William Wallace Barron (December 8, 1911-November 12, 2002) was West Virginia’s 26th governor. He achieved a remarkable record of legislative success during his term, brought national attention to Appalachia, and launched job programs in an era of high unemployment caused by mechanization of coal production. But his accomplishments were overshadowed by the fact that he was the first governor in state history to be indicted or convicted of a major crime. His troubles came not from a crime he committed while in office, but for bribing a jury foreman in a later case. He spent four years in a federal penitentiary.
A native of Elkins, Barron—known statewide as ‘‘Wally’’—was born December 8, 1911, the son of Dr. Frederick Henry Barron and Mary Cuthbert Butler Barron. His father was a Presbyterian minister. He attended school in Elkins and Charleston, studied history and economics at Washington and Lee University, and received his law degree from West Virginia University in 1941. In 1936, he married Opal Marie Wilcox, a Pocahontas County native. They had three daughters.
In 1943, Barron enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was discharged as a sergeant in 1945. He served as mayor of Elkins, as a member of the House of Delegates, and as West Virginia attorney general. His election as governor came in 1960, a high-profile year for the Democratic Party. It was the year Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy, whom Barron supported, defeated Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey in the West Virginia primary. Barron pledged to ‘‘clean up the state,’’ to work with a Democratic legislature, and to build a strong economy. He was a strong advocate of higher pay for teachers. Barron survived an allegation that he had offered $65,000 to an opponent to stay out of the race. The matter eventually was settled out of court.
In the end, Barron received 446,775 votes to 360,665 for Republican Harold Neely. The 26th governor took the oath of office secretly at 12:02 a.m. so he could immediately sign into law a one-cent consumers sales tax that predecessor Cecil Underwood had declined to sign. Barron’s public swearing-in was held later, beneath the dome in the state capitol at noon, and attended by 2,700 persons. Personally reserved and a consensus builder, Barron was hospitable and friendly with friend and foe. Mrs. Barron earned the reputation of an outgoing, gracious, and active first lady.
The Barron administration’s legislative record included establishment of a personal income tax and creation of a Human Rights Commission. He issued an executive order declaring state employees would be hired ‘‘regardless of race, creed, color or national origin.’’ At the Southern Governors Conference at the Greenbrier, he firmly told Gov. George Wallace of Alabama that he would oppose ‘‘any and all statements . . . which would in any way promote or sanction discrimination.’’
Barron focused on jobs, oversaw the state’s recovery from the 1961 flood that claimed 22 lives, and supervised allocation of north-south interstate highway mileage from Pennsylvania to Charleston. He traveled to Japan to promote West Virginia coal, shamed utility companies into dropping rate increases, positioned Green Bank as site of the world’s largest movable radio telescope, and started the highly successful West Virginia Youth Science Camp. West Virginia celebrated its centennial in 1963. President Kennedy repaid a debt to his primary supporter and the people who launched him toward the presidency by speaking before 10,000 people at the official ceremony June 20 in Charleston.
Highway construction was boosted with the passage of a $200 million bond issue in 1964, the final full year of Barron’s term. He proclaimed that West Virginia had broken 14 economic records that year. He had centered economic development efforts in a new State Department of Commerce, headed by the man who would become his successor as governor, Hulett C. Smith of Beckley.
Governor Barron stepped down from office in early 1965, and opened a law office in Charleston. He was mentioned as a potential candidate for governor in 1968. In February 1968, however—in what became known as the ‘‘Valentine Day’s Massacre’’— Barron and five others were indicted by a federal grand jury on bribery-conspiracy charges relating to alleged ‘‘dummy corporations.’’ Barron insisted he was innocent. The charges sketched an elaborate kickback scheme from persons doing business with the state.
At the August trial the prosecution alleged that documents signed by all six indicated they would ‘‘share equally in all profits.’’ Five state vendors testified they sent checks to the dummy firms. The judge felt the governor’s case was ‘‘on a little different basis than [those of] the other defendants,’’ and seriously considered a directed verdict of acquittal on the basis the governor acted routinely in signing the agreements without intent of wrongdoing. The jury deliberated 18 hours. Their verdict read: Barron, innocent; the others, guilty.
In 1969, the Barrons moved to Florida. But in 1970, the state awakened to the news of a second indictment against the former governor, this one alleging the rigging of purchasing contracts. However, a Supreme Court decision in July nullified those indictments.
During the summer, stories began to surface in the press speculating that the jury in the original trial had voted 11-1 in favor of convicting Barron. The lone holdout was the jury foreman, Ralph Buckalew. The speculation ended in February 1971 when the former governor received a telephone call from a reporter, informing him a federal jury had indicted both Barron and Mrs. Barron on charges of bribing the foreman of the jury that acquitted Barron. The indictment claimed Mrs. Barron passed $25,000 in a brown paper bag to Mrs. Buckalew as a payoff. Buckalew immediately pleaded guilty. Mrs. Barron’s name was dropped from the indictment, and Barron pleaded guilty to a new indictment of conspiracy, bribery, and obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison and served four.
Barron later said he was convinced any verdict against him in the original trial would have been set aside on appeal and asserted the payoff scheme was the brainchild of his attorney. He said he received no money from any of the so called business deals. He said he pleaded guilty in the second trial in order to get the indictment against his wife dropped. He felt had he testified in the original trial, he would have been found innocent anyway. He never denied the $25,000 paid the jury foreman. ‘‘You just don’t know how hard it has been for me to live with that,’’ he lamented.
Released from prison in 1975, Barron returned with a new sense of religious faith and a non-diminished love for West Virginia. He and Mrs. Barron spent several months a year in Mercer County before his death in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Read Gov. Barron’s inaugural address.
This Article was written by Jack Canfield
Last Revised on September 25, 2012
Morgan, John G. West Virginia Governors, 1863-1980. Charleston: Charleston Newspapers, 1980.