Wee Asked Sean Duffy

WEEasked some simple questions — and your neighbors, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, even some strangers, answered. Get to know them a little bit better with our fun series, “WEEasked.” Look for it a couple of times a month, most likely on Mondays. Do you have someone you’d like to see featured? Send us an email to weelunk@weelunk.com, and please be sure to put WEEasked in the subject line.

So here’s something I didn’t know about Sean Duffy. … He’s funny. I mean really funny! All of you out there who know him well probably already knew that. I’m just sorry I’m late to the party.

I always just thought he was really, really smart. Which he is.

He’s also “humble,” “shy” and “generous,” offered fellow history writer Dr. Christina Fisanick.

But, I’m happy to know that this brilliant, library man is hilarious, too. (I asked him to talk about his hobbies, but he said they’re, well, “embarrassing.” I guess we’ll just leave it at that.)

On a serious note, Sean is the adult programming director at the Ohio County Public Library AND executive director of the Wheeling Academy of Law and Science (WALS) Foundation. Programming certainly is his forte. Just check out what happens regularly at the library and at WALS.

His work has not gone unnoticed.

“I know of few individuals who have done more over the past two decades to promote the history and culture of the upper Ohio Valley than Sean Duffy,” said Marc Harshman, poet laureate of West Virginia. “His tireless devotion to nurture and sustain the WALS Foundation and multiple programs at the Ohio County Public Library including Lunch with Books, the People’s University and the Wheeling Poetry Series are nothing short of heroic and without parallel anywhere in the state of West Virginia. His tireless efforts on the behalf of others here in the Upper Ohio Valley are a remarkable gift to us all.”

Founder of WALS, attorney Patrick Cassidy, agrees. “Sean Duffy brings his whole heart and soul to his work with the Ohio County Library, and as such has become one of the great educators in our state.” Getting speakers, authors and other educators “all together for educational opportunities for the whole  Wheeling community has no parallel; and he does it quietly, with great competence and humility, never seeking attention for himself,” Cassidy said.

“Always humble,” Fisanick said, “Sean would never admit that he’s one of the foremost authorities on Wheeling history. His expertise is vast and supported by the work he does with the Ohio County Public Library Archives and Special Collections and Archiving Wheeling.”

Sean on C-Span.

“He’s an excellent writer and, although shy, his presentations are always filled with carefully researched details and images of historical artifacts. More than anything, Sean is generous with his time and gives so much to our community,” she added.

Duffy has written books and articles about Wheeling’s history, particularly focusing on immigration, and is editor of the Upper Ohio Valley Historical Review. He’s also a member of the Wheeling Arts and Cultural Commission and vice president of the West Virginia Independence Hall Foundation. Cassidy shared that Sean is also a “proud member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.”

Cassidy believes that “Sean is definitely one of Wheeling’s treasures.”

It’s Christmas at Lunch With Books at the Ohio County Public Library.

Sean also has a law degree from American University. (See, I told you he was smart.)

He and his wife, Patricia O’Leary Duffy, live in the Edgwood section of Wheeling with their dog, Mr. Rooney, and cat, Grania, the Pirate Queen.

Sean and Patricia at the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, Ireland, left, and Sean and  Mr. Rooney after the Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon.

Oh, and P.S. … Sean … I’ll teach you to drive a stick shift. And both my kids — Millenials — learned to drive on a manual transmission VW Jetta.

P.P.S. … I apologize to every future “WEEasked” subject. It’s going to be tough to beat Sean’s answers.

Here’s what Sean (hilariously!) answered (I’m still laughing) when WEEasked:

What is your favorite place in the Ohio County Public Library, and why?

My favorite place in the library is the archives and special collections room, followed closely by the Wheeling Room, where the local history collection is kept. Unfortunately, I don’t get to spend a great deal of time in either room these days. If I could, I would spend all or most of my time researching and writing about Wheeling and Upper Ohio Valley history.

As I’ve said many times, our history is fascinating. Local events during the founding, Civil War and industrial periods were of consequence nationally, from the sieges of Fort Henry, to the construction of the National Road, to the conventions that resulted in West Virginia statehood, to the many waves of immigration to the manufacture of products in local factories for use in both world wars. Steel, tile, glass and other made-in-Wheeling products can still be found all over the world. For me, there’s nothing quite as exciting as holding and viewing original artifacts, including documents, photographs and other media from those periods — nails made at LaBelle, jars made at Hazel Atlas or tubs made at Wheeling Corrugating. Holding an artifact created a century or more ago is the closest we can get to time travel. In our archival collections, you will find deeds signed by Ebenezer Zane, the founder of Wheeling; orders signed by Francis Pierpont, the Father of West Virginia; recordings made by Chu Berry, a jazz legend who died far too young, and Eleanor Steber, a world-class opera singer; photographs taken by George Kossuth, a photographer to the stars and his protege Eddie Martin; and tons of some of the earliest and rarest photographs of Wheeling sites, structures and people.

Sean and his Irish Road Bowling team.

You will also find artifacts that tell the myriad stories of Wheeling’s tough as nails working class, the people of mixed national origins, creeds, and colors, who built Wheeling from the ground up and made it an industrial powerhouse.

For me, photographs are by far the most revealing and interesting artifacts. If it were socially acceptable, I would wear a suit made of old photographs. Upon further reflection, such a suit would probably be very uncomfortable, especially in summer. So, let’s abandon the old photograph suit idea and just look at the old photographs all day long. I love photographs because they seldom lie. Well, not unless they are staged.

Is it real or is it staged?

Generally, that doesn’t happen much in the time before Photoshop, and when it does, it’s easy to spot. Like for example, a photo of George Washington walking into a Wheeling saloon with Betty Zane is probably fake. But, as I always say, even doctored photos reveal the truth about something. Actually, this is the first time I’ve ever said that. It’s pretty good. Right?

Sean and “Ulysses S. Grant”

Allow me to sum up: Authentic photographs tell us about a period of time without pretense, and I could spend all of my time with old photographs. Point made. What was the question again? Favorite place. I like being wherever the artifacts are kept. Yes, books. I like the books too. And programs. I like programs. But you asked about a place, so. My other answers will be shorter. Stay with me.

If your life was a book, what would its title be, and why?

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I do enjoy participating in the “title of my autobiography” game just about as much as I enjoy the “that’s a good band name” game. I wish I had written some of my better auto-bio titles down over the years. Let’s see, maybe: “Sharks, Steelers, Porch Beers and Bad Fashion Choices (such as suits made of old photographs)”; or “Strong Convictions, Weak Chin”; or maybe “Making Mediocrity Great Again”; or maybe “The Irish Exit as Performance Art”; or how about “Blah, Blah, Blah, Introvert?”; or maybe, “Don’t Take it Personally, He’s Always Like That”; or maybe “Eye Contact Just Frightens People”; or what about “Sean Duffy: Saving Humanity from Extinction Via Well-Planned-and-Better-Executed Library Programming”? Those are all good. But upon reflection, I think I’d settle on: “The Life of Duffy: Put This Turgid Yet Thin Little Book Down and Go Out and Play! You’re Wasting Your Own Life!”

Oh geez, if I have to explain why I like these, we’ll be here forever. You get it, right?

If you could cultivate a new skill, what would that be?

First of all, these are really good questions. I’m not worthy of these questions. I could see someone interesting nailing these! But you’re with me, so have a drink.

Sean at “his bar,” the world’s oldest pub, Athlone, Ireland.

If I could cultivate a new skill, that skill would be the ability to drive a stick shift (aka manual transmission) internal combustion vehicle at an acceptable adult level of competence. Nothing embarrasses me quite so much as being as old as I am while also being utterly incapable of driving a car without automatic transmission. I don’t really know why I never learned. I remember trying, earnestly, a couple of times. But it was hard, and I soon lost interest. I always had access to machines that shifted gears automatically, and I’ve always favored efficiency over effort. So why not just use said machines? Unlike some from my generation, I never felt the need to be “one with the vehicle.”

Nor did I wear puka shell necklaces. So … thus, I never felt compelled to absolutely, unequivocally learn the intricacies of the clutch. As I understand it, this bonds me to the “Millenials,” who, reportedly, share my vehicular operational shortcomings. If that proves to be inaccurate, please understand that it is not my fault, as I have been misled. But yeah, driving a horseless carriage, old school. That’s my answer. Meanwhile, I hate being so pathetic. I drive a stick like Captain Kirk in “A Piece of the Action.” Note: This is a Gen X reference. Captain Kirk will not be born until 2228, in Iowa, so he’s Generation X, v 3.0. The point here is, as a driver of manual transmission internal combustion machines, I, like James Tiberius Kirk, am an excellent starship captain.

Also, I would like to be able to play a fiddle or a banjo, or both. What? You have to read music?

Tell us something that would surprise Weelunk readers about you?

What would surprise Weelunk readers about Duffy, beyond the surprise of me being “featured” in Weelunk and the fact that someone born before the moon landing can’t drive a stick? How about this: I grew up eating cows and pigs and chickens and fish like a Neanderthal (dude, a lot), but now, while still looking like a Neanderthal, I am actually a vegetarian. I won’t preach (much) as I’ve learned the carnivorously inclined get very cranky when you challenge their moral or nutritional convictions regarding meat consumption.

I used to be like that. People often ask me, “Why, why Duffy did you give up on the deliciousness of consuming dead and decaying animal muscle tissue?” Well friends, my answer is guilt. I feel bad for animals who are executed simply to please our Neanderthal palates. If one can get the nutrition one needs (with flavor, btw, not just cucumbers on a bun) without causing pain, why not do so? Seriously. That’s where I am. And please don’t tell me plants feel pain. I can’t live on dirt and rocks. Wait. Rocks feel pain? Dammit!

Sean in Dublin, Ireland. Do hops feel pain?

What’s your favorite Wheeling neighborhood and why?

This is an impossible choice. I love all of Wheeling’s neighborhoods for different reasons. Through oral history interviews, I’ve explored all of them through the eyes of people who grew up in them, knew them intimately and loved them dearly. I found they all have important things in common. But for the sake of time, I will highlight three.

I grew up in Warwood, and it will always have my heart — Garden Park, 24th Street playground; the dangerous but tempting industrial wasteland where Centre Foundry dumped its sand molds and rusting steel straps; eating rhubarb in the “Jungle”; playing hide and seek (safely) in the darkening streets until Mom’s holler called us home to sleep within earshot of the soothing train whistles and riverboat horns, like dinosaurs purring near a little island on the Ohio River, by then full of ghosts, where camels once walked while people rode a Ferris Wheel or watched Vaudeville shows and trapeze artists

Sean and his first band, left,; and Sean with his mom.

I also love East Wheeling, where my parents grew up — Wheeling’s “Little Italy”; Goosetown; Tunnel Green; big B&O engines rumbling down 17th Street shaking your bones like dice; playing (safely) in the old working-class alleys with my cousin, Scott; buying cigarettes for our moms at Neely’s (yep, the ’70s).

I also love South Wheeling, where Rosie Gaspipe played Major League-level baseball on Pulaski Field; where Val Reuther drove a truck for Schmulbach Brewery; where the good people of St. Ladislaus held Pączki Balls, made pierogis and danced the polka; where working-class people led solid lives in solidarity.

What book is on your nightstand or e-reader right now?

Right now, there are three: Workers on Arrival: Black Labor in the Making of America by Joe Trotter; To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice by Jessica Wilkerson (who will be speaking at the Reuther-Pollack Labor History Symposium on Aug. 31; and The Life of Duffy: Put this Turgid Yet Thin Little Book Down and Go Out and Play! You’re Wasting Your Own Life! See what I did? I was just kidding about that last one.

Where do you take out-of-town visitors?

I usually give them the guided tour of Wheeling from the Suspension Bridge to the Pollack monument to Centre Market and all the other good stuff between and beyond. Then I take them to Later Alligator.

What is your wish for Wheeling?

I will admit, I struggled with this question. I have so many wishes for my hometown.

My wish for Wheeling is that we evolve into a model city, one that cherishes diversity, inclusion, empathy, fairness, social justice, economic justice, environmental justice, the rule of law, solidarity, peace and simple human kindness. I do know that we have done well already in many of these areas, but while others dream of economic success, I dream of a Wheeling that will be smart enough to not allow its exploitation at the expense of its livable space. Finally, I wish for Wheeling humility, because with great success comes the temptation of arrogance. And we are better than that. Even as we surpass NYC, Los Angeles, London and Paris, let’s always remember to laugh at ourselves.

I love you, Wheeling. I truly do. Live Long and Prosper.

Do you want more of Sean Duffy? Listen to James Wodarcyk’s podcast.

• After nearly 38 years as reporter, bureau chief, lifestyles editor and managing editor at The Times Leader, and design editor at The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, Phyllis Sigal has joined Weelunk as managing editor. She lives in Wheeling with her husband Bruce Wheeler. Along with their two children, son-in-law and two grandchildren, food, wine, travel, theater and music are close to their hearts.