By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 29, 2009
HOT SPRINGS, Va. -- On a chilly October night nearly 40 years ago, as people in this tiny rural community cheered its high school football team and primped for a homecoming dance, a farm truck broke loose on the steep hill overlooking the field.
Among the hundreds in the truck's deadly path was a young boy who wandered from his mother to buy a pack of gum. The three-quarter-ton truck barreled into the concession stand, killing two children and injuring a dozen people, including 12-year-old Creigh Deeds.
Deeds, who is now running for governor against two opponents in the June 9 Democratic primary in Virginia, lapsed into a coma for 16 days. Some feared that the accident might diminish the promise of a boy who had already told his family he planned to be a lawyer and enter politics like his beloved grandfather. Yet, if anything, the accident hardened Deeds's resolve to accomplish great things, his younger brother said.
"I would say that if there was anything, maybe a driving force behind him, it could have been that. He set out to prove them wrong," said Eddy Hicklin, 40, who was born after his mother divorced Deeds's father and remarried.
Deeds, 51, who dislikes talking about the accident, has made a lifelong habit beating the odds. Running as the underdog in the primary against Terry McAuliffe and Brian Moran, Deeds said he plans to surprise people again. Although the race has been difficult to track, polls have repeatedly shown Deeds trailing McAuliffe and Moran. Deeds also spent the early months lagging in campaign money.
But one of his sayings has become the campaign's informal motto: "Always underestimated, never outworked."
Although Deeds has played up his Virginia heritage against opponents who were born and raised elsewhere, he also struggles against the perception that some of the conservative values common in rural America are out of sync with the Democratic mainstream.
Raised on a farm where there was plenty to eat if not much money, Robert Creigh Deeds displayed a precocious interest in politics and history. His family's roots in Bath County go back to 1740. His unusual name (pronounced KREE) was passed down from a Confederate hero. He was born in Richmond while his father, Robert Deeds, was working as a city police officer. His mother, Emma Hicklin, worked for the Virginia Department of Highways.
When Deeds was about 7 years old, his parents divorced. His mother returned to Bath, raising Deeds and his younger brother, Greg, in a trailer at Rock Rest, a farm that has been in his mother's family since 1803. Deeds took the divorce hard.
"He wanted to see his dad, and his dad didn't come and didn't come," Hicklin said.
Bob Deeds, who now sells cars in Charlottesville, acknowledged that he virtually disappeared from his son's life until Deeds was an adult. "It wasn't the best of divorces," he said.
Deeds's mother, who remarried and had a third son, Edward, raised the boys and found work as a mail carrier. (She still makes the rounds part time, driving more than 100 miles on her route.)
As a boy, Deeds spent his days doing chores and schoolwork and dreaming of playing major league baseball. Fences were mended, hogs slaughtered. When Deeds was 8 years old or so, he got a .22-caliber rifle and roamed the farm with it. The Deeds boys tagged along with family and friends hunting deer and prowling moonlit woods on coon hunts.
But Deeds loved politics most of all, seeing it through the eyes of his grandfather, Austin Creigh Tyree, who headed the Bath County Democratic Party. People in the county still remember the time Deeds appeared on a televised high school game show, "Classroom Quiz," and confided that his future plans included a turn as president of the United States.
"Most little boys say, 'I'm going to be a fireman or a cowboy' or something like that. I never heard him say that," his mother said.
At Concord College in West Virginia, he impressed classmates with his focused political ambitions, a wide knowledge of history and the supply of venison he brought from home.
At college, Deeds also met his wife, Pam, an earthy, no-nonsense West Virginia native who often says she is more at home in the barn at a horse show than in a Richmond ballroom for a political event. But Pam Deeds, who works for the Virginia Employment Commission in Covington, also knows what she signed on for.
"When we met, he was running for [student body] president of Concord College, and he had me making posters," Pam Deeds said. As a joke, she gave Deeds a donkey for Father's Day a few years ago. He named it Harry S. Truman.
When Deeds left college, Virginia was changing. The state shifted from a reliably Democratic state to a Republican stronghold, especially in rural areas, after Richard M. Nixon's election as president in 1968. But Deeds never seemed to mind running from a position of disadvantage. After graduating from college and Wake Forest University's law school, Deeds ran successfully for commonwealth's attorney as a Democrat, waging a tireless door-to-door campaign in the hills and hollows of Bath County.
"He would park the car or truck and walk a mile or so to each house and present himself. . . . He made a name for himself doing that," said Charles "Buddy" Cauley, a former county high school teacher who taught Deeds.
In 1991, Deeds upset a Republican in his first try at the House of Delegates. In 2001, Deeds became a state senator after bucking party elders' wishes and running in a special election for the seat left vacant by the death of Emily Couric.
In 2006, running for attorney general in his first bid for statewide office, Deeds lost a cliffhanger to Robert F. McDonnell. For Deeds, it was a familiar story: He was outspent 3 to 1 and pursuing an office that Republicans had controlled for more than a decade. Deeds lost by 323 votes.
Deeds comes across as a humble person, even a little shy: At a leadership seminar, he underwent a personality assessment that characterized him as an introvert. Some find his style refreshingly genuine; others who have seen him speak think his geeky delivery and wild gestures suggest he's not ready for prime time.
But those who know Deeds say he can be craftier than he lets on with his gosh-and-golly style. He likes to refer to himself as a country lawyer, but he lined up jobs with well-heeled Richmond law firms while campaigning.
"If people think Creigh's a redneck, then we should all be rednecks," said Alicia Gordon, an activist from Covington who enlisted Deeds's help to close a landfill when he was a young House delegate. "I don't think he's the wishy-washy country boy that certain individuals want to paint him as."
These days, Deeds has put more than 300,000 miles on his 2002 Ford Explorer, much of it in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, because, he says, that's where the votes are -- and where he lacks the first-name familiarity that he has come to know across parts of the state farther south and west. Not that it concerns him.
"I've been running uphill all my life," Deeds said.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.