Alumnus Jack Canfield Featured in Charleston Gazette

Jack Canfield
The family room of Jack Canfield's Kanawha City home reflects his love for books. He has a special interest in Irish books (his mother's family immigrated from Ireland in 1872) and books about U.S. presidents, particularly John F. Kennedy. He collects music and information on little-known governors and presidents. Photo by Lawrence Pierce

By Sandy Wells - The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As a kid reared in modest circumstances in Elk Garden and Keyser, Jack Canfield could not have envisioned the rewarding career that awaited him.

A marketing and communications specialist, he worked for a congressman and three West Virginia governors, served two terms in the House of Delegates and spent 15 years at CAMC where he started the corporation's first marketing department. He eventually opened a PR firm of his own.

Along the way, he met lots of important people and observed lots of important things. The entertaining anecdotes, told in his personable and candid manner, go on and on. A newspaper column can't begin to hold them all.

He credits his remarkable success and rich experience to the mentors who showed him how things should be done.

At 72, he still works daily in his downtown office.

"My parents divorced when I was 2. My father was a dance band singer, and a pretty good one. I only remember seeing him twice. I heard from him one time. He called me right before he died.

"After the divorce, my brother Dave and I lived in Elk Garden with my grandparents until I was in the sixth grade. Elk Garden was a small town of 310 people with no paved streets. We had to haul in water. Granddaddy was on welfare. He worked part time as a meat cutter.

"Mother worked at a garment factory and visited us on the mountain on weekends. After Granddaddy died, we moved to Keyser.

"When I was a kid, I wanted to be a bus driver because I wanted to see the country. In high school, I wanted to be Walter Cronkite. There is ink in the veins, journalism in our family.

"I was elected class president from seventh grade through high school. I sang in high school and college and played trombone. We had a small band.

"June and I married at the end of my sophomore year at Potomac State when I transferred to WVU. She quit college to work so we could pay rent.

"My first real mentor was Dr. Elizabeth Atwater at Potomac State. She taught us everything -- how to walk, make a speech, shake hands, how to sit on a stage, how to write a declarative English sentence.

"Charlie Ryan was one of her students. He was one year ahead of me at Keyser High. We were both teenage disc jockeys and journalism majors. My degree from WVU is in broadcast journalism.

"When Charlie left Keyser for Morgantown, I got his job at WKYR. He left WCLG in Morgantown the year I was transferring, so I landed that job. He went to Charleston to WCHS-TV. When he left for WSAZ, I got his job at WCHS-TV. So I have piggybacked his career.

"Jack Johns at WCLG in Morgantown taught me more about journalism than any school could. I was the morning disc jockey, but wrote and read the news. I can type faster than anybody because we had to rewrite stories every hour. Great training.

"I was on the air during the Cuban Missile Crisis. My brother was in the Army, stationed in Florida, ready to enforce the blockade if necessary. We went to bed at night not knowing if a nuclear bomb had been dropped.

"The crisis ended on a Sunday morning during a live religious program. I did one of those, 'We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin.'

"My admiration for President Kennedy started in 1960 during the West Virginia campaign when I was at Potomac State. I was such an admirer of Hubert Humphrey, but I thought Kennedy could articulate the vision of America better than anyone.

"I tried to enter the Air Force after graduation, but I was disqualified for 'third-degree bulging flat feet' -- a memorable phrase.

"Ed Rabel held Charlie's old spot for me at WCHS-TV. Ed was news director before he went on to CBS and NBC. My first assignment was to hold the umbrella over Ed as he covered President Kennedy's speech at the state's 100th birthday in 1963.

"Congressman Harley O. Staggers from my hometown offered me a job on Capitol Hill. No man ever wrote more speeches for a congressman that were never used. He used the same speech he'd used since 1949 everywhere he went.

"I reported to work on Tuesday. On Friday, Jack Kennedy was assassinated. I was commuting to Washington and had returned to Keyser that day. I was listening to the radio when the announcer said, 'We interrupt this program to bring you a bulletin: President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas. Now, we return to the music of Ray Anthony.'

"Congressman Staggers was up at his farm on the tractor. I found him in the field to tell him the president had been assassinated. He went to Washington for the funeral. I'll always regret that I didn't go.

I was there the night Johnson made his first speech to Congress five days after Kennedy was assassinated. With Johnson, you had this Texas drawl, this big, lumbering guy contrasted with the suave, articulate, debonair Jack Kennedy. But he was a fantastic domestic president. Vietnam did him in.

"The greatest thing I saw on Capitol Hill was Hubert Humphrey fighting for the Civil Rights Act. Humphrey was brilliant and passionate and had more social conscience in his thumbnail than most politicians have in their whole being.

"We missed Charleston. Hulett Smith had just won the 1964 primary for governor. I wrote and told him I thought he could use a speechwriter. I got assigned to the advance team. Six weeks before the election, his speechwriter quit. I was the new speechwriter and went on to become press secretary. That's how I started working for governors.

"Hulett won that election against Cecil Underwood. I'm told I was the youngest gubernatorial press spokesman in the nation.

"At a Democratic governors' meeting in 1967, each governor could bring one aide to a private meeting with the president. Hulett brought me.

"LBJ bounded into the room, a tremendous presence, very handsome. Then he cut loose. He said he didn't mind Republicans criticizing his 'Veet-nam' policy, but he'd be damned if he'd take it from Democrats. LBJ was a complex and complicated man who could be incredibly charming one minute and incredibly crude the next.

"Hulett took bold stands. He signed a bill to end the death penalty, called strip mining 'the rape of the land' and called for the registration of all firearms. A gentleman and a gentle man, he was my mentor when it comes to civility and how to treat people.

"I spent six months putting Smith's papers together, then did a little co-anchoring work at WSAZ. Bos Johnson was another mentor. He insisted on reporting the most important news in the state first, unlike today's newscasts of parading orange jumpsuits, fires and repetitious weather reports.

"My friend Bob Miller and I started our marketing business at the top of Bridge Road. We called it Yellow Brick Road. We had a bookstore and record store out front and our agency in the back. Vinyl was big. We liked the music so much, we would take albums home instead of selling them. So we took home all our profits.

"When I left to join the Rockefeller administration, we sold our records to a new place called Budget Tapes and Records.

"In 1974, I ran for House of Delegates. There were 52 Democrat candidates for 14 seats. I came in 14th. Also elected was Earl Ray Tomblin, the youngest member ever elected. He was quiet, fresh out of WVU, and was interested in finance. That's all we knew about him. In 1976, I was re-elected.

"Bob and I worked on Jay Rockefeller's winning campaign. I joined the front office as communications director. Arch Moore's department heads were instructed not to talk to our transition team. He didn't know several of his department heads called us at night.

"Jay was a 'big picture' governor. He liked to see what was going on nationally with coal and steel and education. He expected hard work and honesty. Treat your people with respect and he would stay out of the way.

"One night, a legislator who got a DUI called to demand it be fixed. I refused. He threatened to torpedo the entire Rockefeller agenda. Later, the governor said, 'Jack, isn't it nice to know you work for an administration in which you don't even have to ask before you give the answer?'

"For the second term, he asked me to be commissioner of employment security. Reagan had just been elected. The recession hit. I ended up presiding over the highest unemployment rate in the nation.

"Charlie Ryan recommended me to Jim Crews at the Charleston Area Medical Center. I created their first marketing department. After 15 years of bureaucracy and too many meetings, I joined Charles Ryan Associates, two Keyser boys together again.

"Later, I crossed the hall and spent time at RMS Research. Companies started asking me to do their advertising as well as their research. So in 2001, I started Jack Canfield LLC.

"A few months later, Governor Wise asked me to fill in as his communications director. All governors are different. Hulett liked things orderly and planned out. Wise had to be out and about, mixing it up. I don't think I ever saw him relax.

"When stressed, Governor Smith would play cards. Governor Rockefeller would play the piano. Arch listened to Broadway shows.

"I still have an office on Capitol Street. I go in five days a week and do as much as I'm comfortable doing. I have no plans to retire, but it's on my mind. I could still work out of the house and do consulting.

"What I can't see is sitting around painting pastels or working in a garden. In a perfect world, I would be standing and looking at the ocean. At Hilton Head, I stand there and say, 'OK, God, I could die right now.' That's how I feel about the ocean.

"I was able to do what I did because I had a good family, and I was at the right place at the right time with a lot of things. I had wonderful teachers and good mentors in government and journalism.

"When I teach public relations at Marshall and UC, I just hope I have conveyed some standards. I hope I am passing it forward."

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Reach Sandy Wells at or 304-348-5173.