The diversity of Oneida’s W.O. West can barely be summed up, but when considering all he has done, and is still doing, at age 85, two words come to mind: Renaissance Man.
William Osborne West Jr. has been a coal miner, a soldier in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, a chemist, biologist, physicist, an instructor of those three disciplines, an inventor holding multiple U.S. patents, creator of musical instruments (handmade banjos and violins), crafter of handmade grandfather clocks and furniture, and this is just the short list.
Today, W.O. paints scenes from the Big South Fork, turns out handmade wooden artforms on a lathe in his workshop, still hikes the BSF, makes hand carved walking sticks, attends the retired teacher’s meetings, enjoys time with his wife Shirley, a lady as gracious as you will ever meet, and enjoys time spent with her in the home he practically built himself (“I didn’t set the roof trusses,” he said), where they have spent the past 61 years together.
He met Shirley when she was working in her father’s store, known as the Arthur Smith Store on hwy 297 (Coopertown Rd.). Shirley began working there in the 8th grade.
“We sold groceries, feed, a little bit of everything,” Shirley said. “Working there could be aggravating sometimes, but I had some things that other boys and girls didn’t have because of the opportunity to work.”
West started his working career in his junior year of high school, with the West and Cotton coal business. His father, Willam O. West Sr., and Oscar Cotton (Scott County Judge Jamie Cotton’s grandfather) owned the mine in the Brimstone area.
After graduating high school, West went to Tennessee Tech and earned a degree in education, in 1953. He said he saw all the misery going on in the Korean War at the time, and decided to enlist in the Army.
Though West never got deployed to Korea, he spent two years in the Army, finishing out his military career in Fort Lee, Virginia. Shortly after coming back home, he met his future wife, Shirley.
In 1956, West began teaching chemistry, biology and physics at Oneida High School, where he stayed for 27 years, retiring in 1983. West estimates he taught close to 3,000 students during his teaching career. One of his former students, pharmacist Bill Dunlap, owner of Plateau Drugs, said, “W.O.West was the best instructor I ever had in high school, college or UT Memphis Pharmacy School. He was instrumental in me becoming a pharmacist.”
During his teaching tenure, West also became interested in making grandfather clocks.
“On a teacher’s salary I couldn’t afford to buy one, so I found a plan in Popular Mechanics magazine, and went to work. That first clock was a real challenge, there was a lot of detailed work I’d never done before.” He said he built the first clock in 1973. It ended up in his wife’s sister’s house.
“The second clock is in my sister Imogene Smith’s house, on the corner of Williams Creek and Coopertown Roads,” he said. “The third one I made is in my bedroom.”
West built 44 clocks, which are situated in homes all over Scott County. They are both functional and works of art in their own right, the beauty of the finished, hand-shaped wood housing is the intricacy of the clockworks.
As he continued to teach, another simultaneous career found West. George Taylor moved to Oneida to head up the Research and Development Department of Tibbals flooring, a local factory that was pouring out hardwood flooring at the time nonstop, employing three shifts, working 24 hours a day.
Taylor came from a flooring manufacturing company in New Jersey, Permagrain, where he had refined a process for injecting an acrylic plastic into hardwood, making the wood more durable, and helping it retain its color.
Taylor asked West to build him a kitchen island in his home, and, impressed with West’s obvious knowledge of wood and chemistry, asked West to come to work for Tibbals.
“Since I was still teaching, I told George I could only work at night, on weekends, and during summer. He was okay with that,” stated West.
West’s first assignment at Tibbals was to develop different colored stains that the company could make in-house, to replace the stain products they had to buy from outside sources. Using his understanding of chemistry, West made a wood stain product that could be produced in the plant for roughly $7 a gallon, which replaced a product Tibbals was buying for $20 per gallon.
“It’s unbelievable how much money that helped save them, once the in-house stain was developed,” said West, “It could have added up to millions of dollars, as much as they were using at the time.”
“My job became a lot more than developing stains. We came up with about 60 products that we either used in-house, and/or sold to outside distributors. At the time, if it was used in the flooring industry, we probably made it,” West said.
When West retired from teaching, he went to Tibbals full-time. He saw Tibbals sell its company first to Pre-Mark worldwide, then to Triangle Pacific, which owns Bruce Flooring. It was during the time Triangle/Bruce owned the company that West was credited for the invention of a stabilization process for producing wooden flooring, using pressurization, and the introduction of a chemical agent, polyethylene glycol, into the hardwood flooring blanks. For this process, he enabled Triangle Pacific to secure a U.S. Patent, number 6,194,078, and West is listed on the patent document as the inventor.
In addition to the stabilization process, West also holds a patent for a product that is a “low water, high solids, low solvent flooring adhesive.”
“We never produced any of that, other than the test quantities. It turned out to be too expensive to mass produce,” stated West.
“Pretty shortly after development of that product, I retired,” West said. But not really.
Then he turned his time, talent and attention to continuing to build more clocks, started painting Big South Fork scenes, expanded his love of the Big South Fork area by hiking the trails, and making banjos, violins, walking sticks and furniture.
Sitting in West’s living room alone, there are at least 16 items he made in his home woodworking shop, from lamps to end tables, coffee tables, a television stand, dining room side chair, and, of course, a stately grandfather clock.
West still goes to retired teacher’s meetings, and said everywhere he goes, he can usually meet up with one of his former students.
“And I generally can remember their name, and where they sat in my class,” West said.
West and his wife Shirley have two sons, Jeffery, who is employed as a nuclear engineer in Hartsville, South Carolina, and Michael, who lives in Oneida and works in the heavy construction industry.
At 85 years young, West still exhibits an exuberance for creating, building, sharing his knowledge with others and living a full life.
“A person who has lived to be 85 years old has done a lot of things, if they have stayed active,” West said, “I haven’t let a lot of grass grow under my feet.”