The American Tapestry: Appalachian Threads

February 10, 2011
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Only West Virginia can lay claim to having its entire geographic span within the Appalachian mountain range

Because the Appalachian Mountains extend from Quebec to Alabama, many states — from Maine to Georgia — lay claim to Appalachian values and culture. However, no state except West Virginia, can lay claim to having its entire geographic span within this major mountain range.

Therefore, it is safe to say that West Virginia dominates the threads woven into the fabric of Appalachia, and one of the most dedicated seamstresses, sewing the patriotic threads into that metaphoric fabric is Anne Montague. Now, 71, she is the founder of Thanks! Plain and Simple, a non-political, non-profit organization dedicated to both the current and past soldiers who willingly sacrifice their lives for this country.

True to West Virginian character, Montague says, “Let’s use, not waste, our strengths,” as she works tirelessly to expand the role of all veterans.

When asked to define the values of this wild and wonderful state, Montague says, “At the core of my being, a West Virginian is the faith that we humans will survive because of our basic values. We West Virginians have always known that someday our time would come — when the rest of America returns to basics, when Americans do a reality check by respecting those who did not enter the fast lane, but instead held to the beliefs of unpretentious, practical, every-person-counts values.”

Not one to avoid honest evaluation, Montague adds, “First, we recognize that the stigma about West Virginia is real and strong. It hurts us in many ways. It is incomprehensible to us that others’ ignorance is not only tolerated, but also encouraged. The media for example, shows us as buck-toothed or toothless, with cars on concrete blocks and refrigerators on every porch. Many Americans even think West Virginia is part of Virginia! I learned to laugh and say, ‘How silly.”’

“Poverty is real here,” she acknowledges. “The lack of career opportunities is one reason so many of our young people enlist in the military. Yet, to think of us as deprived is uninformed, and such thinking demeans us.”

Montague continues by saying that “We work with all West Virginians — liberals, altand conservatives, civilians and soldiers, sophisticated and common people, rich and poor, young and old. West Virginians helped us build a long-term, people-centered, project-oriented program for veterans. We do not flaunt West Virginia, but we build from our people’s sincerity, which is deep, and real.

Montague explains why she founded Thanks! Plain and Simple, “In 2004, presidential candidates argued about the Iraqi War. I wondered if our soldiers thought that we confused this argument with ambivalence toward the soldier him or herself, as we did with soldiers who served in Vietnam. I believed West Virginians could easily unite to show our support, without political arguments. I tested my idea and repeatedly, people encouraged us. Later, I contacted leaders in 55 counties to participate. A song honoring our veterans soon resulted. It assures our soldiers that ‘We Value You.’”

One of the many projects currently underway is the identification and interview of Rosie-the-Riveters, women who served in World War II on the home front.

The most famous Rosie is no doubt Marilyn Monroe. However, long before, she sang “Happy Birthday” to the President, or had her skirts rise above an iron grate, Monroe worked in an airplane factory alongside numerous other Rosies in factories across the country, replacing the men fighting overseas.

altThese women came from diverse backgrounds, and cultural differences were secondary to getting the job done, and done right. Sybil Lewis, an African-American riveter, who worked for Lockheed aircraft company, says, “The women worked in pairs. I was the riveter and this big, strong, white girl from a cotton farm in Arkansas worked as the bucker. The riveter used a gun to shoot rivets through the metal and fasten it together. The bucker used a bucking bar on the other side of the metal to smooth out the rivets. Bucking was harder than shooting rivets; it required more muscle. Riveting required more skill.”

Skip forward six decades. Think Hurricane, West Virginia. Think an octogenarian, recently recognized and honored for her efforts during the Second World War.

Think gratitude that her story is being told. “Nobody else could do what Anne does,” asserts Nancy Sipple, a proud Rosie the Riveter. She recognizes the rare and raw force-of-nature bundled into the woman who founded Thanks! Plain and Simple. It takes a once-in a-lifetime person to think of a new way to make a difference. Not only did Anne think of it, she went ahead and did it! Lucky for me, Anne saw that the best way to show who we are here in West Virginia is to shine the light on the few remaining Rosies.”

Sipple adds, “We older American woman want people to know how we pulled together to shorten that awful war. Our work was important but largely ignored. I saw our contribution up close. And Anne sees it now. She tells us, ‘If we are going to show the nation how to learn from you Rosies before you die, we have to start with expressing our concern for one another.’ We Rosies hope our experiences will not die with us. Our work with Anne is life changing as she envisioned ways to connect people, starting here in West Virginia.”

A foreign government also recognized Montague’s work. In a speech to Rosies and their supporters, Major Anna Janes, appointed by the British Embassy to express gratitude for the work of American Rosies, says, “It is a real privilege and honor to represent my country for such an impressive organization as Thanks! Plain and Simple. I am most sincerely pleased to be part of this effort to help people know Raltosies. Their work has been, and indeed, is still important to freedom.”

In her address at West Virginia State University, Janes compared America’s Rosies to the men and women who worked in intelligence at Bletchley Park, cracking the ENIGMA machine. Asked to keep their secret for 60 years, those Englishmen and women were reluctant to acknowledge their vital role. Janes spoke of parallels in the work of those who serve the frontline but whose roles never made headlines.

To be sure, Americans are proud of the women who stepped up when the call for help came, and other nations too, have similar stories of women rallying to meet a national need.

Nita Brown, a naturalized American citizen and fashion designer, who operates educational tours via Red Sandal Tours in Rochester, NY, cites the historical figure of Ghana’s Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa. Born in Kumasi, Ghana, Brown speaks proudly of the Queen Mother’s courage in her determination to protect the throne, and its symbolic reflection of Asante’s sovereignty, “The Queen Mother overruled the protests from her (mostly male) courtiers and advisers, as she mobilized and commanded the nation to fight against the British.”

Montague reflects that same spirit as she works tirelessly to solve a number of problems. “We believe that meeting one need may result in helping to meet several needs, if a program is well-planned and people understand how to help.”

altWhether she is making Rosie connections, or working to take the tarnish off the West Virginia stereotype, Montague understands the power of unleashing a single planted seed. “Since our people are modest individuals, few attempts were made to build people-power around one or more state-wide projects.

Now, people are eager to cooperate with our military families and plan new veterans’ projects. In academic terms, this is called increasing human capital. In West Virginia terms, it’s called doing a good job.”

Montague’s insight, extraordinary vision, and boundless energy led her to projects that reflect West Virginia’s strengths. “We are diverse, in heritage, geography, educational level, socioeconomic status, religions, occupations, music, arts, and personal experiences. It has not been difficult for me to find West Virginians eager to unite around the well-being of our military families. We have committed to do work that will last far into the future. “

Professor Mason Cooley, the American professor known for pithy truths, once observed, “the sewing machine joins what the scissors have cut asunder.” Thanks! Plain and Simple can be likened to the sewing machine, and Anne Montague to a fine seamstress. Both the machine and the seamstress bring unity to parts that are cut asunder. There is no doubt, the threads of this unique state are dominant in the fabric of West Virginians, and in time, this symbolic fabric may be styled to fit an entire nation.|