While no human will ever achieve immortality, Brandon Kirk knows their stories can. That’s why keeping stories alive is so important to him, and he does it with religious devotion.
A history professor at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College and author of “Blood in West Virginia,” Kirk’s love for history and keeping alive a past that may otherwise fade into forgetfulness began at a young age.
“I always remember liking history through school,” he said. “There was also a history teacher who had us bring in as an assignment elderly people to talk about their lives.”
Kirk said he would move to the front row on those days, writing everything down as fast as he could and then going home to type it.
“I still have those notes,” he said. “(They) go back to 1987. It was the first time I realized that elderly people are history books and that history is not just what I read in my textbook or books in the library.”
It’s the elderly Kirk is deeply attached to — probably his “favorite people in the world.”
“That depression era and World War II … they were just incredible,” he said. “The old people have always been so receptive to me to talk about their lives, their memories, their family stories. I have hundreds of cassette tapes I’ve collected of interviews.”
Because Kirk’s subjects are friends rather than just research, he strives to honor them in death as well as life.
“I write grants for cemetery restoration,” he said. “If I find (someone) that doesn’t have a headstone, I’ll try to make them one along the way.
“If they’re a veteran, specifically Civil War veterans, I write to the Governor to get them a tombstone.”
And Kirk has quite a tale about his own family history, detailed in “Blood in West Virginia.” A descendant of the Brumfields, Kirk has a direct familial relationship to the Brumfield and McCoy feud in Lincoln County, stemming from the 1889 attempted murder of Lincoln County businessman Al Brumfield and his wife Hollene. Brumfield later got revenge when the two culprits were brutally murdered.
Kirk said he was able to track down descendants of every participant in the feud and interview them, getting perspective from all of them.
“I caught the last generation that really knew something about it,” he said.
When it came to connecting with the characters, that wasn’t a problem. Some of the people Kirk related to and enjoyed the most were enemies to his people, he said.
“It wasn’t hard for me to connect with all the characters and I did — every one of them,” Kirk said. “I feel real attached to and would defend to the end even the ones my ancestors tried to kill or did kill.”
In spite of his connection, he said it can be awkward at times.
“I keep in touch with them. … I’ve made real friendships out of this and connected with people in a way that’s different from a family blood connection; it’s almost spiritual,” he said. “We have this horrible incident in common back in time that our families participated in, and when I go visit them and sit at their table and eat and we talk about things … it makes me feel good to be there but it also makes me feel bad because I know the bad things that happened.”
In the end, Kirk’s main goal is to preserve the historical past.
“It’s common … in Appalachia for the history to be handed down orally,” he said. “So when these old people die, we really lose something.
“Not just the person who is great enough, but we lose a volume of history.
“When I sat with my grandparents, they could recite their ancestors’ names and stories … way back before the Civil War. My dad’s generation … he doesn’t know any of that. There’s going to be a moment when we’re going to lose a lot of (unbelievable history) if it already hasn’t happened.”
Kirk said he doesn’t want anyone to have to start over like he did. His work is archived at brandonraykirk.wordpress.com.