward mechanization and 25% of the work force in this state was displaced in a little over a year. That's an economic shock that no economy can absorb, and I spent the last couple of years just trying to dig out of the quicksand and diversify our economy. At the time, the major corporations viewed our work force as a strike-happy bunch of people, and most of them had us blacklisted and wouldn't even come to look at a site. Now, the most competitive advantage that we have is the quality of our work force. So, everything is much more positive, including my relationship with the legislature. Governor Marland had them in such a habit of fighting with him that they thought that was what they were supposed to do. Governor Caperton established a model of cooperation, which the current legislature has become accustomed to.

RH. Governor, is there anything you'd like to add in closing?
CU. I remember I was having some confrontation with the legislature. I saw Marland at a reception and he said 'You've got to expect these things, but you can always take comfort in knowing that the Kanawha River is right across the street from your front door!'

Return to the Fall 1998 contents