“A Summer Without Children” teaches us how to get through a public health crisis

Published: Apr. 19, 2021 at 8:57 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - Public health crises cause us to isolate, fear the unknown, and discover pockets of hope and support in our communities. One Appalachian community knows firsthand how important those lessons are. In a year where everything felt unprecedented, one town in Southwest Virginia felt like they’ve been here before.

“It was a terrible time of fear,” said Frances Emerson.“Not wanting to give into the fear and then coming together as a community to face it and make life better for those who were dealing with it.”

In this Appalachian community, the collective memory of one of the most challenging summers on record holds strong.

“We had great plans for the summer, you know, and I didn’t get to leave my yard!” chuckled Jean Lester.

A summer during which an illness swept through quickly, sending people into isolation and panic.

“Closing the swimming pools, no movie theatres, no sports,” Emerson recalled.

It was a summer more than 70 years ago.

“Everything that was happening in succession, I would think, yes, that’s what went on in Wytheville,” said Mike LaPaglia.

Wytheville, during the summer of 1950, was a crossroads town looking forward to a post-war economic tourism boom.

“They were coming out of the war years and they were really gearing up for tourism to start back,” said Emerson, Director of the Town of Wytheville Museums. “Wytheville has always been a crossroads for people traveling. It used to be on route 11 or US 2152. So we’ve always had a lot of people traveling this way to go South or East-West. And that all slowed down during the war years. So they were building back up; that was supposed to be their summer of tourism and welcoming people back.”

It was also supposed to be a summer of fun for kids in the country and the town.

Jean Lester, a country kid, was 13 that summer.

“Oh, Saturday was a big day,” she recalled. “You had to come in on Saturday and did your shopping and probably dinner and then of course a double feature movie for all the kids, that was the big thing. The double feature. The news, got the news on Saturday. There was no television; radio was all the electronics we had. But that was the big thing, you’d park on the street and see everybody.”

But all that came to a halt around June that year, when polio cases began popping up all over the county.

“I’m the youngest of a family of five so I always heard my brothers and sisters talking about it,” said Emerson. “And you always just grew up knowing about it and heard stories about it.”

One of the town’s museums holds an exhibit dedicated entirely to the Polio Epidemic of 1950, during which Wythe County had the highest number of cases of polio per capita of anywhere in the country.

“My first reaction was how dramatically this affected the town in 1950,” said LaPaglia. “How their whole way of life changed overnight one day. When the first case comes in and then it just explodes within weeks.”

Lapaglia is the exhibit developer who first began work on this display more than 20 years ago.

The collection includes iron lungs, professional photos and videos from the March of Dimes, and testimonials from locals like Jean Lester.

“They thought it was in the creeks, so none of us was allowed to go in the creek, wading, so that was a country thing, you know playing in the creeks,” she said. “And then they sprayed DDT everywhere; they thought maybe flies were carrying it.”

Tourists were discouraged from stopping.

Businesses were empty.

The town’s handful of doctors were exhausted and the radio and newspaper were the source of information and entertainment.

“Some of the teachers read stories and there was some classes on the radio,” Lester said. “Like, say, 2 o’clock on Tuesday, we’re gonna do fourth grade math.”

In all, there were 189 cases and more than 17 deaths, many of them children, rushed to the nearest hospital in Roanoke if they were white or farther, on to Richmond, if they were black.

“Oh, yeah, I had classmates that died,” said Lester. “And that was going back to school and they were there and there was a lot that was still out because they were still being treated. We had several classmates that died and that was, that was the empty seats, it was bad.”

It was a summer of strikingly similar parallels to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“And it’s exactly the same protocol, the social distancing, the washing hands, the sanitizing and just praying for a vaccine,” said Emerson.

Eventually, Wytheville’s polio cases settled down. Tourism slowly resumed and the kids went back to school. The kids grew into parents and grandparents who remembered what it was like.

“So when they came with the COVID, people here of a certain age looked at each other and said, ‘we’ve been here before,’” recalled Emerson.

She believes that what helped Wythe County back then was its isolation. But that’s also what hurt it, when resources and treatment were initially scarce.

Today, Wytheville’s community and businesses have been hit hard by the COVID pandemic.

COVID cases haven’t been as bad as neighboring communities, but the impact to a way of life was felt just as strongly as those 70 years ago.

“Going through two quarantines is enough! Going through two quarantines,” said Lester. “And I’m so glad that it was only months, not years like this one has been. It’s going on the second year. And that really would have been devastating then, I think. More so.”

For this community, an understanding of the past is key.

“When we bring in school groups here, many times this is the first time they’ve heard of it. And this is why it’s an important part of their education,” Emerson said. “To know how that shaped the community, the impact of it and yes you can survive and you can succeed with this. "

A reminder a community can succeed and thrive and persevere by banding together, even in the darkest of days.

”It’s just an important thing for towns and counties and states to know that history is not dusty and on a shelf,” said LaPaglia. “History is something you can take it out and look at it, learn from it and probably move forward in a better way.”

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