- - Thursday, March 2, 2017


I want to tell you the other side of “Hillbilly Elegy.”

“Elegy” is the amazing story of J.D. Vance who grew up in an extremely dysfunctional Ohio family with rural Kentucky roots, hence the hillbilly part of the title. Mr. Vance ended up graduating from Yale Law School and becoming a high-class lawyer.

“Hillbilly Elegy” has been the number one best-selling nonfiction book for half the year.

Thus, I guess it will disappoint many when I tell them that the great majority of hillbilly families are not nearly as messed up as Mr. Vance’s family.

In fact, most people from Appalachia are kind, honest, polite, hard-working people, who, if they moved “up North” did not become drug addicts who married five times with several days in jail and drug treatment centers as Mr. Vance’s mother did.

My grandparents had a subsistence farm in Scott County, Tennessee near the Kentucky line. I was told that when President Johnson started the War on Poverty, Scott County was one of the 10 poorest countries in the U.S.

My grandparents had 10 children and when I was small the outhouse was not for looks.

They never owned a car and never went on a vacation. And my grandfather never missed a Sunday at his little Presbyterian Church in Helenwood.

My grandmother had a year of college and in the early 1900s that was enough to become a teacher, and she taught first grade for over 40 years — years when rural teachers made $50 or $60 a month.

My dad used to say their small farm was “out just past the Resume Speed Sign.” He loved Scott County, but he also said you were considered a success if you just made it out of the county.

Like Mr. Vance’s family, five of my aunts and uncles moved to Ohio — three to Cincinnati and two to Dayton. In fact, I have a first cousin who is in business in Middletown, Mr. Vance’s hometown.

Only one — my Aunt Fannye Helen — stayed in Scott County. She became a nurse and married a local doctor, so she was able to stay.

My father hitchhiked into Knoxville with five dollars in his pocket and worked his way through the University of Tennessee. Twenty years later, he was elected as mayor of Knoxville and six years after that, to Congress.

My Uncle Joe became one of the most respected judges in Tennessee. My Uncle Frank was at a CCC Camp in the Smokies and hitched a ride into Gatlinburg to go to a movie. The owner of theater gave him a ride and a job, and when Uncle Frank was only 19, he bought the theater and one in Western North Carolina from the same owner. He moved to Franklin, N.C., started several businesses, and died a multi-millionaire.

All of the 10 Duncan children achieved varying degrees of success or leadership. But while their story is special to me, I could fill many books with stories about people who have grown up in Appalachian poverty and gone on to achieve success.

I would probably start with Dolly Parton who grew up in East Tennessee in a county next to my hometown of Knoxville.

But if anyone thinks most hillbilly families are more like J.D. Vance’s than mine, they are flat out wrong.

I have lived in East Tennessee all my life and have campaigned with my father and on my own and have worked with and for urban, suburban, and rural people all over our area.

Unfortunately, it seems to be a trait of human nature that people, perhaps subconsciously, feel better about themselves if they feel superior to some other group of people. Those of us from East Tennessee and people from much of Appalachia are used to being looked down on, being referred to as hillbillies or rednecks, and especially being teased about our accents.

Liberalism is a philosophy of arrogance which at its root says the government can run your life and spend your money better than you can and liberals should run the government.

This elitist arrogance was what so many voters rebelled against in the last election.

I have noticed now that many liberals seem to love “Hillbilly Elegy.” I heard Michael Smerconish say that his wife’s book club in suburban Philadelphia was reading the book.

Liberals have always looked down at average Americans. “Elegy” could partially justify many liberal big government programs if most people were like Mr. Vance’s family. Thank goodness, most are not.

While Mr. Vance’s grandparents had some good qualities, very few hillbilly families would scream at and threaten to beat up a hapless store clerk they felt offended them or kick in a rest stop door as his grandfather did.

There are serious drug problems in Appalachia as there are throughout the country. However, most of these problems have come about because federal environmental regulations have closed thousands of factories, and hundreds of mines, and made it almost impossible for small farms to survive.

Far too many young people have far too much time on their hands, have been unable to find good jobs, and far too often turn to drugs. However, the overwhelming majority of hillbillies are not drug addicts.

They may not have degrees from Yale, but they are intelligent, capable, salt-of-the-earth people from good families. While I have tremendous respect for Mr. Vance and what he has accomplished, I am afraid his book gives some people very wrong impressions of most people from Appalachia.

• John J. Duncan Jr. is a Republican U.S. representative from Tennessee.

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