If we were ever to learn anything from the story of the phoenix, it’s that we sometimes have to use the dust of what were to create what we’ll become.
On a chilly morning last September, Vanessa Govindan stared into a display of artifacts and antiques at Wheeling Jesuit University culled from the former grounds of Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy. Looming ahead of her was the ornate wooden door that had once served as the entrance to the school.
“I go up to the door, and it’s dark, and there’s no one there, and it’s like the proverbial door to my past is locked,” she joked. “I couldn’t get in.”
Govindan had walked through that very door nearly every school day from the time she was 6 years old until she graduated in 1999. As a member of one of the Mount’s last graduating classes, seeing the school torn down in 2011 was a highly emotional event, but one that would set her on a path that led her to The Wheeling Feeling, the business she now shares with her husband Bill Turner and sister Megan Govindan.
The Wheeling Feeling is a company that’s almost synonymous with its name. Visit the thewheelingfeeling.com, and you’ll find a line of T-shirts that speak to the heart of soul of the area’s most iconic images. Logos like Coleman’s, Wheeling Marsh Stogies and, naturally, Mount de Chantal’s insignia, sit alongside trendy tops of Govindan’s own design, creating a blend of nostalgic imagery.
“We’re sharing a story that other West Virginians can relate to,” she said.
And that story feels like a familiar one for any young person with a talent for the arts trying to make a living in a rust-belt town. After working in retail for several years, Govindan finished her degree in graphic design at West Liberty University in 2009. Then, like many who leave the valley when the ink is barely dry on their diplomas, Govindan’s talents took her to another state. In this case, it was southern California, to work in hospitality marketing, first at a winery and then at the exclusive Cal a Vie Health Spa.
Along the way, Govindan learned a lot about marketing and a lot about what she missed about her hometown, creating a dichotomy that craved an outlet. As luck would have it, her husband Bill was looking to start his own screen-printing business, and Govindan knew she could create a quality product that would honor both sides of her experience.
“I spent a lot of time working with these award-winning marketing teams, and they have a specific look and a goal they’re trying to achieve for their marketing. The little tricks and attention to detail like clean lines, lots of white space,” she said. “I was looking at all these other people who are selling West Virginia stuff, and I thought about what I could do better. I think I can provide a reasonable cost shirt because I’m making it myself. I also think about what I would want when I’m home shopping.”
What that turned out to look like is an artisan-style T-shirt that inspires nostalgia in the hearts of those who wear them and ignites conversation with those who remember. As Govindan puts it, it’s a T-shirt with a story behind it. On a personal level, The Wheeling Feeling has been a way to honor the legacy of Mount de Chantal and heal old wounds at the same time.
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“It was traumatizing when they tore the school down, and I think every alumna has gone through the stages of mourning with it,” Govindan said. “You come home for the first time, and the school’s not there. You go to the cemetery on your next visit to visit the nuns, and there’s this vacant lot, and it’s really depressing. Everyone else is kind of going on with their lives like nothing happened. That was really hurtful. The alumnae have a responsibility of keeping the memory and the mission of the Visitation sisters alive.”
To help herself begin to recover from those negative feelings, Govindan said she started thinking about happy childhood memories, so many of which were embedded in the marketing of Wheeling of the past. Images any valley native would know like the Coleman’s Fish Market or the Marsh Wheeling logos came to mind, and Govindan set out to secure the rights to use each image.
“I started thinking of every business that was in Wheeling and left. Like Wheeling Steel: their logo had been abandoned, so that one I could use,” she recalled.
Others, like the Marsh Wheeling emblem, took longer to track down but quickly became a hit with customers at the Monarch Market event held recently at Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack.
In launching The Wheeling Feeling, Govindan and her family are joining the growing ranks of young people who have a vested interest in where the city is going.
“There’s a whole movement of artisans who are coming back to Wheeling,” Govindan said. “It’s creating something that’s a niche in the market that I can provide for someone who doesn’t find what they’re looking for. Obviously at the moment, I have to do it all online, but we’re starting small and hopefully, it grows into something bigger.”
Going forward, Govindan and her sister hope not only to have a brick and mortar storefront, but also to find ways to give something back to the city and the state that inspires them both. Megan, a teaching associate professor of human nutrition and foods at West Virginia University, hopes to promote regional agriculture, while Vanessa is looking for ways to support West Liberty design students.
“I want to do something to help because not every art student in Wheeling wants to work at the mall. There’s a lot of trade jobs, sure, but this is about having a creative outlet, and so I’d like to help the artistic individual,” she said. “If it becomes something more and brands the city at the same time, in the long run, that would be great.”
Until then, Govindan says she’s looking forward to promoting the area in a “graphically positive way” and reminding those whose feet have wandered elsewhere that they “should have been home yesterday.”
• Cassie Bendel was born in Wheeling and raised in Bellaire. A graduate of St. Vincent College, she began her writing career as a reporter with The Times Leader and the Steubenville Herald-Star before writing content for SiriusXM Satellite Radio and a national faith-based consulting company. She currently lives in central Pennsylvania with her husband and two sons, but is planning to settle back to the Ohio Valley this summer.