The History of Taylor County Chapter Two Hundred-Twenty-Two


W. Merle Watkins

Hon. W Merle Watkins the outstanding member of the graduating class of 1898, brilliant attorney of Grafton whose career in the political history of the town gives a high, if not the highest place among citizens of this age.  After graduation he began his career as a teacher in the old Yates school a few miles on the upper reaches of the Tygart Valley river.  His first school is long since abandoned and its site covered by the impounded waters in the reak of the great Tygart Valley flood control dam.  To complete his higher education he enrolled at West Virginia university in 1898 and graduated with high honors with the degree of Bachelor of Arts in the class of 1902.  He was engaged by the Grafton Independent Board of Education as an instructor in his Alma mater, old central school.

  A firm believer in the physical up building of youth and to put this belief into effect he organized the first football team among the students of the high school, trained managed and coached this first squad.  The new sport basketball, then in its infancy, appealed to him as an ideal winter sport to fill in interim between the football and and spring baseball season, this indoor sport which he organized and manged and coached a third of  a century ago has since become the outstanding scholastic activity and has a large, perhaps a larger following than football.  Serving as coach for three seasons, he felt the urge for a career as an attorney and to satisfy that urge enrolled in the law school of the University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia from which he graduated with honor in the class of 1908.  Returning to his home town he opened an office for practice and very soon came into prominence in his chosen profession. 

  He served as mayor of Grafton in 1913-14 and had the distinction of being the last man to serve the town of Grafton as mayor under the old councilman form of government.  He was a candidate for the office of mayor under the new commission form of government that became effective in 1914but was defeated for the office.  In 1916 was elected prosecuting attorney of Taylor county and so great was his popularity he was returned to office, serving twelve years in the Taylor county as prosecutor.  He was the only attorney of record in Taylor county to procure the death sentence for the crime of murder in the trial of Jacob Lutz for the brutal slaying of Chief of Police J.E.B. Phillips in 1919.

  He served as a member and secretary of the Grafton Independent Board of Education from 1910 to 1920.  In 1928 was elected to the State Senate and soon attained a high place as a member of that part of legislature.  He was the first to introduce the measure changing the old order of the school system that existed since 1872 by advocating the elimination of the various board of education in the county districts, the election of a superintendent of public schools and one member from each district to serve as board of education by popular ballots in whose hands all matters pertaining to business of conducting the public school system would be placed, saving the taxpayers considerable money by doing away with many useless positions and some of the rural schools that were costly to operate.  He, after five years, saw the measure he introduced adopted by the legislature in 1933 and now known as the county unit become effective that year.

  In 1928 he introduced a measure in the State Senate proposing placing the state bank receivers on straight salaries instead of working on commissions that was extravagant, wasteful and costly, and if this law was put into effect would save the depositors and banks of the State a great amount of money.  This law he advocated also came into effect and now written into the statues of the state.  He was appointed commissioner of school lands for the county by the court to succeed the late J. Sidney Burdett in May 1932.  He strongly opposed calling an special session of the Legislature in a letter to Senator Clyde B. Johnson under date of April 2nd 1932 in which he said in part:

  “I am very much opposed to the calling to an extraordinary session of the legislature, because I do not believe that any good can result therefrom.  My remembrance of the experiences in the regular 1931 sessions are too clear for me to imagine that the outcome of an extra session called now or in the near future, and with practically the same membership as composed the 1931 session would result in any good to the state - with a national campaign under way at this time I am satisfied there would be more efforts made to promote political ends than to advance the welfare of the state .  It is quite interesting to observe how various candidates now seeking offices are competing with each other as to which candidates now seeking offices are competing with each other as to which is the most zealous reformer of tax laws, and the strongest advocate of the economy incidentally I have been surprised that some of those candidates who are so strongly arguing for a constitutional limit on tax levies, and want an extra session called to submit such an amendment to the people.  The legislature could limit tax levies without waiting for the voters to pass on a constitutional amendment.  But so far as I know no candidate is making such a movement a part of his program.  While you and I are not candidates for office this year many members of the legislature are.  What a wonderful forum a session of the Legislature called at any time this year would provide for political publicity.  I am personally favorable to relieving the burdens of taxation and to work out economies in state administration, but can see no hopes of anything being accomplished at this time and do not look with favor on a special session of the Legislature without any assurance that worthwhile things can be accomplished.”

  While a member of the Legislature he introduced a measure to tax trucks and buses using the State highways and have them share in the upkeep of county roads, favored a gross sale tax from the states natural resources, and was the floor leader in the State Senate in enacting the Townsend tax limitation measure to reduce the tax on farms and dwellings in the counties and towns.

  At the death of Judge Warren V. Kittle in August 1932 the members of the Taylor County Bar association voted to have him fill cut the unexpired term of the late jurist and wired his appointment to Governor Conley for the position as Judge of the 19th Judicial Circuit. Governor Conley who confirmed the appointment and Attorney Herbert W. Dent on August 30, 1932 administered the oath qualifying him for the position as state senator to take up his new duties as judge at the September term of the Barbour county court at Philippi.

  He submitted his name for the judgeship of the 19th circuit in the campaign of 1932 and was opposed by his friend and fellow attorney, Herbert W. Dent on the Democratic ticket.  Both of whom were of the very highest type of citizens and whose following was so equally divided the outcome of the election was in doubt.  Judge Watkins carried Taylor county by the narrow margin of 14 votes and his election for a time was conceded, but two belated election precincts in Barbour county elected Herbert Dent by 108 majority.  Since then Mr.Watkins has given his attention to his law business in Grafton and today he is among, if not the first citizen of his native Grafton for his services to his town, county, and his fellowmen. 

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