Former State Senator
The week before his death on April 10, 2013, our family surrounded our dad, former Senator Lafe Preston Ward, with love and support, as he had done for us throughout our lives. His beloved wife Norma and daughter Kathleen gave their blessing for him to travel from Savannah at Easter to join his five children at a family home in western North Carolina. The mountain vista and perfectly-built fire made a relaxing setting for the family to recount memories. We suspected that it might be the last time we were all together. Dad shared stories full of interesting details and laced with his wise sayings, such as: Waste not, want not. Don’t get the cart before the horse. You can’t dance on both sides of the dance floor at the same time. Being a perfectionist, the most familiar one was “Who loaded this dishwasher?!” Noting often, as he did, that he had lived a good life, we share a few personal highlights from a man who exemplified “the Greatest Generation” and was described as “a modern-day Atticus Finch.”
Dad was a product of the Great Depression who, at the age of eight, lost his father, Lafe Preston Ward. He learned to be resilient, hard-working, and resourceful, and was bolstered by the resourcefulness of a tireless mother, Eula, and his siblings: Wilbur, Ogden, Lindy and Garnet. The family survived during hard times in Williamson, West Virginia, with the support of their community.
When he was only fourteen years old, Dad managed to deliver the morning mail as well as newspapers while attending school fulltime. Hard work extended to the basketball court, where he was the starting forward on the 1940 State Championship Cubpack team; he was also selected to a position on the WV All-state Tournament Team. During the 1942-1943 season, Dad was Wolfpack basketball captain for a team described over the years as “one of the very best at Williamson High School.” He graduated with the class of 1943.
The college years found him in the US Navy V-12 Program, where he was a First Lieutenant, which allowed him to graduate from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. At the suggestion of his roommate, Dad decided to attend law school and graduated with his JD degree from West Virginia University, where he accomplished something even more important: meeting our Mom, the late Dorothy Ayers of Huntington, WV. They were married on August 16, 1951: a hot August day and Dad wore his only suit made of wool. Dad and Mom plus her “Doddie Bird” moved to the Strosnider Apartments in Williamson
Dad was always indebted to his Uncle George Ward for loaning him $200 so he could return to Morgantown for his law school graduation. He opened his office in Williamson with a borrowed card table. His was a time of “small-town lawyering” where he accepted any and all work that came through the door. Payment for services rendered sometimes consisted of coal, which was stored in our garage and used in expert fashion by Dad to generate the perfect evening fire. He defended murder cases, drew up wills, and won a case before the WV Supreme Court involving a disputed estate—a case he says demonstrated “what you can achieve even when you feel the system is stacked against you.” His son Dee followed in his footsteps by graduating from law school and became his partner. Asking Tom Ward to join their law firm was considered one of Dad’s best decisions; the success of his law practice would not have been possible without professional input from Frances Frye. who organized and managed his office for many years. We all recall stopping by the “Cinderella” office and having Frances inform us about Dad’s day or whether Mom was in her office working the ledgers. Despite his busy law practice, in 1971 he began what he would relate as some of the happiest and most challenging times of his life as a West Virginia State Senator.
Aided by our tenacious Mom, guided and advised by friends including long-time best friend Breezy Bevins who was Dad’s “extra eyes and ears in Charleston,” Dad represented the people of Mingo County for twelve years; he earned the distinction of serving as Senate Majority Leader for eight years. He was instrumental in road, water and educational improvements for the area. With great pride, he recalled his appearance before the US Congress after the Great Flood in April 1977 that destroyed much of his community.
Hundreds of West Virginia citizens, who traveled to hear the proceedings, cheered from the chambers as Senator Ward declared in fiery oration to the folks in Washington. “When it comes to Southern WV, you just don’t give a dam” were spontaneous, passionate words in his address which had been written with our Mom during the train ride from Williamson to Washington. Federal funding was granted; the long-overdue flood wall was built. Dad shared this story and the impact of the flood with his children and grandchildren many times.
Though politics and professional responsibilities took up much of his time, Dad really cared about his family’s happiness. We possess many hours of 8mm home movies documenting his love of family: picnics at our West End home with neighbors, summers spent at Garden City Beach and Pipestem Resort, Christmas mornings, Easter attire parades, children learning to ride their first bikes, graduations at the West End Field House, and a four-week cross country drive to California which included the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone Park.
He encouraged each of us to pursue our dreams, and always lent support along the way. Our parents traveled to celebrate the arrival of each of their thirteen grandchildren, and preserved memories in scrapbooks over the years. He was always grateful for his son-in-laws: Vince, Nill, Bruce, and Jeff. When asked how he and Mom managed to put five children through college, graduate school, and weddings, as well as funded the education of all his grandchildren, Dad simply replied that they “saved for you all from day one.”
In addition to being an involved parent, Dad was blessed to have special friends in his life who knew his wisdom and humor. Howard Persinger respected Dad both in and out of the courtroom as a close friend, and both loved to tell about Dad’s practical joke played on Howard on the night before Howard’s wedding; Dad had him locked up in the new jail on a “lunacy warrant.” Our neighbor, Gus Hayes, would do anything to help Dad. Our parents enjoyed hours together at the Tug Valley Country Club in Sprig, WV, sharing the fairway with friends, watching their children at the pool or relaxing at the 19th Hole. His long-time golfing buddies included “Colonel” Bob Applebaum, the late Fred Shewey (with whom Dad spent many years serving on the Mingo BOE) and Frank DeMartino.
Dad loved the game of golf as life itself. He still has the framed dollar bill won from Bob with their “closest to the tee” bet. And, with God as his only witness, Dad assured us he had a hole in one on #9 at Tug Valley Country Club. We will NOT debate this, because Dad, like so many who love the game, always related golf to life: focus on the present and what you can control, and respect the honesty and integrity of the game.
With children grown and gone, Dad and Mom brought into their lives a new baby named Sheba—our guard-dog Doberman pinscher. Dad always took comfort knowing Sheba slept at Mom’s feet when he was away. Sheba aged, and Dad remembered the heartache he and Mom faced when they needed to let her go. An even greater heartache surrounded all of our family on June 2, 1997, when our Mom suffered an untimely death. Dad’s life was fully changed.
He continued to practice law, attended St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and socialized with his friends in Williamson. Then in 2001, Dad met Norma Brewin, a lovely lady from Savannah, on a blind date in Atlanta orchestrated by their daughters, Cindy and Kathleen, who had been classmates at Wake Forest. And a long courtship began….
In 2005 Dad turned 80, and his entire family gathered in Winston-Salem for a grand birthday celebration of the “King Daddy,” as we so often called him. In his toast that evening he spoke of his love for Mom, his pride in our family, and looking onward; his eyes and heart were focused on Norma. In 2007, Dad and Norma were married, adding another daughter Kathleen and two more grandchildren, Ben and Rosalee, to his family. With enthusiasm, they traveled, dined and danced, and kept their twilight marriage full of romance. As recently as 2012, Dad and Norma commandeered the dance floor at Alison Brasher’s (Cindy’s stepdaughter) wedding encircled by friends and family who cheered their happiness.
Eventually, complications arose from prostate cancer, and after a fall in 2011, his health began to decline. He was blessed to have Norma’s love and determination for support and hope. His kind caregiver and friend, Candice Simplis,, brought comfort during the final years of his life.
Family and friends will celebrate Lafe Preston Ward’s life among his beloved mountains in Williamson, WV, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Saturday, May 4th at 11:00 (reception to follow in the church’s social hall).
Dad might like to say that he can now “one putt” every green.
Dad pronounced “anyway and anyhow” in his speeches when he wanted to let the audience know that the next phrase was from the heart. So this is a message to him from all his family:
“Anyway and anyhow,” we miss you King Daddy and love you always.
~ The Lafe Ward Children