MORGANTOWN — LeJay Graffious is a retired teacher and school administrator immersed in a different learning environment these days.
He’s the director of The Old Hemlock Foundation, an expanse of land, complete with a Colonial cabin, near Bruceton Mills on the original Brandonville Pike.
For years, that cabin was home to George Bird Evans, an acclaimed outdoors writer and magazine illustrator who moved to the Mountain State from Manhattan in the late 1930s, with the expressed intent of living as far off the grid as he could get.
Evans and his wife, Kay, never had children, so they left provisions in their estate to keep the land as preserved as when they bought it.
The resulting foundation is dedicated to keeping Evans’ artistic legacy alive, while also doing environmental outreach, historical preservation and the like.
That’s where AmeriCorps comes in.
The organization that advocates for communities across the country was seemingly made for the Old Hemlock, its director said.
“We’ve had five AmeriCorps members working here over the years, and we’re getting ready to hire another one,” he said.
Which, in West Virginia, is nothing new. The state leads the nation in AmeriCorps volunteers and paid staffers per capita.
‘Terrific place to serve’
The Corporation for National and Community Service, which administers the program, made the announcement last week.
Barbara Stewart, the corporation’s CEO, told MetroNews last week that the state “is both a terrific place for AmeriCorps members to come from and where AmeriCorps members currently serve.”
A total of 1,100 members are currently serving in West Virginia, Stewart said.
Minnesota, Utah, Vermont and Montana were also in the top 10, along with Hawaii, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
Most of Old Hemlock’s AmeriCorps workers over the years have been public administration majors from WVU, Graffious said.
Those workers, the director said, took on archiving and preservation while simply appreciating the history of the place.
“We’d be floundering without them, I can tell you that,” he said.
As an educator-turned director, Graffious works with AmeriCorps members at Old Hemlock on preparing portfolios and other materials to get them hired in their chosen careers.
In turn, he gets a fresh set of eyes — which is important, since Evans was an artist as much as everything.
(AmeriCorps) eye for art
Evans’ illustrations adorned the covers of McCall’s, Cosmopolitan (then a literary magazine) and other top news stand sellers of the day.
Most of the magazine art is framed and on display.
Evans did two copies each (in case one got lost in the mail).
As it turns out, Evans just might have been the country’s original telecommuter.
The nearest telephone on the Pike was a few houses down. A neighbor would let him borrow the phone for weekly toll-call sessions with art directors and creative directors in Manhattan. Then, Evans would go to work.
Chelsea Elliot, a recent AmeriCorps member who worked at the foundation, was taken with it immediately.
“The first time I saw Mr. Evans’ work, I immediately started thinking that it was too good not to show,” she said. “It’s still exciting and vibrant.”
That first impression led to a retrospective of the work at the Morgantown History Museum.