John McFerrin; Twenty Years Our Editor

By Cindy Ellis

In March, 2002, Frank Young was the president of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. In our newsletter, “The Highlands Voice,” he welcomed someone familiar to WVHC but newly tackling the job of editing The Voice. Frank noted that John McFerrin would be assembling the paper with the help of a computer program rather than the tried-and-true manual cut and paste method. John has now been hard at work for twenty years…and are we glad!

Editor McFerrin brought a unique background and sublime skills to the task of keeping our members informed. He is cited 24 times in our history book [“Fighting to Protect the Highlands; the First Forty Years of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy” by David P. Elkinton] and we continue to profit from his prominence in our history and his editorial work today. 

John grew up near the coal mining areas of eastern Kentucky; he graduated from the University of Kentucky and Duke Law School. This was followed by work with AppalReD [Appalachian Research and Defense Fund] in Kentucky and West Virginia. After he became acquainted with the WVHC he served as chair of the mining committee, Senior Vice President and as a two-term President. 

He often did and does write guest columns for the Charleston newspaper. In 1998, Governor Cecil Underwood appointed McFerrin to his Mountaintop Mining Task Force. In that capacity John published his Minority Report in 1999. He was blunt. “The historical record is overwhelming that the presence of coal mining does not contribute to the long-term economic health of West Virginia.” 

Obviously, the fine editing skills shown in The Voice are buttressed by the continuing years of eloquent writing on the part of John himself. This can be accompanied by dry wit, as in remarks about the national DEP: “DEP has been a mess for at least ten years. In another ten we may have the problem figured out and be ready to start thinking about a possible solution. We’ll get back to you.” 

On behalf of nine environmental groups, McFerrin wrote a biting and detailed response to an invitation to appoint a representative to a Special Reclamation Fund Advisory Council. He ended with, “Having been excluded from the creation of the program, the groups could not now participate as part of an Advisory Council trying in vain to make a flawed system function.”

And yet, John is an optimist…and he often displays his wit, humor, and appreciation for nature in his handling of headlines, asides, and through the “What’s Inside” lists that showcase our Voice contents. 

Our history book notes, “…The Highlands Voice has been deeply blessed with wonderful writers and editors.” Indeed, we have! One can see proof of that through the archives, available on our website, of our newsletter, from its inception, to John’s association with it in 2002, and as it continues today. 

Ken Hechler wrote a preface for our book. He lauded, “Thank God for the Cindy Ranks, the John McFerrins, and the Julian Martins of the Highlands Conservancy, who have helped bring these abuses to national attention, and enabled local victims in these communities to have the courage to speak out, even at considerable personal risk.” 

We are proud of the fine efforts of John McFerrin and look forward to a long continuation of seeing his handwork in The Voice each month.

Editor’s note:  Ordinarily it might be unseemly to choose to publish so many kind words about oneself.  In this case, Ms. Ellis used the magic words, please and thank you (Captain Kangaroo, five days a week, 1957).  I had no choice.