By Beth Christian Broschart - Staff Writer
BUCKHANNON - U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., returned to West Virginia Wesleyan College Tuesday, bringing broadcasting legend Ted Koppel along for a forum encouraging students to get involved in public service.
"In the 1960s this notion of public service was a hot item," Koppel, who served as the forum's moderator, said. "It is not today. Tell these young people why public service is so important."
Rockefeller, who served as Wesleyan's president from 1973 to 1976, said he wants others to feel fantastic about themselves.
"This comes after a period of years where you commit yourself to help other people's lives get better," Rockefeller said. "I had a fellow from Wood County named Jimmy Fox. He worked for me in the Senate and said he wanted to get into politics. He said he wanted to be a senator or governor - but I told him to hold on."
Rockefeller said if he would run for those offices, his chances of getting elected were slim.
"I told him to run for the county board of education and make that his pursuit," Rockefeller said. "He ran and he won and was on the board for years. The concept is if you are in public life it doesn't have to be as a governor.
"Doing good for people - does it pay a lot?" Rockefeller said. "No. Is the satisfaction a lot? Yes! Does it make you feel like you are helping other people's lives? Yes! So being in public life does not have to be glamorous. But I don't care about that. Public policy is unendingly interesting."
Rockefeller said in 1996, 19 percent of the classrooms in America were connected to the Internet. He said with the help of others, he has worked toward increasing technology.
"Now the number of classrooms connected to the Internet is 94 percent," Rockefeller said. "We are working toward 99 percent. That takes years. It takes years, and now we are trying to get that technology expanded."
Rockefeller first came to West Virginia at age 27 as a Vista volunteer serving in the mining community of Emmons. He ran for and was elected to the House of Delegates in 1966. He was elected governor of West Virginia in 1976 and re-elected in 1980.
In 1984, Rockefeller was elected to the U.S. Senate, and re-elected in 1990, 1996, 2002 and 2008. Last year, Rockefeller announced he did not plan to seek re-election to the Senate.
Rockefeller said his lifelong commitment has been to improve the lives of all West Virginians while improving the lives of all Americans.
"Bite your teeth into something hard," Rockefeller said. "Get out of your comfort zone and go somewhere and spend three or four months in a place that is uncomfortable. Somewhere there is no running water or you have to squat on the ground to go to the bathroom. But the people are fantastic. They give you their food and their love. But get out of your comfort zone and understand what the rest of the world is like and understand what the rest of your country is like."
Rockefeller said he had a privileged childhood and experiencing other regions changed his life.
"I had never seen this before and it fundamentally changed me," Rockefeller said. "It gave me a direction in my life that I had been seeking for a long, long time."
Koppel, the longtime host of ABC's "Nightline," asked students to look closely at the extraordinary career of Rockefeller.
"The impact he has had on intelligence, health or education is great," Koppel said. "He is a modest man. The life he has led is an exciting life. The notion of getting into public service is an exciting venture. It's gotten a bad wrap over the past several years. But public service is a brilliant career path. You have a man here who exemplifies the very best of it."
Following the forum, Rockefeller and Koppel answered questions submitted by audience members.
Audience member Pat Facemyer asked Rockefeller his family's reaction to him moving to West Virginia.
"Well, for the first five years I was in West Virginia, I promise you, my father thought I was living in North Carolina," Rockefeller said. "And that was OK. I was doing something that I clearly wanted to do and something that I believed in. That was what counted."