This history was written in 1999, in commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the organization...
Professional Independent Insurance Agents
of West Virginia
Agents of Choice
It is difficult to imagine how different the beginning of this century was from today. In 1899, there were no automobiles, no paved highways, no wireless communications of any kind, no air conditioning and no airplanes. As a nation, America was just thirty-five years removed from the end of the Civil War, coming out of a war with Spain and more than a decade away from the horror of World War I. We were still almost a generation away from the early boom and eventual bust of the Roaring Twenties. It would be another twenty years before Babe Ruth had his contract sold by the Boston Red Sox and Yankee Stadium itself would not open for another four years after that. There was no Federal income tax nor, for that matter, was there a state income tax. At home in West Virginia, George Atkinson, a Republican from Parkersburg, was Governor and coal, manufacturing and natural gas were all Kings. We were still decades away from the formation of the State Police and a “turnpike” was not even a dream. It had been thirty years since Thomas H. B. Dawson, the Clerk of Circuit Court in Morgan County, was noted in the January 16, 1869 edition of The Mercury, as selling insurance out of his office in the courthouse. Scattered throughout our state at the turn of the century were hundreds of insurance agents and agencies. Every one of the agents would have called themselves an independent business person and some of them would prove to be exceptional in their personal commitment to their profession.
In early September of 1899, a small group of those agents saddled horses or bought train tickets for a business trip that would require at least a couple of days hard travel for some of them. The group’s destination was the large and busy city of Wheeling. Once there, they would join together with other agents of like mind and similar goal. Just three years earlier in Chicago, the National Association of Local Fire Insurance Agents had been formed and these West Virginians were determined to follow suit. Like everything else, the insurance industry was also very different in those days and agents did not enjoy many of the comforts enjoyed by today’s agents. There was no recognition of the principle of an agent’s “ownership of expirations” and the market stability brought by a regulatory system of fifty insurance commissioners was still to come as well. Some of the most familiar names in the West Virginia agent community today became known during this period. Men like W.S. Foose in Wheeling, David Patterson in Charleston, W.D. Paden of Parkersburg, C.W. Thornburg in Huntington, P.M. Long in Clarksburg, N.G. Keim in Elkins, Washington Alexander in Charles Town and others were building agencies that in many cases still bear their names today. They were the very beginning of the American Agency System in West Virginia.
According to the records of L.M. La Follette, Auditor of the State of West Virginia for the year 1899, there were one hundred seventy-two insurance companies doing business in our state and business was good. 1899 was the year in which United States Fidelity and Guaranty Company of Baltimore, Maryland was admitted to do business in the state. In his Annual Report, Auditor LaFollette assures us that his department has “endeavored to discard as rapidly as possible, any and all companies of doubtful standing and uncertain management, and are endeavoring to encourage and bring into the State, first class, good and solvent companies.” The Auditor also noted his use of a reporting form approved by the Association of Insurance Commissioners of the United States.
It was into this atmosphere that the West Virginia Association of Local Fire Insurance Agents was born in the Chamber of Commerce Building in Wheeling at 10:00am on Tuesday, September 5, 1899. Wheeling was a logical site for the meeting being the home of West Virginia’s first known insurance association, The Wheeling Board of Underwriters, in existence since at least the early 1880’s. On that day, there were twenty-two agents representing every region of the state present to consider forming the first statewide insurance trade association. When the meeting was called to order, the secretary read letters of regret from still another half dozen agents. The gathering appointed Mr. W.D. Paden of Parkersburg to be the temporary Chair and then heard from the gentleman who issued the call for the meeting, Mr. W.S. Foose of Wheeling. Mr. Foose set forth the purpose of the meeting, to “form a State Association of Local Fire Insurance Agents for their mutual protection; for the purpose of maintaining rates; preventing incorrect practices in the fire insurance business; and for such other purposes as may be deemed proper and necessary.” Following Mr. Foose’s remarks, working groups were appointed to create a structure and identify leadership for the new organization. Later that afternoon, those groups offered their reports to the gathering and W. S. Foose of Wheeling became the first President of the West Virginia Association of Local Fire Insurance Agents, our state’s first statewide insurance trade organization. Although the name of the association would change over the years, an effective trade association for independent insurance agents had become a reality.
Over the next thirty years, the association’s membership roster would grow. Even more names still familiar today became known. Records from this era contain the names of C. E. Smith, Sr. and Roy Nadenbousch in Martinsburg and Frank R. Bell, Sr. and R. P. DeVan in Charleston, both of whom later served as President of the national trade association. A.B. White, Jr. of Parkersburg was named the first IIAA agent of the year and received the first Woodworth Memorial Award in 1925. C.W. Thornburg in Huntington and E.C. “Ernie” Nuzum in Fairmont were also major influences on the association. Sadly, most agencies’ physical records from that era are long gone and only a few photographs and other mementos remain. It is difficult to identify even the association Presidents of that era.
West Virginia’s agency system continued to develop and prosper, right up until the Great Depression of the late twenties and early thirties. When the bottom dropped out of the financial markets, the West Virginia Association of Independent Insurors suffered right along with everyone else and when the build up for World War II began in the late thirties and early forties, West Virginia’s economy recovered along with the rest of the country. So did the insurance industry. In the post-World War II boom, the insurance industry flourished in West Virginia along with the rest of the country.
The Thirties and Forties also brought a heightening of competition between stock and mutual companies and their agents. Along with that competition came the creation of a second national agents trade association, the National Association of Mutual Insurance Agents, later to become the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents or PIA. In 1948, a group of West Virginia agents lead by Garrett Surface of Charleston, Raymond Humphries of Nitro and Goodman Jones of Bluefield created a state affiliate of the newer national association known as the West Virginia Association of Mutual Insurance Agents. Goodman Jones would go on to serve as President of PIA National in 1964 and would also spend more than twenty years on the PIA National Board of Directors, a record of service equaled only by William D. “Bill” Sites of Martinsburg.
Not long after the war ended, it became apparent to the membership of the association that there was a need for constant and specialized attention to be paid to the operations of the trade association. After considerable discussion, the leadership consisting of C.V. Feller of Mullens, Arch Keller of Huntington, A.B.C. Bray of Logan and Tom Neff of Wheeling hired C. T. (Tom) McHenry to serve as Executive Secretary, the association’s first full-time employee. McHenry was considered one of the pioneers in public relations in West Virginia and was well-known and greatly respected in media and political circles. McHenry’s relationship with independent agents would span more than three decades and he, along with his lively wife, Margaret, would become legend over the years. The association relationship with Tom was a good one for all parties because the association grew to nearly two hundred member agencies by the time of his retirement in 1980.
If you ask agents for their memories of the thirty years between 1950 and 1980, almost to a person they recall a far more gracious and personal insurance industry. Deals ultimately worth millions of dollars were sealed with a handshake and kept, sometimes for generations. Association annual meetings were highly fashionable affairs held at the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs. This atmosphere continued through the fifties and sixties and well into the seventies. Business was good and those years saw the appearance of many more of the agency names that are so familiar today. Emerson Carson of Charleston, C. E. Smith, Jr. of Martinsburg, Elmer Long of Wheeling, I.J. Falin of Welch, Jim Lively of Oak Hill, Earl Flowers of Clarksburg and John Arbuckle, Sr. and Goodman Jones of Bluefield were all making their mark. Bob Waters and Bill Bailey in Parkersburg and the McCoy family in Grantsville were all growing their businesses during this time and continue in the business and the association today. C.B. and Virginia Hall began their agency in the early sixties as well. As the Seventies got underway, James Pallotta of the Bond Agency in Fairmont was President of the association and agents like Frank Baer of Commercial Insurance Services and Jim Stogden of Patterson, Bell and Crane, both in Charleston, would succeed him. 1973 brought the first of Independent Insurance Agents Youth Classic junior golf tournaments, now the largest “open” youth golf tournament in the world. That first year, Hobe Bauer of Wheeling won with a two-day score of 143 and on hand to present the championship trophy was Eugene “Ace” Collins of Glenville.
Ace was known as the “Father” of the IIAJC tournament and chaired the tournament for many years with the assistance of men like Bob Waters of Parkersburg, Niles Carp of Wheeling and Doug Ball of Beckley. Well known among West Virginia’s youth golfers, today the tournament is a preferred stop on the youth golf circuit. Member agents like Tom Jarrell, Chris Pallotta, Bruce Martin, John McCoy, Carl Bippus, Vince Kluemper, Russ Rucker, Bill Bailey, Terry Bean, Blaine Phillips, Shawn Linger and Doug Nuzum carry on where Ace left off.
The association changed its name to the Independent Insurance Agents of West Virginia in 1976. Also about that time, a group began to form that would supply the association with much of its leadership in the late Eighties and Nineties. Stewart Borger and Tripp Smith of Smith-Nadenbousch Insurance in Martinsburg and Bill Satterfield of Greenbrier Insurance Agency in Lewisburg took a trip to Virginia in 1976 that resulted in the formation of our association’s Young Agents Committee.
The first of many highly successful Young Agents Conferences was held at Lakeview later that year. Over the next few years, leadership of the committee included Earl Smith of Wetzel Valley Agency in New Martinsville, Philip D. (Flip) VonBlond of Charleston, and Skip Morris of Logan. Those six agents and their families have combined to contribute more than one hundred years of service to the association since those first gatherings. Today’s Young Agents Committee is lead by Bill Herrold of Barboursville and Gayle Seidler of Wheeling. The Young Agent tradition is still going strong.
The end of the Seventies also brought the end of the career of Tom McHenry. After more than thirty years as the association’s Chief Executive Officer, Tom and wife, Margaret, retired to Morgantown and Florida. Their departure left the association’s leadership of Jim Stogden of Charleston, Larry Hite from Ona, Bob Hahn from New Martinsville and Tom Giffen of Bluefield with the task of finding new leadership. After approval by the full Board, Tom Tinder of Charleston was hired to serve as only the second Executive Vice-President in the eighty-year history of the association. Mr. Tinder served until 1984 when he joined the staff of Governor-elect Arch A. Moore Jr. Upon his departure his wife, Linda Plemmons Tinder was named the association’s next Executive Vice-President and she served until September 1987. The next year, under the leadership of President David Shirlaw, CPCU, AAI, the Board of Directors entered into a management agreement with a local public relations firm known as Willard and Arnold. Toward the middle of that month, association Gray MarionPresident–elect Guy Shelton of Beckley, Vice-President Flip VonBlond of Charleston and a member of the Board of Directors named John A. Shannon, Jr. met in a small corner office of the Old Daniel Boone Hotel. They were there to meet for the first time with the Willard & Arnold staff person assigned to the association, a fellow named Gray Marion. In early 1988, the association’s Board of Directors approved a move by the association away from Willard and Arnold and into its own headquarters. On April 1, 1988 Marion was appointed Executive Vice-President of the Independent Insurance Agents of West Virginia by the association Board of Directors at its regular meeting at Lakeview Resort and Conference Center.
Over the next four years, independent agent leadership across the state continued their drive to unite the state’s two agent trade associations, the “Big I” and PIA. In 1991, IIAWV President Stewart Borger and PIA President John Marshall, Sr. appointed exploratory committees whose work would ultimately lead to approval of a merger of the two organizations.
On January 1, 1992, J. Christopher Pallotta, AAI, President of Bond Insurance Agency in Fairmont took office as the first President of the Professional Independent Insurance Agents of West Virginia.
Today, the PIIAWV is West Virginia’s oldest, largest and most effective insurance trade organization known for being a highly regarded consumer advocacy organization and a powerful force within the insurance industry and both the state and federal legislatures.
Despite all of the change, the most important part of our profession endures. Today the entrepreneurial spirit and the sense of commitment to community and state embodied by the independent insurance agents from so long ago still endures. Throughout the ensuing century, independent insurance agents have been woven tightly into the fabric of West Virginia. In communities large and small from Welch to Wheeling and Martinsburg to Kenova, our member agents are Little League coaches, city council members, church members, mayors, festival presidents and PTA members. You can find us in any activity that you can name that that brings families together. That sense of community is the source of our pride and our Rucker Familystrength. It’s what sets us apart from all of the others. More than one half of today’s association membership consists of agencies with more than one generation in Feller Familythe business. A surprising number of our current members like the Keller, Rucker, Smith, Feller and Padden families in Huntington, Martinsburg, Mullens and Parkersburg can point to three, four and five generations of family ownership of their agencies. There are literally dozens more families like them.
One of the most obvious areas of change in the agency system is the advent of women in the workplace. Now so commonplace, at the dawn of this century, women held very few jobs in insurance agencies or anywhere else outside the home until well after the turn of the century. It remained extremely rare for a woman to actually own a part of a company when Mary K. McCormick joined Patterson, Bell and Crane Company in 1937. Nearly thirty-five years later she became one of the first female agency owners when she became a part of the ownership team of Patterson, Bell & Crane Company in 1971.
Thirty years later here at the beginning of our second century, nearly twenty percent of the association’s member agencies are owned or managed by women. Carol Hartman in Pendleton County, Vicki Rhodes, Elizabeth Bailey West and Linda Connolly in Parkersburg, Dorothy Redden of Bradley, Joanne Brooks in Pentress, Pam McMullen and Deborah Johnson in Huntington, Ellen Potter in Point Pleasant, Deborah Hannah in Logan, Patty Smith in Beckley, Pam Bowers and Cheryl Heflin in Morgantown, Raye King and Mary Kerns in Charleston and Gayle Seidler in Wheeling and many, many others all play prominent and critical roles in their agencies. Every path in the association was proven to be open in 1998 when Priscilla Boyles, AAI, CPIW a third generation independent agent from St. Marys served as the first female President of PIIAWV.
West Virginia’s independent insurance agents obviously have a proud record of service to their business organizations at home. We have also been represented very ably far beyond our borders as well. Three mountaineers have served as President of the Independent Insurance Agents of America beginning with Frank R. Bell, Sr. from Charleston in 1923, followed by R. P. DeVan in 1928 and most recently by Lawrence E. Hite from Ona in 1988.Frank R. Bell, Sr.R.P. DeVanLawrence E. Hite Another West Virginian, Goodman Jones of Bluefield, served as President of PIA National in 1964 and 1965. West Virginia’s independent agents have left their mark on every aspect of the insurance industry, through their endless hours of service on literally thousands of national committees. In 1925, an independent agent from Parkersburg, Mr. A. B. White, received the very first Woodworth Memorial Award, the national Agent of the Year Award of the Independent Insurance Agents of America. Most recently, on January 1, 1992, our state’s independent agents became the second state in the nation to combine their IIAA and PIA agent trade associations. Today, more than a dozen other states have followed West Virginia’s lead and merged their own state agent’s associations. PIIAWV is widely regarded as a strong and committed advocate for more effective national representation of independent insurance agents and their clients.
In addition to service in civic and business organizations, West Virginia’s independent agent population has a exceptional history of public service through elective office. Over the years there have been thousands of agents to serve in local capacities and hundreds more in the State House of Delegates and State Senate. The tradition continues. Even as the next election cycle approaches, there are agents preparing their candidacies.Three agents have been honored by a call to serve as Governor of West Virginia. Those were Governors A. B. White, Sr. of Parkersburg from 1901 to 1905, Hulett C. Smith of Beckley from 1965 to 1969 and most recently Gaston Caperton of Charleston from 1989 to 1996.
If you ask any agent member of the association, particularly our senior agent members, they unanimously agree that the greatest changes of the past twenty-five years have been the transition to a technology-based operation and the speed with which it has occurred and continues to progress. Computerized operations have evolved from a novelty to a necessity. Even as we are in the midst of enormous operational and cultural change, we have come to view such dramatic change as commonplace and take it for granted. When we stop to think about the degree of change that engulfs and propels us, it is just short of unbelievable. It is all the more unbelievable because it was less than three years ago that the last of our members acquired a fax machine. You can, and should, talk with some of our members about the days of multiple carbon copies completed by hand or manual typewriter. My, how times have changed. Today, virtually every agency is highly automated. Many of our members, like Jim Lively Insurance in Oak Hill,The Lively Family very effectively track the operations of several offices from a central site and have for several years. More than one-half of our members now have e-mail and one third have a web site. Just yesterday practically no one did. The end is nowhere in sight as more agencies come on line every day. Some estimates say that two years from now, agencies that aren’t totally wired in aren’t going to be in business.
Entering the 21st Century, we live in a world in which all markets are being thoroughly and continually redefined. Because of E-commerce, the global market is truly open to us in every business sector. Agencies are beginning to look at different work schedules and different work places. Does it make sense to travel to a central location to work when it can be done from home? With traffic and environmental pollution combined with the drive to lower expenses, we are entering an age where the traditional office structure is also rapidly becoming a thing of the past. In an electronic marketplace with an endless supply of ideas and information, much of our work can be done anywhere and at any time during waking hours. Cell phones, PDA’s, in-car fax machines, voice and e-mail mail and satellite tele-conferencing are all now widely used. How long will it be before some independent agent is heard to say, “Beam me up!”?
Just as those agents who created the American Agency System here in West Virginia a century ago faced and met their challenges, over the next century we will face and meet our own. To help sustain us through our next hundred years, we have a strong foundation built by the commitment of thousands of independent insurance agents over the past century. Thanks to those thousands of people, we have a strong trade association to be proud of and to rely on.
Here’s to another 100 Years!