When John Nichols Dalton was 4 years old, his parents were divorced and he was sent to live with his mother's sister in the small, southwest Virginia city of Radford, just west of Roanoke.
Every Friday for about five years, the small boy rode 70 miles on the train alone, fom Radford to Bedford, where his mother, who was unable to care for him during the week, worked in a grocery store. Sunday evenings he would ride the train back.
Today John Dalton, 45 travels the state in chartered planes and silver colored sedans, the millionaire heir-apparent to the rising fortunes of the Virginia Republican Party. Next Saturday the state party convention in Roanoke will nominate him as GOP candidate for governor of Virginia, a post he has been working toward most of his life.
No longer alone, he campaigns for the governorhip with his wife and four children and the quiet support of his Radford uncle and adoptive father, U.S. District Court Judge Ted Dalton, who for nearly a generation was the all-time, top vote-getter in the Virginia GOP.
John Dalton is a proven winner, well staffed, well financed, and well advised. His $1.3 million campaign shines with the carefully nurtured appearance of a bandwagon on the move.
But behind the speeches and bumper stickers, the glad handing and the constant travel, is a personal remotenes about John Dalton that few people readily penetrate.
"He's very much a loner," says a Republican state agency head who has known him for years. "I don't think anybody really knows him very well."
Much of John Dalton, apparently, was born on that train to Bedford in the early years as he shuttled between his past and his future.
"I can't remember when it wasn't my ambition to serve as governor," he said recently, as his silver-colored Oldsmobile carried him to Richmond from a campaign breakfast in Tappahannock.
"Republican politics was all I knew as a boy in Radford with the Daltons. We used to put together Ted's campaigns for governor around the kitchen table . . .
"When I wa around 15 I had lived with the Daltons more than I had with my own mother. They didn't have any children of their own.
"One day when I was around 15, I traveled up to see my mother and told her I felt like the Daltons were my real family and I wanted to be adopted by them. She said if that was what I wanted, then it was all right with her." Dalton, who had been born John Nichols, was then adopted and took his uncle's name.
Dalton and the Virginia Republican Party grew up together in those years. He went on to the College of William and Mary where he graduated in 1953 as a dean's list student and student body president.
The elder Dalton lost the governorship race that year to Thomas B. Stanley, but Dwight Eisenhower had carried the state for the GOP the year before, beginnign the long erosion of the state's 50-year Democratic tradition that would eventually restore two-party politics to Virginia.
After serving in the Army, Dalton took his law degree at the University of Virginia. He graduate in 1957, and moved back to Radford to enter law practice with Ted Dalton and James C. Turk, now a U.S. District judge and then one of the few Republicans in the House of Delegates.
"I was eager to run then but I was in a difficult position," he said."My father was my state senator and my law partner was my delegate. I really had no place to go. So I started working in Young Republican politics, organizing the state."
When John Dalton took over the Virginia Young Republicans in 1959, there were seven chapters in the state. When he stepped down as president a year later, there were 37. And he was getting known.
He was also making money. From the time he first joined the Daltons, he had been assigned jobs on the Dalton cattle farms in Montgomery and Pulaski counties and "When Ted was running for governor I was running the farms myself. I also ran his other business ventures and when I got out of college I started some of my own."
THose business ventures have since mushroomed into wide-ranging holdings in stocks, rental property, farms and real estate that have made John Dalton one of the richest men ever to run for office in Virginia.
Though Dalton himself is reluctant to talk about his wealth ("I don't want to appear to be bragging about all this . . . I'd rather not go into it.") campaign aides estimate his personal fortune at about $1.25 million, with his wife and children having "similar holdings."
He owns three cattle farms totaling some 1,300 acres (another 200 acres have been sold off to form busing developemtns and the New River Valley Airport), some 30 apartmants and other commercial property in downtown Radford and "various small alots" in and around the city.
In addition, according to his campaign office, he owns some $270,000 in local bank stocks and has $5,000 or more in stock in such disparate corporations as railways (Norfolk and Western, Southern Pacific), furniture companies, coal mines and pipelines (Houstin Natural Gas), communications (ITT) and heavy machinery (United Technology, Cooper Industries).
Dalton's campaign office said it was not yet certain whether a more detailed financial disclosure would be made later in the campaign.
Dalton's fortune has been ont of the best kept secrets in Virgins politics, abetted by the easygoing manner and low-key life style of the candidate himself.
It has also imbues him with an abiding faith in the virtues of economic development. Development has been going not only for him, but for the long-improverished region of Southwest Virginai from which he springs, he believes.
The priorities of his administration, he says in his speeches, will be "energy and jobs," and the energy question in particualr seems to obsess his thoughts. He talks of Virginia coal mines, Virginia coal gasification plants, and Virginia offshore oil wells. He rarely fails to mention his position in favor of the controversial oil refinery in Portsmouth, though most voters outside of Tidewater seem to know and care little about the issue.
His billboards say, "John Dalton: New Energy for Virginia."
"He wants to make Virginia the energy capital of the country," said Larry Murphy, his campaign scheduled. "He thinks that with the coal and the coastline and the railroads and our proximity to the major population centers, that's the real future of the state."
The environmental cost of development, howere, is something he almost never speaks of. "We're going to be talking in this campaign about growth," he said the other day in Chesterfield County. "I think the state should be ready to assist the county planners without imposing 'made in Richmond' plans on any county in Virginia. We need to leave the question of land-use planning and where subdivisions and shopping centers are going to be built to people at the local level."
John Dalton is a seasoned campaign. He's run six times for public office, never lost, and never won with less than 59 per cent of the vote. In his House races he usually carried every precinct. When he ran for lieutenant governor in 1973, he carried every congressional district, the only Republican running for statewide office ever to do so.
He sits atop a shaky, three-way coalition of conservative Republicans former Byrd Democrats, and some moderate Republicans those in the tradition of former Gov. Linwood Holton.
If Dalton can kept this coalition together, he has a good chance of wining the election in November against the winner of the June 14 perimary, between Democrats Henry E. Howell and Andrew Miller. Success, as his staff is the first to admit, is keyed to solidfying and expanding on the base of conservative Democrats continually trickling into the GOP ranks.
There are signs everwhere that the long-heralded party reorientation in Virginia is becoming a reality! A soldout campaign breakfast of 100 in the Democratic stronghold of Tappahannock; a $15 dinner in longtime Democratic Petersburg that sells out and turns back $1,700 to the Dalton campaign; former Democratic Mayor Kenneh Rollins introduces Dalton at a Republican mass meeting in Leesburg as former Democratic Del. Lucas Philips sits in the audience cheering him on.
Dalton does what he can to reassure the newcomers.
"Let's remind the people of Virginia where Andrew Miller and henry Howell stood in 1976," Dalton told the breakfast in Tappahannock. "They stook shoulder to shoulder and worked for the election of Elmo Zumbwalt while John Dalton was out working for the election of harry Byrd."
Dalton never mentions his role as one of the leaders of Holton's "mountain valley boys" who headed the move in the 1970 Republican state convention to field a candidate against Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. in the general election.
Has he changed on the Byrd issue?
"You bet," Dalton said. "You got to live with the political realities."
There are those in the Virginia Republican Party who say Dalton's shifting notion of political reality made him a "lightweight" in the General Assembly - a man who couldn't be counted on to stand up for principle because of his well known plans to run some day for governor.
Two Holton administration members remembered an emotional scene in the governor's office when Dalton refused to support an open housing resolution that Holton later called the most significant achievement of his administration.
"He just couldn't do it," said one. "But I felt differenly about it. I remembered when our party had a progressive tradition, and had fought against the poll tax, and things like that. John had been a part of that tradition, too . . .
"We used to make speeches about the attorney general's office and the money the state Wasted on private attorney's fees. We felt that the state's legal business should be handled by an expanded attorney general's office."
These days an attack on the attorney general's office is one of the mainstays of the Dalton compaign.
Andrew Miller will never be governor of Virginia," Dalton said the other day in Chesterfield County, "because the people of Virginia know he has tripled the size of the attorney general's office and the cost of the attorney general's office and he might do the same thing with the state of Virginia if he was given the opportunity . . . We don't need that much government. We can't afford that much government. The people of Virginia don't want that much increase in government."
While some Republicans see Dalton's long journey toward the governorship as a voyage in political expediency, most see it as a necessary accomodation to the changing political tide in Virginia.
"He's had to do what he's done," said one GOP legislator. "It's a different party now. But I'm not sure he was ever really comfortable with the other (more liberal) tradition, anyway. I think he's really at home now. I think he really believes what he's saying. He wouldn't be as convincing as he is if he didn't."
And John Dalton is convincing.
An increasingly effective speaker, he can bring cheers from a GOP mass meeting in Falls Church, a luncheon of truckers in Henrico County or a women's club in Chesapeake.
Last weekened he worked a barbecue at a singles apartment complex outside Richomon, chatting informally with the politically skeptical and mostly nonpartisan residents.
While two guitar players and a banjo picker from nearly partments plucked bluegrass tunes under the trees and the beer flowed, Dalton stood in shirtsleeves answering questions and explaining his platform to small groups in his clipped, not-quite-twang of Southwest Virginia.
He made no speech, but in two hours saw several hundred people, and most seemed grateful that he had come.
"Well, I don't know," said a beared young man named Harold, after chatting with the candidate. "I'm not sure he's really any better than the rest of them and I don't really know what he stands for. But he seems to give a damn. Maybe I'll vote for him. I'll just have to wait and see." CAPTION: Picture, JOHN N. DALTON . . . $1.3 million campaign