Interview with Elsa Verbyla, 2014 July 7

Material Information

Interview with Elsa Verbyla, 2014 July 7
Verbyla, Elsa ( Interviewee )
Taylor, Jessica ( Interviewer )
Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
Publication Date:
Physical Description:
Oral history interview


Subjects / Keywords:
Tidewater Main Street Development Project
Family history
Rural life
Spatial Coverage:
United States of America -- Virginia -- Mathews


Elsa Verbyla talks about her family history in Mathews County dating back to her father's birth in the county in 1915. Mrs. Verbyla gives insight into her school experiences during integration and as well as going to school during the Cold War. She also also talks about her fathers political career, representing Mathews County and Gloucester County in Richmond, Virginia and his vote against the closing of schools during the Massive Resistance period. She also discusses her father's ownership of the Gazette-Journal, the local newspaper, and how that lead to her own path in journalism. She ended the interview talking about the development of Mathews County and how it’s changed both structurally and within the community.
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UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
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UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
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TMP 030 Elsa Verbyla 7-7-2014 ( SPOHP )


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The Foundation for The Gator Nation An Equal Opportunity Institution Samuel Proctor Oral History Program College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Program Director : Dr. Paul Ortiz Office Manager : Tamarra Jenkins 241 Pugh Hall Digital Humanities Coordinator : Deborah Hendrix PO Box 115215 Gainesville, FL 32611 352 392 7168 35 2 846 1983 Fax The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) was founded by Dr. Samuel Proctor at the University of Florida in 1967. Its original projects were collections centered around Florida history with the purpose of preserving eyewitness acc ounts of economic, social, political, religious and intellectual life in Florida and the South. In the 45 years since its inception, SPOHP has collected over 5,000 interviews in its archives. Transcribed interviews are available through SPOHP for use by research scholars, students, journalists, and other interested groups. Material is frequently used for theses, dissertations, articles, books, documentaries, museum displays, and a variety of other public uses. As standard oral history practice dictates, S POHP recommends that researchers refer to both the transcript and audio of an interview when conducting their work. A selection of interviews are available online here through the UF Digital Collections and the UF Smathers Library system. Suggested corrections to transcripts will be reviewed and processed on a case by case basis. Oral history int erview t ranscripts available on the UF Digital Collections may be in draft or final format. SPOHP transcribers create interview transcripts by listen ing to the ori ginal oral history interview recording and typing a verbatim d ocument of it. The transcript i s written with careful attention to reflect original grammar and word choice of each interviewee; s ubjective or editorial changes are not made to their speech. The draft trans cript can also later undergo a final edit to ensure accuracy in spelling and form at I nterviewees can also provide their own spelli ng corrections SPOHP transcribers refer to the Merriam program specific transcribing style guide, accessible For more information abo ut SPOHP, visit or call the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program office at 352 392 7168. May 2015


TMP 030 Interviewee: Elsa Verbyla Interviewer: Jessica Taylor Date: July 7, 2014 T: This i s Jessica Taylor interviewing M s. Elsa Ver byla on July 7, 2014 at 12:30 PM in Gloucester Court H ouse, Virginia. M s. Verbyla, can you please state your full name? V: Elsa Cooke Verbyla. T: Okay, and when were you born? V: November 3, 1952. T: Where were you born? V: Medical College of Virginia Hospital, Richmond, Virginia. T: What were your V: John Warren Cooke, publisher; Anne Rawn Cooke, homemaker. T: How did you spell the last name? Is it with an E? V: Yes T : Okay. When did you move to Ma thews? Or did you parents live here? V: They lived in Mathews T: Okay. V: long resident. T: When d id your family first come to Ma thews?


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 2 V: family came before his birth. His father was director of all the chu rches which were then three, of Kingston E piscopal Parish. I believe he came in 1904. T: Okay. V: M y father was born in 1915 in Ma thews. T: Okay. So, w h family live before that? V: His father grew up in Portsmouth, Virginia and had lived in a numb er of localities where he was rector in Virginia. Mostly, Maryland and Kentucky. T: Has your family been Episcopal V: Yes. T: For the duration? V: Yes. T: Okay, so what ar e your earliest memories of Mat hews? V: Growing up in the house on Put in Creek near Ma thews Court H ouse. Childhood home in a rural community. We grew up on the creek. In a little boat we played on the creek. We played o utside. We went to school in Ma there. T: Which school did you go to? V: Lee J ackson Elementary School and Ma thews High School. T: Is Lee Jackson Elementary School still there?


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 3 V: N ot the one that I attended. That was taken down. h ere the c ourthouse is located today. T: Oh. V: T: So, what was the building like that you attended? Lee Jackson Elementary. V: It was a two story br ick building put up during the D enoug h money to finish what w as hoped to be planned. It was the third school called Lee Jackson. Fourth one is now in operation. It replaced the school that burned. T: What was the one that burned? When was that? Before your time? V: Oh yes . It probably burnt i n 1932. It was a long time ago, and this Depression era school went up to replace it. It was a pretty standard school design. T: Oh, so what did the interior look like? V: Entrance hall, long hallway, staircases at either end, another long hallway, classroom s on either s ide of the long hallway a few additions on either end with a cafeteria, and additional classrooms. T: You graduated high school in 1970 then? V: Correct. T: Okay. W hat was your experience like going to high school in the late [19]60s?


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 4 V: In t hose days t he el ementary school was grades one through seven; there was no kindergarten We advanced to the high school, which was grades eight through twelve I grew up at the time that school integration w as taking place throughout the S outh. It had been put off I believe by localities as long as possible, desegregation. But my first year in high school, was I believe the first year of what was called Freedom of Choice, w hich a student could choose which school to be attended. We had a scattering of students com e from the Thomas Hunter School, that first year. By the year I graduated it was complete. Thomas Hunter High School was turned into a middle school. All the high school studen ts, black and white, went to Ma thews High. T: How long did Freedom of C hoice las t? V: I would say four years. T: Okay. [L aughter] V: T: Do you remember I mean you grew up pretty centrally in Mathews. D o you remember anything about the black schools? V: s one black school when I grew up and two white schools. T: M m hm. V: Oh, no And in my elementary yea rs, there were Cobb


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 5 P oint S chools still for elementary white students. Those gradually closed down into the late [19]60s. I believe by the time I graduated there was just one white school. I beg your pardon. One elementary school, one middle school, and one high school. T: For whites? V: For everyo ne. The year I graduated. T: Okay, the year you graduated. Do you remember V: So, we had consolidation of s chool by race and by locality a ll at the same time. T: Wow. W hat were the side effects of that? Or were there any? V: If there were any negative si de effects, it was quiet. The positive side ef fects to me were that there were so many nice people my age that I had never known in the community. W e became friends. I think it took them a good deal of nerve to come before they had to from the black school s. They were brave young people. I now think that a great many of us have remained friends all these years. Of c ourse yo u fall out of touch with them b ecause it is no dif ferent today than it was then. M ost of the young people leave town if they go in the army and do well or go into industry and do well, or go to college and do well. There are no jobs T: [Laughter] Yeah, that is really nice. V: It really is. T: Do you remember anything about the integration of public accommodations?


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 6 V: we had other than restaurants. O ther business es everyone went to. Restaurants were probably segregated. But it just made no impact on me. T: Okay. So, how did growing up during the Cold War a ffect your childhood? Did that affect school at all? V: I only had to drill on getting under the desk in case of nuclear attack. We had fire drill s which were more realistic where we had to run outdoors. The Cold War scared people cause we are so close to Washington, the naval weapon s station, and the Newport News Shipyard, a ll of which were using nuclear materials and would be targets. I think tha t some people were more excited than my family. T: [L aughter] Fair enough. V: The re were some families that built fallout shelters. T: Really? V: Yes. T: Like underground? V: Uh huh. [L aughter] T: Okay. V: I wanted one, but ve one. T: Why did you want one?


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 7 V: It looked like fun to have a house with all that food in it, underground. [L aughter] V: [L aughter] V: You know you re young. T: Walk me through your typical day in high school. V: T: Nothing? V: Very little. The gymnasium was a combination auditorium and a place where the students gathered before school. It was ridiculous but we would walk about four abreast in a circle Round and around that gym until the homeroom bell rang. It was just school. School anywhere in America. T: Okay, okay. V: I imagine T: V: T: Yeah.


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 8 V: Get out. [Laughter] T: Where did you go to college? V: I went to undergraduate school at the College of William and Mary, class of 1974. I went to graduate school at the University o f Virginia, finishing in 1980, a lthough I had come back here to work at the newspaper by then. T: What was your advanced degree in? V: S ociology. T: Sociology. V: Both were in sociology. T: Was that a doctorate in sociology? V: T: Okay. W hat made you decide to do that? V: Do what? T: V: Oh, I enjoyed the study so much at William and Mary. But before I went to grad school, I worked at Gazette Journal here and I enjoyed that too. By the time I got to graduate school I sorted my head out and decided to have a newspaper career instead. Joined the family business. T: business?


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 9 V: Yes, it is. My father was owner and president of the company. T: Okay. Do you remember much about him working here when you were a child? V: . I remember more about his political career in Richmond. He was in the House of Delegates and b ecame Speaker, a nd was going to Richmond all the time. He worked here at the newspaper. Of course he was gone a great deal for General A ssembly work or trips across the state for one thing or another. T: Did he ever talk about it with you? V: No, it was j ust a part of your daily life. T: V: He was born in 1915, went to V M I for about a year. He came home and went to work in the county cle We nt into politics in 1941, was elected to the House of Delegates, representing Mat hews and Gloucester; the district got a great deal larger over the year s. He started buying shares in Tidewater N ewspapers I ncorporated in the mid 1940s. In 1954 came to cont rolling share after the death of the company president at the time. He was still e gave that up around the late [19]50s. He was still in the General A ssemb ly. [Laughter] I guess when he was in the General Assembly, the clerk to two, w hich he kept unt il 1980 when he was out of the General A ssembly. He concentrated on the newspaper, working here until the year he died. T: Wow.


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 10 V: In 2009, at the age of ninety four T: V: And brief. [Laughter] T: And brief. Okay, what were some of the political changes that he lived through? V: He was at the General Assembly when Virginia tried Massive R esistance to desegregation. T: Was he part of that? V: He was initially but I ca the late [19]5 0s when the General A ssembly had to vote whether to keep the public schools open or to shut them. He v oted to keep the schools open, w hich was essentially a vote to desegregate. He said he just could not close public schools. His attitudes adjusted through the years. T: Did he ever talk to you about how difficult that decision was? V: No. T: He just did it? V: T: Why not? V:


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 11 T: like in the American history books. V: Yes, it was a bad time. T: Yeah. V: Now, Forrest Morgan told you he fini shed his high school career in Ma thews because the Norfolk schools were shut. Some of the localities did shut their schools. T: Wow. V: Ma thews County never did. T: V: T: Yeah, it is. V: Fifty or si xty years later. T: Yeah. I mean how do you feel about it looking back? V: Well, looking back I think I understand why segregated facilities arose. You know we are still fighting the civil war a hundred and fifty years later. Honestly, What a mistake that was . but I believe its 1896 or 1898 there was a Supreme Court decision called Plessy v. Ferguson saying that so long as facilities were equal they could be separated by race the state relie d on until the Brown v. Board of Education in


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 12 1954 and after that we had to make some plans. Gloucester Cou nty, which is the neighbor of Mathews County h ad some pioneering civil rights efforts Like in the 1940s, so me students from the black school tried to enroll in the white school. They were turned away and nothing happene d. But suit, I think call anythi ng of that sort happening in Ma seen it by reading the old newspapers either. T: t any kind of resistance in Mat hews. V: re young how attendant are you to that? T: y t hat was but may just be that V: I was just like early teens. T: Yeah. So overall from the [19]50s onward how do you sense that race relations in Ma thews changed over time? V: . I think you could get an honest an swer from black people. As a white person I think they are pretty good a m saying that from my perspective. T: That is really nice to hear. [Laughter] V: ncidents and one large one over at really want to


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 13 rehash it here, b ut a young black man was stopped on suspicion of dr unk driving. Got into an altercation with the deputy sheriff. I think he had the deput y on the ground I think ; but he was shot and killed. It was on a Saturday afternoon in August. There was quite a lot of bitter ness immediately thereafter. People in the streets, milling about, not doing anything except talking. However, the a uthorities were alarmed and state police came in to help keep order. It never got out of order; I want you to understand that. It never did. But people wanted to express their anger. The state head of the N A A C P came and consulted with our local N A A C P head Mrs. Beatrice Bobo. They organized a march for the Sunday. It was a huge march ; it was well attended and I believe that dissipate d a great deal of anger. Then the case went as far as the grand jury. T he deputy sheriff was charged with so mething. He was not indic ted. But it seems to have been handled fairly well through the system without any violence incident I it. T: You mentioned t w o smaller incidences V: tell you. T: So, it would have been before this. V: Probably. T: that. V: I hope you s hould look into that it was interesting.


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 14 T: Yeah. V: August of 1980. T: Okay, well thank you for tellin you know. V: It was significant. T: Yeah, wow. So, I guess moving past race relations a little b it. V: T: Right. You came back after you went to UVA? V: I was lucky I had a job. [Laughter] T: Yeah, has your family been in this p articular building working here? I saw V: Yes, the newspaper has been in this building since the late [19]40s. We have been here too. T: You have an office in Ma thews? V: We also had one at Gloucester P oint th at was closed two years ago. T: Oh, okay. So, the one in Mat hews : how long has that one been there? V: s the original oldest establishment we have. The Mat hews Journal was established in 1904. Not in that office; that build the J ournal has had presence in the county since then up to the present. The


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 15 Gloucester Gazette was established in 1919, the two papers merged into the Gazette Journal i n 1937. That was a Depression era shot gun marriage. [ L aughter] V: gotten alon g pretty well for seventy oldest newspaper presence, that office there. T: In Ma thews. So, you s V: No. T: Earlie r. Where was the office before hand? V: ldings up and down the street, m ost of which have burned over the years. There hav e been three huge fires in the Court H ouse. T: Right, I was going to ask you V: T: wood. V: Right, I think the fire was mostly on the other side of the street. T: Interesting. V: But those blocks have come and gone T: Okay. I was going to ask you how downtown Mathews has changed over time.


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 16 V: Has changed from becoming a re tail center that provided almost everything a person needed to becoming a town that frankly seems more focused now on the tourist trade. We still have a few essentials. We have drug stores, grocery stores, post office, a few mechanics, and a few retail sho ps and various things. But if you look up and down you see a lot of thrift stores, resale stories, and art galleries which is certainly a new character for the county. T: How do you feel about that? V: Trying to shop locally as much as I can. I like to su pport the local merchants. I buy whatever I can there especially the grocery stores. T: The only one I can think of is Food Lion. V: es t V alue S T: Locally owned, okay. Interesting. So, what specifical ly stores used to be t here V: Oh my gracious. Well, we will start with the Halcyon Building is which is the onsign ment S tore at the bottom and a t heater upstairs. That was a two story departmen t dry goods store call very old. had an adjunct across the street called the Economy Store. T hat was on Church Street. There was the Gold en Brooks Ladies ready to wear st now a restaurant there in the same location, but that was a drugstore . There wa s a bank in the center of town t he B ank of Mathews when I grew up that moved to the outskirts of where Mathews Memorial L ibrary is located in that building. The


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 17 Bay School Art s Center is called the L.M. Calli s Company which was chiefly farming equipment when I grew up. I think earlier in life it had been an all purpose store. Twig g Motor C ompany was located at the south end of tow n; that so hop is lo cated now wa s the Mathews M otors which sold Ford. And even going further back in time there were more car dealers right in town a sample. T: Yeah, wow. V: There was a doctors than we have now. Although, I think we are not as badly off as a lot of too. T: Was there a particular one that closed where the effe ct was particularly devastating or sort of changed the fabric of things? V: I would say when Farmer s Bank moved to the outskirts of town to have a larger T: I think so. V: So, that was a full service fully locally owned bank with a lot of employees right in town. And that went Just ten years ago, the court house moved out and took a lot of employees with it. Where Liberty S quare is now located that w as the site of the Lee Jackson S chool that I attended growing up. A lot of employees went with th at. Those were the two big move


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 18 T: Has that affected I mean just not those two but sort of the larger changes, has that affected employment in Mathews ? V: has. I also think the tremendous retail growth in Gloucester has affected it. We can say they employee a lot of people. But a lot has put pressure on a number of the local stores from the big chains. T: So you have employees coming from Mathews to Gloucester? V: Oh yeah. T: Okay. V: I live in Mathews I work in Gloucester. Always have. [L aughter] T: Fair enough. So, I was goi ng to ask you I mean th is is a pretty central question: how is development in M athews different that development in Gloucester? V: Gloucester went through an explosive residential growth in the [19] 70s and [19] 80s for working age people. Mathews ore geared toward the older age, which is retirees. I think if you check the median re probably ten years apart. T: How did Mathews avoid that? V: Too far away from anything. T: So, it was


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 19 V: People move towards the jobs r ather than drive if the y can. You tell me where s a good j ob center in Mathews Its s olid, but not what it was. The commercial seafood has not collapsed but it s not nearly as large as it once was. That employed lots of people. T: How has that affected the social fabric? V: median ages, and when people moved in slow drain of people probably since 1920 what was th at ? A hundred years ago ? ot really rea lly really really busy. [Laughter] People went there to the jobs. My own uncle moved to Newport N ews to work in the shipyard. T: V: No. As o ur military establishment and its support s has grown and grown people have gone to the jobs. Some commute, some move. Some move back when they retire. T: Y eah. How do you feel about come heres? V: . positive toward come here people. My here person. She moved in I think 1941. Her family retired from Huntington, West Virginia to Mathews T: Do you consider those people that came here in the [19]40s the same kind of people that are coming now?


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 20 V: Probably, probably mos tly retired life T: Interesting. Okay. V: But not completely. T: Not completely. W hy not? V: If you went to high school when I went to high school I would say at least fifty percent maybe more of them were student names w ere traditional county names. It moved here and with the high T: [Laughter] Fair enough. So, I was going to ask y ou how you mentioned how do wntown has moved around. How have residential areas moved around? Have you seen major buildings, historic buildings being demolished, or moved? Sort of pop ups in new residential areas. V: s been a shift toward the mo re elevated end of th e county, which is towards Cobb s Creek, e sp ecially after Hurricane Isabel flooded so much of the county in 2003. A lot of places for sale in the low lying coast. T: Okay. Have there been historic buildings or homes outside of the main downtown area that have disappeared? V: have. T: But if there is anything signi ficant to you that would be V: You have a changing landscape all the time.


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 21 T: in Mathews than it is in other places? V: No. You really have it happen when families can totally move away and the old house falls in. T: Yeah, a lot of old houses here. Does being from Mathews change how you see places outside of Mathews ? V: w. T: Ha ha ha! V: How would I know? [L aughter] T: Well, you want to be postmodern with me. V: T: Okay, al are significant? V: Yes! T: Well, then tell me about them. V: So significant is the terrible and heartbre aking erosion of our shorelines, e specially our beaches and the loss of land from the Chesapeake Bay frontage. T: Do you see a solution to that?


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 22 V: No. T: I k now there is a lot of politics wrapped up in that too V: you think what it would cost to pre serve and rebuild a shoreline I T: Wow. V: en or fifteen feet a year. I believe it. T: Wow. V: T: What do you attribute that to? V: Maybe it s the rising sea level. T: What do you see as the ultimate fate of the county? In terms of that. V: re going to lose a lot of land in the next hundred years. T: How will that affect society in Mat hews? V: T: No I suppose not. V: Well, we are already having some issues with the economy now T: How does that affect environmental policy? V: Until we can s no way we can address it locally.


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 23 T: kind of starts local in that sense? V: No. T: Why not? V: Too many people yel ling and screaming natio nally, t aking all the attention and all the wind in the room and all the hot air. It confuses the issues so much, T: re about at thirty m inutes. So, I wanted to see if you had anything anecd otal ly that you wanted to talk about. Maybe you specifically about waterman, folktales, history, things like that. V: No. The e conomy has changed, the locally based economy has changed. Th e landscape is re making the best of it. T: You are making the best of it? V: We have a good school system. I think. T: Definitely. V: government employees and elected officials. We are very fortunate with that. A very conservative populat people are what they are. T: Okay.


TMP 030; Verbyla; Page 24 [End of I nterview] Transcribed by: Maria Fuentes, October 25, 2014 Audit edited by: Jessica Taylor, November 1 2014 Final edited by: Jessica Taylor

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