Huntington: A Case Study of Inspiration


Who is Keebie Gilkerson?

I’m in Huntington looking for Keebie Gilkerson.

His real name is Charles, but nobody calls him Charles. I mean, he didn’t even know his real name was Charles until, like, elementary school. He’s been Keebie his whole life to everyone. So maybe real isn’t the right word. Charles is his official name. Keebie is his real name.

I’d heard he was a walk-on at Marshall, a linebacker. But when he bounces into Black Sheep that first night I met him, he looks like a dude more accustomed to handing out high-fives than hits. The ear to ear grin on his face is about as threatening as Santa.

People had been telling me he worked for the city, in the planning office, that he was a guy that could help make things happen.

He sits down, and I’m thinking, “This must be the wrong guy.” City planning staff? He looks like he’s about 14-years-old. Reminds me of a dude I used to know back home who worked in a skate shop, whose every third word was “stoked.” But you can’t judge a book.

I like him right away. It’s impossible not to like someone with this much enthusiasm. He talks about working with the city like it’s the standing-on-the-school-desks scene in Dead Poets Society. Keebie is pumped about living in Huntington. He loves it. And one of the big reasons he loves it is because it’s a place where a person with a little gumption can really do things.

Meet Keebie and his mom.

The thread of people that led me to Keebie started with Ian Thornton. And what led me to Ian Thornton was New Story.

For those of you who don’t know who Ian is, he’s the guy that started the Huntington Music and Arts Festival (HMAF). I thought it was very cool that one guy could put something like that together with nothing more than his own determination, creativity and a network of friends and good people.

“Budget of $0? No problem. Let’s ask around, see what we can pull together.”

This was DIY placemaking at its finest. And this was what I wanted New Story to be about: local people with big ideas and the bravery to give them a shot.

A scene from the Huntington Music and Arts Festival, led by Ian Thornton.

I met Ian at Club Inn Between on 20th Street in Huntington to ask him how HMAF came to be. He started throwing names at me, names of other people in Huntington who, just like him, are starting things – festivals, new businesses, zines, art, records, pop-ups, celebrations. These makers, they are everywhere down here.

This doesn’t feel normal to me. I’ve lived in a lot of cities in my life, and they didn’t all feel like this. There is something going on in Huntington, right now, and it is not interested in waiting for someone else to do something. It is not interested in asking permission. It does not care about proper channels.

They are guerilla doers, and their enemy is dormancy. I wanted to meet them. So Ian sent me on a tour of Huntington’s best and bravest. And to be honest, I haven’t been the same since. I’ve met people in West Virginia’s second largest city to whom every empty building looks like an opportunity to throw a party, an empty wall looks like a canvas, the absence of something is merely motivation to create.

Ian led me to Zac White and Dave Lavender, and then to Keebie, and along the way I learned about Jimbo Valentine, Breanna Shell, Josh McComas and a bunch of other filmmakers, those brothers doing “My Brother, My Brother and Me,” James Maddox, Chris Lusher…

Listing names is risky because I know I’m just a tourist, and that I only see the tip of the iceberg. For every champion I shout out, there are 10 others hammering away.

Meeting the movers and shakers in Huntington reminds me of a sci-fi film, only a fun, positive kind, where everyone’s been contaminated with a creative, entrepreneurial bug and the only way to cure it is to do and create.

At the risk of continuing a creepy disease metaphor, my goal at New Story is to dramatically escalate the spread.

The leaders of this Huntington DIY movement will be there to talk to you about the mess, noise and beauty they are splashing around in their remarkable, rebounding city, and what you can do to spark something new where you live.

New Story is always free, inclusive, and eager to meet you. The theme this year is: You Are Not a Spectator. This year’s New Story will be held at West Virginia University’s Media Innovation Center on June 16-17. It’s not too late to RSVP.

*This email is presented in partnership with the West Virginia Community Development Hub.

Jake Lynch is a superb dancer at weddings, a fan of people who take matters into their own hands, and the Director of Network Communications at the West Virginia Community Development Hub.

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