Susan Matthis Johnson and the Turning Point for Richwood, West Virginia

by Billy Chandler

When Susan Matthis Johnson graduated from Emory & Henry 49 years ago, she heard Dr. Steve Fisher say words that would change the course of her life and an entire town.

In 2016, Richwood experienced the sort of flood that might happen once in a thousand years. The small community was already struggling like other previously-booming rust belt towns after industries had waned or closed leaving citizens to figure out a way forward. Richwood’s population had dwindled from 10,000 to 1,800. This flood that destroyed buildings, roads, homes, businesses, and churches felt like the last straw on the way to complete failure.

But as Susan says, “Never tell us we can’t do something.”

In the midst of so much destruction it was one building that united the whole town: the local high school. “People said Richwood was a dead town and there was no sense in investing money to rebuild the high school.” So the plan was to take FEMA money and build a very large consolidated high school in a neighboring town. “Our kids would have had to ride a bus 25 miles across two mountains to get to school.” And the local high school was a huge point of pride for everyone in Richwood. “In a school of 400 high schoolers, 100 were in the marching band! Everyone was really proud of that band!”

It was a long road to success, but the short story is this: Richwood kept its school. Legal battles required that part of the FEMA money be used to build a new K-12 school in the community. But the most amazing part of this story is how the unifying work of keeping the school led to a complete revival of tiny Richwood, West Virginia.

Richwood has become a destination town. There is an arts festival, a ramp festival, a popular triathlon, and a welcoming community for motorcyclists on a winding road called The West Virginia Hellbender. It is a foodie town with scads of cuisine types and locally owned restaurants – one that features an award-winning chef who specializes in what she calls “Appalachian Hipster.” There are new businesses in town with shops, antique stores, an outdoor outfitter, and galleries. And there are a full dozen Air BNBs that give visitors a chance to spend the night while checking out the town and nearby attractions like the Cranberry Glades and the newly appointed national park, the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.

A retired English teacher, Susan used her talents as a writer to publish a series of opinion pieces that helped form public opinions around the issue of rebuilding the school – and gratefully recalls her classes with Dr. Bob Denham (E&H English professor, retired) that honed her writing skills. She opened a business in town to complement the new commerce offerings that were springing up. She champions the committee that oversees the annual arts festival, and opened up an Air BNB in the main part of town. Her husband, Gary, serves as mayor, and among his myriad accomplishments is getting the town into the black out of the millions of dollars of debt he first inherited.

Susan says she and Gary knew they were either going to walk away from Richwood or watch it fall down around them. Instead, they joined their neighbors and put in the work to turn things around. And through it all, it was words from Dr. Steve Fisher (E&H Political Science professor, retired) that spurred her to action. “I was writing an article about why you should take control of your own town when Dr. Fisher’s words came back to me: ‘Imagine the world you want, then create it.’ Tell Dr. Fisher he inspired me to do just that for Richwood.”

Learn more about the transformation of this town in an interview on the Duck Pond Wall.

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  • <div class="lw_news_image"><span class="lw_item_thumb"><a href="/live/news/2453-donald-thurston-is-living-a-life-of-promise"><picture class="lw_image"><source type="image/webp" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/68/width/345/height/225/crop/1/src_region/0,14,1165,1180/12028_Donald_Thurston.rev.1662723843.webp 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/68/width/345/height/225/crop/1/src_region/0,14,1165,1180/12028_Donald_Thurston.rev.1662723843.webp 3x" data-origin="responsive"/><source type="image/png" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/68/width/345/height/225/crop/1/src_region/0,14,1165,1180/12028_Donald_Thurston.rev.1662723843.png 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/68/width/345/height/225/crop/1/src_region/0,14,1165,1180/12028_Donald_Thurston.rev.1662723843.png 3x" data-origin="responsive"/><img src="/live/image/gid/68/width/345/height/225/crop/1/src_region/0,14,1165,1180/12028_Donald_Thurston.rev.1662723843.png" alt="Donald Thurston Emory & Henry Class of 1999" width="345" height="225" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/68/width/345/height/225/crop/1/src_region/0,14,1165,1180/12028_Donald_Thurston.rev.1662723843.png 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/68/width/345/height/225/crop/1/src_region/0,14,1165,1180/12028_Donald_Thurston.rev.1662723843.png 3x" data-max-w="1165" data-max-h="1166" loading="lazy" data-optimized="true"/></picture></a></span></div><div class="lw_widget_text"><h4 class="lw_news_headline"><a href="/live/news/2453-donald-thurston-is-living-a-life-of-promise">Donald Thurston is Living a Life of Promise</a></h4><div class="lw_news_summary"> Donald Thurston has pledged to be his best: and he is setting a fine example for a younger generation. <a href="/live/news/2453-donald-thurston-is-living-a-life-of-promise" class="link-with-arrow gold">Keep reading</a></div></div>
  • <div class="lw_news_image"><span class="lw_item_thumb"><a href="/live/news/1853-talena-cox-williams-is-headed-to-the-olympics"><picture class="lw_image"><source type="image/webp" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/68/width/345/height/225/crop/1/src_region/40,0,846,806/9866_Talena_Williams.rev.1621875038.webp 2x" data-origin="responsive"/><source type="image/jpeg" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/68/width/345/height/225/crop/1/src_region/40,0,846,806/9866_Talena_Williams.rev.1621875038.jpg 2x" data-origin="responsive"/><img src="/live/image/gid/68/width/345/height/225/crop/1/src_region/40,0,846,806/9866_Talena_Williams.rev.1621875038.jpg" alt="Talena Cox Williams, Emory & Henry Class of 1995." width="345" height="225" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/68/width/345/height/225/crop/1/src_region/40,0,846,806/9866_Talena_Williams.rev.1621875038.jpg 2x" data-max-w="806" data-max-h="806" loading="lazy" data-optimized="true"/></picture></a></span></div><div class="lw_widget_text"><h4 class="lw_news_headline"><a href="/live/news/1853-talena-cox-williams-is-headed-to-the-olympics">Talena Cox Williams is Headed to the Olympics</a></h4><div class="lw_news_summary"> Talena Cox Williams has graduated….to the Olympics! <a href="/live/news/1853-talena-cox-williams-is-headed-to-the-olympics" class="link-with-arrow gold">Keep reading</a></div></div>
  • <div class="lw_news_image"><span class="lw_item_thumb"><a href="/live/news/716-andy-rhudy-receives-second-medal-of-valor"><picture class="lw_image"><source type="image/webp" srcset="/live/image/gid/68/width/345/height/225/crop/1/src_region/57,80,320,343/6038_Andy_Rhudy.rev.1551734272.webp 1x" data-origin="responsive"/><source type="image/jpeg" srcset="/live/image/gid/68/width/345/height/225/crop/1/src_region/57,80,320,343/6038_Andy_Rhudy.rev.1551734272.jpg 1x" data-origin="responsive"/><img src="/live/image/gid/68/width/345/height/225/crop/1/src_region/57,80,320,343/6038_Andy_Rhudy.rev.1551734272.jpg" alt="Andy Rhudy, E&H '95, with daughters Bonnie and Molly and wife Julie Pennington Rhudy ('92)." width="345" height="225" data-max-w="263" data-max-h="263" loading="lazy" data-optimized="true"/></picture></a></span></div><div class="lw_widget_text"><h4 class="lw_news_headline"><a href="/live/news/716-andy-rhudy-receives-second-medal-of-valor">Andy Rhudy Receives Second Medal of Valor</a></h4></div>
  • <div class="lw_news_image"><span class="lw_item_thumb"><a href="/live/news/2009-rayce-lamb-launches-financial-business-with-a"><picture class="lw_image"><source type="image/webp" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/68/width/345/height/225/crop/1/src_region/531,269,2393,2133/10159_Headshot_2.rev.1630351958.webp 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/68/width/345/height/225/crop/1/src_region/531,269,2393,2133/10159_Headshot_2.rev.1630351958.webp 3x" data-origin="responsive"/><source type="image/jpeg" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/68/width/345/height/225/crop/1/src_region/531,269,2393,2133/10159_Headshot_2.rev.1630351958.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/68/width/345/height/225/crop/1/src_region/531,269,2393,2133/10159_Headshot_2.rev.1630351958.jpg 3x" data-origin="responsive"/><img src="/live/image/gid/68/width/345/height/225/crop/1/src_region/531,269,2393,2133/10159_Headshot_2.rev.1630351958.jpg" alt="Rev. Rayce Lamb Emory & Henry Class of 2013" width="345" height="225" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/68/width/345/height/225/crop/1/src_region/531,269,2393,2133/10159_Headshot_2.rev.1630351958.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/68/width/345/height/225/crop/1/src_region/531,269,2393,2133/10159_Headshot_2.rev.1630351958.jpg 3x" data-max-w="1862" data-max-h="1864" loading="lazy" data-optimized="true"/></picture></a></span></div><div class="lw_widget_text"><h4 class="lw_news_headline"><a href="/live/news/2009-rayce-lamb-launches-financial-business-with-a">Rayce Lamb Launches Financial Business – with a Focus on Faith</a></h4><div class="lw_news_summary"><span style="font-weight: 400;">We all know the rules. To avoid conflict, avoid talking about religion and politics. And to avoid seeming “tacky,” don’t talk about money. So how is Rayce Lamb going to traverse a world in which he will have to discuss religion and money?</span> <a href="/live/news/2009-rayce-lamb-launches-financial-business-with-a" class="link-with-arrow gold">Keep reading</a></div></div>