Congressman William C. Wampler, Sr.: The Bald Eagle of the Cumberlands

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William Wampler

A neighbor predicted the future of former Congressman of the Ninth District, William Creed Wampler, Sr., when he was just a wee lad in knickers. The year was 1931, and five-year-old “Billy” Wampler was visiting his grandparents in Big Stone Gap, VA, when he decided to cut the neighbor’s weeds with his little pen knife.

Now 82, Wampler recalls the story in detail. “Mrs. Broadwater came out on me and told me that I was going to cut myself. I looked calmly at her and announced that I had been using that knife for 30 years and hadn’t cut myself yet! Mrs. Broadwater reportedly said, ‘Oh Lord, this child is going to be a politician!’ ”

The recollection still draws hearty laughter from the man who seems to have retained the good nature and winning smile that once helped attract voters to the polls for him. It’s a cold day in January, and Wampler, wrapped in a dark wool sweater, a cane at his side, sits in his sun-washed den on Jefferson Drive in Bristol, VA. Except for pins in both hips which make walking slow and labored and the yard work he enjoyed so much nearly impossible now, age has been good to Wampler. His handsome face is distinguished by white whiskers and clear hazel eyes. And unlike many octogenarians, his mind remains youthful, able to perform back handsprings down memory lane. Hobbies now include reading history and political books and collecting coins and stamps. He also enjoys quiet time at home with his wife of 32 years, the former Lee McCall of Bristol.

Wampler began life in Pennington Gap in Lee County, Virginia, on April 21, 1926, as the youngest of three brothers born to hardware store businessman and Wise County native John Wampler and his schoolteacher wife, Lillian Wolfe, from Scott County. The family moved to Bristol in 1932. With his mother’s consent, Wampler enlisted in the Navy at 17. After high school he entered a V-12 (flight training/college) program where he served as a seaman until after the end of WWII.

Wampler’s ancestral family included its share of achievers and forward thinkers. Ministers, doctors, educators, and politicians, including his son, current Virginia Senator William Wampler, Jr., are all part of a family of Republicans that’s been traced back to the War Between the States. “My family was opposed to slavery on religious grounds, and many of them, when they saw the war clouds gathering, moved to Kentucky,” he said.

After graduating from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg in 1948, Wampler studied law at the University of Virginia, but it soon lost its appeal. “The first year, I didn’t care too much for law,” he admitted, “and by the second year, I knew I didn’t want to practice it.” Wampler admitted studying law gave him invaluable training for his future, however.

Wampler’s first foray into politics was in 1948 while working as the Republican assistant campaign manager for the Ninth District Congressional elections. For a short time afterwards, he worked as a reporter for The Tennessean and the Big Stone Gap (VA) Post. In 1951-52, he was a writer and copy editor for the Bristol Herald Courier.

The Bald Eagle of the Cumberlands Celebrates William Jr.’s State Senate Victory in 1987.
The Bald Eagle of the Cumberlands Celebrates William Jr.’s State Senate Victory in 1987.

At the tender age of 26, he jumped headlong into murky political waters when he resolved to run for the Congressional Seat of the Ninth District, which had been vacated when incumbent Thomas Fugate decided not to seek reelection. Wampler’s opponent was veteran state legislator and Democrat M.M. Long from St. Paul.

“I knew Mr. Long couldn’t devote full-time to campaigning like I could for six to eight months,” said Wampler. “I traveled over 60,000 miles in that campaign. That was back when traveling a mile was a little more difficult than it is today. We didn’t have the interstate, for example. But I waged an aggressive campaign. I went to places where they hadn’t seen a Republican candidate for Congress in years. Guess the people wanted to come out and see what one looked like!”

Wampler’s age quickly became an issue in the campaign. “Mr. Long was much older than I was, about the same age as my father, and I had had no prior legislative experience,” said Wampler.

Long, wanting to capitalize on what he thought was a liability, quickly latched onto and pointed out Wampler’s age and lack of experience to potential voters. But an unusual coincidence came to Wampler’s rescue.

“I said, ‘You know Mr. Long, there are circumstances over which neither of us has any control. The Queen of England and I share birthdays and are the same age. If she’s old enough to rule the British Empire, then maybe I can become a member of Congress.’ ”

Wampler grinned at the memory. “I told him I was going to make him a friendly proposition for the remainder of this campaign. If he wouldn’t mention my age, I wouldn’t mention his. I had him laughing on that one!”

It was during his introduction at the Ninth District Republican Convention in Bristol that the twenty-six year-old Wampler received his nickname.

“Jesse Beecher was introducing me to the delegates,” said Wampler. “During the introduction, Mr. Beecher had referred to Colonel Campbell Slemp, Civil War veteran and three-term congressman from the Ninth District. Colonel Slemp was also known as ‘The Black Eagle of the Cumberlands.’ So before introducing me, Mr. Beecher said, ‘Now we’ve nominated a new eagle, a young eagle, a BALD eagle!’ “From that point on, the sobriquet ‘The Bald Eagle of the Cumberlands’ would forever be associated with Wampler.

Elected in 1953 as a Republican to the Eighty-third Congress, Wampler had the distinction of being the youngest member of Congress for the next two years.

While Wampler served in 1954 with President Eisenhower, an incident occurred that attracted world-wide attention. Four Puerto Rican Nationalists, seemingly on a tour of the Congressional gallery, pulled out pistols and fired 30 rounds of ammunition at members of Congress. Five representatives were wounded in the attack, including Tennessee Democrat Clifford Davis, who was shot in the leg.

Whether divine intervention or just pure luck, Wampler was in the right place at the right time. Married then to Howard Baker Sr.’s daughter, Mary, Wampler had been asked by Baker to take his visiting brother, “Uncle Jamie,” to the members’ section of the gallery where he could stay and observe for awhile. “I took him up,” said Wampler, “and on my way back the shooting started. One of our colleagues (Alvin M. Bentley R- Michigan) took a direct hit in the chest and we thought he was dead.”

“Where I had been sitting, one of those bullets took a huge chunk of oak out of the table, and had I been there, it probably would’ve taken my head off! It’s a wonder no one was killed.”

Following an unsuccessful bid for re-election to the Eighty-fourth Congress, Wampler went to work for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1955. Losing again his bid for election to the Eighty-fifth Congress in 1957, he became vice-president and general manager of Wampler Brothers Furniture Company in Bristol for two years. After his father’s death, his mother closed the furniture part of the business, and from 1961 to 1966, Wampler was vice-president and general manager of Wampler Carpet Company.

He was later elected to the Ninetieth and to the seven succeeding Congresses, serving from January 1967 to January 1983. In total Wampler served with six presidents: Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and two years with Ronald Reagan.

Wampler is proud of his tenure as a public servant. “As part of the Committee on Agriculture, we had jurisdiction over several of the large international feeding programs. I voted to implement the first Food Stamp Program,” he said. Wampler also worked to get the Federal Black Lung Legislation passed, which helped disabled miners or the spouses of miners collect reparations.

Congressman Wampler greets President Dwight D. Eisenhower. This postcard was distributed to local voters in 1954.
Congressman Wampler greets President Dwight D. Eisenhower. This postcard was distributed to local voters in 1954.

“I always made myself available to talk to my constituents about such things as disabled social security, (Vietnam) service problems, public assistance, education, and environmental problems,” he said.

Wampler chuckled as he recalled a long-ago incident that caused him some embarrassment. “Once I was campaigning in Tazewell on my way back to Bristol. In Rich Valley I stopped at a big country store owned by a Mr. Clear. Now, Mr. Clear was a well-known, prominent Democrat, and he and several fellows were there loafing in the store. I went to the drink box, got out a Pepsi Cola, and offered to set everybody else in the store up with a drink,” said Wampler.

“But nobody took me up on my offer. So I drank my Pepsi and we talked a little more. Then after asking for everyone’s consideration for the November election, I got in my car and drove off.”

Wampler shook his head, unable to contain a grin. “Unfortunately, I forgot to pay for my drink. It’s reported that after I left Mr. Clear said, ‘I’m sure glad you fellers didn’t take him up on his offer!’ ”

Said Wampler, “Later I heard that Mr. Clear had told that story many times. I was intending on going back to pay him, but was told by a friend, ‘Don’t do that; it’ll ruin his story!’ ”

And if there’s anything that The Bald Eagle of the Cumberlands and former Congressman of the Fighting Ninth likes, besides public service to his country, it’s a good story.

Congressman Wampler’s Thoughts About Presidents He Served With 

Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) “Good president. And honest. He suggested we have our photograph taken on the White House steps. When it was through, he turned and said to us, ‘Well, it’s back to the salt mines.’ I never will forget that. An administrator of the first order. A strong President.”

Lyndon Baines Johnson (1963-1969) “The war in Vietnam was his undoing. It kept getting worse and worse. We should have never been there to start with. It made him fall out of favor with many people. But The Appalachian Regional Commission has helped us here in many ways. But I was pretty critical of him.”

Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974) “He made a terrible mistake and protected people around him who were in the wrong. He should have found them and said, ‘We won’t tolerate this!’ The Washington Post might have clamored for 6 months, and then it would have been over. But he committed some impeachable acts.”

Gerald Ford (1974-1977) “A regular person, friendly. Philosophically he and I were on the same wave length. He was honest.”

Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) “The weakest of the Presidents. Very disappointed on his view of the military, particularly since he was a graduate of the Naval Academy. He had a lot of strange views.”

Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) “I didn’t get to know him very well. It was amazing to me that he was able to do what he did. He had a good sense of humor. Howard Baker told me they met in the Oval Office every morning and swapped stories.”

Final thoughts: “I don’t think I would enjoy politics now, like I did then. The world is a different place; there is so much animosity. Problems with fixing the country are so serious and so complicated. It’s going to take the best efforts of both parties.”