If you’re someone who writes about Southwest Virginia – or Appalachia in general – sooner or later you’ll hear from Frank Kilgore.
The St. Paul lawyer – no relation to the Kilgore twins from Scott County who are famous as House Majority Leader (Terry) and former attorney general (Jerry) – has long taken it upon himself to be the advocate, champion, defender of the region, as circumstances dictate.
This Kilgore has been the driving force behind two educational institutions founded in the coalfields – Appalachian School of Law in Grundy and the Appalachian College of Pharmacy in Oakwood. When Kilgore felt local officials weren’t calling enough attention to the region’s students having the best Standards of Learning scores in the state, he took it upon himself to buy full-page ads in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Roanoke Times and The (Charlottesville) Daily Progress (and maybe a fourth paper he can’t remember) to talk them up. He paid $10,000 but collected donations to cover $2,000 of that. Why would he do this? “I love our area and when I think I’m onto something and I’m right, I put my own time and money in it,” he says.
And if somebody somewhere disparages the region, oh boy, watch out. He might send you a corrective email. He might write a letter to the editor or an op-ed. Or, in the case of J.D. Vance, he might write a book.
Vance, of course, is the author of the best-selling “Hillbilly Elegy” – and now the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio.
When Vance’s book came out, “I kind of ignored it after I read it,” Kilgore says. “I thought everybody has a right to their opinions.”
But then Kilgore kept seeing Vance on television. “He was flip-flopping so much,” Kilgore says. “He went on all the liberal talk shows and talked their language and then went hard right. He’s just a chameleon using his slight knowledge of Appalachia just for financial and political gain. It just p—– me off. You can’t be that left-wing on the talk shows and then that far right and have a soul or a conscience.”
So Kilgore decided to respond in kind. He sat down and wrote his own book: “J.D. Vance Is a Fake Hillbilly: Think Twice Before Calling (All) Coalfield Appalachians Racists, Sexists and Ignoramuses.” It came out in late August, self-published through Kilgore’s Fake Hillbilly Publishing. It’s available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble and, since its release, has consistently been in the Top 10 in the “historical essays” category on Amazon; sometimes even holding down the No. 1 spot.
Before we go further, we should address Kilgore’s own politics since Vance is now a candidate. In the 1980s, Kilgore was a Democrat but says he became disenchanted with the party and left – as did a lot of others in the coalfields, as election returns attest. The Virginia Public Access Project shows that all of his political contributions since the 1990s have been to Republicans. He also married into a Republican family – his wife is Virginia Supreme Court Justice Theresa Chafin, sister of the late state Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell County. Kilgore says he considers himself an independent. Indeed, while Vance is in the title, Kilgore’s book directs equal ire at both Vance on the right and singer Bette Midler on the left after she recently said some unflattering things about West Virginia. You don’t mess with Texas and, when it comes to Appalachia, you don’t mess with Frank Kilgore.
Still, Vance is the headliner here. Kilgore feels that Vance’s book is one big smear against Appalachia that portrays the region’s people as lazy, ignorant and worse. And that runs exactly counter to Kilgore’s own message, which is that Appalachia has gotten a bad rap over the years. Vance, he says, “is exactly the type of person that keeps investors away from Appalachia. … When you dwell on your own unhappy upbringing and childhood and smear the whole region – it happens – he was too inclusive, as if the whole region was like that. And of course being a best seller, people believe it. Who would invest in a place like that? It was a setback, especially from someone claiming to be from our area, when he’s not, he’s not even from Appalachia in Ohio.”
Here’s how Kilgore says it in his book: “Despite a half-century of hard work reshaping our coalfields economy and breaking loose from very harmful stereotypes perpetuated by an elite media, J.D. took up the defamation flag and stuck it to us with gusto. This young traumatized man kneecapped some very serious efforts at economic recovery in Appalachia by providing excuses to the far right not to waste money on such a hopeless place and gifting fodder to radicals on the far left by excusing and reinforcing their longtime sniggering stereotypes of us. Simply put, J.D. gave culture bigots a chance to crow.”
Kilgore goes on to say that “Hillbilly Elegy” is a “little snit-fest of a book” and that Vance is an “uppity pontificator” and, perhaps worst of all, an “elitist.” Kilgore makes the case that Vance has no clue what Appalachia is about. “His name recognition for belittling us has motivated many gullible venture capitalists to invest in his efforts to save the heartland. What is the heartland, according to J.D.? Here are the underserved regions he intends to help with his access to millions of dollars. According to a piece published by Axios, J.D. Vance is a ‘strong proponent of investing in often overlooked places,’ and will use the fund to ‘invest in startups in under-served cities such as Salt Lake City, Atlanta and Raleigh-Durham.’ What is it with this guy? These are underserved communities? Come on back to the Appalachian coalfields, J.D, the place you apparently resent, and we will show you ‘underserved.’”
Despite the title, and that takedown, most of Kilgore’s book has nothing to do with Vance (or Bette Midler, for that matter). It’s a full-throated argument that Appalachia is more complicated than all of its stereotypes suggest. He focuses on Southwest Virginia, the part of Appalachia he knows best, and, in good lawyerly fashion, introduces one piece of evidence after another to counter all those depictions.
We think of Appalachia as overwhelmingly white today but Kilgore points out that Appalachia was once the nation’s classic “melting pot” because immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s swarmed to the coalfields to find work. In the early 1900s, issues of the United Mine Workers of America Journal were published in three languages: English, Italian and Slovak. He shows off photos of grave markers in Pocahontas inscribed in European languages.
He points out that one of the first two women elected to Virginia’s state legislature came from Buchanan County – Helen Henderson in 1923. (Sarah Fain of Norfolk was the other.) When Henderson passed away during her re-election campaign, her daughter was nominated in her stead – and won. “Not only did coalfield voters elect two women legislators within one decade, but both ladies were ‘outsiders’ from Missouri,” Kilgore writes. “These elections should also debunk our reputation for hating outsiders. (Alert: The novel and movie ‘Deliverance’ are not documentaries.’)” Kilgore also notes that three of the six women to serve on the Virginia Supreme Court (including his wife) came from the coalfields.
Kilgore especially gets riled up at suggestions that Appalachia is racist. He says that Dante Central High School was the first school in the country to integrate its sports teams – in 1938-39. He calls attention to how Norton integrated its Little League baseball teams before any others in the South; see the story we published earlier this year about a historical marker being erected about this event. He notes that Douglas Wilder – the nation’s first Black elected governor – ran better in the coal counties than he did in some other parts of the state, such as “blue-blooded Albemarle County.” He shows off stats about how the Appalachian School of Law “consistently has the most diverse law school students in the state.” For the most recent stats he has available, 12.3% of its students are Black; the next closest is Regent University School of Law with 7.2%. George Mason’s law school, in the heart of liberal Northern Virginia, is just 2% Black. Kilgore does devote some attention to other Appalachian states. He writes that the first Black woman to serve in any state legislature in the country came from McDowell County, West Virginia – in 1928. He argues that “immigrants and minorities in Appalachian culture have been silenced by stereotypes.”
But wait, there’s more. Kilgore is especially keen to counter any impressions that Appalachia is backwards and can’t compete with the best. “Not so long ago while meeting in Richmond with state and college officials about bringing high-tech jobs to our mining region, I was point-blank asked if our students had the DNA ‘down there’ to handle such sophisticated jobs,” Kilgore writes. “After spewing a few visceral comments, I calmed down enough to lay stats on them that debunked such bigotry.” That’s where those full-page ads came from that tout how “the students of mountainous Region 7 have scored far above the state public school average in their Standards of Learning tests in math, science and reading. More recently, our young brainiacs bested all other regions, including super rich Northern Virginia, in these academic achievements.” Kilgore lays out those stats and then grouses “what more can and should our young people do to garner respect and coalfield-based job opportunities? We deserve an answer to this bigotry.”
To my surprise, I am quoted in Kilgore’s book. I wrote last year that the University of Virginia should use some of its record endowment to expand its College at Wise. Kilgore thinks that’s a great idea. “That one move by the mother ship will bring new energy, ideas and durable prosperity to a chronically poor region. UVA-Wise, in other words, could expand and prosper from UVA’s monetary dandruff.” (Here’s an idea from me: The university’s new board of visitors should invite Kilore to speak so he can expand upon this proposal.)
While the prompt for Kilgore’s book is timely, many of the arguments he makes are quite timeless – and will be useful long after Vance is elected or defeated in November. “The ONLY way to change generational poverty is to establish generational wealth, which must include attracting, becoming and supporting entrepreneurs,” Kilgore writes. “Neither political party would like to see such a movement; they would, begrudgingly, have to switch their divisive tactics from blatant demagoguery to careful listening.” He says he looks forward to “an epiphany among citizens in the disenfranchised rural areas of America that will cause them to politically team up with the disenfranchised residents of inner cities and other struggling venues and together vigorously pursue the quest for good jobs, and the prosperity and pride they bring.”
In the meantime, Kilgore isn’t quite done with Vance – not with his book or the movie that followed. As much as Kilgore hated the book, he hated the movie more. “It’s the most salacious piece of s— I’ve ever seen,” he says. “It’s terrible.” He was particularly disappointed that the movie was directed by Ron Howard, who played Opie on “The Andy Griffith Show” in the 1960s. “And of all the people who put it up – Opie! I thought Opie loved the mountains. Nobody who reads that book or sees that movie would ever come here and want to invest here. Words matter.”
Kilgore hopes his do, too.