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Fortunate Fall

This Gilmer County woodworker and celebrated Tamarack artisan learns to pursue his dream after a brush with death.

Wind chimes and stillness punctuated by peals of laughter—this is the background music to Matt Thomas’ new life. Most mornings he gets up at 5 AM, walks to work, and spends a few hours adjusting the jigs he needs to build an accent table or fits thin pieces of walnut inlay into unfinished cutting boards. By 7:30 AM, the sound of little feet scurrying down the hall next door signals break time. He doesn’t need to get up so early—his trip to work consists of a 10-foot walk from his front door to the door of his woodworking studio, which overlooks a quiet little valley in Gilmer County dotted with farms—but he likes to be there when his wife Terri and their four children wake up.

The Gilmer Free Press

Matt Thomas owns Thomas|work, a small studio on a 13-acre plot in the Mountain Lakes region, where he designs and builds custom furniture and sought-after retail pieces. His signatures are the graceful swoop of inlaid wood and the organic curve of iron. In his most daring pieces, the natural softness of wood and strength of metal seem to shift roles—hard wooden edges brush up against slithering iron vines in a wonderful interplay of form and function. “The process is what’s interesting,” he says. “To take the very rigid wood and wrap the ironwork around it—I just try to find different ways, from a design standpoint, to combine these two very different substances.” His furniture often has angular, Shaker-style bodies.

Quickly becoming one of Tamarack’s most celebrated artisans, Matt is still a little taken aback at the idea of being called an artist. Although he considers himself semi-retired, he often works 50-hour weeks, puts out hundreds of products at a time, and was featured as an emerging artist by NICHE magazine. He insists his passion is not for the art but for the lifestyle itself—a lifestyle that allows him to see his children grow and change every day. “Honestly, I’m a businessman, a craftsman, not really an artist. I worked for about 10 years in construction, putting in 14-hour days. I know how physically intense it is, and I know the wage I can get out of it. This is a lot less physically demanding. I’m not as drained at the end of the day, and my kids are right here playing. But even if this paid minimum wage, I would still choose it. This is the best job I’ve ever had. It’s a little stressful when the phone isn’t ringing and there aren’t orders to fill, but it’s worth it because I get to be right here. It’s a no-brainer.”

The Gilmer Free Press

Turning from an everyday career in construction to life as an artisan wasn’t an easy transition. For Matt, it took a brush with death. Although he’d always nursed a love of the craft—his work was in a jury session at Tamarack when he was just 16 and he apprenticed under internationally recognized blacksmith Jeff Fetty for nearly four years—his work had always lived on the periphery. “I just never thought I could take the plunge,” he says. Then one rainy afternoon in July 2011, Matt was finishing up a metal roofing installation when he took a wrong step and fell 16 feet to the ground. It wasn’t until he found himself lying immobile in a hospital bed that he realized his whole world was about to change. Matt had fractured a vertebra in his lower back, and there was a very real chance that he would never be able to return to his job as general contractor. “Immediately, I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t build. I couldn’t do anything. And I had a wife and three kids to support, which made it that much more traumatic.”

When Sally Barton of the Tamarack Foundation came to visit him in the hospital and offered to help him get his woodworking business off the ground, Matt jumped at the chance. The Tamarack Foundation, an organization that works to preserve West Virginia’s cultural heritage, support the arts, and assist in the development of a strong, creative economy, sent Matt and seven other artisans to the 2012 Buyer’s Market of American Craft in Philadelphia. There he received nearly enough orders from gallery owners to fill his production schedule for a year. He took one glance at the numbers and never looked back. “When I broke my back, I had to take the chance.”

Both Matt’s woodworking and metalsmithing are gaining recognition across the country. He was recently named a finalist in the 2013 NICHE Awards and regularly fills orders for galleries from New York to San Francisco, including a custom cherry bench presented to the former West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Gus Douglas. And he’s happy to share his knowledge, regularly taking on apprentices and opening his studio to admirers and dreamers alike.

The Gilmer Free Press

“It would be wrong for me to turn them down when so many people helped me get to where I am,” he says. “That’s how I learned. I still call up my friends from Tamarack. They’re good as gold to me because if I have questions, problems, or anything, I can ask them for help.”

In his tiny shop on top of the hill—he calls it his “cramped man cave”—Matt designs timeless pieces as large as a custom bed and as small as a pair of chopsticks. The challenge isn’t just in the design. Matt takes great care to distill the process of creating each piece down to the most economical steps, approaching each product like it’s a puzzle. “It’s all very meticulously planned out,” he says. “It’s been a process of constant refining to find the most efficient way to make each piece. Then I can pass those savings on to the customer.”

From a neat stack of native West Virginia lumber along one wall, Matt looks over pieces of walnut, cherry, and maple with the eye of a businessman and the eagerness of an artist. These pieces might become a beautiful cutting board or a fine sushi set, or they might become the body of a brand new design—something with clean lines and elegant ironwork in that mixture of beauty and practicality that sets his work apart. When he looks back on how far he’s come in just a few years, he still has trouble believing it. “What I did before was just fine. It paid the bills. It was a job. This is a change of pace, but as a line of work, it is so much more controllable. I can put a dollar figure on it and say it netted me a certain amount, but what I can’t put a price on is how much it improved my quality of life. Now I’m glad I fell.”

~~  Written by Mikenna Pierotti - Photographed by Matt Thomas - WVLiving  ~~


The Legislature Today - March 15, 2013 - Mayor Danny Jones

G-Comm™: Hoppy’s Commentary - Bus Stop for First Amendment


The primary responsibility of the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni) system is to make sure the city’s trains, buses and historic streetcars get to where they are going on time.

San Francisco, like most cities, has resorted to selling ad space on many of those vehicles to help subsidize the system.  And that decision has created yet another venue in the verbal battle over radical Islam.

The controversy began last year when the organization MyJihad bought space on the buses for ads trying to explain that the true meaning of jihad for Muslims is about a particular struggle or challenge.  For example, one ad read, “MyJihad is to build friendships across the aisle.”

Now a group called the American Freedom Defense Initiative is running similarly-styled ads on the same buses, but with very different messages. They feature pictures of Islamic radicals, such as Osama bin Laden, next to controversial or inflammatory quotes.

San Francisco, a hub of political correctness, is agitated by this new campaign. Mass Transit Authority board of directors chairman Tom Nolan denounced the ads as “savage.”

“(San Francisco) has a long history of tolerance for all, and while we honor a person’s right to self-expression, there are times when we must say ‘enough’,” Nolan said. “The recent ad has no value in facilitating constructive dialog or advancing the cause of peace and justice.”

Of course, the First Amendment, which protects the controversial ads, includes nothing about peace, justice or tolerance.  What it does do is extend broad protections to all points of view, good and bad, insightful or insipid.

In the landmark case Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., Justice Louis Powell wrote, “Under the First Amendment there is no such thing as a false idea.  However pernicious an opinion may seem, we depend for its correction not on the conscience of judges and juries, but on the competition of ideas.”

In other words, San Franciscans don’t need government to tell them whether speech does or does not have value.  Any official arbitrarily imposing his views about what people should and should not read amounts to censorship.

Instead, we allow and encourage the vigorous exchange of ideas and opinions and trust people to make their own decisions about what to think.  Along the way, we get angry, hurt, offended and, yes, informed.

But these are decisions we make for ourselves; we don’t depend on the head of the San Francisco transit system, or any other bureaucrat, to determine what messages people should be receiving.

Paul Rose, a spokesman for Muni, admitted he doesn’t like the new ads, but he makes this relevant observation: “As a city agency (our) job is to provide safe and reliable transportation to the public.”

Indeed.  Make the buses run on time and let the public sort out the rest.

The Legislature Today - March 14, 2013 - Billy Wayne Bailey

The Legislature Today - March 13, 2013 - Walt Helmick

The Legislature Today - March 13, 2013 - Walt Helmick

G-Comm™: Hoppy’s Commentary - There’s No Free Lunch


Here are a couple truisms about government subsidies: over time, they become entitlements and they never get smaller.

The Promise Scholarship program uses state money to pay tuition and fees for West Virginia students who attend in-state colleges and meet certain academic requirements. Facing annual increases in the costs, a few years ago the Legislature capped the scholarship at $4,750.

It was a smart decision.  The cap has kept state spending on the Promise at $47.5 million a year.

This week, a group of WVU students lobbied lawmakers at the State Capitol to raise the cap on the Promise Scholarship so it covers the entire cost of tuition and fees at state colleges.  At WVU, that would mean $6,090, $1,340 more than the state is subsidizing now.

Kirsten Pennington of a group called WVU Student Advocates for Legislative Advancement, told the Charleston Gazette that because of the cap, a student “who qualifies for a Promise Scholarship only gets $4,750 a year.”

Well, getting 78% of your tuition and fees paid for while maintaining a modest “B” average is still a pretty sweet deal.

Pennington and her fellow students have support, however.  Legislation has been introduced in the House and Senate to fully fund the entire cost of tuition and fees.

The problem, however, is that when the state guarantees that amount, no matter the cost, it drives up prices.  State colleges and universities know they can increase tuition and fees and not necessarily impact enrollment because the taxpayers are going to pick up the cost.

One of the arguments for passing Promise in the first place was that it would help keep the best and the brightest in West Virginia.  But it’s questionable whether West Virginia is getting a good rate of return on its investment.

A 2009 report by the WVU Bureau of Business and Economic Research found that while 62% of Promise scholars stayed in the state after graduation, 67% of all in-state college grads remained in West Virginia.

Additionally, the Promise is not the only option for students.  Go to the WVU website and you’ll find myriad scholarships, loans, grants and student employment opportunities.

A four-year degree at a West Virginia college or university is a benefit, but it’s not an entitlement.  As such, it’s not the responsibility of taxpayers to help subsidize the college education of a student who, research has shown, likely comes from a middle class family that can afford to pay for college.

The WVU students lobbying for the increase in the Promise should be complimented, even if they are misguided.  It’s refreshing to have students in the news for civics rather than couch burning. And there’s an Economics 101 lesson here: there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

The Legislature Today - March 12, 2013 - Secretary of State Natalie Tennant

G-Comm™: Hoppy’s Commentary - Hugo Chavez’s Useful Idiots


Despots attract useful idiots, and the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez had his share.  He could always count on sycophants from the naive American left to help him foster an image of a man of the people and a socialist reformer.

Consider some of the eulogies out of Hollywood:

Danny Glover called Chavez a “social champion.”  Oliver Stone, who made a movie about Chavez, called him a great hero, adding, “My friend, rest finally in a peace long earned.”

Michael Moore credited Chavez with using the country’s oil reserves to eliminate 75 percent of the extreme poverty in his country.  Sean Penn said, “Poor people around the world have lost a champion.”

And one member of Congress, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY) praised Chavez as “a leader who understood the needs of the poor.”

Ah, the romantic notions of “the revolution” are intoxicating, particularly for those willing to suspend disbelief about Chavez’s true record during 14 years of his version of socialism.

Financial Times says during Chavez’s aggressive misrule, Venezuela’s government has become “increasingly cash-strapped and disorganized.”

“He leaves behind a country of state-owned steel mills that do not produce steel, state-owned electric utilities that cannot keep the lights on, and state-owned supermarkets where you may be able to find a chicken, coffee or toilet paper, but rarely at the same time,” said the Financial Times.

Oil production, which financed Chavez’s revolution, is now one third lower than it was ten years ago, with the decline blamed on inefficient state operation.  The currency has been devalued and inflation is running five times higher than the average for South American countries.

The New York Times says Chavez’s socialist policies, which grew increasingly random and always left room for profiteering associates, have contributed to a significant brain drain.  “Private investors, unhinged over Mr. Chavez’s nationalization and exportation threats, halted projects.  Hundreds of thousands of scientists, doctors, entrepreneurs and others in the middle class left Venezuela.”

He manipulated a repressed and restricted media to cultivate his image as a populist, but according to Human Rights Watch, Chavez used the government to “intimidate, censor and prosecute Venezuelans who criticized the president or thwarted his political agenda.”

HRW says Chavez packed the country’s Supreme Court with cronies and, in one infamous incident, had a judge thrown in jail after she released a government critic from prison where he had spent three years awaiting trial.

Meanwhile, Venezuela devolved into one of the most dangerous countries in the world as the crime rate rose steadily.  The 2011 murder rate was higher than Colombia.  The capital of Caracas is now one of the most dangerous cities in the world, where corrupt police supplement their income through kidnappings.

But the focus on Chavez misses a larger point about the failure of socialism.

As Mary Anastasia O’Grady wrote in the Wall Street Journal Thursday, “No nation can create the wealth necessary to truly make a difference in the lives of the poor without property rights, free markets, sound money and the rule of law.  These virtues are incompatible with absolute power.”

Economist Milton Friedman liked to remind his audiences that wherever socialism has been tried, it has failed.  If Friedman were alive today, he would have one more example to bolster an argument that trumps the drivel of the useful idiots.

Movies This Week - 03.14.13

The Gilmer Free Press

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Opens Friday, March 15, 2013 | 1 hr. 40 min.

PG-13 - Sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and language

Superstar magicians Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and his partner, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), have reigned as kings of the Las Vegas strip for years. Their work rakes in millions of dollars, but the biggest illusion yet is their friendship, for—now—time and familiarity have bred contempt between them. When a street magician’s increasing popularity threatens to knock them off their thrones, Burt and Anton recognize that they have to repair the relationship and salvage the act.

Cast: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey, James Gandolfini, Alan Arkin

Director: Don Scardino

Genres: Comedy



The Gilmer Free Press

The Call

Opens Friday, March 15, 2013 | 1 hr. 36 min.

R - Violence, Some Language and Disturbing Content

When veteran 911 operator, Jordan (Halle Berry), takes a life-altering call from a teenage girl (Abigail Breslin) who has just been abducted, she realizes that she must confront a killer from her past in order to save the girl’s life.

Cast: Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Morris Chestnut, Michael Eklund, Michael Imperioli

Director: Brad Anderson

Genres: Suspense/Thriller




The Legislature Today - March 11, 2013 - Chief Justice Brent Benjamin

Newest Marthas and Marys Project - Book Drive for Gilmer County Kids

The Gilmer Free Press

Help our Gilmer County kids succeed by giving them books.  Children need good food for their bodies to grow and good books for their brains to grow.  They must have the stimulation of reading.  Children who are not comprehending what they read in the third grade will continue to fall behind in all learning if they are not helped.  Our teachers are not the only people responsible for their learning.  We must encourage our children to read and make sure that they have their own books at home.  We also must be good models for them by letting them see us enjoy reading.

Marthas and Marys and area churches are sponsoring this effort to help our children learn. This week you will see large plastic bins in several Gilmer County public places where you can donate books to our Gilmer County children. Books may be new or gently used which means they have a front and back cover and no missing or torn pages, and are clean.  No damp or musty books please. The goal is to allow all 934 Gilmer County students from pre-school through grade 12 to choose a book to take home.  Your help is needed to accomplish that goal.

Books may be nursery rhymes, story books, short stories, biographies, poetry, novels, plays, how-to books, and books of general information.  Subject matter could be about every-day people today, nature, science, sports, other countries, periods in history, pets, architecture, heroes, how people live,  travel, music, arts, crafts, repairs and how-to, technology, machines and inventions, cars, trucks, and motorcycles, bicycles, cook books, and the list could go on and on.

You will see marked bins in the following businesses where you can help our children grow by donating books for them. Marthas and Marys appreciate the participation of:

•  Calhoun Bank, Foodland

•  Gil-Co Faith Pharmacy

•  Glenville Go-Mart

•  Glenville Public Library

•  Glenville Post Office

•  Hands of Pride Education Center

•  McDonald’s

•  United Bank

•  Watch Me Grow Child Care Development

In addition, there will be book collection bins at the following schools:

•  Gilmer County High

•  Glenville Elementary

•  Normantown Elementary

•  Sand Fork Elementary

•  Troy Elementary

All churches who participate in the ecumenical work of Marthas and Marys will also have book collection bins.  Our children are waiting for your donations.

Collection bins will be in place through Tuesday, April 30, 2013.

G-Comm™: Hoppy’s Commentary - Manchin Key in Gun Bill


During the 2010 special U.S. Senate election in West Virginia, then-Governor Joe Manchin ran an ad where he used a rifle to shoot a hole in the cap-and-trade bill.

It was an effective ad that killed two birds with one stone: it helped separate Manchin from President Obama’s anti-coal energy policies and allowed him to tout his “A” rating from the National Rifle Association.

“As your Senator, I’ll protect your Second Amendment rights,” Manchin said in the ad.  “That’s why the NRA endorsed me.”

Today Senator Manchin’s standing among some gun rights supporters is more tenuous than it was three years ago, because Manchin has inserted himself in the middle of a fierce and emotional Washington debate over gun control.

The junior Senator has learned that even having the conversation about gun control following the Sandy Hook massacre and raising the prospect of additional gun laws makes you a target.  For example, the National Association for Gun Rights is running ads against Manchin.  In a news release, NAGR Executive Vice President Dudley Brown accuses Manchin of promoting a gun registration system.

That’s a stretch.

Manchin is working on a compromise bill with three other senators: Charles Schumer (D-NY) Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Tom Coburn (R-OK).  Manchin says his goal is to broaden the background check system. Currently, licensed firearms dealers must run background checks, but private transactions, such as gun show sales, are excluded.

Manchin believes that change will help keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, while protecting Second Amendment rights.

“We’re not talking about anybody taking anybody’s guns away,” Manchin told the Wall Street Journal.  “All I’m talking about is doing a criminal and mental background check.”

Opponents believe expanding the checks is a first step toward gun registration, which is anathema to the gun lobby.  However, Manchin says the legislation would explicitly prohibit the federal government from creating a registry and imposes serious criminal penalties for anyone who misuses or illegally holds gun records.

It’s logical and reasonable that if gun buyers at federally licensed dealers have to go through background checks then other purchasers should subject to the same rules.  Nobody is talking about taking away guns or creating a federal registry.  This would be a modest step to help keep criminals and the mentally ill from getting their hands on a firearm.

Manchin’s problem is that he needs Republican help.  Without more support from the other side of the aisle, Manchin and other pro-gun Democrats won’t be able to push through a compromise gun bill that extends the background checks.

Education Reform Bill Continues in Charleston

The Gilmer Free Press

A vote will not come until next week on Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s proposed education reform bill as discussions continue over the weekend.

The state Senate Education Committee was expected to vote on the bill Thursday evening, but it didn’t happen.

Committee Chairman Bob Plymale said talks are progressing, but their are still issues to work out.

“I think we have worked with the majority of them and we are getting pretty close to some consensus , but we are not there yet,” said Plymale.

Plymale added that the Governor put together a good bill, but some legitimate issues have been brought up by the teachers union which they intend to address individually.

West Virginia American Federation of Teachers President Judy Hale said they like the direction the bill is heading.

“We are very optimistic at this point that we are going to get a bill that is good for children and fair to employees,” said Hale.

The bill was not perfect, however, and the AFT has been making several suggestions for areas of improvement.

For one, Hale said the bill at first included hiring practices that they felt were too unequal.

“In the first section, which was used for new employees, you could weight that criteria anyway you wanted to,” said Hale. “Which meant seniority could be weighted at one point and other things could be weighted at 98 points.”

After going back to the drawing board, Hale believes they now have language they can deal with.

“We think we are pretty close to having the hiring criteria equally weighted and we wanted to be subjective, and I think we are pretty close on that,” said Hale.

Another issue regarded working with the organization Teach For America, which the AFT is very much opposed to. They suggested removing that from the bill.

But Hale said one of her biggest disappointments with the bill will come out of not dealing with the top heaviness within the education system.

“Not just in the state Department of Education but in many county boards of education. It’s not in the bill and I don’t think it’s going to get in the bill,” said Hale. “I’m not sure if the Legislature has figured out a way on how to deal with that problem.”

But the discussions are far from over as all parties are expected to discuss the bill over the weekend during several meetings.

Hale hopes that if they can come up with a bill that passes the Senate Finance Committee, then the House of Delegates will do the same so the process can be completed.

The bill is expected to be voted on Tuesday.

~~  WVMN ~~

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