Covington, Virginia: A Family’s Journey

The mountains are a beautiful sight into the distance. The modest houses are lined along the sloping roads. The popular local restaurant, Cucci’s, serves their famous calzone to everyone in town. People are fishing along the running creeks. The pesky gnats swarm your face in the summer. The musty smell of the nearby paper mill fills the air. The Wal-Mart parking lot is full, although considering the population of the town, you would not expect it to be. The small, quaint white church lies in front of a hill lined with trees. The people you see are friendly, nice, and seem to be always happy. This is Covington, Virginia.

The Allegheny Highlands

The Allegheny Highlands

Covington is located in western Virginia, about three hours from Richmond, a little less than an hour outside of Roanoke, and minutes from the West Virginia border. A drive to Covington from Richmond would likely take you on a scenic route past acres of farmland, through the hilly Virginia landscape, and up the beautiful Allegheny Mountains. As you approach the town, you see a few gas stations, family-owned restaurants, and houses lining the road. You turn into the town and drive up and down the hills, past parks, an old minor league baseball field, a small shopping center, a hospital, some stores, a church, and houses lining the streets.

My maternal grandparents, Filipino immigrants, have lived in Covington since they were young. They raised my mom and her three sisters in the small town, while my Grandad, Mamerto Adrales, operated as Covington’s physician. He had his own practice, worked in the local hospital, and spent day and night caring for the citizens of Covington. But why did young Filipino immigrants settle in a small Virginia town in the Allegheny Mountains?

To answer this question, I e-mailed my grandparents (yes, my 70-year-old grandparents do have e-mail), and asked them. Days later, I received an envelope in the mail, with my Grandmama’s name on the front. Inside the envelope were two pages, front and back, of my granddad’s writing. On these two pages he laid out the story of his life in Covington. Who better to tell a story about Covington than someone who has lived and worked there for 50 years.

Granddad's Letter

Granddad’s letter.

“This is a story of how a group of immigrant physicians from the Philippines ended up in Covington, Alleghany County, VA.

First, I would like to tell you that Covington is a small city of about 8,000 people in Alleghany county in the western end of Virginia next to West Virginia. We are surrounded by the beautiful Allegheny mountains with its abundant wildlife and beautiful rivers and creek. The Jackson River is one of the premier trout fishing destinations. We are also adjacent to the Washington National Forest and Moomaw Lake and —- park. The Greenbrier and The Homestead resorts are also nearby. The main employer in Covington is the MeadWestvaco paper mill which is supposed to be the biggest in the world.”

Covington’s natural beauty is one of the main appeals of the town. The nearby Allegheny Mountains provide great views and scenic hiking areas. The parks and lakes are wonderful outdoor destinations to visit as well. I have never thought of Covington as a prime vacation spot, but many do vacation in Covington for the fishing and hunting opportunities. The luxurious nearby resorts bring visitors to the area and give Covington residents the chance to eat at extravagant restaurants and visit the the lavish resorts, something they are unable to do within the town. My grandparents often took my mom and her sisters to brunch at the Homestead after Sunday church, and my mom and dad even had their wedding reception there.

MeadWestvaco was recently bought out by Rock-Tenn, but the paper mill is still running and still employs the majority of Covington residents. My mom, JoAnn Adrales Ruh, says that, “The whole town was centered around the mill. At my high school, many of my classmates had parents who worked at the mill, and that a lot those classmates ended up working at the mill as well.” Covington is reliant on the paper mill, just as the paper mill is reliant on the people of Covington.

“Fresh out of medical school in the Philippines in 1964, my sweetheart who later became my wife and I came to New Jersey, USA for a new life in 1965. I went on six years training in general surgery while my wife worked as a nurse. Our long range plan was to go back home to the Philippines with some of our physician friends and set up a medical practice there and hopefully build our own hospital. This plan however was cut short when the President Marcos of the Philippines decided not to relinquish the presidency after his two term limit per the constitution. He started putting people in jail who opposed him. Some were abducted during the night and never heard of again. He became a dictator with absolute power after abolishing congress and putting hand picked people in the supreme court. This was a dangerous time in the Philippines, so our family instructed us to stay in the United States.”

Mom and Dad while courting in the Philippines

Mamerto and Jocelyn in the Phillipines in the early 1960s, before they married.

When Mamerto graduated from medical school in the Philippines, his friends and he decided to move to the United States to complete a residency program. At the time, visas were easy to obtain, because the United States had a shortage of doctors due to the Vietnam War. However, his parents forbade him to leave the Philippines. Luckily for him, my grandmama, Jocelyn Adrales, convinced her mother to pay for a plane ticket, a suit, and a small amount of spending money. Only a day before he was scheduled to depart, he told his parents that he would be leaving. But he told them that he had plans to return and start a hospital.

While an intern and resident in a hospital in Englewood, New Jersey, Mamerto was a favorite among the doctors. He worked day and night, studied everything, and learned quickly, because he knew that if he were to return to the Philippines and start a hospital, he would have to know everything.

Mamerto was able to complete his residency, had two kids (my mom and my Aunt Gina), and was ready to move back to the Philippines. However, about a week before his planned departure, he received a call from his parents. They informed him that Presidente Marcos had just declared martial law and that it was not safe to return. With Marcos in the way of his long-term plans, he was forced to begin a new life in the United States.

“I found a job as an emergency room physician in Man, West Virginia. While there, Covington recruited me to set up a medical practice since they did not have a surgeon. The town and people were very welcoming, so that we moved to Covington, in 1973, after less than a year in West Virginia. We raised our daughters who turned out the best ever and who are successful in their chosen professions. They are a banker, a general surgeon at Dartmouth, a cancer research director at the Medical University of South Carolina, and a freelance theater director with a master’s in drama from Yale University.”

Covington was medically under served and in need of an updated hospital facility. I recruited my fellow immigrant Filipino physicians to the area. I was able to recruit physicians with specialties in gynecology, internal medicine, general practice, and a pediatrician. We formed the core of medical services here in Covington. The people we very appreciative of our contribution to the community. We were also a part of the push to build a new hospital which is now a nice modern hospital.”

You would think that a small, rural town would not be the destination of an immigrant Filipino family. But considering their initial long term plans, Covington actually turned out to be a perfect spot for my grandparents. He was recruited to work in Allegheny Memorial Hospital to replace their only surgeon, Dr. Ellis, who was on the brink of retiring. Mamerto wanted to build a hospital for a community that needed it. He did, just not where he expected. All of his hard work in residency, when he was training to start the hospital in the Philippines, paid off, as it allowed him to create a successful system of medical services in Covington. Because he studied so hard in residency, Mamerto was able to do many things, such as orthopedics, oncology, obstetrics, and more. He was an expert in gallbladder surgery and did all of the pediatric surgeries in the Alleghany Highlands, which extend past Covington into Clifton Forge, Alleghany, and Bath Counties. One of Mamerto’s more memorable and unique cases was when he saved the life of man who attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest with a shotgun. He raced to the hospital, operated all night long, and saved the man’s life. His dedication to the lives of the people in his community was praised and respected. Mamerto served a community he loved, with people who loved him back.

Grandmama celebrating her 50th birthday

Grandmama celebrating her 50th birthday.

His daughter, JoAnn Adrales Ruh, tells a story that characterizes Mamerto’s caring and passionate personality. She says, “There was a particularly arrogant surgeon who had started at the hospital.  He was brash, and he routinely yelled angrily at the operating room nurses, peppering the OR with insults and blame on others when something went wrong.  Eventually, my father had had enough.  After the other surgeon was done with a case, Dad went into that OR room and shut the doors.  The doctor was much bigger than he was, but that didn’t stop him from demanding more respectful behavior toward the nurses. Then, as the story goes, Dad grabbed the man, pulling the chest of his scrubs tightly, and threatened that if he didn’t stop treating the nurses so badly, he would have to take it up with him outside of the hospital. How did we find out? The nurse, in the operating room for that case, peered through the little windows in the doors, listened through the cracks and spread the story like wildfire. Dad was a hero.”

Retirement party

With friends at Mamerto’s retirement party.

Mamerto was instrumental in building a new hospital in Covington, Alleghany Regional Hospital. This new hospital was needed to replace the antiquated facilities at Allegheny Memorial. He recruited more and more physicians to work there, often Filipino. Gradually, more specialists arrived to serve the community, and more diversity was introduced into the area.

Being the chief doctor in Covington, Mamerto’s face was recognized across the community. My favorite story about his life in Covington shows just how prominent a figure he was. When he was still working, he was known as a fast driver on the Covington roads. Sometimes he was rushing to the hospital, but other times he was not. But because of his fame as Covington’s doctor, he sometimes got the benefit of the doubt. His red Mercedes stood out among all the other Covington cars, so he was easy to spot. When a cop saw him driving down the road leading to the hospital, no matter how fast he was going, they let him go, because they assumed that he needed to be racing to the hospital.

My brother, sister and I posing in front of Adrales Medical Building

My brother, sister, and I posing in front of the Adrales Medical Building.

It wasn’t just Mamerto who was a recognizable face among the Covington community, but rather the whole family. His wife Jocelyn said, “The people of Covington treated us like royalty with lots of respect. We have lots of friends there. On the old days I often gave dinner parties and our friends loved my cooking and gave me a title of ‘Kitchen Magician.’”

But even though they were “treated like royalty,” it was still hard work for the family. Mamerto worked day and night to care for the people of Covington, and Jocelyn was constantly working as a nurse and a mother of four. But despite all of the hard work, my grandparents loved living and working in Covington.

“Surely enough, all good things have come to an end, I retired from my medical practice in 2006, after 34 years of working night and day. It was all worth it. Those 34 years, I consider the best years in my life. Also the rest of the immigrant physicians from the Philippines have retired. Now Covington is now again without a physician. I am hoping that soon, some young physician will come here and set up practice like we did many years ago. People here are good people and deserve better.”

Mamerto and his grandchildren at his retirement party

Mamerto and his grandchildren at his retirement party.

I remember when I was eight years old and my granddad was retiring. The whole family and I went to Covington to celebrate and go to the many parties and receptions honoring his career. It seemed as if everyone from Covington was there. I don’t remember many specifics from these events, but I do remember all of the people who enthusiastically came up to me to meet the grandson of Dr. Adrales. Although these parties were long, and I didn’t necessarily enjoy talking to all these people that I had never met before, I do remember being incredibly proud of my granddad, because of all the respect that he had within the community.

But like he said, all of the Filipinos working in Covington have retired, and the town is now without ample medical personnel. This is sad, because like any town or city, doctors are needed. The people of Covington do deserve quality medical services which would allow Covington to thrive once more.

Covington was not only an interesting place to live for my grandparents, but also for their four daughters. Being Filipino, growing up in a small, Virginia town could be difficult. While my aunts did not have much trouble fitting in while in Covington, they still faced some discrimination. My mom’s youngest sister, May Adrales, told me a story about the discrimination and lack of cultural awareness in Covington schools. She said, “A much beloved third grade teacher Mrs. Logan would often teach songs to the class, and we would all sing along. I would cringe and my eyes glass over with tears when we had to sing a song, ‘Chicken Cha Lu La Lu La Pan’ about a long-toothed, long-nailed Chinaman.  The song was accompanied by a derogatory dance involving a faux-Asian inspired gestures reminiscent of yellow-faced movies. I always looked down, humiliated for being different and too young to know why I felt so sad all the time.”

This was difficult for my Tita May (Tita means aunt in Tagalog, a language common in the Philippines). Going to a school with a lack of diversity created a challenging situation. But looking back, Tita May does not blame her friends or her teachers. She pointed out that, “In retrospect, any hostility I received for being ‘different’ only spawns from the lack of diversity and cultural understanding.  Very, very few kids in my class ever traveled outside the country. About a third of the kids in my class had never even seen an ocean.”

When asked about her experiences growing up, my mom JoAnn stressed how close of a community there was in Covington. She mentions that, “There was truly a sense of family because, well, so many families had lived there for generations.” There were family names such as the Tuckers, the Jordans, or Carrolls that were prevalent all over the area. “There was even a part of the county called ‘Nicelytown,’” she says, “because so many Nicelys lived there.”

Covington

Covington

JoAnn recalls how everyone knew you in a town such as Covington. She was frequently in the local paper for making the A/B honor roll, various school accomplishments, or for getting in a small accident on the road. One time, she was even featured with her sister holding a four foot tall squash native to the Philippines. Her wedding write up, while not a paid listing, still filled an entire page in the paper. “We were definitely big fish in a small pond,” she says.

Regarding her being a Filipino living in Covington, my aunt Gina Adrales said, “I didn’t focus on being Filipino growing up because I just wanted to be the same and fit in. I think your grandparents did the same, and that is why they didn’t stress talking their native language with us at home, which is understandable but a real loss. I do remember some moments when I was young when some people would call me Chinese— goes to that assumption that ‘we all look the same!’ I’m sure there were some hurtful times, but with the passage of time, I cannot remember anything specific or that they were frequent.”

My Mom and her sisters did not heavily stress their heritage when they were younger. They focused on school and fitting in within their community. However, as adults they regret this and do everything they can to embrace their Filipino roots. My Aunt Gina says that she is trying to make sure her son, Bryce, is connected to his Filipino roots. At four years old, Bryce knows many words in Tagalog and is constantly learning about Filipino culture. When I was young, my mom always told me Filipino stories, let me experience Filipino traditions, and had me eating Filipino food.

I believe that my family puts so much stress on their Filipino culture because of the lack of cultural exposure that they experienced in Covington. They realized how ignorance is caused by your experiences, or lack thereof. That is why my family is always talking about their Filipino heritage, our grandparents’ stories, and sharing stories about Covington. It is important to realize that everyone is different. There are many small towns such as Covington in the United States that have wonderful people with wonderful stories. Everybody has an interesting story to tell, just like my grandparents.

The Adrales Family on Christmas of 1989

The Adrales Family on Christmas of 1989.

Mamerto Adrales’s work for the small town of Covington is admirable and incredibly valuable. His work and passion in caring for the people of Covington did not go unnoticed, as he is loved in his community. The city of Covington even declared December 6 as Dr. Adrales Day, in recognition of his accomplishments. He taught people about care and hard work, and also taught the city about diversity and a new culture. He is justly commended for his work, and he makes me proud to have a connection to the city of Covington, and proud to be his grandson.

All photos courtesy of the Adrales Family.

About the author

Dalton Ruh is a senior at Collegiate.