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The year 2021 saw the deaths of community members, trailblazers and well-known government figures.

Here is a list of some notable deaths in the Tri-State in the past year.

BETTY JANE CLECKLEY died Jan. 7 in Montgomery, Illinois. She was 89. A graduate of Douglass High School in Huntington, she had to leave the city to further her education because Marshall University was still segregated. She returned in 1989 and helped establish the Office of Multicultural Affairs, now called Intercultural Affairs, on Marshall’s campus.

Cleckley was active in civic and professional organizations and was honored with several distinguished awards, including a state civil rights award.

DENNIS DAVIS, 79, cabinet secretary for the West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance, died Jan. 18. Davis was a U.S. Army veteran and was appointed by Gov. Jim Justice to serve as head of the department overseeing veterans issues in 2017.

He was also a teacher and executive in Kanawha County Schools for 29 years before former Gov. Cecil Underwood appointed him as head of Workforce Development West Virginia in 1996. He left for the private sector four years later.

PAUL WHEAR, 95, composer and Marshall University professor emeritus, died March 25 after a lifetime of creating music for audiences and performers alike.

A former professor of music theory and composition, Whear was known as a talented composer and conductor who demanded excellence from those who performed his work. His compositions have been performed by high school orchestras as well as the London Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Cleveland Philharmonic, the U.S. Navy Band and others.

Whear, a World War II veteran, was the recipient of many musical awards, including the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is the composer of “The Chief Justice,” which was performed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1976 by Marshall’s Department of Music.

JACK COMER, better known as Jack O’Shea, a legendary Tri-State radio personality, died in March at age 85.

The local legend and member of the West Virginia Broadcasters Hall of Fame hosted local radio shows for over five decades. In addition to radio programs, he emceed countless high school and alumni dances during the 1960s.

Comer was known for hosting dances for teens, as well as his famous line of “Time to Turn,” ensuring thousands of Tri-State sunbathers rotated to receive a proper tan.

TIMOTHY M. KELLY, an Ashland native and former publisher of the Lexington Herald-Leader who oversaw Pulitzer Prize-winning work there and at other newspapers across the country, died May 3 at age 73.

An Ashland native, Kelly started newspaper work at age 17 as a part-time sports writer at the Ashland Daily Independent. He also worked for papers in Huntington, Miami, Louisville, Philadelphia, Dallas and Los Angeles.

He became managing editor of the Herald-Leader in August 1989 and retired in 2011 from the Lexington paper, where he won honors for his commitment to diversity and public service journalism.

DOUGLAS RAY COOK, a Charleston businessman originally from Boone County, died May 5 at age 86. A graduate of Marshall University, Cook co-founded the Heck’s Department Store chain in 1959. Heck’s would eventually be listed on the New York Stock Exchange and grow to over 120 stores in nine states.

Heck’s headquarters was on Kanawha Boulevard in Charleston, with a distribution center in Nitro. By the early to mid-1980s, Heck’s had opened 127 stores in nine states and employed over 8,000 workers and accumulated assets of more than $300 million.

Cook later became a licensed CPA and enjoyed teaching accounting at Southern West Virginia Community & Technical College, according to his obituary.

ANDREA ROY, project coordinator for the prevention program WVTIME4K and former director of community impact with the United Way of the River Cities, died June 10 at age 48.

A Barboursville native, she lived in New York City for 20 years after college before returning to to her hometown in 2014. She found her calling in social work and community advocacy, and in 2014 served as the first director of community impact with the United Way of the River Cities.

Roy was appointed as project coordinator for the WV Time 4K Project — Trauma Informed Mindfulness Engagement — through Marshall University’s School of Social Work. The project provides mindfulness training and support to students and families affected by the opioid crisis in Wayne and Cabell county elementary schools. A longtime yoga practitioner, Roy believed in the cultivation of a healthy spirit and the synchronization of novel neurological science and practical, usable interventions that could help children and families overcome the devastating effects of trauma and substance abuse.

Peggy Proudfoot Harman, of Marshall’s social work department, said with the guidance of Roy and Robin Looney the program was able to continue throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The team was praised by their grant funder for their creativity and willpower to continue to help the youth involved in the program.

JERRY LEE DENNING SR. died at age 82 on June 22. A contractor who primarily worked within the Tri-State, Denning helped create countless structures and buildings within Huntington and abroad.

Until his retirement in 2004, Denning owned Jerry L. Denning Inc. and managed about 40 employees. Alongside them and several subcontractors, Denning helped fulfill a massive list of projects that included the Ritter Park Amphitheater, Jefferson Avenue Church of God, Apostolic Church of God Guyandotte, New Hope Baptist Church, Cox Landing Elementary School, Cove Gap Elementary School and others. His portfolio included restaurants, medical practices, houses and apartments, schools, churches and businesses.

He helped create Henson & Kitchen Funeral Home, in which his funeral services were performed. Even after his retirement, Denning remained active, drawing up plans for individual projects of friends and helping to construct them.

JEAN DEAN, who served as mayor of Huntington from 1993 to 2000, died July 17. Dean made history as the first woman to be elected as mayor in Huntington. Before that, she was director of administration and finance — a position similar to a city manager — under then-Mayor Bobby Nelson.

Dean was mayor when Amazon located an East Coast customer service center in the city. It was housed in the upper two floors of the police building until it relocated to a new building at Kinetic Park, a technology and business park for which Dean laid the groundwork.

Dean also hosted the afternoon radio show “Tri-State Viewpoint with Jean Dean” on WRVC AM-FM for 14 years, hosting local guests who discussed a variety of topics. It went off the air in early 2015.

OLIVER BAILEY, 35, a man described as a foundation of the Huntington restaurant scene, died July 24.

Bailey was born in Barboursville and was a 2004 graduate of Cabell Midland High School. Nearly a decade ago, he joined his friends Drew and Megan Hetzer to build and open Backyard Pizza and Raw Bar in downtown Huntington.

Drew Hetzer said Bailey was also a big part of the development when he and his wife opened The Peddler in 2014. At The Peddler, Bailey worked side-by-side daily with Jay Fox to create, produce and distribute Peddler beer across the state.

Bailey was regional manager for Backyard and The Peddler. Recently he became assistant brewer and sales executive for Peddler Beer.

GILBERT SONNY KNIGHT, the founder and operator of Hillbilly Hot Dogs in Lesage, died July 29 at age 75.

In September 1999, Knight returned to his hometown of Lesage with his wife, Sharie. They decided to open their eatery so they could work together, Sharie Knight said.

After initially opening in a 12-foot by 16-foot building, Hillbilly Hot Dogs would expand to include two refurbished school buses, a collection of kitschy memorabilia and even a wedding chapel. The restaurant would receive national attention when featured in a 2007 episode of Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

Hillbilly Hot Dogs recently celebrated its 22nd anniversary.

JULIE DITTY QUALLS, a top 100-ranked tennis player from Russell, Kentucky, died at age 42 on Aug. 31.

Ditty achieved a No. 91 world ranking in 2007 when she beat Alize Cornet and Vania King to reach to semifinals of the WTA Bell Challenge, where she lost to Julia Vakulenko.

Ditty Qualls played at Wimbledon in 2010, defeating Margalita Chakhnashvili, 6-4, 6-3, and Jelena Dokić, 5-7, 7-5, 6-2, before losing to Bethanie Mattek-Sands. A three-time Kentucky state high school champion, she was a member of the United States Fed Ex Cup team and played in the main draws of the French Open, Australian Open and U.S. Open. Her biggest victory over a ranked opponent was over No. 22 Alona Bondarenko.

She won 38 USTA pro circuit titles and is a member of the Vanderbilt, Kentucky High School and Southern Tennis halls of fame. Ditty Qualls coached collegiately at Vanderbilt, Tennessee State and Louisville. She also coached almost 1,000 players during free clinics at the Ashland Tennis Center.

RUTH CHRIST SULLIVAN, a local pioneer in autism diagnosis and treatment and founder of Autism Services Center, died Sept. 16 at the age of 97.

When her son Joseph was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3, few services existed at the time, but Sullivan soon began organizing parents of children with autism on a local, state and national level, becoming the first president of the Autism Society of America in 1969. She was the first lobbyist for autism issues at the U.S. Congress and served as the editor for the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities for nine years.

She consulted on autism in over 10 countries, wrote over 65 articles on autism,and was a consultant for the movie “Rain Man” starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise.

Sullivan also was interested in historic preservation and started the Guyandotte Association for Improvement and Preservation.

JIM MATNEY, Johnson Central football and wrestling coach, died Sept. 28.

In 18 seasons at Johnson Central, Matney had a record of 186-39. He led the Golden Eagles to Kentucky state championships in 2016 and 2019. The 2021 team made it to the state championship game again.

Before his time at Johnson Central, Matney led Sheldon Clark, compiling a 124-94 record in 20 seasons. Matney’s career record was 310-133 in 38 seasons of football. He was one of 12 football coaches in Kentucky history to reach 300 wins.

DANA RYDER JR., 45, a Cabell County man who was featured on the History Channel’s “Forged In Fire,” died Oct. 16.

Ryder Jr. appeared on season 8, episode 24, of “Forged In Fire” on the History Channel on June 16. The television show tests some of the best in the field as they attempt to recreate some of history’s most iconic edged weapons. He called it “a dream come true.”

Ryder grew up in Ona and had turned his hobby of making custom, hand-crafted knives into his own home business, Ryder’s Knives. It was so successful that he opened a store in the Eastern Heights Shopping Center in August.

Ryder was also a Cabell County school bus driver for 10 years and a volunteer firefighter for 15 years, working at the Ona and Milton volunteer fire departments.

ROBERT C. “BOB” GABORDI, who worked as executive editor of The Herald-Dispatch from January 1995 to mid-2001, died Oct. 21 in Florida at age 65.

In an article about Gabordi’s book “The Truth,” former Herald-Dispatch Associate Editor James E. Casto wrote, “The Herald-Dispatch was a good paper when Gabordi arrived. But he made it a better one. He did that by shaking things up, reaching out to the community and challenging every member of the HD team — yours truly included — to be the best they could be.”

In 2001, Gabordi left Huntington to become editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times. Leaving Asheville, he then spent 10 years as editor at the Tallahassee Democrat. Ultimately, he became executive editor of Florida Today, where he pushed the paper into digital journalism and produced an award-winning podcast, “Murder on the Space Coast.” He had also worked at the Norwich Bulletin in Connecticut and the Cranston Herald in Rhode Island.

BOB ESHBAUGH, a quarterback for the Young Thundering Herd in 1971, died Nov. 3 at the age of 68.

Eshbaugh was a renaissance player, having played quarterback, running back and punter for the Herd. His record for punt yardage stood until Tyler Williams broke it in 2015. During his 32 games for the Herd, Eshbaugh completed 33 of 90 passes for 433 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 252 yards and a score.

BOB KISS, a former speaker of the House of Delegates, died Nov. 5 at age 63.

Voters in southern West Virginia elected Kiss, a Raleigh County Democrat, to the House nine times starting in 1988. He served as House speaker from 1997 until 2006, when he left the House to move to Charleston and practice law with Bowles Rice.

Kiss briefly returned to state government in 2013 to work as secretary of revenue for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and worked in the Governor’s Office until January 2017, when he returned to Bowles Rice.

STEWARD “DUCK” BREEDING, founder and owner of the former Duck’s Inn, died Nov. 9 at age 88. A Wayne native, he was tagged with his nickname by a relative who said he waddled like a duck when walking as a toddler.

Breeding was a U.S. Army Korean Conflict veteran. After returning from war, he took over the Washington Avenue location of Duck’s Inn. The original building was destroyed by fire in 1973 and rebuilt shortly after.

He also operated the Ducks Prime Beef and Seafood Restaurant in South Point, Ohio, at the Southern Hills Motel on Solida Road and was said to be one of the first restaurateurs to introduce a salad bar concept in Huntington.

JACK COOK, a Marshall University baseball legend, died Nov. 24 at the age of 95.

Cook, who was inducted into the Marshall Hall of Fame in 1994, was the winningest coach of any sport in Marshall history with a record of 422-344-3.

In 1978, Cook led the Thundering Herd baseball team to within a game of the College World Series after wins over Florida State and Clemson. Marshall finished that season ranked No. 17 in the final poll.

For years, Cook had been vocal about the need for a baseball facility on campus at Marshall, and he’d hoped to see it come to fruition one day. Currently, plans are in the works for a stadium, but COVID-19 slowed that construction in 2020.

MICHAEL LYZENGA, of Milton, left a void in the Huntington area music community when he died suddenly Nov. 28 at age 65.

Lyzenga played in a handful of local bands in his lifetime, including Big Rock and the Candyass Mountain Boys for the past five years. He was a heavy hand in the local music scene as a performer, singer-songwriter and promoter. His direct involvement in the Huntington Blues Society was a major contributing factor in the growth of new artists and various music festivals in the area, such as the Diamond Teeth Mary Blues Festival.

In addition to the Huntington music scene, Lyzenga faithfully served his church with his musical talent.

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