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Walking the walk with John Griffith

By Staff | May 8, 2009

John Griffith at Morgan's Grove Park Photo by Michael Theis/Chronicle

Kingwood, West Virginia is a tiny town in Preston County. Founded in 1815, it’s a mining town in the northeast corner of the pan. Kingwood is two point five square miles from tip to tip with a population of less than 3000. It’s not a wealthy town, not by a long shot. It never has been. In the Great Depression, Preston County was so hard hit that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt personally lobbied for funds to keep schools open and roofs over the heads of the unemployed coal minors.

John Griffith was born and raised in Kingwood. His father, Oscar Ray, was a coal minor. His mother, Mary Gertrude, “Trudy” was a housewife. John was their third child. He had two older sisters, Rosemary and Helen, and a little brother, Richard.

Richard was a full ten years younger than his big brother. John’s recollections are

up-beat about growing up in Kingwood. He doesn’t dwell on the hard times. “Everyone called my dad “Friday.” He said with a big smile. “Dad worked in the mines and also delivered the newspaper on Friday. When people saw him coming they’d say “Hey, it’s Friday!” and the name stuck.” John had loving parents who imbued him with a strong work ethic. Then in 1954 the family was shaken to its core when there was an explosion in the mines and suddenly Oscar Ray was gone. “Friday” was 44. His oldest son was eleven. And his youngest was nine months old.

In 1959 Trudy Griffith made the decision to let John go to St. Charles College in Catonsville, Maryland. Through high school and two years of college he studied at St. Charles and upon graduation John had four years of Greek, four years of French and six years of Latin under his belt, and an Associates Degree. This course of study set him up for later life and Russian studies in the Air Force Security Service.

“I went home every summer to work for 40 cents an hour. We needed the money.” When he was old enough, John, like his father before him, went to work in the coal mines. One can only imagine what his mother went through but times were tough and the mining jobs paid a lot more than the forty cents an hour. “There were close calls in the mines and I was almost killed in one of them.”

Trudy Griffith is one of those women you read about. She raised her four children alone and kept her family together with love, care and very hard work. Today, Rosemary Mandzella lives in Adelphi, Maryland, Helen Clingerman lives in Reidsville, West Virginia, “the baby,” Richard lives in Morgantown. Trudy did marry again but not until her kids were grown. She and her new husband, Percy Garlitz, settled down in Masontown. Percy died about ten years ago. Today Trudy is ninety two.

Following graduation from St. Charles, John entered St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore. He graduated in 1966 with a bachelors in Philosophy.

His friend, Chuck Ridgell, whose father worked in the US House of Representatives, wangled John a job interview. “The only job available was answering phones at night so that’s what I did. When a better opening came up Mr. Ridgell wouldn’t let me go because as he said “I like you where you are. ” Now, working on Capitol Hill gives you an education never forgotten. One night John answered a call from a desperate congressman whose car wouldn’t start and who was late for an appointment. So John went to the garage to see what he could do. He wound up hot-wiring the car and the grateful congressman was able to keep his date. When John arrived at work the next day he was called into his boss’ office. “I thought I was going to get a pat on the back for helping the guy out butnope. The congressman wanted me fired. He said that no one who knew how to hot-wire a car should be working in the House.” No, John wasn’t fired. Actually his boss was disgusted with the directive but wanted the young man to know the score. Lesson learned. John has other equally interesting recollections of his years working in all three House Office Buildings but is too much of a gentleman to name names.

In 1968 John entered the Air Force and went to San Antonio with hopes of becoming a pilot. “My eyesight was 20/40 and that kept me out.” His proficiency in foreign languages sent him straight to Syracuse University and Russian studies for a year and he was then reassigned back to Texas. There was a need for five Russian linguists overseas and John was a prime candidate with a choice of countries. He chose Japan.

It was at that time the lovely Terri White, from Talladega, Alabama was stationed in Japan as an Air Force Security service supply clerk. John and Terry met, dated for eight months, fell in love and when Terri was reassigned to England, John proposed by mail. Terri said “yes. ” John was transferred to Fort Meade and the National Security Agency as a polygraph specialist and on a thirty day leave, Terri and John were married. They bought a home in Beltsville, Maryland and she returned to active duty in England. It was Air Force policy in those days that when you’re married either “he’s out or she’s out.” Terri left the service and came home.

In 1972, John was discharged and the Griffiths moved to Morgantown, West Virginia, where John entered the masters program at West Virginia University and took a job with the United States Postal Service. After graduating with an MA in counseling he was promoted to Postal Inspector and relocated to USPS headquarters in Washington, DC.

Postal Inspectors are the unsung heroes of US Federal Law Enforcement Officers. In fact they have been protecting the American public from fraudulent schemes for more than 250 years. It’s the oldest law enforcement agency in the USA and works hand in hand with the FBI, the CIA, DEA, and the Secret Service. Mail fraud is a federal crime and John was involved in solving everything from Ponzi schemes and drug running, to registered theft, and mail bombs.

The Griffiths lived in Beltsville for six years and doubled the size of their family with the arrival of Sean Thomas and Erica Dawn. Transfers then took the family to Virginia Beach for six years and Marlton, New Jersey for six years. While John was specializing in polygraphs and internal crimes and picking up further graduate credits in Advanced Polygraph Studies at the University of Virginia, Terry was teaching high school history.

Upon retirement John was National Polygraph Manager. Throughout his long career with the Postal Service he had traveled more than 60 % of the time and worked in 48 states, Guam, Puerto Rico, St. Croix and St. Thomas. He taught, tested, researched, lectured, examined and wrote about polygraph technology and crime. He personally conducted 1,152 criminal polygraph examinations and was a coveted public speaker at major law enforcement conferences and seminars all over the country. He has a list of awards for outstanding service as long as your arm.

Actually he hasn’t retired. John is still an instructor at the Maryland institute of Criminal Justice in Millersville and remains licensed as a Polygraph Examiner in Virginia and West Virginia.

In 1990, John was back at the L’Enfant Plaza postal headquarters and the Griffiths were house hunting. “We were looking for Harpers Ferry and just happened upon Shepherdstown.” Terri recalled. “We fell in love the town and a house overlooking Morgan Grove Park but it was under contract.” That contract fell through and the Griffiths jumped on the opportunity to buy their dream home. They moved in, named the place Brewster’s Bluff and have happily lived there for almost twenty years.

Terry went back to college, earned a masters in counseling at WVU, the SU extension and accepted a job as manager at the IRS. John joined the Shepherdstown Men’s Club, Historic Shepherdstown, 40 and 8 Club and served as a part-time counselor at Shepherd University.

In 2000, Maura Bracket, then president of the Men’s Club, had the idea of creating a walking path at Morgan Grove Park. She applied for a matching grant of $1,600 and ask John if he would oversee the project. John said he would and the club came up with the matching funds. John, Maura, Dave Wright, Bill Hoke and Tim Barr met for the initial planning of the project. Once the ball got rolling members of the club, Dave Wright, Marty Broadhurst and Peter Morgens, to name some stalwarts, stepped up to help. SU students and Jefferson County school students even lent a hand. John stressed his gratitude to Cress Creek for the loan of a sod-cutting machine and to Jefferson paving for hauling “all that grit” from the quarry free of charge. The sod-cutter was critical because of an issue with possible Civil War artifacts, “We learned that if we went deeper than grass sod level we would have to have an archeologist on site to screen any dirt that was removed.” John was in the park everyday, except when he was on assignment in Russia, and the 2/3 mile long path project came in on time. In 2004 the Kiwanis Club put down another layer of grit and for those of you who travel the path on a regular basis you know how comfortable it is to walk yourself healthy.

Sean, who was just entering high school when the family moved to Shepherdstown, has graduated from Shepherd U, served in the Navy for 4 years, and after a stint teaching snowboarding at Breckenridge, joined Allegheny Power in Morgantown working in industrial safety. Erica, was then in junior high and went on to graduate from Valley Technical College and now specializes in accounting for Data Marketing Processing.

Today Terri and John are finalizing plans for Sean’s marriage to Erica Hart this summer. The festivities will be held at beautiful Brewster’s Bluff overlooking Morgan Grove Park. It’s going to be “one great big family gathering” and with a family like the Griffiths, you just know it’s going to be perfect.

– Sue Kennedy is a former public relations executive and an Emmy Award-winning screenplay writer.