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Don Blankenship tells what makes him tick

Published: Monday, July 11, 2005
Page: P7A

DAILY MAIL STAFF WILLIAMSON - The most feared, most controversial and, currently, most successful man in West Virginia politics grew up in a house right next to the gas station and grocery store where his mother worked about 90 hours a week.

Train tracks stretched out behind the house. Late at night, trains would rumble so close, Don Blankenship could almost reach out and touch them. There was so much iron in the water, washing your clothes could turn them red.

There was a little barbershop in the neighborhood. Some nights, young Don would climb up on the barbershop's roof, conceal himself and watch the fights that broke out at the local beer joint.

Eventually, he went on to become president and chief executive officer of Massey Energy, which owns more than 50 coal mines in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia.

Most recently, the millionaire invested his own money into two high-profile political victories.

Last fall, the $2.5 million he plowed into a television and radio advertising campaign contributed to the defeat of incumbent Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw. He turned around this spring and rolled another half million dollars into defeating a $5.5 billion pension bond issue.

Now the 55-year-old Blankenship is a household name and plans to release a memoir with the title "Give People Hell." He could just as easily have slipped through the cracks.

"I knew I had to do something because I had nothing to fall back on," Blankenship said of his childhood. "I knew I wasn't getting off to a real good start. I don't know what makes a person determined." He never met his father. His mother, Nancy, was raising three older children - George, 5; Beulah, 8; and Anthony, 10 - in a little town called Stopover, Ky., in the early 1950s. Her husband was away in Korea. She became lonely, met someone else and became pregnant with Don.

The marriage broke up, and Nancy Blankenship, her infant son and 5-year-old George wound up on a bus, headed to resettle in a little town in Virginia, while the older kids stayed for a while with their dad. They spent about a year in Virginia before settling in Delorme, Mingo County, where Nancy Blankenship used money from her divorce settlement to open her store.

The only contact Don Blankenship had with his father was a picture that his mother showed him a few years ago.

"His obituary was in the paper," Blankenship recalled. "She handed me the picture in the paper and said, 'This was your dad.' She told me to keep it, so I have it at the house somewhere." Nancy Blankenship worked at the store morning to night, seven days a week. She had a pot in the back of the store where she could make dinner for her children when they returned home from school.

"Mom fixed meals in one kettle," said oldest brother Anthony. "She would fix a pot of beans and potatoes on top of the stove. Anything she could fix in one pot. We'd get behind the counter and sit and eat.

We pretty much lived in the store." From that vantage point, the young Blankenships watched their mother's hard work as she sold groceries and gasoline and kept the family running.

"One of the biggest legacies she left us was her work ethic," said Anthony, who now runs the store with his wife, Kathleen. "She was very blunt. She had a personality kind of like Don's. She was quiet and only said the things she meant and that made sense." From the store on the little town's main street, she would give her children lessons on behavior. She might point out the town drunk or a guy who wouldn't work or a person who wasn't dressed appropriately, Don recalled. The lesson was to avoid those flaws.

"She wasn't very strict, but somewhere she was able to instill accountability in us," Blankenship said.

Nancy Blankenship also took an interest in politics, displaying Republican leanings. She rooted for conservative Barry Goldwater to defeat Lyndon Johnson in 1964, only to be astounded when Johnson won and implemented his Great Society programs.

She died eight years ago. In her final years, Blankenship paid for 24-hour care.

"I was with her when she died," he said. "I was the one she wanted to be there when she died." Blankenship says his mother was the greatest influence in his life.

"No doubt about that," he said. "Her specifically, but Delorme in general." Delorme, which is along the Tug Fork River about 15 miles south of Williamson, is a coal mining town so small it's unlikely to appear on your map. When Blankenship was growing up, it had several gas stations and a set of bars that got steady business from Kentucky, which was dry.

There isn't much in Delorme now except the railroad tracks, the old Blankenship store and an auto parts shop. The house where Blankenship grew up, along with many others, was knocked down years ago because it was in the flood plain.

A comeback for Delorme is unlikely, Blankenship believes.

"Once you lose your incumbency, business is hard to get back," he said.

People in the town still remember Blankenship. They feel familiar enough to call him Donnie, the name he went by as a boy.

"I'm glad to see you any time, Donnie," Eddie Croaff, a 58-year-old Delorme resident, said recently when Blankenship dropped by unexpectedly. Croaff spent some time showing Blankenship an old Chevy truck he had restored.

He recalled that Blankenship's mother was tough enough to chasten him back in his younger, wilder days.

"Donnie's mom had to scold me for squealing the tires when she was around," Croaff said.

Another resident, 68-year-old Jack Murphy, joked that Blankenship doesn't come around nearly as much as he should.

"I took care of him growing up, and now he won't have anything to do with me," Murphy said. Then he glanced at Blankenship and cracked up, adding, "Donnie was all right." Murphy was a union miner for 30 years, hand-shoveling ton after ton of coal. Blankenship guessed he and Murphy have never seen eye to eye on a political issue.

Murphy acknowledged as much by plopping down in a lawn chair beside Blankenship and making a reference to United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, a longtime Blankenship antagonist.

"I don't know Cecil. I've never talked to him in my life," Murphy said. "But this guy I know." Blankenship graduated second in his 1968 class at Matewan High School and then went to Marshall University to study accounting. He had so little money, he sped toward earning his degree in three years.

He took time off between his second and third years to earn money working in a Pittston coal mine (in a union job, he noted) shooting coal, running a cutting machine and installing a belt.

After his 1972 graduation, he took an entry-level accounting job in Chattanooga, Tenn. While there, he noticed a listing in the newspaper for a job with Keebler, the cookie and cracker company.

Keebler hired him to work in Macon, Ga., and then transferred him to Chicago and Denver, where he got married. He is now divorced and has a grown son, John, and a daughter, Jennifer.

When he ended his job with Keebler in 1977, and Massey Energy gave him a call but he didn't accept the offer.

He went to work for Flowers Industries, another bakery, in Thomasville, Ga., and spent five years there before quitting. He got another call from Massey and went to work there in 1982 with the sales office in Mingo County.

"It's almost like predestination," he said. "I was out of a job twice, and Massey called both times." After a decade away, he wanted to return.

"I did it because this was home, and my mother was getting older," Blankenship said.

Back home, Blankenship, by then a certified public accountant, quickly rose to the top. He spearheaded the company's drive to separate itself from the industrywide contract with the United Mine Workers in 1984.

By 1989, he was named president of Massey Coal Services, a subsidiary of the A.T. Massey Coal Co.

In 1992, at 42 years old, he was named chairman and chief executive officer of the company, replacing the retiring E. Morgan Massey. He was the first non-Massey family member to run the company since it formed in 1916. With sales of more than $1 billion, Massey is among the top five largest coal companies in the United States.

Massey has repeatedly clashed with environmental activists and the United Mine Workers union. Most recently, protestors have been fighting a new coal silo they say would be too close to Marsh Fork Elementary School in Raleigh County.

Blankenship has split his residency between Williamson and Belfry, Ky., across the river - a sort of dual citizenship that became contentious during his fight against the pension bond issue that was backed by most West Virginia leaders, including Gov. Joe Manchin.

People who still live in Delorme are fond of Blankenship, and they're curious, too. His current million-dollar, high-profile lifestyle seems miles away from the boy they knew.

"They don't really understand what I'm doing," he said. "They understand my true feelings and true behavior and nature. They may not agree with me or understand my politics." On his visit around town, Delorme resident Joyce Campbell posed a question she was itching to get out.

"Do you like your life now?" she asked.

"I enjoyed all the things I did for 30 years, flying around the world," Blankenship replied. "I've gotten used to that now. Now I don't know what I want to do." Then he smiled and added, "I need to move back to Delorme." Contact writer Brad McElhinny at 348-5129 or by e-mail at

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