'Yesterday and Today': Beloved Jackson County historian one day made some people mad
History writers and their columns tend to be rather benign, and rarely, if ever, controversial. But a Feb. 7, 1970, story written by Jackson County native and Beckley Post-Herald history columnist Shirley Donnelly incurred the wrath of not only some Post-Herald readers but drew disparagement from the newspaper itself for days after its publication.
The controversy certainly tested the relationship of a small-town newspaper’s responsibilities in their collaborations with outside editorial columnists.
Clarence Shirley Donnelly was far from being just a treasured local historian who got one wrong. He was a 1921 graduate of Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va., and after ordination served as a Baptist minister for over 65 years. From 1932 into World War II, Donnelly served as a major at Camp Shelby and was elected head of the chaplain service there. Eventually, he was promoted to the rank of colonel and was appointed chief chaplain of the Seventh Army in Europe. He was also the chaplain of the Beckley Veterans Administration Hospital until 1976.
A dynamic and gifted public speaker, Donnelly was always in demand to officiate at funerals and weddings, as well as speak at local civic meetings and events. Being a historian and a documentalist, he kept a list of all of these functions, and over his life officiated at just under 12,000 funerals, 932 weddings and 1,000 baptisms, including a reported 86 in one day.
Donnelly founded the Fayette County Historical Society, serving as its president for 12 years. He had also served as president of the West Virginia Historical Society and the Oak Hill Historical Society. In 1959 he constructed on his own Oak Hill farm, called “Upson Downs,” the largest private library and museum in West Virginia History.
But all of these accomplishments are dwarfed by the sheer volume of his writing. He wrote 18 books on history and religion over his lifetime, including a comprehensive chronicle of the Hatfield-McCoy feud, and the histories of various Oak Hill churches.
From 1924-1941, he published the Church Messenger for the Oak Hill Baptist Church. In 1928, he published a weekly newspaper, the Oak Hill News. From 1925-1949 he served as a special correspondent for the Fayette County Tribune. And from 1954 until the early 1970s he wrote a daily column, called “Yesterday and Today,” for the Beckley Post-Herald.
In all, it is estimated he wrote between 5,000 and 6,000 newspaper history columns.
Donnelly’s columns for the Beckley paper touched on many West Virginia counties, but focused heavily on his home county of Jackson. A 1973 story headlined “Dream of Red Doe was Feared Omen” told the story of early Jackson County settler William Bonnet Sr. and how his father, John, was shot dead by a Native American the morning after dreaming of a red doe, which was considered by early frontiersmen as a death sign.
Many of his stories were personal recollections. In one 1974 column headlined “Old Camera Caught Early Scenes,” he described how as a boy an itinerant photographer stopped by Center Point Elementary School for a picture of the students and teacher in front of the building. “This was a red-letter day for us,” he wrote. “Every boy would do his best to get his hair cut for the occasion. Girls would don their ‘best bib and tucker.’”
In a 1964 column titled “First Ripley Settler was Capt. Parsons,” Donnelly wrote of a talk he gave at Ripley High School, describing how in 1803 Capt. William Parsons and his pregnant wife, the former Susan Fink, arrived at Warth’s Bottom, and as the first permanent settlers had to live in the hollow base of a giant Sycamore tree until they got their cabin built.
Donnelly mentioned that on the day of the talk to those students, their current principal, Morley Parsons, was the great-great-great-grandson of Capt. Parsons.
Genealogy was important to Donnelly, and many columns, including one from 1958 titled “Early Settlers in Jackson County” contained deep and impressive dives into the descendants of Capt. Parsons and his wife Susan.
Donnelly had an infectious sense of humor. In 1964, during an unexpected lull after hundreds of columns, the Post-Herald editor, Emile Hodel, received in the mail a folded and stamped brown paper bag. A return address stated, “Shirley Donnelly, in traction.”
Unfolding the taped bag (which was empty), Hodel read a message scrawled in the fold that said “Hoping to send you a column or so soon. Nothing much wrong with me — only a broken neck.”
Donnelly was indeed in traction at Laird Memorial Hospital in Montgomery, where he spent a little over a week for an unspecified condition.
Through all the knowledge, humor, hard work and personality, Donnelly most treasured being an American. He was a veteran of two world wars and fiercely believed in the honor of the U.S. military. He feared during the Vietnam era, however, that the military was being unfairly maligned. Accordingly, there seemed to be almost nothing that made him angrier than hippies and deserters.
So on Feb. 7, 1970, in a column startlingly titled “Would Shoot a Few AWOL Men!” Donnelly uncharacteristically unleashed on both regarding their “defiance of constituted authority.”
“What with the country reeking with anarchy and trembling before young men whose dirty, bearded faces and long, disheveled hair makes them resemble shepherd dogs, one has the feeling that something’s got to give.”
“All this defiance of authority,” he warned, “is going to keep up until this country has a dictator to straighten things out. If that worst comes, firing squads may be the result brought on by the warped minds which are creating all the trouble in this land.”
And he was just getting started. Later in the column, he bemoaned the large number of military deserters in the Raleigh County Jail and told how he and others discussed a solution that involved a lottery, with a deserter drawing a name from a jar. That person would then stand against “the blue rock wall of the courthouse” and be shot by a firing squad.
“All those AWOL according to that plan,” he exclaimed, “would be formed in a hollow square to witness the execution of the doomed wretch.”
It was a perplexing attitude projecting from a Baptist minister who had several times in the past promoted abolishing West Virginia’s death penalty.
Readers quickly responded to the oddball column. A Beckley woman wrote that “maybe we do have bearded shepherd dogs in our streets. But you, without a beard, are a German Shepherd — a vicious, bloodthirsty one at that!”
A Scarbro man wrote that “I do not have the military data to prove my belief, but I strongly suspect the reason for a military infraction of the nature in question is catalyzed by an emotional problem rather than any political conviction.”
“[Donnelly] sounded as if he were on a ‘bad trip’ when the article was written.”
“What is this world coming to when a minister advocates cold-blooded murder?” wrote a Fayetteville reader.
Realizing a problem was brewing, the Post-Herald addressed the column not once but twice in the ensuing days. On Feb. 9 the editor wrote “When the particular column in question was copyread and edited before being put into type, it was debated for a time as to whether such a proposal should see the light of day in print. After all, the column is designed to deal with historical events and, on occasion, how such events may have a bearing on current events … the column on AWOL servicemen seemed easily subject to rejection for that reason.”
“Thus, it was our decision to let our minister-columnist have his say, but we must make it clear that his ideas do not carry any endorsement of the Post-Herald …”
Days later, on Feb. 12, with the tempest still boiling and with one reader accusing the paper of complicity with the radical suggestion, the Post-Herald went a step further. “As indicated editorially on Monday, not only were we amazed by the column, we felt a need to make it clear that we did not endorse the ideas put forth and felt they were ridiculous proposals.”
“We would add, at this point, that we have had to edit some rather strong material from some of the protesting letters that have come in since the column appeared. Far from accusing the columnist or libeling him, we have in many instances protected him from being libeled from others.”
At least one Beckley reader defended Donnelly, stating that he found nowhere in the carefully edited column of him specifically advocating shooting anyone. “It is well known that Shirley Donnelly is one of the most revered citizens and ministers in this area. The fact that his plain language has been so twisted and distorted is something more than inadvertence and something more than negligence and he is entitled to a front page bold type apology.”
There was no front-page apology. But once this debate subsided, Shirley Donnelly continued to submit numerous less-controversial columns until 1977. He died on Aug. 31, 1982, at Beckley Veterans Administration Hospital. He was 87.
— Dale Brumfield can be reached at email@example.com.