The 31st governor of West Virginia, William Gaston Caperton III, was born in Charleston, on February 21, 1940, the only son of two children born to William Gaston Caperton Jr. and Eliza Ambler. He is a descendant of the frontier families who settled in Western Virginia prior to the Revolutionary War.
Caperton attended public school in Charleston and then attended Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1963 with a degree in business administration. Afterward, Caperton went to work at his father’s insurance company, McDonough-Caperton-Shepherd, of which he was elected president in 1976. By the late 1980s, the McDonough-Caperton Insurance Group, as it was then known, had become one of the largest privately owned insurance companies in the nation.
Throughout his business career, Caperton flirted with politics by serving in several prominent campaigns, including those of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd and Gov. and later U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller. In 1988, Caperton ran for governor against incumbent Republican Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr.
Caperton outpaced a crowded Democratic primary field and then won convincingly against Moore, in part due to the economic recession that had plagued the state for more than a decade and the state’s mounting inability to pay its bills. Following his election victory, Caperton assembled a bipartisan team of financial experts to review the state’s situation. The financial task force indicated that West Virginia faced liabilities that would equal as much as $367 million within the first year Caperton was in office, with additional debts whose total at that time could not be determined. In addition, West Virginia had unfunded liabilities approaching what some estimated to be $4 billion in its teachers pension and workers’ compensation systems.
When Caperton took his oath of office on January 16, 1989, he immediately called the legislature into special session. He asked lawmakers to address the financial crisis, to pass groundbreaking ethics legislation for public officials, and to enact a major reorganization of state government. The result of that special session was the desired ethics legislation, a major reorganization that instituted a cabinet form of government in the executive branch, and the largest tax increase in state history. The novice governor’s popularity plummeted, but West Virginia’s economic plight and the financial condition of state government improved throughout Caperton’s two terms.
A year after Caperton took office, state teachers walked out of their classrooms in the first-ever West Virginia teachers’ strike. The 11-day strike ended when Caperton and the legislature agreed to hold a special session on education to address salaries and other issues. The resulting Education Reform Act provided a large raise for teachers, while establishing faculty senates in individual schools and a state Center for Professional Development. ‘‘Most observers agree that 1990 brought both the high point and the low point of the first Caperton administration,’’ wrote Caperton press aide Bob Brunner, who believed the act provided wide-ranging reforms and was a triumph for the governor.
Those early events set the tone for the remainder of Caperton’s administration; perhaps most significantly, they established an unusually close working relationship with the legislature. Caperton met often with the legislative leadership to discuss problems and issues, solicited members’ suggestions, and worked hard to build a consensus. These efforts were aided by a Democrat-controlled legislature and the relative stability of the leadership in the House of Delegates and Senate. By his second term, from 1993 to 1997, Caperton was winning passage of nearly all of his proposals.
Central to his administration was education; Caperton launched a three-pronged approach that pushed West Virginia to the forefront in the use of education technology. At his behest, West Virginia was the first to initiate a statewide effort to put computers in every classroom, beginning with kindergarten and continuing through elementary grades. The program included statewide training for teachers in the use of computers in education.
The third element of Caperton’s education initiative was to establish the School Building Authority, a board that would distribute state funds to counties to build and modernize schools. It was a quasi-independent agency that could allocate money based on the merit of individual building and renovation proposals and encourage school consolidation. Caperton encouraged the building of new schools. As he said in 1993 when the School Building Authority’s funding was challenged, ‘‘How can we expect our children to value schooling when it’s obvious we don’t value our schools?’’
He established a Council for Community and Economic Development, a public-private body combining business leaders with government officials to chart the state’s economic course. It served two purposes: business leaders were actively involved in the state’s business recruitment efforts, and decisions central to the state’s future were made with input from the private as well as the public sector. Similar oversight and policy councils were established in other key areas, such as workers’ compensation, tourism, and pension programs.
Caperton was able to win major improvements to education, economic development, workers’ compensation, infrastructure, and environmental regulation. West Virginia was among the top 10 states in economic activity at times during his administration. A concerted effort to focus health education on primary care and rural health services also began under Caperton.
Caperton and his wife of 23 years, Ella Dee Kessel Caperton, divorced while he was in office. Caperton had two sons from that marriage, William Gaston Caperton IV and John Ambler Caperton. In May 1990, Caperton was married to Rachael Worby, conductor and music director of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra. Later Caperton and Worby divorced, and Caperton remarried in 2003 to Idit Ron Harel, native of Israel.
At the end of Caperton’s term in January 1997, several newspapers gave him high marks in education and economic development. ‘‘West Virginia will benefit from his work for years to come,’’ the Charleston Daily Mail editorialized. The Charleston Gazette named him the 1996 West Virginian of the Year.
Caperton served on the National Governors’ Association executive committee and was the 1996 chairman of the Democratic Governors’ Association. In 1999, he was chosen president of the College Board, the non-profit organization that administers the SAT examinations and other educational programs. He resigned from that position in 2012 and returned to Charleston.
This Article was written by Elizabeth Jill Wilson
Last Revised on April 11, 2013
Brunner, Bob. The Caperton Years: 1989-1993. Beckley: BJW Printing, 1997.
Rice, Otis K. & Stephen W. Brown. The Mountain State: An Introduction to West Virginia. Cincinnati: C. J. Krehbiel, 1997.
Wilson, Elizabeth Jill. The Caperton Years: 1993-1997 2 vols. Charleston: Chapman Printing, 2005.