Retired professor of economics, Emory & Henry College (as Linda Dobkins)
What does “heart of Appalachia” mean to you?
Well, place is always distinctive. Right now, I’m retired and I’m a writer, but originally, I have a degree from Virginia Tech, I have a Ph.D. in economics and I’m an urban and regional economics specialist, so I really appreciate place, and this part of Appalachia is a distinctive place. I’ve done research on the different parts of Appalachia, but it’s distinctive here for its history. It’s a distinctive economic region that is obviously resource-based and that comes with a set of problems. People here deal with those in distinctive ways, so I’ve studied that and looked at that, and that’s all of interest to me. But I always appreciate the people who write about Appalachia, they have such a passion for it. My writing is about the Midwest where I’m from, and I have a passion for that because it’s a very real place to me, and it’s very real for these people too, and distinctive.
What do you think the news media gets wrong about communities in Appalachia, or small towns in general?
Well, for one thing I think they have a very negative notion of them. Whereas they can be very positive, I think they are positive for people growing up in them. I think there is a big advantage to that. I think that right now there’s so much emphasis on coal, and the region is identified with coal. It is a major industry, but people here are more than coal. The ancestors of some of the people that I know came here to work in the coalmines. They weren’t native to the area, so they identify with coal, but they built a community and a culture that’s much bigger than the coal industry. I think the national media wants to put a label on the area, and that’s unfortunate. It’s more than that.
As a writer, if you had a megaphone and could give voice to something about Appalachia, what would you say?
I think I would tell people it’s beautiful, really it is. I’ve lived in lots of parts of the country, this is the seventh state I have lived in. I’ve lived up and down the Midwest, from Louisiana to Iowa up against the Minnesota line and this is by far the most beautiful place we’ve lived. When I retired, we said we would go join our daughter in Charleston, South Carolina, but there’s a specialness just about the hills. I’m in love with the hills, and I love the people in them too. I would say, come see this area. It’s hills you can live in, as opposed to the Rockies. It’s hills you can actually you can live in and enjoy. I think that’s special.
What is something you think small town mayors and town managers don’t know, but you wish they knew?
In order to make small towns economically viable, it’s a matter of educating people for the jobs that are out there, not for the jobs that used to be. I’ve heard people say, “this coal job disappeared,” as it’s going to because of technology, or because the coal is disappearing. Or the manufacturing plants went out that made fabric and stuff that’s not going to be made here anymore. But there are many things—these are people who are willing to work hard, or they would not have worked in textile mills and coal mines. But what they need is someone to give them the tools to do the work that’s needed and that’s tough because every place is trying to do that. The advantage goes to the towns that can seize that advantage and seize educational advantages for their population.