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Remembering Karl Dewey Myers
West Virginia’s First Poet Laureate

By Cindy Karelis


Karl Dewey Myers, first poet laureate of West Virginia. Photograph 1927, courtesy of the West Virginia and Regional History Center, West Virginia University Libraries.

“The Apples of Hesperides”

Aflame with longing, parched with thirst,
Over the garden wall I bound.
O changeling youth! from birth accursed,
What is this fruit that I have found?
Life, could you give me naught but these,
The Apples of Hesperides? - Karl Myers

In a small buffered box housed in the West Virginia & Regional History Collection in Morgantown lie pieces of the remarkable story of West Virginia poet Karl Dewey Myers. Seven acid-free folders stand sentry there over a paltry archived collection – much like the nymphs at the edge of Hesperia guarding coveted fruit – and closer examination only hints at the larger legacy of this very diminutive man.

Born malformed and fragile on February 2, 1899, in the remote Tucker County town of Moore, Dewey was never supposed to live. Those who were there to witness his first fitful breath believed the stunted newborn would not live as much as 24 hours. Yet he was named the Mountain State’s first poet laureate in 1927 by Governor Howard Gore.

Called a “hopeless little gnome” by his childhood friend and historian Homer Fansler, Dewey’s deformed legs and twisted body barred him from the normal physical pursuits of life in the rural Allegheny highlands at the dawn of the 20th century. And even though he never walked or weighed more than 60 pounds despite the careful nurturing of his parents, Mary and Benjamin Myers, he taught himself to genius when the local schools denied him entrance. His superb memory allowed – in what Fansler considered “awesome to behold” – verbatim recitation of the United States Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Mayflower Compact, and the Magna Carta, along with a litany of factual statistics relating to kings, presidents, American history, and more.

Fansler carried the small prodigy “from place to place like an infant” as they grew into young adulthood, running the mountainside above the Black Fork River as both blossomed into writers. Homer’s responsibility to his friend also included hoisting him to a lofty perch at twice-a-week meetings where Dewey lorded over the youthful members of what he claimed in later writings was West Virginia’s first chartered fraternal organization, the Loyal Order of Tigers.

Formed in 1916 as the Jolly Club after a teenaged Dewey’s family moved to Hendricks, the group provided a social and recreational outlet for the young men of the area with Dewey at the helm as its only president. Swelling under increasing popularity – no doubt due in part to the charismatic ambition of its small leader – membership comprised most of the town’s male population by 1918, including many prominent citizens.

But World War I dissolved Dewey’s all-male club and quickly shattered his world when his revered older brother, Howard, was killed in the Meuse-Argonne Campaign late in the first year of conflict.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.