Martha Wehrle Opening Lecture

Martha Wehrle

Each year, the National Youth Science Foundation honors the legacy of Senator Martha Gaines Wehrle through the opening lecture of the National Youth Science Camp. Senator Wehrle has also been recognized as a Trustee Emeritus of the National Youth Science Foundation.

2017 Martha Wehrle NYSCamp Opening Lecture

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excerpts from The Charleston Gazette, November 2, 2007

Senator Martha Gaines Wehrle, a civic leader and philanthropist who served in both houses of the West Virginia Legislature, died October 31, 2007 at Charleston Area Medical Center Memorial Hospital. She was 81.

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller said Wehrle and her late husband were among the first people to befriend him when he came to West Virginia 43 years ago. “She was equally at ease with the most privileged, and the least privileged, in our West Virginia family,” Rockefeller said. “At a time when community service was much more rare, Martha graduated from Vassar College, came back to Pax in Fayette County, and spent two years teaching children who desperately needed her guidance and friendship,” he said.

“You find people in life periodically who have such class, such style and are so smart, you just recognize it,” said former state Senate president Keith Burdette. “When I went to the Senate – just a kid really at 27 – I met all these bigger-than-life figures,” Burdette said. “Then I met Martha Wehrle. She never made a fuss over herself or her position.”

The daughter of L. Ebersole Gaines, a Republican lawyer, and Betty Chilton Gaines, who was related to Democratic U.S. Sen. William Chilton, Wehrle grew up in Fayetteville with talk of politics from both sides of the political spectrum. While she was in Boston getting a master’s degree in education at Harvard University, her father mailed her a voter’s registration card with an X in the slot marked Republican.

She changed her registration to Democrat after she married Russell Wehrle in 1954. He was chairman of the family-owned McJunkin Corp. and a man heavily involved in civic activities. A lack of Democratic candidates in 1974 prompted party elders to ask Martha to run for the House of Delegates. “At first I thought I couldn’t,” Wehrle later said. “Then I thought maybe I could.” She won and stayed in office 10 years, often leading the ticket, then retired in 1984. Her five children were on their own by then, and she wanted to spend more time with her husband, whose work required constant travel. She stayed in private life until 1989, when Gov. Gaston Caperton appointed her to fill an unexpired term. Wehrle then won the seat in the general election. Russell Wehrle had died of a heart attack in 1987 at age 60. “For a while, I was in shock,” she recalled years later. “You act like you’re doing well, but you’re not. But when [returning to public life] was suggested, I thought why not.”

In the House of Delegates, Wehrle sat on the Finance and Judiciary committees, voting for progressive social issues like women’s rights, while endorsing more moderate business issues. Six feet tall with a big shock of silver-gray hair, Wehrle made an imposing figure, but she showed such interest in people that they rarely found her threatening. “She was a person who seemed to be able to do everything and do it well,” Caperton said. “And she did it with a big heart. She was a good listener as well as a good speaker. She treated everyone no matter who they were with kindness and respect and love.”

“She was a gracious, brilliant woman,” said Clay Center President Judy Wellington, upon whose board she served. “She had great intuition and wisdom. She had a sense of community and a sense of how important a cultural institution can be for a community.” Her remarkable energy and zest for life drove her involvement in civic and charitable life, said Newton Thomas, a former Clay Center chairman. “Martha always, always had an exaggerated compliment for everyone she knew or just met. To paraphrase Kipling, she walked with kings and queens, but never lost the common touch,” said Ted Armbrecht, a friend who served on several boards with her.

“It was an honor to be her friend,” said Sarah Drennen, who belonged to the same book club as Wehrle even after Drennen moved with husband William Drennen to Shepherdstown. “Martha was one of those amazing people who had a combination of huge intelligence, grace, charm, energy, and diplomacy. “She understood the art of courtesy and the art of compromise,” Drennen said. “She was very astute politically and very astute about human nature. She could keep her eye on the prize and achieve the goal.””I’m not the kind of person who is confrontational. I’m not a person to fly off the handle at somebody,” Wehrle once told a reporter. “It’s just the way I was brought up – to be conciliatory and to compromise.”

 

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