Thirty-four-year-old William Casey Marland (March 26, 1918-November 26, 1965) was elected governor of West Virginia in 1952, at the height of a meteoric career. Only five years earlier he had been a law student at West Virginia University.
Born in Illinois, Marland moved at age seven with his family to Glen Rogers, Wyoming County. His father was mine superintendent there. Marland was educated at the University of Alabama and WVU Law School, with time out for service in the navy in World War II. He received his law degree in June 1947, and the following August was named law clerk for Judge Ben Moore of the U.S. District Court for Southern West Virginia, a position traditionally offered to the top law student each year at WVU. In August 1948, Marland was made assistant attorney general by Attorney General Ira J. Partlow. This was followed by Marland’s appointment in late December 1949 by Governor Patteson to the position of attorney general (vacated by Partlow), which resulted in his subsequent election to that office in 1950.
In late 1951, Kanawha County Democratic boss Homer Hanna Sr. and Governor Patteson decided that the much maligned Democratic ‘‘statehouse machine’’ needed a new face to offer the electorate as their next governor. They turned to their young attorney general, Marland.
Although the Democrats had placed five consecutive candidates in the governor’s mansion since 1932, there were bitter divisions within the party. A long-festering schism between pro-labor FDR liberals led by M. M. Neely and pro-industry, anti-FDR conservatives led by Homer ‘‘Rocky’’ Holt (and later complicated by a third group of ‘‘anti-corruption’’ independents), made Marland’s nomination in the 1952 Democratic primary difficult. This same internal division, combined with Republican charges of statehouse corruption, made Marland’s general election race against Republican Rush D. Holt a real cliffhanger. Even with the help of Senator Neely and United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis, Marland posted only a narrow 26,000-vote victory. The Democratic Party’s hold on the governorship would end in 1956 with the election of another 34-year-old, Republican Cecil Underwood.
Marland quickly exhibited his maverick nature when he introduced a ten cents per ton severance tax on the state’s natural resources, principally coal. The legislature, dominated by the coal industry and the Chamber of Commerce, repeatedly beat back attempts by the governor to upgrade the state’s highways and schools via the proposed severance tax. The measure was defeated by Marland’s own party during his first three months in office, which signaled the beginning of four frustrating years for the young governor.
Governor Marland often took decisive action when faced with big decisions, such as the severance tax. His personal campaign for industrial development saw him barnstorming from coast to coast in an effort to lure industry to West Virginia. He is best remembered for his no-nonsense implementation of public school desegregation following the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education. On the other hand, Marland was guilty of perpetuating the infamous statehouse spoils system by giving both his father and brother high-salaried jobs. This unpopular behavior combined with his abrupt manner and an increasing use of alcohol created serious political and personal problems.
U.S. Sen. Harley Kilgore died in early 1956. Barred by law from seeking a second term as governor, Marland made a strong bid for Kilgore’s seat, only to lose to Republican Chapman Revercomb and the Eisenhower landslide. In 1958, the death of Senator Neely gave Marland another chance at high office. This attempt fell short when he was defeated in the August primary by Jennings Randolph.
Marland struggled financially between the two senatorial contests, and in January 1960, he left West Virginia for a sales job in Chicago. From then on, the former governor’s drinking problem advanced into total alcoholism, causing him to lose the job and his health. After several periods of hospitalization, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. In the summer of 1962, he took a job as a taxi driver to ‘‘compose his character,’’ as he put it. Three years later with his alcoholism arrested, a chance remark to a passenger prompted his discovery by a Chicago Daily News reporter. His subsequent reentry into the mainstream of society drew national attention. Sadly, his new life ended eight months later when he died of cancer at the age of 47.
In some respects a tragic figure, Bill Marland nonetheless was a politician ahead of his time. Since his death, most of his ideas have been implemented, including the coal severance tax, economic diversification, a state income tax, an expanded state park system, and improved public education and transportation systems.
Read Gov. Marland’s inaugural address.
This Article was written by Paul F. Lutz
Last Revised on October 08, 2010
Lutz, Paul F. From Governor to Cabby. Huntington: Marshall University Library Associates, 1995.