WHEELING - West Virginia lawmakers joined thousands of other revelers at Heritage Port on Thursday for concerts and fireworks as part of the state's sesquicentennial celebration.
Highlighting the event were musical performances by the National Pike Pickers, the Joseph Sisters, the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra, Johnny Staats, Kathy Mattea and Landau Eugene Murphy Jr.
West Virginia Poet Laureate Marc Harshman also recited a composition he developed to honor the state. He received a standing ovation for a passionate reading of his poem, "A Song for West Virginia," which celebrates a treasured list of notable characters, places and events of West Virginia history.
PORT PERFORMANCE — Logan County, W.Va., native Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. performs during a Thursday concert at Wheeling’s Heritage Port as part of the West Virginia Sesquicentennial celebration. -- Casey Junkins
"It was a Whitman-like poem, which felt right for a celebration," Harshman said after his reading. "Most of the people I named are legendary, but forgotten. I hope I painted the breadth of the riches that are available here in West Virginia to all of us and that we really live in a special place. The poem was just touching the surface of all the amazing talent and leaders we have in West Virginia."
State Senate President Jeffrey V. Kessler and Mark Kennedy Shriver, nephew of President John F. Kennedy, also joined the celebration. Together they welcomed the large crowd to kick off the West Virginia Sesquicentennial Concert featuring the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra.
"I have to tell you I've heard about West Virginians all my life," Shriver said. "The ties between the Kennedys and the Shrivers and the state are very deep. This was the state that propelled my Uncle Jack to the presidency. I'm so proud to be with all of you today. ...
"Every time I come to West Virginia, the people are so nice and welcoming and warm," Shriver said. "It's fantastic. We couldn't have a better day, and the scene is unbelievable. It's beautiful for a birthday party."
Shriver said his organization, Save the Children, does work across West Virginia, and everyone he meets from the state always tells him how much they appreciate it.
"West Virginia has a fascinating history," Shriver added. "The fact that my uncle was here 50 years ago and I was invited back really gives me goose bumps."
Kessler noted that the clear, blue sky and shining sun overhead matched West Virginia's colors of blue and gold as he introduced the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra.
"It's history being made as the original birthplace of our state," Kessler said. "For us to come back here and have the 150th celebration with the Legislature and the governor here last night is extremely important and something we'll remember for the next 150 years."
Kessler and the symphony later earned loud applause for a musical recitation of "Lincoln Portrait," written by American composer Aaron Copland. The musicians played while Kessler repeated Lincoln's words, "This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from this earth!"
Food and drink vendors were on hand, and there were inflatable attractions for children to enjoy.
"It is totally appropriate to have the Legislature up here at this time. Everything is working out so well," said Delegate Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, during a break in the action.
Swartzmiller said most of the legislators with whom he has spoken seem very impressed with what Wheeling has to offer.
"This is where everything happened 150 years ago. Without Wheeling, there is no West Virginia," he added.
Also enjoying the festivities were 2013 Miss Doddridge County Kelsey Benson and her boyfriend, Michael McDonald of Wheeling. When asked why she loves West Virginia, Benson said the best part is the food.
"I love to eat. There is so much variety. You can eat Mexican in the afternoon and Chinese at night," she said. "But the best is the Italian."
McDonald said his favorite part about living in the Mountain State is being able to root for the Mountaineers of West Virginia University.