There’s something here in Wheeling that isn’t there, a draw of sorts that lures hundreds of homecomings each December and only a small part of the rationale apparently pertains to squared pizza slices or fish sandwiches.
The other reasons why so many flow home for Christmas seem to rest with a comfortable coziness they lack where they live today.
They miss here.
David McCormick graduated in 1972 from Wheeling Central; Beth Gasiorowski left Wheeling 32 years ago soon after her commencement at Mount de Chantal Academy; and Jim Abraham is a Wheeling Park grad, who earned his criminal justice degree from West Liberty in 1997 before moving away to North Carolina. All three possess memories of those Park dances, cruising the National Road drag, the Hardee’s and Rax parking lots, the Whistle Stop in Clator, and the Tin Pan Alley in downtown, mug night at Harvey 1818 and live entertainment at Jaybo’s or Homecoming din-din at Figaretti’s when it was in the Grove.
It’s their Wheeling no matter how many years have passed since those final farewells, and all three of these natives have learned that their hometown offered them the uncommon in many fashions, whether it was the Minute Market on Carmel Road, the city park with the water slide and the skating rink, that robust downtown district chock full of seasonal pageantry at this time of year, or something other than the obvious to anyone who was raised inside these 15 square miles.
“When I tell stories about my childhood there in Wheeling,” Gasiorowski said, “most of the people just look at me and ask, ‘Really?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, that’s Wheeling.’ They have a hard time believing that we had what we had and what the children still have there today because they didn’t have parks like that, or traditions like that. Trust me, not one of my friends ever had a Talking Christmas Tree that knew their names.”
So they come back here, and their one-year snapshots have afforded them glances of loss and gain and also consistent confirmation that the peculiar, comfortable feeling remains intact for them to submerge into during their annual trek to home.
A Moose, Boxed Squares, That Centre Market Smell
For all three of these expatriates, family continues to anchor them to the same city where they received their First Holy Communions, competed in high school sports, and skated in circles on Friday nights during those winter months. Their very first dates took place at the Pizza Inn or Burger Chef, or at the Court Theatre before strolling into the Elby’s across the street for a Hot Fudge Cake.
But when they return, these natives opt for a few tasty treats served at establishments that have stayed still while enduring the roller coaster, Rust Belt ride Wheeling has witnessed.
“When I come home, there are two things that I absolutely must do, and the first one is to go to the Alpha to see who I can see and just to get inside that unique environment. I’ve been to a lot of different places, but there’s no place like the Alpha anywhere. And the second thing is, of course, to eat a lot of DiCarlo’s,” explained Gasiorowski, now a resident of Hilton Head, S.C., after living in the Baltimore area for more than 20 years. “You know, there’s just something about Wheeling’s energy that draws people back, and I can’t explain it very well. There’s just something about that town.”
Abraham is a 19-year veteran of the Huntersville Police Department that’s located in a suburb of Charlotte, N.C., and he and his family depart their home in Concord the moment his children finish their final class at school.
“Out of all of the years here as a cop, we’ve been able to go home for Christmas every year but two, and I can tell you that I was absolutely miserable at Christmas time both of those years. I know we live here, but it just didn’t feel right to be here at that time of year,” he admitted. “We usually bounce back and forth between my mom and dad’s and her parents’ house in Elm Grove, and we always go to Oglebay to see the Festival of Lights. The kids really enjoy that, and one reason is because there’s always something new.
“We also try to take them skating at Wheeling Park because that’s something we did a lot growing up in Wheeling, and if there is any snow while we’re home, we may go let the kids try skiing,” he continued. “And the first place we hit is DiCarlo’s and the second place is Coleman’s. That’s pretty much what we live on when we come home because my wife and I miss those things so much.”
It was at Wheeling Park High where Abraham met his wife, Karen, and soon after she earned her teaching degree, she was offered an elementary school position near North Carolina’s largest metropolitan area. Once he learned there wasn’t room for him at the Wheeling Police Department, the couple moved south.
“And when we had children we were pretty determined to show them what we did while we were growing up in Wheeling,” Abraham explained. “And now they have their favorite things to do, and they always say they wish we had parks like Oglebay and Wheeling Park. They really believe we’re lucky to be from Wheeling, and we believe that, too. It really means a lot to me that I get to do those things I did as a kid with my kids.
McCormick made attempts to stay home in Wheeling, first accepting a sales position at the L.S. Good Co. after earning his business administration degree from West Liberty in 1976. A couple of years later he walked across Market Street for a job at J.C. Penney to accept a 25 percent pay increase. In 1978, he was selling blue jeans to coal miners for $8,000 per year.
But like so many who were raised here, McCormick gained an opportunity elsewhere, and off to the Columbus area he went to sell Wheaties and other products for General Mills. In two weeks, though, McCormick, his wife, Beth, and their three grown children once again will descend on Oglebay to move into their annual Christmas cabin.
“And inevitably someone in the family will bring up a bunch of boxes of DiCarlo’s pizza. That’s just a given. It’s just a matter of how many times week we have DiCarlo’s, but you never hear anyone complaining,” he said with a laugh. “We always have it that first night while we’re setting up the tree and decorating the cabin and then at least two or more times during the week we will be there.
“And then on Christmas Eve, we usually have a tendency to head to the Alpha so we can see our friends that we haven’t seen for a long time,” he continued. “That’s Wheeling for us now, and we’re lucky to have it because if there’s one thing we’ve learned since moving away, it is that there is no other place in the world like it.”
It is not an every-once-in-a-while trip for these three; it’s more of a must-have pilgrimage to a home they hated to leave but did so because the American Dream wasn’t as readily available here as it was for their parents.
But home is still the home for which they yearn.
“It’s very relaxing there with a lot to do, and the whole time we are surrounded by great people. I like that small-town feeling I get here in Wheeling, and that’s because, living right outside of Charlotte, I don’t like all of that big-city stuff. It’s really not the kind of person I am because I’m still a Wheeling guy, and it sure seems like things are changing for the better now with the city of Wheeling,” Abraham said. “Sure, it was sad when it was all about decline, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t come back, and I see that happening now back home.
“One of things that we do every year we come home for Christmas is buy a gift card for somewhere, and on Christmas Day we find a police officer working that day to give him or her that gift card,” he explained. “Because of the two years I had to work on Christmas, I know how it feels to be on the job that day. It’s miserable when you have a wife and children. It’s really something my kids look forward to.”
Plenty of family members remain here for McCormick to visit while home for Christmas, and his brother Tim is a retired teacher and current Ohio County commissioner and brother Terry is the executive director of the St. John’s Home for Children.
“I am 62 years old, and I do not have a memory of not being in Wheeling for Christmas,” he said. “And that’s because it’s our home. We live here [in NC], but most of my family is still there, and that’s what Christmas is all about. Christmas is family.
“Our family does this twice per year; once for Christmas back there in Wheeling, and we also go to Ocean City, Md., every summer, and this past year it was our 41st year doing those things,” McCormick continued. “When we started out, we only had to rent a small cabin at Oglebay, but that’s changed since because we’ve all had kids, and now our kids have all had kids.”
Gasiorowski’s mother still lives in the same large home in Woodsdale where she and her brother, John, were raised, and although she now prefers the warmth of the southern sun and the sands of the Hilton Head beaches, Gasiorowski loads up her pup, and the pair cruise north each and every December.
“To be honest, I still miss home, and that’s why I’ve never not been home for Christmas. I just have to keep going back. I enjoy it because I do see a lot of people I went to school with and who lived in Wheeling when I did, but it’s also amazing to me that I really don’t know anyone else living there now except for a couple of people,” Gasiorowski explained. “For example, now when I go to the Alpha with my mother, it used to be that I knew everyone who was there and she didn’t know anyone. But it’s the exact opposite now. It’s been that long now.
“We moved to Wheeling when I was 3 years old and then I left when I was 18, and I never moved back, but there’s always been that draw. There’s just something about it that you really can’t get anywhere else. I will always consider it home although I lived in Baltimore longer than I lived in Wheeling,” she said. “Oglebay Park is the number one thing people don’t seem to understand when I’m telling childhood stories. Sometimes people just stare at me because in most places a city park is only a patch of grass and they’ve never heard of a city with the things I grew up with during those years, and it’s always great to see that a lot of it is still there for the children being raised there now.
“No one I have ever met grew up with a park that had a giant cage with peacocks in it. That just doesn’t happen anywhere else, but it’s something I grew up with,” Gasiorowski added. “Usually you only see something like that in a formal zoo, but not in Wheeling when I was being raised. For us, it was right over there next to the lake, and there were all of the picnic areas, and the swimming, the hiking, the ice skating, the skiing, and the White Palace now looks completely different than it did when I was growing up and going to Park Dances there for all of those years.”
Seeing Is Believing
Today’s Wheeling is home to fewer than 30,000 residents for the first time since the late 1800s, but this Christmas these expatriates will see something far different from what they have during previous trips home.
“Usually when I am home, I set aside an afternoon so I can drive around those hills and to see what has changed and what hasn’t changed,” Gasiorowski said. “It’s like my own little tour, and the changes the last few years have been amazing to me, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing them. The Centre Market area is really awesome now because they have done so much in that area of the city.
“I also like to see all of the activity taking place because I’ve always thought of Wheeling as an old town,” she said, “but I’ve seen that change the last few times I’ve been home.”
The construction taking place of the new Health Plan headquarters within the downtown district’s 1100 block is a sight Abraham looks forward to seeing with his own eyes instead of imagining it based on the descriptions often offered by his father.
“Because we’ve come so often during the last 19 years, we’ve been able to see what’s happened there each time, and to be honest, it hasn’t been really all that great a lot of the time,” he admitted. “Usually we’ve seen things go away, and nothing replace them, but that’s been changing, and I’m pretty excited to drive through downtown and see what all the talk is about.
“Our parents tell us things, and it’s been much more positive the last few years, and it’s always been good to hear,” Abraham said. “Moving home is something that I’ve always thought about, and that’s why it’s always a great week when we come home. But will we move back? If it’s ever really possible, it’s something I would try to talk my wife into.”
Because of his brother’s elected position on the Ohio County Commission, McCormick has been offered something of a scoop concerning the development of The Highlands along Interstate 70 near Dallas Pike, and he can still recall the day in 2003, when Tim informed him that Cabela’s Outfitters was secured as the very first tenant. Ever since, he has kept a close watch on his hometown with hope.
“And now I am very curious to see what’s going to happen in Wheeling. Is there going to be revitalization? That’s the question that I have,” McCormick admitted. “I left Wheeling in 1979 because the opportunities didn’t seem to be there even then, and you could tell that people were leaving because there was a big difference in the retail business in downtown Wheeling.
“That’s why I am very curious to see what today’s Wheeling can manage to bring back. The worst part is that when I drive through downtown Wheeling, I remember what it once was, and that’s probably unfair for people like me to do because it’s a lot of years later now,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to show my children what it was back then when I worked in the downtown, and I really haven’t been able to. But, from what I understand, there may be a new downtown developing right now.”
(Historical photos archived by James Thornton)