May 31, 2008 The Register Herald
Improving Mullens passion of retired railroad man

By Mary Catherine Brooks

MULLENS — Dewey Houck is firmly committed to community service and he’s come home, at least in a manner of speaking, to improve the area.

Houck grew up in Pierpoint and is a graduate of Mullens High School, but he and his family have lived in several locations since those early years.

Though, today, he and his wife, Sheila, make their home in Roanoke, Va., Houck returns at least once a week to Mullens in an effort to manage the nonprofit agency Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL).

RAIL was organized following the devastation of the July 8, 2001 flood, which nearly destroyed the tiny city of Mullens.

“My heart has always been here,” Houck said from his office in the Mullens Opportunity Center, which is actually the former grade school building. The floodwaters topped off at the first-floor ceiling in the building.

Volunteers shoveled out the mud and muck, then cleaned and painted the facility.

The building is once again alive with activity, due in great part to Houck, along with numerous other city residents and volunteers, he emphasizes.

“We do use it as a business incubator — a space to start a business,” Houck said. “That gives them the opportunity to try it. That’s not only an opportunity, but another resource to build opportunity.”

The building also houses adult education classes, a public computer center with high-speed Internet, spaces for exercise and other health programs, and hosts a variety of community events.

RAIL also partners with groups to provide housing repairs and improvements for those in need.

RAIL also spawned the creation of the Upper Guyandotte Watershed Association, which works to improve water quality, thus improving public health and the environment.

The agency has also assisted with the Brownfields Assessment Grant process, obtaining grant funding to identify contaminated land that can be improved and used for economic development purposes, along with the Blueprint Communities and Groundwork Wyoming County programs, which brings in funding for a variety of purposes.

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Houck is quick to give others the credit for improving Mullens — the volunteers, AmeriCorps VISTA members, and local residents.

“The best product I produce comes from the efforts of others,” he emphasized.

A design team from West Virginia University created a plan for Mullens — a plan that would improve the aesthetic appeal, and the economy, among other aspects of local life.

“The plan was ready to go; all that was needed was someone to volunteer to implement that plan,” Houck said.

“We started with 12 people, including the city commission at the time,” Houck explained. “I think Butch McNeely was the one who actually came up with ‘RAIL.’ It happened in about five minutes.

“That first year (after the flood), we worked with out-of-town teams and tried to show them where they could do the most good,” Houck recalled.

“That was our first big effort,” he said.

“We had funds coming in from a lot of different places and teams of volunteers from a lot of different places.

“We borrowed a van from Bob Graham (Council on Aging) to take these workers in and out of town, around to the jobs, and housed them at the Presbyterian Church.

“We never had a sponsoring agency. We built from wherever we could find funding or resources,” he said.

RAIL is now active in 13 southern West Virginia counties and those associated with the organization work “to destroy the root causes of poverty.”

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Among the supporting agencies that Houck found to be a gold mine for Mullens and RAIL is AmeriCorps VISTA. In the last few years, about two dozen VISTA members have spent time working to improve Mullens.

“They’re young and energetic,” Houck said of the volunteers.

Several of the VISTA members from other states have married local men and made Mullens their home, he noted.

“They’re good people, and there seems to be something about these ol’ Mullens boys that appeal to the girls,” he joked. Many of them have found permanent employment in the area after their year of VISTA service has ended, making Mullens their adopted hometown.

Without AmeriCorps programs, RAIL would not be in existence, Houck emphasizes. “AmeriCorps is the lifeblood of RAIL,” he said. “We are getting some of the best and it makes my job easier to get the best if their efforts become a part of the history.”

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RAIL volunteers, alongside VISTA members and area residents, work to improve the city in six areas, including community, economic development, environment, culture and heritage, adult education, and healthy lifestyle initiatives.

“Our best product is our historic structures,” Houck said. “Some of our buildings are gone; I hated to see that.

“Our mission is to clean up the city and create a tourist attraction,” he explained.

Walking trails, complete with brochures and markers, have been mapped through the city, showcasing the historic structures. New parks and gardens have been created and existing parks improved.

Currently, an Artisans Trail, to feature area artists who work in a variety of mediums, is being created through RAIL, coordinated by a VISTA member.

An outdoor theatre is planned to promote the arts, among numerous other community improvement projects.

Houck’s role, he said, is to recruit volunteers, manage the business, do the bookkeeping, write grants to sustain the funding, among other chores.

“There’s lots and lots of work to all this,” he said. “We are a business and there are requirements.”

Houck hopes to pass off the responsibilities to someone who will work to keep RAIL a success and, as a result, improve the area.

“If my health holds (for another five years), I’ll be involved in some program that helps people who can’t help themselves,” he said.

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For 30 years, Houck worked for the railroad. He left high school and went to work in the mines.

“I figured out it wasn’t much fun not having a high school diploma,” he recalled.

So he returned to the classroom and graduated from Mullens High at the age of 20.

The best part of going back to school was meeting his wife-to-be, Sheila Snyder.

“We were married as soon as the school year was over,” he recalled.

The two went on to Concord College after their wedding and made their home in Athens for a time.

Married now for 52 years, the couple has also lived in Bluefield, Mullens, Atlanta, and now back in Roanoke.

Though there have been some weeks that Houck has made nearly half-a-dozen trips back to Mullens, his wife has supported him completely.

“She’s very supportive,” Houck said. “She loves the area like I do. We’re doing what we think needs to be done – paying back to society.”

Houck’s faith in God has always been his strength, he believes.

“Whatever I need, somehow it happens. That’s the way my life is,” he said.

His most difficult lesson, he notes, “To talk less and listen more.

“I have made many mistakes and have done things that produced bad results. However, my station in life has been set by my actions and I have much to be thankful for; therefore, I would not change anything.

“I believe in the adage that ‘what does not kill you makes you stronger.’

“I’m content with what I have done; I’m content with my life. I’m enjoying my life; I’m never bored.”

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Volunteers are a vital part of RAIL's success. We are SEEKING VOLUNTEERS! Please contact us if you want to make a difference and join our remarkable work teams.

In September 2010 RAIL volunteers began initiating a plan to invigorate Community and Economic development in the southern coalfields of West Virginia. In the past ten years RAIL has studied the needs of families in Appalachia as well as available resources and other accessible opportunities that can help their community become sustainable. Gaining a better understanding of what is needed has culminated in the Coal Heritage Trail of New Commerce Action Plan. Those implementing this plan, an organization at the grass roots, well understand their work cannot be successful without the help of volunteers and generous resources providers. Anyone interested in participating in this bold undertaking of helping families living in the Appalachian coalfields improve their economic and social conditions may contact mullensproject@aol.com for more information. RAIL gets its name from Rural Appalachian Improvement League, Inc. and can best be described as Volunteers coming together as an organization to find ways to best benefit their community

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