Teresa Lynn Oquinn Lowe

Interviewed by: Johnathan Seth Lowe
Date of Interview: October 16, 2010

Johnathan Lowe reports:

"Teresa Lynn Oquinn Lowe was born July 15, 1961 in Richlands, Virginia.  She is the only child of Rice and Dora Lester Oquinn.  Her father was a logger and her mother a homemaker – both of whom felt they had achieved success if their child went to college.  Lynn attended Southwest Virginia Community College, received her Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education from Concord College (now University) and her M.Ed. from the University of Virginia.  She has been a teacher for twenty-seven years in Buchanan County and is the wife of Rickey Lowe.  I chose her to do my interview with her because she is my mother and I felt she would share the her memories of her childhood and how her life has changed because of education and hard work.  I also know that she will be very honest with her opinions of our region."

Question: What is your name, age, and where were you born?

Lowe: My name is Teresa Lynn Oquinn Lowe. I was born at Clinch Valley Hospital in Richlands, Virginia on July 15, 1961 – at11:00 in the morning.

Question: Where have you lived throughout your life?

Lowe: I have lived in Buchanan County the majority of my life. When I was four my parents moved to Chicago to work and pay themselves out of debt.  We lived there until I was five and we returned to Buchanan County.  When I was in college, I lived on campus at Concord College – that is in Athens, WV.  As for the time in Buchanan County I have lived at Pilgrim Knob, Dismal River, Compton Mountain, the town of Grundy and Slate Creek.

Question: Discuss your parents and family background.

Lowe: I am the only child of Rice and Dora Lester Oquinn. He was the only child of Ephraim and Mary Stiltner Oquinn and was raised on Spruce Pine.  That is about a mile below where I was raised. My grandparents on my dad’s side were relaxed and not really what you would say “hard workers”. His mother was a homemaker and his dad worked in the mines – but his primary job was running whiskey.  My dad always resented this and tried very hard to be a dedicated worker and provider for his family. My mom was the daughter of Alvin and Linnie Collins Lester. She was raised on Dismal River and had fourteen brothers and sisters My mom’s family all worked hard – they had to in order to survive with so many in the family. Her mom was a homemaker and her dad operated mines.

Neither of my parents felt that their parents provided well for them and that made them want to give me everything they could.  My dad quit school in the eleventh grade and my mom quit in the ninth grade.  Both of them had a strong desire for me to get a good education.  They valued education and saw it as a way for me to have a good life that did not involve the hard manual labor they have always had to do.  My mom is a homemaker and my dad was a logger and coal miner.  They worked hard each and every day to provide me with everything they could. I am very proud of my raising.

Question: What occupation did your parents and grandparents have?

Lowe: My dad was a true logger. He started logging when he was a teenager and it was the job he loved deep in his heart. He worked for a year in the mid 1960’s in Chicago at the Zenith television plant. He wanted to return home and did as soon as he paid of a mining debt he had incurred.  He worked a couple of times in the mines when logging was not making enough money to support our family. My mom was basically a homemaker but she was also my dad’s bookkeeper and she did what we called parts running.  It was her job to go and pick up the parts when a piece of equipment broke down.  She and dad built a restaurant and operated it for three or four years until her feet and legs bothered her and they had to close it.  She also had a home decorating business for several years. Both of these endeavors were successful and she enjoyed them. 

My grandparents were typical for the time. On dads side his father was a miner who ran whiskey on the side.  My dad never knew this and when I started teaching at Russell Prater in 1984 (thirty-one years after my grandfather died) I met people who remembered him and told me of his whiskey running days.  My dad’s mom was a typical stay at home who took care of the house and raised my dad.  She took care of the home and garden and that was pretty much her story.  Dad always said they were satisfied just to survive and never worked to improve their position in life.

On my mom’s side things were a little different. Her dad operated mines and made good money.  The only problem was that there were fourteen kids to rise and no where enough money to go around. Her mom stayed home, raised the kids, took care of the animals and garden and made sure that the basic needs of the kids were taken care of. Neither side of my family were from any type of money or influence – just regular working people.

Question: Coal mining and logging have been the occupations of choice in Buchanan County. What future do those have and what roles did they play in the past?

Lowe: In the past, these were the money occupations in Buchanan County but today both are on the decline.   The mining industry is a few big mines and the small hole in the wall mines are a dying breed.  The majority of the big trees were removed by the 1990’s.  When my dad died in 1994 he  said that logging wasn’t long for here.  The few people who still log do so with survival- not making real money.  Their past was wonderful but the future is bleak for both industries.

Question: What career did you choose and why?

Lowe: Actually my career chose me. I decided to become a teacher when I was  nine years old. I was sitting in Mrs. Cole’s math class and a boy by the name of Randall could not learn his multiplication tables.  Our classroom was in a doublewide trailer and we did not have running water.  The class drank water from paper cups and gallon jugs.  Mrs. Cole became angry with Randall when he could not multiply and she kicked one of the gallons of water.  It made a mess in our room but it touched my heart in a way that I still recall with complete clarity thirty-nine years later.  I knew he could not help struggling to learn and she belittled him and humiliated him in front of the class.  I decided at that moment that I could do a better job and I would.  I sat my goal at the age of nine and I am still fulfilling that promise I made to myself and all the children like Randall who just can’t quite get what the teacher says.

Question: Describe your personal history in relation to your current lifestyle.

Lowe: That is a loaded question.  My life has been a long journey to get to the point you feel you are success only to have a huge part of what made you successful ripped from your life.  I graduated at sixteen and had two quarters of college finished when I decided to get married.  I do not regret that decision because I learned a lot about what I did not want from life. That lasted four years – but at least I did go back after two years of marriage and continue my education.  It was difficult to stay focused on keeping my grades up when my personal life went down the drain.

As soon as I got a job, I began looking for a way to earn my Masters Degree. The University of Virginia offered an off campus program here in Buchanan County and I participated and earned my Masters by the end of my second year teaching.  I completed my degree in Administration by the end of my fourth year.  It was during the time that I was earning my degree in Administration that I met the person who made me who I am – my husband Rickey.  He was a parts manager at a local business but he was more than that – he was one of the most amazing people I ever met.  He was intelligent – beyond what any book could ever offer.  He finally made me believe in me as a person.  After four years dating we got married and one year later our first child was born.  Eight years into our marriage he lost his job and we started our company “Briseth”.  It was then that we discovered that working by the day provided a living but working for yourself would enable us to give our children the things that they wanted.   He worked hard for to bring his dream of success to life – and it worked.  For a boy raised by his widowed mom, he did okay for himself – at least in my eyes. I take great pride in what he did to provide for our family.

I had become an assistant principal and my career seemed to be doing okay.  However, I decided I did not agree with some decisions of my superiors and the punishment was to be demoted.  That’s okay, I’m back with the kids I love teaching.  But the biggest change came on September 17, 2009 when I lost the best friend I ever had.  Rickey, the love of my life died of a heart attack.  Now I am a teacher by day, small business operator at night and a mom 24-7.  I went from very few personal responsibilities- because Rickey never wanted me to worry - to having to deal with a serious change in finances and to having to run a fairly complicated business and being a mom to a very active teenager and a younger child with autism.  But the things I am most grateful for have never changed – the love of a good man and two children who make all other things irrelevant.  A job is a job but my family will always take precedence over everything else.

Question: What has changed the most in Buchanan County during your lifetime?

Lowe: Nothing and everything. The Buchanan County I grew up with vanished, probably twenty years ago. But then if you really think about it, life at face value, really has not changed for most people growing up and living here. The world I grew up in saw Buchanan County as the money spot.  The coal industry was King and we were the Kings of the industry.  People may have made fun of us for being hillbillies and backwoodsie but they knew that the projects they wanted in their counties were ultimately being financed by our coal dollars.

Life was good then and people made a good honest living. I watch documentaries on our region and realize how we must look to outsiders - but what is wrong with growing up without indoor plumbing or what is so wrong with running a little moonshine? Never killed us and it made us all stronger. 

It pains me to go to the town of Grundy and see that it is gone. I grew up going to town on Saturday and being able to shop in one of three grocery stores, buying clothes that ranged in price from the best at the Family Shop to the Dollar Store.  There were shoe stores, teen clothing stores, two theatres, a skating rink, a bowling alley, a five and dime, several restaurants and pool halls, barber and beauty shops – everything a real town has.  Now the town is gone and even if the new proposed town succeeds it will never have the family feel that walking down main street had. It is becoming a commercial mall not the small town that Norman Rockwell would have been proud to call home. 

But the thing that has change the most – I am sorry to say – are the actual people.  Our folks have gone from hard workers to a bunch of lazies that sit home and draw a check and the young people have no goals to improve their lots in life.  They are becoming welfare recipients and drug addicts and the future for our county is bleak.  By far, the thing that has changed the most is the desires and drives of our citizens to work and provide for their children.

Question: What has changed the least in Buchanan County during your lifetime?

Lowe: If you travel back on top of the mountains and ridges you will find that many things about life really has not changed in the last 50 to 75 years. That’s not to say it will be identical but life is just different back on the mountain. People still move at a slower pace and are happy with their lives.  Yeah, they have electricity and modern amenities but their mindset is just different. They still hunt coons and deer hunting is not really a sport it is how they get their winter meats.  The mountain folk hunt herbs, ginseng, bitterroot, and dry land fish. They know that come winter they may not be off the mountain for weeks at a time and they prepare for this each year.  Most of them still can a lot of their food, have a back up system of heat that is either a coal furnace or a buck stove that they have rigged with pipes to heat the rooms in their house.  Many have never bothered with PSA water or a well.  They use natural springs and cisterns that store up the water.

In addition to the general lifestyle on the mountains the most visible thing that has not changed is our roads.  When there was money available the elected leaders chose not to make our transportation system a top priority and now it is a major hindrance to Buchanan County ever progressing from its backwoodsey state to what most would call a more modern era.  When Buchanan County had money our roads were not a priority and it should have been. Other areas realized that roads were needed and the Buchanan County coal severance tax was used for roads – too bad it wasn’t in our county.

Question: What do you think has been a “trademark” to Buchanan County in other regions?

Lowe: I’m not sure. [Interviewer: There was a very long pause as she contemplated her answer.]  Well, I guess, unfortunately, the thing that most people associated with Buchanan County until the past decade was its perceived hatred of the African-American race.  Because of the hanging of John Harden [Interviewer: I have been told he wasn’t black – so I don’t know if this is the right name], blacks did not come to Buchanan County.  Those who passed through were looked upon and treated as an oddity and heaven forbid that a local would marry a black person. It was not until the law school came into the county that blacks became a part of our daily lives.  A man not far from my age told me the other day he had never seen a n..... until he was 17 or 18 years old. I find that hard to imagine but based on the area he was from and the way he grew up, it is entirely probable.  Most of the younger children and teens are more accepting of racial differences – partly because of the law and pharmacy school but I think that the fact so many kids love sports and most famous athletes are black is allowing our kids and younger people to be more accepting of all people.

Oh yeah, our other trademark events are the Roger Coleman murder trial and the Law School shootings.  Gee, I guess there hasn’t been a lot happen here to make the outside world look at us with adoring eyes. But we are still good people.

Question: Has anything occurred in the area to improve Buchanan County’s public image in other regions?

Lowe: The Law and Pharmacy Schools, the rebuilding of Grundy, and the proposed Poplar Gap project and development as well as the development Mickey McGlothlin has planned for the mountain top area of  New House Branch/Watkins Branch.  The schools are slowing turning the town and Oakwood areas into small college towns.  Maybe someday in the future we will be a bustling college town like Charlottesville.  Oh well, at least in my dreams.

The proposed developments would have been a wonderful success if they had been built in the seventies when there were enough people and money here to support them.  I really don’t see how our broken economy and unemployed people are going support the grand ideas on the table.  I hope our elected officials are right and “if you build it, they will come” can become the official motto for our county.

Question: Has anything occurred in the area to hinder Buchanan County’s public image in other regions?

Lowe: In recent years the two most detrimental things have been the two major murder cases that brought a lot of negative publicity to our area.  The Wanda McCoy murder by Roger Keith Coleman managed to bring negative publicity to our county for over a quarter of a century.  The book “God Have Mercy” created an image of complete backwoods hicks for the people of our region and the life we lead.  I found it to be appalling.  The Appalachian Law School shooting in early 2002 once again placed Buchanan County under the microscope and in a negative manner.  Both of these incidents made our citizens and area appear to be disconnected from the modern world and made our area appear to be that of total poverty and desolation.

Question: Describe the change you have seen in the Buchanan County educational system during your lifetime.

Lowe: I feel that the educational system is taking steps backwards instead of going forward.  The facilities in our county are more modern than any county in our region.  The majorities of the teachers have furthered their education and have advanced degrees but I do not feel that the leadership of the system are making the wisest decisions with the finances and ability of the personnel available to the youth in the county.  I realize all government agencies function on the “good ole boy network” but in our county it has been carried to the extreme.

The opportunities in the vocational program seem to service our students in a manner that prepares them for the workforce.  The kids who go through the vo-tech program tend to find jobs in areas that they enjoy working in.  Our college prep programs are very weak and have always been.  I remember being ill prepared for college and based on the classes that the high schools offer and statements made to me by students who enroll in universities they have no idea what challenges they will face. I feel sorry for our academically blessed kids because I think that they could be much better prepared if class selections were more challenging and a larger variety of classes were offered.

Question: Describe the changes you have witnessed in the Buchanan County economy throughout your life.

Lowe: In the past, Buchanan Counties economy has always been a reflection of the coal industry.  When coal booms then life in our county is good and vice versa.  This time coal is doing really well but our county has not. Pretty much, the little mines used to provide the majority of the jobs and they do not exist anymore.  Thirty years ago there was over 200 mines permitted in our county alone. Now there are less than 10 permitted mines.  The government regulations that keep the miners safe and the cost of operation has made it impossible for the small mines to survive. I think our economy is on a downhill slide and I fear we are going to be like McDowell County in West Virginia and become a shell of a county – with memories of what it used to be like when we had money.

The sad part about our county is that when the people make money they leave our county due to the fact we are not close to anything.  So the money that is made in the county has always been drained out and taken to surrounding counties that offer the residents better housing, nicer shopping and better roads.  In reality, it has never mattered how much money was generated it never really helped improve our county.

Question: Why have you chosen to remain in Buchanan County?

Lowe: Well, in all honesty, it was not my choice.  We [editor's note: a reference to her husband and her] had purchased property in Russell County but Rickey could never find it in his heart to leave Buchanan County. His business was here and I taught here and he always said it was best to stay here until we retired.  But he has passed away and I don’t think I would ever want to leave our home and memories that we have created together with our family. I know that I could find better services for Brice in an area that has specially trained teachers for autistic children and I know that you [editor's note: referring to interviewer] could have received more challenging classes at other school systems but I guess the Appalachian mentality of home is too strong for me to leave.

Question: Do you feel that children from Buchanan County are being properly prepared for competing in future job markets?

Lowe: Absolutely not. If a child does not have educated parents and money to do research and find ways to help themselves, very little is offered to them.  The votech program is good but usually is viewed to be for slow students who cannot compete in college.  In reality, it should be utilized much more and give our kids more opportunities.  The exposure to colleges and attempting to get kids to apply and explore the possibilities is minimal.  Guidance departments were weak back when I was in school and it does not seem to have changed.  There is so little for kids to aspire to in our county that they have go get out or they think all there is to do is go in the mines or drive a truck.  Girls think they have achieved great success if they are teachers or nurses. The kids need to see there is life out there and more they can be.

Question: What do you see as the future of Buchanan County?

Lowe: You know, I wish I could pull out a magic ball and have some type of idea what our future held but I can’t. If the local leaders are right they seem to think they can restore our economy by rebuilding the town and doing a major development at the Gap. I am not sure if this will work because so much has dampened our economy.  There are not that many people who actually work at jobs making money that will buy into the housing that is currently being planned. I pray that the take our county has -  like the movie “Field of Dreams” and its famous line “if you build it they will come” will eventually see Buchanan County alive and prospering again. I would like to see it be all it can be, and my children and grandchildren be able to have a wonderful life- living where they grew up.

Question: Would you recommend Buchanan County as a good place to live for outsiders?

Lowe: Unfortunately, yes. I think with all its weakness – including the many ones I have just discussed with you – it is a good place.  It is home and even with all the negatives I love the people and the area. There are days I would pay good money to live somewhere else but at day’s end I know this is a good area.  The people care for each other and take care when times are hard.  An outsider moving here would go through a rough period of adjustment because it takes awhile to be accepted.  Outsiders tend not to be trusted and are shunned by the older folks but if they will tough out the initial cold shoulders then they would be content – if they are willing to drive two hours to go out and eat and shop or four hours to see a pro game.

Question: What does Buchanan County have to offer that would attract outsiders to move to the region?

Lowe: Honestly, not a whole lot. There are the law and pharmacy schools and the Breaks Interstate Park. Beyond that, not a lot at face value, but like I said before if they ever tried living here they might like it.

Question: What is the largest negative to living in Buchanan County?

Lowe: As any realtor can tell you – location, location, location.  Our area is not close to anything and the roads in and out are lousy.  There is absolutely no entertainment for any age and no jobs that pay worth a hoot. Grief, when you look at it like that there is not a lot to draw anyone to our area.

Question: If you had your life to live over would you have stayed here?

Lowe: Well, when I made the decision to marry Rickey the decision to stay in Buchanan County was made for me.  He loved it here and being in the mining parts business there wasn’t anywhere he could do as well for himself and his family.  The only way I would ever have been given a choice to not live in Buchanan County was not to marry Rickey and he was worth living anywhere.  So I guess my answer is yes.

Question: If you could change one aspect of your life in the region what would it be?

Lowe: The governmental agencies need a major overhaul to get rid of the buddy system. People who would make a difference for the good of the population and not what would provide the best for them as an individual need to be running our government – I guess this would be what is best for our whole country.

Question: What local person/persons do you feel have had a significant impact in the region?

Lowe: I guess the McGlothlin family has made a major impact in our region.  The family was instrumental in forming the United Coal Company. That company has provided a lot of jobs and charitable donations for our region. They tend to make donations and work with the community for the good of those in need.

Question: What is Buchanan county’s largest challenge for the future?

Lowe: Basic survival. I fear that our county will die a slow and agonizing death like McDowell County in West Virginia.  The county has to find something to take the place of coal and logging that can provide the citizens a way to make a good living.  But even more importantly the people have to straighten themselves up, get off the draw and off drugs and set some standards for themselves.  The kids who are now in grade school have no realistic goals for their future – they either want to be pro athletes or basically nothing. It is truly depressing to see the youth with no dreams.

Question: Do you feel the sometimes negative image of people who live in Appalachia is warranted and how can it be changed?

Lowe: Yes and no. The people in Appalachia live in their own little world and feel safe from the outside world. I know that we probably have earned the names of weird and different but it does not make us any less good people. I do not think the image will ever change because they are permanently ingrained in the minds of the world as being the poor Appalachian lost souls. Our little world is closed away from the outside and nothing will ever change that.

Question: What traits do you feel Appalachian students have that make them unique?

Lowe: Independence, individuality, strength of character, soul, heart, personal acceptance of one’s self and be it just or unjust pride in our area.  I think that those who are aware of the image we are “blessed” with are determined to take pride in who they are and prove that being from here does not a make you any less able to succeed.

Question: Do these traits help or hinder them if they choose to leave the region?

Lowe: Both. The traits are what gives them the power to work hard to overcome the stereotype but the stereotype is what holds them back. Even you [referring to the interviewer] have faced the issues when you have traveled and people make fun of your accent.  Always take pride in who you are and where you are from.

The interviewer, Johnathan Lowe, notes:

Two weeks after the original interview, I sat down with mom and she read the interview in the current format.  I asked her if there was anything she would like to change or add and she made a few minor changes – mostly grammatical, but some she left because she said that is who she is. We continued to talk and the following is the resulting questions and answers.

Question: What lesson have you learned that you consider the most valuable to survival in our area?

Lowe: The most basic survival technique here or anywhere is to have those in power behind your decisions. If you lose the support of your superiors you are in for a long journey. That is true anywhere – here or in college or in the rest of the world.

Question: What could make Buchanan County a success again?

Lowe:  Actually, people just like you [referring to interviewer]. You and your group of friends are strong willed and intelligent. If you all go away to college, get your degrees and come back here – maybe just maybe - your group can turn us around. Be strong and make a difference in our community by bringing knowledge and good work ethic back home.

But on the other hand, I don’t want you all to come back and just exist.  If here is not a better life for you then I hope each of you will have the wisdom to walk away and create a good life for your future families somewhere that will provide your children more than you have had here. Don’t ever feel you are bound to this area – spread your wings and leave if the death of Buchanan County is leading to the death of your dreams.

Johnathan Lowe adds:

The time that was spent doing this interview was very revealing to me.  I saw the love and pride that my mother has for Buchanan County.  I also saw the fact that her dreams for living elsewhere were never fulfilled and that has left a longing in her heart that she may never fulfill.  I also realized that her dreams for me include Buchanan County but only if the county can become a vibrant place that will come into the twenty first century in a way we have not seen thus far.

I realize I do love Buchanan County and I really want to come home and practice medicine.  I feel that the people of Buchanan County would relate to me and I could be successful in a career that would let me giveback to my home region.  But then the other side of me wants to live in an area where I can see pro sports, visit the theaters and museums and go shopping just for fun – without driving for hours. Maybe my time away at college will decide which life I want.