By Steve Novotney
He will take a photo of anything, from spinning steel wool inside abandoned tunnels to the oft-unseen interiors of the most historic buildings.
And she will paint anything from murals, flood walls, and elevator interiors to the steps in her own home.
Meet Andrew and Patricia Croft, natives of Rhode Island who met each other by chance, got married by chance, moved to Wheeling by chance, and remained Friendly City residents on purpose.
The two met at a business known as Perspectives, a multi-faceted, dynamic agency that provides support to people with disabilities. Andrew gained employment there, and Patricia sought education so she could assist in caring for a nephew born with physical challenges.
“I had no idea what I was doing; I just started working,” admitted the 37-year-old Andrew. “And they were not good at training or even educating their staff members who were working with the deaf like I was, so I was just showing up every day, and everyone was talking with their hands.
“I had no idea what they were saying, and I figured there were times when they had to be talking about me. And then when they were laughing, I thought sure they were laughing at me,” he continued. “And then after a Saturday shift I drove straight to Barnes & Noble and bought a signing dictionary, and I set myself up on this rigorous plan to educate myself.
“I would learn three words a day, five days a week, and then on Saturday I would take all the words that I learned, and I would use them in sentences so I could use them contextually. On Sundays, I would practice real conversations.”
Patricia, a 2005 graduate of the prestigious Rhode School of Design, did not walk through the company’s doors without some knowledge, but she did enroll in a signing class that Andrew began teaching once he became talented in the communication method.
“I knew a little bit of sign language because I had a nephew with hearing issues, so I took his class, and I started working at Perspectives,” said the 32-year-old. “That’s how we met, and I heard Barry White songs when I first walked into the room. He did, too, but he won’t admit it.”
The two began dating quickly, and they started discussing AmeriCorps, a community service organization that mobilizes Americans in many regions throughout the country. In Wheeling, AmeriCorps members often work with the Wheeling National Area Heritage Corp., and Jake Dougherty, the director of ReInvent Wheeling, is a former “corps member”.
“We were just dating at that point, and we wanted to travel a little bit,” Andrew explained. “At first we applied to go anywhere but West Virginia, but then the local organizer, John Lewis, got a hold of us and asked us if we wanted to come here.
“Behind closed doors, we were like, ‘Screw that.’ We didn’t know what was in West Virginia; we just knew what we always saw about West Virginia – ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ and ‘Deliverance.’ That’s the West Virginia representation that’s out there,” he said. “So we said no. We were waiting on other opportunities.
“After we didn’t hear anything about anywhere else, we decided to come here. We figured it was only one year, and if we didn’t like it, we would move back home. No matter what, it would be a fun adventure. We figured we would work our way west to Oregon.”
Andrew and Patricia, however, took a trip in 2009 before settling into their positions with Jobs for a Stronger Ohio County in Wheeling. Without planning, the couple got engaged in Philadelphia, and then – again, with no agenda in mind – they were married in Raleigh, N.C.
And then they came to West Virginia. Initially, they lived on Washington Avenue and reported to the Laughlin Chapel in East Wheeling for work. The primary focus was engaging young adults between the ages of 17 and 21, and they would instruct them in the areas of home rehabilitation, early childcare, and food preparation. Volunteering was also a part of the AmeriCorps assignments, and those opportunities allowed them to interact with many Wheeling residents.
“That was great for us because we knew nothing of Wheeling at that time,” Patricia said. “So we had to network ourselves in order to get the word out and to find out as much about the area as we could. Unfortunately, we didn’t attract that many people. Attendance was really high at first, but then people stopped coming for whatever reasons.
“But before we came here and thought of West Virginia, we thought of country bumpkins, the southern way,” she explained. “But Wheeling really didn’t fit any of the pre-defined notions in our heads. When we first moved here, everyone was very friendly. Where we are from, it’s very fast-paced, so this was definitely different from what we were used to, but that was one of the reasons why we stayed here. And then while we were learning everything there was to learn about Wheeling, we started meeting all of these incredible people.”
The AmeriCorps assignment was a one-year gig, but when the time arrived to accept another or to return to their native New England, the conversation turned in a direction neither expected.
“We just chose to stay here. It was a conscious decision. When the one-year contract was up, we felt as if we were not ready to leave,” Andrew explained. “We weren’t satisfied with one year, so we got jobs, and we stayed.”
Patricia gained employment at the former Salsa Café in Woodsdale, and Andrew accepted a sign-language interpreter position at West Virginia Northern Community College. She joined the Wheeling Arts Commission, and Andrew was on the board for Artworks Around Town.
And they bought a house in East Wheeling that is now located directly across the street from the new J.B. Chambers Recreation Park.
“We are very excited about East Wheeling, and I don’t feel like there’s any other place we would want to live,” Andrew said “This neighborhood keeps getting better and better, and there’s not another area in the city we would want to live in.”
Today, Patricia is the director of the Children’s Museum of the Ohio Valley, and Andrew works at Williams Lea. Together they formed a new company in Wheeling called Arts and Crofts (http://www.croft.gallery/); Patricia sells her paintings, and Andrew, his photographs.
“In kindergarten I did this really good color picture of a bunny that I got an A-plus-plus on, so I was really proud of that,” she said. “Then in sixth grade I drew St. George slaying the dragon, and I think that was really the first time when I thought I might be pretty good.
“From there, I started taking a more active role in my artistic abilities. In high school I was taking community college classes in art, and I just sort of blended in,” Patricia recalled. “By the time I started looking in to colleges, I knew what I wanted to do.”
Andrew did not, however. In fact, it was not until their move to Wheeling before he discovered his love, passion, and ability for photography.
“My father is into photography, so I have always taken pictures, but when we decided to move here, I went out and bought a really good camera so we could document it,” he said. “That’s when I really started learning how to use a camera, and I was taking some pretty good photos. That’s when I began getting into it.
“We have both had our work displayed at Artworks Around Town, but there was this one time when I got in, and she didn’t,” Andrew continued. “I thought it was ridiculous because Patricia had been an artist all her life; her work is incredible, and I was just getting started.”
Their collective attitude about West Virginia has certainly changed in the six years the couple has lived here, and these days each of them finds each other very active within the Wheeling community. They realize, though, that their effort to push for progress is not a new initiative in the Friendly City.
“We’ve had that conversation a few times because that’s something we have realized. People like Peter Holloway and many others have been working for a long time to make Wheeling a better place,” Andrew said. “We are very conscious about not knowing our places but realizing what we haven’t done here. We’ve realized what leg work has been done to make it what it is today.
“But when people start passing credit around for this and that, we realize that there are a lot of people who aren’t getting the credit that they deserve,” he said. “But when we discuss those topics, we are very inclusive because we’ve come to realize just how many people have been working hard to give this city a new life.”
“I’ll support almost anything because one of our biggest things is to be humble and to support everything equally. A big thing with is us is making sure that we’re sharing everything that everybody is doing and not just what small little groups are doing,” he continued. “I don’t think we are doing anything super special by any means, but I like what we do, and we want to keep doing it,” he said. “But there are a lot of people who are doing a lot of things, so we do everything we can to support it so it keeps happening.”
Patricia’s and Andrew’s parents, they said, were concerned with their West Virginia assignment from AmeriCorps for the same reasons the couple was apprehensive. Although both sets of parents enjoy traveling, a trip to West Virginia had never entered the radar.
That has changed.
“Our parents love Wheeling, and now they travel here a lot. I think if Patricia and I ever moved away from here, they would continue to visit Wheeling because they have made their own friends,” Andrew said. “If they are here and we are working, they go out and entertain themselves, especially my dad. He makes friends with everybody.
“When they come here now, they have their agenda, and they go see who they want to see. My mom really likes going to hear the New Age Adenas,” he said. “I think if they didn’t have a grandchild where they are now, they’d probably move here.”
Their adopted town, however, is not perfect, and that is why they make efforts to build upon the foundation.
“We are here, and we don’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon,” Andrew said. “We just want to be a part of anything we can be a part of. We appreciate seeing the development here, and I think Wheeling has the potential to have everything that people like us would want in a city.
“If we have a complaint about (the J.B. Chambers Recreation Park) it’s that it doesn’t seem as if it’s as open to the community as we thought it would be,” Andrew said. “The first couple of weeks after it opened, we saw a lot of people from East Wheeling out there with their kids having fun, but since the city started scheduling it, we’ve not seen much of that.
“We were out there almost every day playing on it with the neighborhood kids, but now it’s come to organized teams practicing while the neighborhood kids are hanging on the fence watching,” he said. “I feel like they need to establish some free days for the people of the community.”
Andrew and Patricia own plans for the future – a future in Wheeling that is – and they intend to continue engaging people like Susan Hogan and Danny Swann, and they hope to get more involved with preservation. The couple would like to see continued development, additional community involvement, and a continued synergy that includes members of all of Wheeling’s generations.
“If every one of all ages is engaged and they get involved, we’ll see more progress at a much quicker pace,” Patricia said. “I think we all want more – more places that stay open past 9 p.m., more ethnic-food restaurants, more of everything.”
“We have learned a lot since moving here,” Andrew said. “First, we learned that Wheeling, West Virginia, is a wonderful place, and we have learned how extremely impressive the people are here. Personally, I believe anything is possible here because of the people we have here.”
(Photography by Steve Novotney)
Did you realize Coleman’s Fish Market turned 100 years old?