A Life Well Lived: Charles Province

By: Debra McCown

PENNINGTON GAP, Va.  Out one snowy winter day decades ago, Charlie saw a little girl walking along the road.

It was snowing, and she didnt have any shoes on and no coat, recalls his wife, Nancy.

He went to their home and asked the mom if he could buy her some shoes and stuff, and thats what he did: He bought her shoes and a coat, some pants and warm clothing, she says. Thats the kind of man he was: If he saw a need, he’d take care of it.

In rural Lee County, Va., where he was from, stories like that are the building blocks of legend: Charles Province, a longtime funeral director who took care of people when they died and when they were alive, too.

There were the shoes and coats he quietly provided, the kids he coached into winning team players, the clinic and fire station he spurred his community to build, the college tuition he secretly paid, the countless children who found safety and security under his roof.

Our first little boy that we kept as a foster child, his dad died when he was a young teenager and when his dad died early, his mom had a nervous breakdown, Nancy Province remembers. That little boy was living out there in the dead of winter in a house by himself, and Charlie heard about him, so he went out there and got him.

That was around 1960 when Charles and Nancy were a young married couple with an infant son.

The next one, the mother died, Nancy Province says. She had 10 kids, and the youngest one was around 2, and they were so poor. She was sick she had a muscle disease and she wasnt able to do anything around her house, and it was just an old shabby house and it was condemned.

So they took in the two youngest children to raise alongside their own; over the years, they took in dozens more who kids, for a variety of reasons, needed a place to stay and someone to love them. For decades the yard was full of kids, the house a neighborhood center for pajama parties and pickup basketball games.

Their daughter, Sherri, remembers a dad who took her fossil-hunting and cave-exploring, whose passion for life stretched from fishing on riverbanks to studying the stars.

Even she didnt know until after her fathers death this past July how many people he’d helped. No one knew about the students he’d put through college, not even his wife.

We knew we were poor, Sherri jokes. We didnt know why.

Raised in the coal camp of Kemmer Gem, just outside the Lee County Community of St. Charles, Province moved with his family to Pennington Gap, where as a boy he did odd jobs for the funeral home across the street. After a short stint at a shipyard in Newport News, he returned home to work as an apprentice at the funeral home, which he would later own.

A funeral director who buried generation after generation of families, he became known to everyone in the county and it gave him a unique window into the communitys heartaches.

When a health fair revealed the need for a medical clinic in St. Charles, it was Province who led the effort.

They said, Theres no way in the world that we could get enough money together to build a clinic  and Charlie said, If we all work together we can do it, Nancy remembers. He got it done.

When the people realized they could do stuff, they decided to build a fire department  and he helped get it going. And then they decided they were going to do a Christmas parade and a 4th of July celebration, she says.

Then other communities saw what we did, and they said, If little old St. Charles can do it, so can we. So now there are clinics everywhere.

Charlie Province was a man remembered as a leader  the kind of man who leads by quiet example. Even in death, he wanted no fanfare: His wish was for a small family burial. But his legacy lives on in the countless lives hes touched.

We had to lie to people that day; theyd say, Hows Charlie doing? and wed say he was ok, Nancy Province says. And he was ok, because Im a firm believer that when you take your last breath, youre up there with God.

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