The people of Wheeling?
Although no one seems to know for sure when or why the city of Wheeling initially was referred to as the “Friendly City,” it has been the case for as long as most can remember, and some local residents didn’t realize the difference between the community feel here as opposed to other areas until they traveled or lived elsewhere.
And, in some cases, the friendliness of Wheeling is a reason for their return. This was the case with Diana Winzenreid, a young lady who lived here as a child before being whisked away by her parents because of an employment opportunity for them.
“The quality of life here in Wheeling was something I always remembered and always felt again when I would come back to visit family, and the fact that the people who live here are as friendly as they always are is a big part of that,” she said. “When I moved home, people were automatically very welcoming, and that has allowed me to be a part of the community. That doesn’t happen in other places.
“It’s more about community here, and it seems as if everyone really cares about each other, and they watch out for each other. I’ve not experienced that anywhere else but here,” Winzenreid said. “When I have lived outside of this area, I’ve always felt somewhat anonymous, but not here.”
Two months after she accepted an account executive position at WTRF-TV, Winzenreid moved into her house along Edgwood Street in the Woodsdale neighborhood. Within in days she met her neighbors, and that is something she’s not experienced before in her lifetime.
“And I had met all of my neighbors inside of two weeks because they visited to say hi and to tell me that if I needed anything, they would help me,” Winzenreid explained. “That’s never been the case anywhere else where I lived. When I was living in New Jersey, I was working mostly from home, and I always wondered how long it would take for anyone to notice if something happened to me and that they hadn’t seen me for a while. I think I may have known only one of my neighbors there.
“I’ve wanted to move home for quite a while, so when the opportunity became available, I jumped at it because this is where I wanted to be. I wanted to get back into the middle of that quality of life, and I’m definitely happy that it’s what I did,” she said. “I missed it. I really did.”
Local resident Dawn Dean is one Wheeling citizen who was surprised when discovering people were not even close to being as friendly as the folks living in her hometown.
“I’ve never known the people in the city of Wheeling not to be friendlier than most people I have met in other places,” she said. “It wasn’t something I noticed while I was growing up here, but I think that’s because I was just used to it, but when I’ve worked in other areas or when I’ve traveled, I can tell the difference immediately.
“I can’t really say that it’s a small-town thing either because I’ve been to other cities that are close to same size of Wheeling, and that friendliness wasn’t there. Not like it is here, that’s for sure,” she said. “And I’m not really sure why it’s different here, but I’m glad it is because it’s something I really cherish about living here, and it’s one of the reasons why I have done what I can to stay here instead of moving away like so many people have.”
Frank O’Brien now is the executive director of the Wheeling Convention and Visitors Bureau, but when he first began working as a media member in Wheeling in 1985, he soon realized the municipality was referred to as the “Friendly City” by everyone from the mayor to someone waiting in line at Coleman’s Fish Market during the lunch rush.
“But I really do not recall anyone ever explaining to me how that was started or why it was started, but the city was definitely known as the ‘Friendly City’ even then. That nickname was used by pretty much everyone,” he recalled. “I also heard about the ‘Wheeling Feeling,’ but I found out that was connected to the former Jamboree U.S.A. and was part of the reason why those fans would ring the cow bells during those shows.
“But I found the people in Wheeling to be very friendly when I first started interacting, and that was the case even before then because I would come to Wheeling from my home in Washington, Pa., for shows and things like that when I was a younger man,” he continued. “And I’ve always found the people of Wheeling to be helpful, accommodating, and always trying to look on the positive side of things.”
O’Brien added that he was raised in a western Pennsylvania community with citizens very similar to the people he worked with and covered in the Wheeling area.
“I do believe that, in general, the people in this region of the country are really different than the rest of the country. We have a lot of really good, hard-working people in this tri-state area,” O’Brien said. “Growing up in Washington, Pa., we really didn’t look at the state borders as boundaries, so for me it’s always been a regional thing.
“I believe it has to do with what we identify with, and I think we all come from the same stock. My grandfather was a coal miner, and he also worked in a steel mill, so my grandparents raised my father with the same work ethic, and he raised me the same way,” he said. “That has a lot to do with it, I think, because we’re a people who have always done what we’ve had to do, and that’s allowed people to be friendlier with each other than in other areas of the United States.”
With the changes to the region’s economy and the ensuing Rust Belt era, the city of Wheeling lost thousands of residents and watched as the population dropped below 30,000 residents for the first time since the 1880s. O’Brien reported on a series of plant closures and lost jobs while working in radio and television, but he insisted those who were able to stay in Wheeling remained pleasant and, well, friendly.
“Although the kinds of jobs here now are much different than when I first started working here, I still think we continue to place our priorities in the right order,” he explained. “And that’s to be good people who treat others with respect and dignity. That’s not changed, and as a person who is working in marketing now, it’s a very good thing to have on our side. When people visit here, they are always amazed with how friendly we are here, and that keeps those visitors coming back here for several different reasons.
“Although we are not the only ‘Friendly City’ in the country or even in the state of West Virginia, it’s always been true during my lifetime, and it’s interesting to think about the reasons why,” O’Brien continued. “But in my travels I can tell you that it’s very different here, and that’s because of the people.”
David Miller is one local resident who moved away but chose to return after living and working in the Washington, D.C., area for several years, and he believes now that Wheeling’s government has introduced a non-discrimination ordinance, the city is on a path not only to be friendly but also welcoming to all. The ordinance, which was crafted to be all inclusive as far as protections against discrimination pertaining to employment, housing, and public accommodations, is set for a final vote during council’s regular meeting that begins at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 19.
“I’ve always noticed a difference between a city that is welcoming and a city that is friendly,” he explained. “I have always found Wheeling to be a friendly city but not necessarily always welcoming to certain people, and that includes those who do not have roots here. That’s changed a great deal in recent years, but it can be tough on some who aren’t from here to gain employment and things like that.
“But as long as I can remember people have always been very friendly, and that really wasn’t always the case when I lived in the Washington, D.C. area. Some areas there were pretty friendly but not all, and that’s the big difference between Wheeling and other places like the D.C. area,” he continued. “If the non-discrimination ordinance is passed by the mayor and council, it will take care of the welcoming part, in my opinion.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)