Cecil Harland Underwood (November 5, 1922-November 24, 2008) was West Virginia’s 25th and 32nd governor and had the distinction of having served as the state’s youngest and oldest chief executive. In the 40 years between his administrations, he remained active in industry and education. From the time of his election to the House of Delegates in 1944 to his sixth campaign for governor in 2000, he was one of the state’s leading Republican political figures.
Born at Josephs Mills in Tyler County, Underwood was the youngest of five children of Silas and Della Underwood. While his father managed a farm and worked at other jobs, Cecil helped on the farm and studied vocational agriculture at Middlebourne High School. He graduated fifth in his class in 1940.
Underwood finished Salem College (now Salem International University) in three years, graduating in 1943 with a degree in political science. He served in the Army Reserve, although a fast pulse kept him from active duty. He began teaching high school biology in St. Marys. He won election to the House of Delegates from Tyler County in 1944, beginning a dozen years of legislative service that led to his becoming House minority leader in 1949 and, seven years later, the Republican nominee for governor. On July 25, 1948, he married Hovah Hall of Grantsville, and, in 1952, he received a master’s degree in political science from West Virginia University.
By 1956, Underwood had become a leading spokesman for the Republican Party. On January 4, 1956, at the age of 33, he announced his candidacy for governor, pledging to ‘‘restore confidence and good feeling in our state government.’’ In the primary election, Underwood narrowly defeated Charleston Mayor John T. Copenhaver for the Republican nomination. Underwood was elected governor in the general election by a majority of 63,681 votes over opponent Robert H. Mollohan, despite a 259,000-voter Democratic registration edge in the state.
At his inauguration, January 15, 1957, Underwood pledged to hire qualified personnel, keep taxes to a minimum, reform state purchasing, improve roads, strengthen education, attract new industry, and otherwise advance the state up the ladder, a symbol of progress he had used in his campaign. To an extent beyond that of his predecessors, Underwood also promised to report regularly ‘‘via the press, radio, and television’’ and to ‘‘move often among the people’’ instead of staying at the capitol. At times during his administration, his penchant for public relations, especially the frequency of his out-of-state trips to promote West Virginia, drew criticism from opponents.
Underwood’s bolder initiatives were moderated by the legislature, whose Democratic House and Senate majorities were increased in the 1958 election. In response to his call for higher taxes to finance a 10-year, $500-million road program, lawmakers were content to proceed more gradually, giving him $4.3 million of the $37 million in new annual revenue that he had sought. Among the other measures passed during his term were emergency benefits to help miners made jobless by the mechanization of the coal industry, a statewide property reappraisal, and creation of a new economic development agency.
Barred from a second consecutive term by the state constitution, Underwood in 1960 ran for the U.S. Senate. Unopposed in the Republican primary, in November he lost to Democrat Jennings Randolph by 88,240 votes, his first political defeat. In February 1961, Underwood accepted a position with Island Creek Coal Company and largely stayed out of politics for the next few years. His friends, however, were not surprised when he announced in January 1964 that he would run again for governor. He easily won the Republican primary, but lost the general election by 77,464 votes to Democrat Hulett Smith, who benefited from Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory for president.
In July 1965, Underwood took a position with Monsanto Chemical Company, and by 1967 he once more had his eye on the governor’s mansion. He announced his candidacy four days before Congressman Arch Moore entered the Republican primary. On May 14, 1968, Moore defeated Underwood with 57 percent of the vote, and Underwood returned to the private sector. In 1972, after several years with a land development company he organized, Underwood was named president of Bethany College. He held the post until August 23, 1975, when he resigned in the face of discontent by some members of the faculty.
In 1976, after the state Supreme Court ruled that the gubernatorial succession amendment to the state constitution barred Governor Moore from seeking a third consecutive term, Underwood won the Republican nomination for governor. However, in the general election, he lost to Democrat Jay Rockefeller by 242,236 votes. Again Underwood returned to the business world, holding a variety of positions including the presidency of Princess Coal in Huntington. As Underwood pursued his career in the private sector, political circumstances created yet another opportunity for him to seek the governorship. In 1996, as a seasoned elder statesman of his party, he won the Republican nomination. The Democrats in a divisive primary nominated Charlotte Pritt of Kanawha County. In the ensuing fall campaign, Underwood defeated Pritt with 52 percent of the vote, and took office January 13, 1997, as the state’s 32nd and oldest governor.
In his inaugural address, Underwood emphasized the importance of advanced technology and improvements in education and health care ‘‘as the industrial age gives way to the information age.’’ With Democrats in control of both houses of the legislature, Underwood sought consensus. Among the accomplishments of his administration were a $565 million reduction in the workers compensation fund deficit, an aggressive road construction program, development of a high-tech partnership with Verizon telephone company, more than $1 billion in new sewer and water projects, expansion of children’s programs, and assistance to help senior citizens afford prescription drugs.
In 2000, when Underwood ran for reelection, the Democrats nominated nine-term Congressman Bob Wise of Kanawha County. A majority of West Virginia voters for the first time since 1916 simultaneously gave their support to the Republican candidate for president and the Democratic nominee for governor. While George W. Bush defeated Al Gore 52 percent to 46 percent in West Virginia, Wise defeated Underwood 50 percent to 47 percent.
In his final address to the legislature on January 10, 2001, Underwood reflected on more than half a century of public life, noting that he had ‘‘come a long way from a bashful boy on a hillside farm in Tyler County.’’
Underwood returned to private life in Charleston and resumed his involvement in community activities. His wife, Hovah Hall Underwood, died in 2004. Underwood himself experienced ill health beginning in 2006 and died two years later in Charleston.
This Article was written by Larry Sonis
Last Revised on December 06, 2011
Morgan, John G. West Virginia Governors, 1863-1980. Charleston: Charleston Newspapers, 1980.
Stateline: A Newsletter for West Virginia State Government Employees, (Feb. 1998).