Raleigh County native and musical legend Bill Withers has been honored with the placement of a historical marker across the street from his former high school.
The marker was erected along South Fayette Street in Beckley, directly across the street from Stratton Elementary School, on February 10. Upon its placement, it became the first official state historical highway marker dedicated to Withers in West Virginia.
According to Merle Cole, marker program officer with the Raleigh County Historical Society, Withers graduated from Stratton High School before it became an elementary school.
Withers was born in Slab Fork, a small mining community in Raleigh County, but was raised in Beckley, Cole explained.
According to information provided on the official Bill Withers website, after serving in the Navy for nine years, Withers moved to California and began his music career in Los Angeles in 1967.
He won many awards for his brand of classic soul songs including “Lean on Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lovely Day,” and “Just the Two of Us.” Withers was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. He passed away in Los Angeles on March 30, 2020, according to a family statement made to the Associated Press. He was 81.
It wasn’t until his passing that the historical society could apply for a highway marker, Cole said.
Although community leaders and historical society members initially wanted the marker placed along the Coalfields Expressway, which travels through Slab Fork, that route just wasn’t an ideal spot for people to stop or slow down enough to read the sign, Cole explained. However, the site in front of his old high school was perfect.
Tom Sopher, president of the Raleigh County Historical Society said that the city of Beckley owns the parking lot adjacent to the historical marker, so people can park and take their time to read the marker.
“We thought it was a place that would be more visible and more people would be educated by the sign being there,” Sopher said.
“I am very happy that we were successful in getting that sign because there are a lot of Bill Withers fans in Raleigh County,” Cole added. “In fact, there are a lot of Bill Withers fans around the country.”
Sopher said that funding for the sign began after local couple Annie Moore and her husband Dennie Morgan decided to start a GoFundMe account to raise the $2,500 needed for the marker.
They provided all the money, Sopher explained. The Raleigh County Historical Society only had to fill out the appropriate paperwork thanks to the donations from community members.
Sewah Studios in Marietta, Ohio, made the historical marker and the Department of Highways Division #10 based in Princeton, WV, installed it, Cole noted.
“I’m glad we were able to commemorate a man who was obviously a first rate musician and of all the places to come from — Slab Fork, West Virginia,” Cole said.