What Jerry West meant to a kid from East Bank

By Cindy Lavender-Bowe for RealWV,

I am from East Bank, West Virginia. Home of Jerry West. You know, the logo.

This is a common refrain from those of us raised in this small town, or from graduates of East Bank High School. While Mr. West was from a nearby unincorporated area, Chelyan, he was an alumnus of East Bank High School and led the team to it’s only state basketball championship. It was our honor to claim him as ours.

I grew up hearing stories of his abilities on the basketball court, but most importantly his dedication and work ethic. Our community embraced Jerry as a hero and that continued for generations.

Every day for decades, we walked past his East Bank High School jersey on display and marvel at how far he had gone – to glamourous Los Angeles, a world away from the Upper Kanawha Valley. I vividly remember my dad watching him as a player and then coach of the Lakers and then General Manager.

For several years after he graduated, East Bank would become West Bank each March 24 – the date of the state championship victory delivered to us by the greatest Pioneer ever. Mr. West, a member of a generation of folks who never sought attention for his good deeds, quietly supported causes in the community for decades. For many years, would return to East Bank and attend a dinner with the members of the EBHS basketball team and boosters. He would offer encouraging words to the student athletes, understanding fully the challenges they faced being from small town in West Virginia. He truly never forgot his roots.

I met Jerry West the first time when I was a 16-year-old student at EBHS. Thirty years after the historic state basketball championship, the student senate had organized naming the school gymnasium in honor of Jerry West. Although a new school and gym was built in the late 1960s and West had never played on this location, he graciously accepted the invitation. We were ecstatic that the greatest Pioneer in the school’s history was coming for the ceremony. Everyone, staff and students alike, were in awe – a large looming figure softened by the sweetest smile and most gentle demeanor. He spent the morning walking the hallways with students, posing for pictures, shaking our hands, and offering encouraging words of understanding. Every day we had walked past his high school jersey and photograph on display. And now he walked amongst us.

He also made time to take a side trip to the nearby East Bank Jr. High, site of the original East Bank High, to walk the halls where he had been a high school student and lead his basketball team to the historic state championship of 1956.

Much later in life, I met Mr. West for the second time at Carnegie Hall during the first Lewisburg Literary Festival. He had come to speak about his autobiography, West by West. I had escorted him from the book signings to backstage at Carnegie. I got to be a fly on the wall as he greeted fan after fan after fan. He was as kind, gracious, and attentive as when I first had the pleasure of meeting him over 25 earlier. I also got to witness the first meeting between Jerry West and Homer Hickam – two small town West Virginia boys who’d made it to international distinction. Witnessing their mutual admiration and understanding of one another was a memory I hold very close to my heart.

Over the last decade, I was lucky to encounter Mr. West several more times when he was living part of the year in Greenbrier County. Again, he quietly supported causes in the area. He shopped at the Farmers’ Market, attended community events, and of course, was the inspiration for The Greenbrier’s Prime 44 restaurant.

Once during a movie being shown at Carnegie Hall, the projector suddenly lost power. Staff quickly discovered it had come unplugged inadvertently when Jerry stretched out his long legs. I plugged the cord back in and when he realized what had happened. He was as polite and kind, as he’d always been in my experience.

Jerry West’s love for West Virginia and its people seemed to be unending. And ours for him is eternal.

Cindy Lavender-Bowe is from East Bank, WV. She and her husband, Mark, run Barnwood Living. She previously served as a Delegate in the WV House.

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