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Son of Marshall

With his term coming to a close, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin reflects on his time in state government, his Marshall education and what’s next.

When Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin Jr. rises from behind the desk in his warmly paneled private office in the West Virginia State Capitol, his smile is infectious, and his blue eyes sparkle as he talks. His pride in being one of only 35 men to reach this vaunted state position is obvious, as is the fact that he is the only Marshall University graduate to do so.

Politics runs in the blood of this lifelong Democrat, and he admits being interested in it at an early age. His father, Earl Tomblin, held several Logan County offices when Earl Ray Tomblin was a boy, and he aspired to becoming a lawyer.

According to the governor’s former senior advisor, Raamie Barker, Tomblin often took leadership roles in high school. As a teacher at Chapmanville High School, Barker recalled the popular student’s innate ability to bring a group together to tackle a challenge. Tomblin also excelled in the U.S. government class Barker taught. As he watched Tomblin in the center of every activity in the class, he knew the young man was destined for bigger things.

The first in his family to attend college, Tomblin received his Bachelor of Science degree from West Virginia University in 1974 after graduating from Chapmanville High School in his native Logan County. But, he received his master’s in business administration from Marshall, doing so in little more than a year. He said rushing through his M.B.A. was necessary because he had other ambitions. Before graduating from WVU, he’d filed to run for the West Virginia House of Delegates, so he was in a hurry.

EarlRayTomblin JeromeG_opt“In May, it was time for graduation. I won the primary on Tuesday and graduated from WVU on Saturday. It was a big week in my life,” he said.

That fall, at 22, he entered graduate school at Marshall, became a substitute teacher, and campaigned in the general election. Throughout that fall, and the following summer and fall semesters, he crammed in as many classes as possible, and earned his master’s in business administration before running for re-election in 1976. Although he said his time on Marshall’s Huntington campus was a bit of a blur, he holds his dean and professor, Dr. Robert Alexander, in high esteem. The two became lifelong friends. Following Tomblin’s graduation, he won his House seat again, and hasn’t been out of office since.

After graduating from Marshall, Tomblin bought a small, 24-hour diner in Logan. His family had owned a restaurant in Chapmanville when he was young, but he said he didn’t realize what he was getting into with the purchase.

“It was a good experience, not that I want to do it again,” he said. “Even though I had a master’s in business administration, it taught me what the real business world was like.” Managing both the diner and his duties as a delegate was a challenge, but Tomblin relished it.

EarlRayTomblin 40thAnni_optDuring his second year in the House of Delegates, Tomblin met his wife-to-be, Long Island native, Joanne Jaeger. She was working on her bachelor’s degree in journalism at Marshall, and serving in the public information office of the legislature, as well as working as a morning television show host, news anchor and general assignment reporter at WSAZ-TV in Huntington. Named Marshall’s Broadcast Journalism Student of the Year, Joanne graduated in 1975. She also earned her master’s in communications at Marshall in 1978, while she was still working at WSAZ. They met when he asked her to write a press release for the Logan media. The rest is history, as they say. The two Marshall graduates married in 1979 and he took her back to Logan County. In addition to politics, Marshall green runs in their blood. Their son, Brent Jaeger Tomblin, earned his degrees at Marshall as well.

Re-elected to the House in 1978, Tomblin next won election in 1980 to the West Virginia Senate, serving the Seventh Senate District composed of Boone, Lincoln, Logan and Wayne counties. During his years in the Senate, Tomblin became its president, and held the post almost 17 years, the longest in state history. Moreover, he became the state’s first Lieutenant Governor when the position was created in 2000. He continued to serve in the Senate until 2010. At that time, Gov. Joe Manchin was elected to the U.S. Senate, and Tomblin became acting governor. In 2011, he won a special election to fill Manchin’s unexpired term, and was elected to his own full term in 2012.

EarlRayTomblin SteveKo_optAs governor, Tomblin said he gets back to Marshall several times a year, though it’s usually for business, not fun. He’s amazed with all the new buildings and the progress the university has made.

When Gary White was Marshall’s interim president, he said having a Marshall graduate as governor provided a great role model for incoming freshmen.

“I talked to them a lot about decisions we make and how if we make good decisions and we prepare ourselves well, opportunities will come at a later time that we can’t even imagine,” White said. “The governor is a great example of that.”

Tomblin said watching Marshall’s future direction under President Jerome Gilbert will be interesting. Marshall’s emphasis on the sciences and engineering excites him, but he’s also a great believer in a liberal arts background. Additionally, he hopes Marshall and WVU will continue working together.

“I think both institutions have the same goal in mind and that is to make West Virginia as good as it can be, to educate our people, and give them the kind of skills necessary to move West Virginia forward.”

Michael Sellards, chairman of Marshall’s Board of Governors, said he believes Gov. Tomblin has demonstrated an unusual commitment to education, perhaps because he started as a public school teacher. According to Sellards, Tomblin has shown it in the state legislature, and again as governor.

EarlTomblin RedDawson _opt“Certainly as a Marshall graduate, he understands the dynamics of Marshall University and the importance of Marshall to the Huntington community.” Sellards said that gives Tomblin a unique perspective.

However, with the perspective of a businessman, the governor has had to request fiscal cuts across state departments, including education, to achieve a mandated balanced budget. While he said college administrators must find ways to save money, he realizes they must also find new sources of revenue, like attracting more out-of-state students accustomed to higher tuition rates. He proudly points out that despite other cuts to education, he left Promise Scholarships, needs-based funding, and tuition reimbursements for National Guard untouched.

While Tomblin can’t run again, at least not for four years, he said counting him out of the picture would be a mistake. When his term ends in January 2017, after 41 years in state government, he hopes he will be leaving things better than when he found them in 1975.

“I’m not sure what I’m going to be doing. I’ll be around. I tell everybody I’ll take a week off and then be doing something else.”

Meanwhile, look for him on the seat of an ATV riding the Hatfield-McCoy Trails, tending his Chapmanville yard, or taking some trips for pleasure.


Carter Taylor Seaton is a freelance writer living in Huntington. She is the author of two novels, and the nonfiction book, Hippie Homesteaders. She received the 2014 Literary Merit Award from the West Virginia Library Association, the Marshall University College of Liberal Arts Distinguished Alumni Award in 2015 and the Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts in 2016.


Photos: (From top) A family portrait in the Governor’s Mansion, with his wife, Joanne Jaeger Tomblin, their son, Brent, and Brent’s wife, Brittany. Gov. Tomblin speaks at the memorial commemorating the 40th anniversary of the 1970 plane crash that killed 75 Marshall University students, faculty and supporters. Marshall’s mascot, Marco the Bison, gives Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin a keepsake helmet from the Thundering Herd football team. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin conducts a formal ceremony on Feb. 26 naming former Marshall Coach Red Dawson as a Distinguished West Virginian.