Mining His Past

Col. Richard Childress considers all that’s gone before.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

What do the political landscape of Southeast Asia and the history of the people of the Appalachians have in common? Much more than you might think, says Colonel Richard Childress, of Flat Rock. This month, Col. Childress will be giving a talk on his book, A Historical Lottery, at Blue Ridge Community College. The book, he says, is a result not only of his youth spent in West Virginia, but also of a career full of “intercultural experience” in the countries he served that, in the end, also helped him to understand and achieve perspective on his own family’s experience.

After 26 years in the military, eight years in the Reagan White House as an Asian specialist, 17 passports, and a decade as a consultant in DC, Childress decided to call Flat Rock home, inspired by the mountains that reminded him of his West Virginia childhood.

All along, he has nurtured his interest in his family’s history, and the larger history of the people who lived in a landscape he knew so well. He says he researched A Historical Lottery for 50 years, since his mother first gave him a book on his family ancestry. Of course, the writing of it took a backseat during his career, but it never left his mind. His Appalachian childhood is deeply etched into his life story, though his family moved to Cleveland when he was 12. 

As the project proceeded, Childress realized that simply writing an extensive family history would not do. Genealogy without a full understanding of the history in which those people lived is “like reading a menu but not knowing what it tastes like,” he says. His family’s history, he realized, could become a case-in-point to understand patterns of migration and to ground and make specific the history of an entire region. 

It was at that moment that his training in Asian studies, and his history understanding complex political situations, came into play — helping him to remain objective even when writing about the land he has always loved. He says his academic and military career provided “insight in a practical way about how economics and politics and social and cultural pressures affect human behavior.”

After he moved to Flat Rock, his research took off. He finally had the time to explore “dusty courthouses, graveyards, archives, more paper than you can imagine, hiking through the woods looking for cabin locations, and doing oral histories.” He traces streams of history back through generations of migration, including that of his own family, from Germany to England to Northern Ireland — and then from Pennsylvania to West Virginia. But he follows other paths, too, including those that led Southern African-Americans, as well as streams of migrants from countries like Poland, Wales, and Italy, into the mines of West Virginia. He also addresses Appalachian stereotypes and the ways residents use humor to turn these stereotypes on their heads.

Attendees should be prepared to learn what genealogy can teach us about larger trends, to learn many quirky and surprising twists in Appalachian history, to hear folksy tidbits — and to have any ingrained notions about Appalachian culture challenged.

The Blue Ridge Center for Lifelong Learning presents “A Historical Lottery” with Col. Richard Childress on Monday, Feb. 11, 1-3pm, in Room 150 of Blue Ridge Community College’s Patton Room. $20/members, $30/nonmembers. For more information, see brcll.com or call 828-694-1740.

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