Its wooden floors shine brightly from the sunlight that streams in through its streak-free glass windows.
Its dust-free rugs nicely accent the newly-upholstered furniture, and the dark oak cabinets that sit along the wallpapered walls provide a comfortable atmosphere.
But that’s not always been the beauty currently seen in the drawing room inside the caretaker’s residence at Woodlawn Cemetery, which suffered through years of disrepair and neglect.
When she was presented with the situation at the cemetery, Nancy Bickerstaff had a vision, and did everything she could to make that vision a reality.
“Don’t tell me I can’t do it, because I’ll bust you,” Bickerstaff said. “People say you can’t do it. Don’t use the word ‘can’t’ around me, because I’ll find a way. Under it, over it, around it. I don’t know the word ‘can’t’ and I never surround myself with idiots like that.”
Seeing the details
Although her family was poor, Bickerstaff’s father was a detail-oriented man who saw a mess wherever he looked. However, he made sure their house was kept spotless and organized.
Bickerstaff loved going around the county with her father as a child.
She said this is where she learned how to detect and clean up messes. It’s also how she learned to look at the reality and see the potential in things.
“I’m a details person. Everything has to be perfect,” Bickerstaff said. “If I look at your house, or wherever I go, I’ll see the good, but I’ll also see what needs to be done. And that’s just me.”
Bickerstaff said her husband, Tom, is always asking her to put on blinders and quit looking, but she said she doesn’t have the tunnel vision everyone else seems to have.
Born in a four-room house with an outhouse in Watson after the Great Depression, Bickerstaff attended Fairmont Senior for nine years before spending her last three years of high school at East Fairmont.
In her professional career, she spent a long time in banking. During her time as the former assistant vice president of CB&T in Huntington Banks, Bickerstaff found a way to put her eye for details to work.
Bickerstaff merged that skill with her natural leadership and her desire to give back to the community. She found a transformation had occurred when her boss, William McLaughlin, put her in charge of the bank’s programs under the Community Reinvestment Act. Under federal law, the Community Reinvestment Act requires banks to “help meet the credit needs of the communities,” which often includes low-to-moderate income families.
One of the programs Bickerstaff headed was Operation Image, which included litter pick up and “spruce up” programs in Marion County. She eventually headed the board of what is now the Marion County Parks and Recreation Commission. Bickerstaff said it was a “rough board” in the 80s, but she went in, took charge, and made it flourish.
“I remember when I was asked to be on the parks board, [McLaughlin] said, ‘Bickerstaff, they’ll eat you alive,’” Bickerstaff said. “I became president. He said, ‘Bickerstaff, looks like you ate them alive.’”
Where there’s a need, there’s a project
It was her grandson that gave Bickerstaff another outlet for her constant desire to “clean up messes.”
When she attended his basketball game at the Fifth Street Gym, formerly the Butcher School, where she had attended as a child, Bickerstaff was so horrified at its state that she cried when she left the gym.
“I still remember the moment,” Bickerstaff said. “Tom said, ‘What’s the matter with you? They won the game?’ I said, ‘I know, but this place. We got to do something with it.’”
Bickerstaff said people came from everywhere to help her fix up the gym. She got monetary donations from people across the country who had some personal connection to the gym and got volunteers to help with the labor.
County Commissioner Rick Garcia remembers when he and Linda Urse got up on scaffolds to paint the ceiling of the building. Garcia said Bickerstaff inspired people to help and, even though she had beaten breast cancer twice and survived a mini stroke that had forced her into retirement in 1994, Bickerstaff was right there in the trenches working right alongside the other volunteers.
“She is straightforward, she’ll tell you like it is,” Garcia said. “I always said if we had 10 like her, we would be in pretty good shape. She doesn’t take no for an answer.”
In total, Bickerstaff has gone through between eight and 10 different “projects.”
She has lead the charge that cleaned up the Valley Fire Department, the Elks Lodge, the women’s club, and a church. She also headed up the projects that not only got the new scoreboard for East-West Stadium, but also added handrails to the stadium’s steps and has taken the lead role in making a promotional video for Marion County.
Bickerstaff also continues the litter pickup initiative, and also works with Main Street Fairmont.
“I’m a natural leader. God’s blessed me,” Bickerstaff said. “Most people don’t want to lead, don’t want to be present. Most people don’t want to do anything.”
Every single project, however, has been born out of a need. Her first grandson, Wesley Ashcraft, inspired her renovation of Fifth Street Gym. Her other grandsons, JD and Frank Smith (both of whom played football for Fairmont Senior), inspired the stadium improvement projects.
The project at Woodlawn Cemetery, she said, was inspired by a comment Frank made to her when the family was visiting his namesake.
“We’re up at the abbey, it’s December of 2015,” Bickerstaff said. “The place – leaves, junk, dirt, everything. He looks at me and said, “Nonna, we got to clean this up.’ So, we started.
“The ones that I did for my grandchildren are the ones from the heart. This one is significant because it’s made so many people happy. This is probably the biggest adventure that affects not only the 11,000 people buried here, but also multiply that out to their families.”
Catching the vision
In every single project she’s done, Bickerstaff has always had a core group of individuals upon whom she relies and considers close friends.
Just like she’s not afraid to go in somewhere and start firing people who aren’t doing their job properly, Bickerstaff isn’t about to surround herself with people who aren’t committed to improving the quality of life in Fairmont.
Bickerstaff is a force of will, and her determination to make Fairmont a better place has swept through the community like a tsunami.
“My dad said, ‘You show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser,’” Bickerstaff said. “I don’t like to lose. I like to win. I don’t like to be around negative people who are toxic. I’ve learned that as I’ve gotten older, to stay away from the alligators, because they will eat you alive.”
Bickerstaff does not work for any nonprofit organization.
During her banking career, Bickerstaff observed every nonprofit she got involved with either be mismanaged or become the victim of theft. She said that if an organization has money that’s unattended with just one person over it, they’re “in for a steal.”
Bickerstaff said people know when they give her their money, they’ll get their money’s worth and know their money will actually go to the project for which it’s targeted. Bickerstaff has even gotten donations from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) for her community improvement projects.
She said the reason no progress happens in Fairmont is due to egos, but with the election of Mayor Brad Merrifield she believes there’s a new day in Fairmont.
“We have a new Main Street director, we have a new city manager, and we have new, new, new,” Bickerstaff said. “And I hope to see, pray to see, Fairmont soar. I knew the old girl when she was just beautiful.”
Bickerstaff calls herself a strong person, and knows she takes the oxygen out of the room with the knowledge of what she knows needs to be done.
Even though she’s 78 years old and has had to “lean into” her age, Bickerstaff is not content with allowing her new limitations to control her community service.
“The work ethic was inherited. It’s genetic. I’ve always got to be busy working. It’s just my way,” Bickerstaff said. “I’ve been blessed, pressed down rolling over, and I love to give back. Most people do not accomplish anything in life. Most people retire and sit down and watch the TV. We have a generation of people who don’t know how to work, and work is exhilarating. I love to work.”
Bickerstaff doesn’t want any recognition for her efforts because, as far as she’s concerned, it’s both her civic and religious duty to give back to the community. The only thanks she wants is for people to enjoy the results of her efforts and for people to be inspired to help revitalize their town.
“I don’t try to control people. You do it because you want to. If you don’t want to do something, and you can’t do it with your heart, I don’t want you doing it. I don’t want you on my team,” Bickerstaff said. “You do it because you want to, not because Nancy Bickerstaff said you should do it.”